Sören Kierkegaard was an interesting man. A Danish philosopher, he is often considered the first existentialist (though yes, existentialism is much older than Kierkegaard), as well as a theologian and social critic. His works deal with faith, ethical life, repetition, choice, despair, and everything else related to living as an individual. Many of his writings are responses to Hegel, and all of them spurred controversy.
Kierkegaard was born into a wealthy family in Copenhagen and was well educated. His father died at a young age, and Kierkegaard himself was convinced that he would die before he was to turn thirty-three, thanks to a curse. His philosophy and writings are heavily influenced by the love of his life, Regine Olsen, to whom he was briefly engaged. It is worth noting that he caused his own depression and melancholy by breaking off the engagement. His writings gathered public scorn and, although he published almost entirely under pseudonyms, he was engaged in a bitter battle with a satiric newspaper near the end of his life. He collapsed in the street at the age of forty-two and, after spending a month in the hospital during which he refused communion, died in his hospital bed. Even his funeral was the source of conflict and hard feelings, as his nephew caused a disturbance in protest of the church’s handling of the matter.
What is to follow is a list of ten great Kierkegaardian films. His influence is much broader than this, of course, and does include Bergman and many other directors.
1. The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick’s crowning achievement, The Tree of Life won the Palm D’or in 2011 thanks to stunning performances by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, stellar cinematography, and a Kierkegaardian plot. As the first fifteen seconds indicate, the entire film is an allegory for the book of Job which is overlaid onto parts of Malick’s childhood and adolescence. What exactly does that mean the film is about? As Kierkegaard wrote, “the Lord gave, the lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
As we see in the first few moments of the film, the O’Brien’s have suffered in inconsolable loss: Their son has died. The rest of the film is a response to this tragedy, alluding most directly to Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, as Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien try to make sense of God and His will. The central question of the film, writ first by Kierkegaard and then said verbatim by the pastor delivering a homily, is this: “Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that he gives, or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that he takes away?”
My favorite film of all time, this Tarkovsky masterpiece deals with evil, insanity, and a gigantic leap of faith. It features Nietzschean dialog, to be sure, but it also portrays an Abraham-and-Isaac style sacrifice. The film opens on Alexander (Erland Josephson), living a happy and seemingly complete life, unaware of the impending nuclear holocaust. After hearing of the imminent death approaching over the TV, Alexander appeals to God and offers to sacrifice everything he has in order to save his family.
How can he trust his faith? How can Alexander even know that he is hearing from God? Any action he could take would require a great deal of faith. As Kierkegaard wrote, “if anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin. Even though the result may gladden the whole world, that cannot help the hero; for he knows the result only when the whole thing is over, and that is not how he became a hero, but by virtue of the fact that he began.”
Ordet is a Carl Theodor Dreyer masterpiece, which follows the struggles of the Borgen family. Mikkel Borgen (Emil Hass Christensen), the oldest of the three children, has lost his faith and is married to a pious woman carrying his child. Anders Borgen (Cay Kristensen), the youngest, is pursuing the daughter of a fundamentalist leader and has yet to determine exactly what he believes. The middle child, Johannes Borgen (Preben Lerdoff Rye), is the character that makes the film most interesting. He went insane “studying Kierkegaard,” we are told, and is convinced that he is Jesus Christ.
Johannes wanders about throughout the village preaching and condemning the faithless acts of those around him. He is especially critical of his family members (Mikkel in particular) and the new pastor in the village. He asks that those in the village believe in him so that he can perform miracles, and so everyone thinks he is insane. Thus, the question is raised: Would we be able to believe that Christ was among us? And if we did, what miracles might he perform? Ordet offers a hypothetical answer.
4. To the Wonder
The latest Malick film, To the Wonder, is the second in Malick’s autobiographical trilogy. It follows Neil (Ben Affleck) as he drifts between women, rejecting his faith and chasing pleasure. Most of all, it is a diatribe against hedonism (and specifically against birth control), as Neil’s failed relationships are all built on the shifting sands of pleasure and lust. Of course, love isn’t quite that simple.
To the Wonder also features a Kierkegaardian sermon, this time one specifically about love. The priest argues that we choose to love, and that there are two types of love. As father Quintana (Javier Bardem) says, “There is a love that is like a stream that can go dry when rain no longer feeds it. But there is a love that is like a spring coming up from the earth. The first is human love, the second is divine love and has its source above.” Kierkegaard says that what we love determines our existence. To the Wonder is a call on us to place our love above.
