Friederich Nietzsche – Examples in Film

Friederich Nietzsche is arguably one of the most influential philosophers of all time. Not only have his concepts and ideas revolutionized the philosophical thinking world, but also countless individuals who in turn have created great works of art incorporating his theories. Perhaps, it is only by this subtle tactic that modern man will learn Nietzsche’s philosophies at all. Especially, in recent years Nietzsche philosophy has begun to circulate via books, comics, television, and movies.

Some of Hollywood’s most popular plotlines draw their inspiration from Nietzsche, their storylines consist of: the story of the clandestine hero or the bullies who believe the law does not apply to them. Embodying his idea of “Übermensch” German for “Overman” and thus forever be immortalizing it on film.

One specific example is in the film Rope directed by Alfred Hitchcock. But, perhaps the most famous Nietzschean inspired story, Superman, which started as a comic and has since inspired television shows and movies. In addition, his idea of eternal recurrence can also be found in the film, The Fountain written and directed by Darren Aronofsky.[1]

Nietzsche’s concept of the “Overman” is a bold statement demonstrating a proposed   “master morality;” a manifesto that “properly reflects the strength and independence of one who is able to finally become liberated from all more traditional values.” Nietzsche suggests that all human behavior is motivated by the will to power, not power over others, but the power over oneself that is necessary for creativity. This power is exemplified in the independence, creativity, and originality of the “Overman.” Nietzsche believed that no “Overman” has existed, but states that theoretically one should evolve. He suggests that figures throughout history such as: Socrates, Jesus, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Goethe, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon, are models of what they “Overman” will be like. [2]

In the classic Hitchcock film, Rope, two young scholars, Brandon Shaw played by John Dall and Phillip Morgan played by Farley Granger murder a former classmate, David Kentley played by Dick Hogan. [3] The duo commits the crime in an effort to assert their intellectual superiority by committing the “perfect murder.”[4] Rope’s screenplay was originally adapted from a play of the same name; however it was tragically inspired by true events.[5]

In 1924, Nathan Freudenthal Leopold, Jr. and Richard Albert Loeb murdered a 14-year-old boy, Robert “Bobby” Franks. The duo that would later be referred to as, “Leopold and Loeb” was sentenced to life imprisonment. Leopold, age 19 and Loeb, age 18 at the time were college students and considered themselves, living Nietzschean Supermen.[6] Not only did they think they were above the law, but they also believed they could commit the “perfect crime.”[7]

Reportedly, the two were exceptionally gifted with intelligence. Nathan Leopold was labeled a child prodigy, who spoke his first words at the age of only four months. He was scored at having a 210 IQ; however this score does not equate to modern tests.[8] At the time of the murder Leopold had already graduated for college and was attending law school at University of Chicago. He claimed to be fluent in 27 languages, and was an expert in ornithology, the study of birds. Meanwhile, Richard Loeb was one of the youngest graduates in University of Michigan history, and planned to attend University of Chicago law school, after taking a few select postgraduate courses. [9]

Leopold and Loeb believed that they were actually, living examples of the “Overman” which Nietzsche wrote about. In so believing they thought they were superior to Bobby Franks, their victim, as well as the authorities. Before the murder was committed Leopold wrote to Loeb encouraging and reminding him of their belief saying, “A superman…is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do.”[10]

Similarly, it has also been suggested that the bestselling novel, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky also employs similar concepts; with main character Raskolnikov, committing murder for the sake of performing the act.  In addition, traces of Nietzsche’s philosophy can also be heard in the first few moments of the movie, Conan the Barbarian, when the words, “What does not kill us, makes us stronger,” can be heard, alluding again to the idea of the “Overman”[11] However, most recently, Nietzsche’s belief of “the death of God”[12] can be seen in the intended children’s movie, The Golden Compass.[13]

In other words, Nietzsche fervently advocated that the goal of life should be to become masters of ourselves. He states, “You should become the master of yourself and also the master of your virtues. Previously, they were your masters, but they must be nothing more than your tools, just some tools among others.”[14] He believed that achieving true maturity is only made possible through discovering oneself [15] or “making a whole person of ourselves”  [16] which was most important, above all else.

In addition, Nietzsche steadfastly believed that morality equated to cruelty. To illustrate this, Nietzsche believed that the Christian God did not sacrifice His only Son, out of morality, but rather, out of cruelty.[17] As result, Nietzsche believed that humans must become masters of themselves and rise to a higher level, taking their destiny in their own hands.

One of the most famous stories with entwining Nietzschean philosophy is the highly successful DC comic, Superman, which in turn has inspired television series, and movies.[18] An extraterrestrial baby, Kal-El, is sent by his parents from the planet Krypton, to earth. The boy is adopted by a human couple, who name him Clark and raise him on a Kansas farm. As Clark grows, he appears to be completely human, save his superhuman abilities. His incredible skills include strength, speed, shooting laser from his eyes, supersonic hearing, no physical weaknesses except for Kryptonite, and of course, being able to fly. However, even though he is from a seemingly perfect race, he is raised by humans and thus deals with human issues; self-control and finding meaning in his life.

The story of Superman, tells of a world in which a human like being, similar to the Nietzschean “Overman” exists. Clark Kent struggles with becoming the master of himself, but by learning to control his abilities and coming to terms with his purpose, he elevates himself to the level Nietzche describes as “Overman.”

