Analysis and interpretation of Lars von Trier‘s Antichrist
Antichrist, a 2009 film written and directed by Lars von Trier, the first piece of Depression trilogy, is characterised by strong graphical content and sometimes less than subtle symbolism. The grotesque imagery, however, will not receive much attention in this essay as the author believes that the film offers much more that is left for untangling. The following interpretation may indeed be but one of many possible yet it raises several interesting points. I do hope that this light read will indeed shed some new light onto this cinematic piece or will encourage the reader to watch it (though please note that even relatively insensitive viewers tend to find this piece very disturbing).
He and She
To get a grasp of the symbolism offered several points have to be understood (as said before this is but one of possible interpretations). The first point that will be analysed here is the characters. Minimalist approach was chosen for the film as there are but two chief characters (He and she) along with their child which primarily functions as a plot device. The names of the protagonists are not revealed to emphasise the sexual dualism of the characters – this dualism however is not quite the „modern“ gender dualism endorsed by some right wingers. Rather an even more archaic Judeo-Christian gender dualism is observed here – woman is depicted as a temptress striving for an emotional domination of the man whereas the man is depicted as a well-wishing yet naive and seducible character – think of Adam and Eve in Eden. Noting that this Judeo - Christian belief formed the basis of the modern sexual relations model, this cinematic piece can be considered a criticism of the gender institution (yet is surprisingly often outwardly called mysogynistic). Thus this dualism forms the basis of the relationship between the two characters (as evidenced from female character‘s thesis on mysogynism and witch hunts) and hence the central arc of this film.
Dualism and Dichtomies
This dualism encompasses more than gender dualism however. There is a set of dichotomies that are based on it – Man – Woman, Civilization – Forest, Order – Chaos, Bewitched – Witch, Adam - Eve and ultimately Christ – Antichrist. Now we shall glance onto the second dichotomy – the dichotomy of space. Civilization is the space of the Judeo – Christian man hence is depicted as a city – a place of rigid structures and unnatural order. After the death of her son, however, the woman (who now takes her Judeo – Christian role) becomes alien to the city as it is absolutely unable to alleviate her emotional pain. The man – a representative of civilization and order – tries to help her, his motivations, however, are selfish and his actions towards the issue can be viewed as arrogant (reminiscent of how stereotypical civilised people view and act towards their less civilised peers), hence the civilization is instead slowly damaging her. The forest, reversely, is unordered and natural or even plainly evil from the Christian viewpoint (until the Romantic movement the Christian world indeed considered forests a dangerous and wicked place). It treats the (chaotic) woman as if she belonged, the man, however, is treated as a foreign body – think of the scene with ticks – the natural itself is acting as if it wanted the man dead or in the least out. In comparison, the city, the domain of the man, treats the woman subtly yet is still damaging her, whereas the forest , domain of the woman, lacks such subtlety and outright displays its disposition towards the man.
Witches and Forests
This leads us to yet another closely related dichotomy – Bewitched and Witch. Witches are a recurring theme throughout the film. During the corresponding eras (basically from the Dark Ages throughout to the Age of Enlightenment) any woman that did not conform to societal standards could have been classified as a witch. Related to that, folklore of several European cultures features Witches living in the woods (space where they hide from Christian civilization), tempting children or unsuspecting men to huts/ ponds/ bogs where a cruel fate was awaiting them. These themes are present in the Antichrist as well – the forest is the domain of a witch which in a way lures the man to her hut in the woods. Note however that woman is led to consider herself a witch, a threat to civilised order through her studies of mysoginism/ witch hunts. This view is enforced upon her by Christian tradition (which she was studying), not her own experience. The untimely death of her child may have led to her accepting this view throughout (though it is revealed that the woman started acting strange before the death). A similar conclusion can be drawn from Adam – Eve dichotomy as well, this argument is enforced by the fact that the forest is called Eden. From this point of view, Eve can be considered a witch too – she has seduced Adam to his downfall hence is the primal witch, mother of all witches to follow. Moreover, the woman‘s body is burned in a funeral pyre which alludes to witch burning.
This leads to the final dichotomy which unifies the preceding ones. This also explains the origin of the film‘s title, which itself suggests a dichotomy, a conflict (since Antichrist is a meaningless word without Christ). The Judeo - Christian man is depicted as civilized and (unnaturally) ordered – embodiment of Christianity, whereas the woman is portrayed as the opposite – the Antichrist (ianity), natural and chaotic. This is further confirmed by various symbols encountered throughout the film, including the three beggars. Each of them symbolises the natural (Anti-Christian) order in some manner. The deer with the dead fawn can be alluded to the woman (witch) herself. Loss of the baby leads the deer to unusual (chaotic) behaviour such as exhibiting no fear towards humans, hence reveals one of points of this dualism (chaotic – orderly). The second beggar – self disembowelling fox – too behaves in a highly chaotic manner and murmurs „Chaos reigns“, these words establish the forest as domain of the woman – Antichrist. The third beggar – a crow – plays a part twice, in both occasions acting as a plot device, possibly it also symbolises approaching death.
The symbolism at the very end of Antichrist is worth further analysis as well. In the end, the man remains alive and ends up killing the (homicidal) woman. Hence order trumps chaos, Christianity prevails. In a way, this can be interpreted as Christianity‘s triumph over paganism in Europe or even victory of civilization over the wild – religious (or at least esoteric) themes seem quite prominent. This is followed by the man leaving the previous scene and hundreds of faceless women starting slowly creeping through the forest. This scene indeed makes for an efficient ending with a mystical feel and has religious undertones as well – the march is reminiscent of Walpurgis Night, the gathering of the Witches, indicating a shift from earthly to esoteric levels. While there are many more symbols to be analysed, they are beyond the scope of this analysis hence will be left untouched.
Thus the symbolism appears to have strong religious undertones and due to the film‘s tragedy it may be considered a criticism of Judeo – Christian gender (and not only gender) models. Historical and cultural religion-related contexts support this consideration. Other recurring themes are present too yet were not explored in this analysis as they are well beyond its scope. Ideological basis is but one of the aspects in Antichrist however – strong graphical content combined with a sense of mystery do make for spectacular yet painful watch.