Another one of Nietzsche’s theories was the idea of “eternal recurrence.” As other philosophers before him, Nietzsche believed that after we die, our lives are somehow recombined and formed again. He wrote on the subject, saying, “Behold, we know what you teach: that all things recur eternally and we ourselves too; and that we have already existed an eternal number of times, and all things along with us.”[19]

The concept of “eternal recurrence” is not seen as often in movies, but when it is, and done well, in such a case as the film, The Fountain, it is truly unbelievable. In the movie, which spans over one thousand years, three parallel stories take place, starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz.[20] The film is complex and strives to not only teach the audience about “eternal recurrence,” but also how circular time works, which includes both life and death.

In the film a sense of repetition is used to convey the philosophy of “eternal recurrence.” In each of the three different storylines, the main male character has a similar name: Tomas, Tommy, and Tomas, as well as being played by the same actor, Hugh Jackman. In addition, similar environments are used during each of the time periods, as well as familiar shots; a device used to tie together and interweave the stories, a motif.[21] Another way writer and director, Darren Aronofsky, uses techniques to convey symmetry amongst the plot threads, is by: “incorporating circles into the production design and even employing 360-degree camera moves at choice moments.” [22]

In essence, The Fountain is a beautiful illustration of Nietzsche’s abstract concept of the eternal recurrence. “It gives specific illustrations and implications of how a viewer should come to understand time a circular entity, in light of the eternal recurrence.” In actuality, it demonstrates a system of eternal repetition which is not abstract after all. The film leads its audience to a more complete understanding of the concept of the eternal recurrence because it makes the abstract concrete. [23]

Friederich Nietzsche although dying a physical death, continues to live. He lives on through his philosophies which are still thriving today. Sadly in modern day, people no matter the age, are not likely to pick up a philosophy textbook and read it, much less understand it. Nietzsche’s philosophies are abstract, but are made concrete and understandable; by being translated into a medium that is capable of conveying his ideas of the world and of human nature. In addition, movies educate the concepts in a subtle way, in which the audience will pay attention to, not forcing the lessons down their throats, but hoping to provoke thoughts.

The medium of film is universal, and successfully reaches audiences in every corner of the globe. It is by means of this grand platform that Nietzsche’s philosophies of the “Overman” and “eternal recurrence” are continually shared with audiences.  However controversial, Nietzsche’s philosophy was, and forever will be; he will continue to be influential on the world, and his concepts will be found throughout culture.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Alter, Ethan. “THE FOUNTAIN.” Film Journal. http://www.filmjournal.com/filmjournal/esearch/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003437907 (November 26, 2011).

Baggett, David, and William A. Drumin. Hitchcock and philosophy: dial M for metaphysics. Peru, Illinois: Carus Publishing Company, 2007.

Higgins, Kathleen Marie. Comic relief: Nietzsche’s Gay science. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Kaufmann, Walter. The Portable Nietzsche. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.

Newman, Marc T. “The Golden Compass Brings Nietzsche to Narnia: The Philosophical Underpinnings of His Dark Materials.” Focus News. http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1934541/posts (November 23, 2011).

Palmer, R. Barton, and David Boyd.Hitchcock at the Source: The Auteur as Adapte. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2011.

Pippin, Robert B. Nietzsche, psychology, and first philosophy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Safranski, Rüdiger. Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company Inc. , 2003.

Settle, Zachary. “Philosophy of Film: NIETZSCHE’S ‘ETERNAL RECURRENCE’ EMBODIED IN THE FOUNTAIN.” http://philosophyoffilm.blogspot.com/2009/07/nietzsches-eternal-recurrence-embodied.html (November 23, 2011).


[1] Zachary Settle, Philosophy of Film, philosophyoffilm.blogspot.com/2009/07/nietzsches-eternal-recurrence-embodied.html

[2] Robin A. Brace, Friedrich Nietzsche, His Theories, http://www.ukapologetics.net/truthaboutnietzsche.html

[4] Alfred Hitchcock, Director, Rope, 1948.

[5] Kathleen Marie Higgins, Comic relief: Nietzsche’s Gay science (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 42.

[6]  The Leopold and Loeb Trial: A Brief Account by Douglas O. Linder. 1997.

[7] Simon Baatz, For the Thrill of It. New York: Harper, 2008.

[8]  The Biography Channel “Notorious Crime Profiles: Leopold and Loeb, Partners in Crime

[9] The Leopold and Loeb Trial: A Brief Account by Douglas O. Linder. 1997.

[10] Simon Baatz, For the Thrill of It. New York: Harper, 2008.

[11] Kathleen Marie Higgins, Comic relief: Nietzsche’s Gay science. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 42

[12] Robert B. Pippin. Nietzsche, psychology, and first philosophy. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 32

[13] Marc T. Newman “The Golden Compass Brings Nietzsche to Narnia: The Philosophical Underpinnings of His Dark Materials.” Focus News. http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1934541/posts

[14] Safranski, Rüdiger. Nietzsche:A Philosophical Biography. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 2003), 185

[15] Robin A. Brace, Friedrich Nietzsche, His General Influence, http://www.ukapologetics.net/truthaboutnietzsche.html

[16] Safranski, Rüdiger. Nietzsche:A Philosophical Biography. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 2003), 185

[17] Safranski, Rüdiger. Nietzsche:A Philosophical Biography. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 2003), 188

[19] Walter Kaufmann. The Portable Nietzsche. (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 332

[20] IMDB “The Fountainhttp://www.imdb.com/title/tt0414993/

[21] Zachary Settle, Philosophy of Film, philosophyoffilm.blogspot.com/2009/07/nietzsches-eternal-recurrence-embodied.html

[23] Zachary Settle, Philosophy of Film, philosophyoffilm.blogspot.com/2009/07/nietzsches-eternal-recurrence-embodied.html

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