Aronofsky’s Noah was praised and criticized so much so that it made almost fifty million dollars for its U.S. release during opening weekend alone. Why did it receive so much notoriety? Like Kierkegaard, Aronofsky chose to interpret a passage of scripture in an unorthodox way and, like Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Aronofsky’s goal was larger than an ordinary recreation of a biblical text. With Russell Crowe, Anthony Hopkins, and Emma Watson, the film was sure to be a blockbuster, but I think it was one of the few that is built upon an unappreciated philosophical depth worth serious analysis.
At its core, Noah is about the silence of God, the problem of good and evil, and dialectical nature of faith. Everything that Noah does is based on an unwavering faith in God, from building the ark to raising his children according to God’s commands. Yet, one of the most trying tests of faith he faces (and an Aronofsky addition, no less) is when he is tasked with sacrificing his grandchildren so that he can put an end to the human race. Sound a bit like a Kierkegaardian setup of the Abraham and Isaac tale?
6. The Man Who Wasn’t There
Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a barber in a small California town who discovers that his wife is cheating on him with her boss. After hearing of a promising business venture, he decides to blackmail his wife’s boss for startup funds. Of course, all of this goes terribly sour, and Crane eventually finds himself in the middle of a legal scandal. As with any Coen film, viewers can expect artistry, hilarious dialog, and depth.
Crane’s character is stuck in the quagmires of despair and he realizes this as he sees that he hasn’t taken control of his life in the ways that matter. He has drifted to and fro, as is evidenced by the backstories of his job and marriage, and despite his outward appearances, he is deeply troubled with this. His attitude changes, though, as he begins to “pull away from the maze” so that he can “[see] it whole,” which gives him some peace. The film is about a Kierkegaardian turn from a lower form of despair to a higher and more self-aware form, which Kierkegaard describes in great detail in The Sickness Unto Death. Is this turn enough to save him? As always, the Coen’s have an interesting take and commentary on despair, one that makes this film well worth watching.
7. Babbette’s Feast
Gabriel Axel’s Babette’s Feast is a film about love, charity, faith, and renewal. As if that doesn’t sound Kierkegaardian enough to put it on this list, it takes place in Kierkegaard’s Jutland and one of its main characters, General Lorens Lowenheilm (Jarl Kulle), is basically a stand-in for Kierkegaard. Like Kierkegaard, he travels to the Jutland to stay with his aunt, is engaged and decides to break off his engagement, and ultimately reclaims his faith after a wayward childhood—but, enough of these surface similarities.
Babette’s Feast warrants a watch because of its pious charm. Babette (Stephane Audran), a “lowly servant,” has decided to prepare a feast for two Danish sisters and their church friends after winning the lottery. Despite the seeming religious fervor of the people of the church, they are a divided and quarrelsome bunch. Can Babette’s artistry, love, and charity repay the sisters for all they have done and, more importantly, can she remind everyone of the love of God and the reason for their faith? Drawing on Kierkegaard’s teachings in Fear and Trembling, Axel gives us the answer.
8. Mr. Nobody
Jaco van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody is a powerful film about choice, the problem of evil, God’s existence, marriage, family, and determinism. In it, we see Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto), who is faced with an impossible task of choosing between his soon-to-be separated parents. Most of the film takes place in separate imaginary timelines which, to some extent, play out the consequences of choosing his father over his mother and vice-versa. What a hard thing to ask of a young child (and what a shame it is that society allows this question to be asked over and over and over again).
For Kierkegaard, existence is tied to choice. Man’s essence is a result of his free will and the consequences of his choices. In Mr. Nobody, we see just this, as Nemo’s decision affects who he is and all of those around him. Thus, choice creates a dialectical essence for man, where his singular choices are contrasted to the universal. Man’s choices may be what makes him man, but they also create an inexorably crushing burden of despair, which Dormael shows us in Nemo’s last days. At what point in life should one have to make such momentous decisions? Is it really fair for us to put such a burden on young children?
9. 8 ½
Frederico Fellini’s 8 ½ is about Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), an Italian filmmaker who is working on his upcoming movie. The problem is, Guido can’t find any inspiration, and people will not leave him alone. His mistress, wife, producer, and friends keep harassing him, and the pressure keeps mounting, thanks to his past successes, for him to produce one last masterpiece. In response, he leaves, sojourning in the realm of fantasies, memories, and dreams.
What exactly is 8 ½ all about? Aside from being autobiographical, Fellini is trying to portray humanity and its quest to find meaning in life. Everyone in the film seems to think Guido has found life’s meaning and is struggling to put it into a film. Fellini is actually saying something rather different: Faced with the despair and dread of life (a Kierkegaardian notion), art and everything else not only becomes meaningless, but also becomes inauthentic and impossible. What can Guido do to get out of this situation?
10. The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and The Dark Knight, in particular, were wildly popular superhero films that had a depth all other superhero films lacked. The Dark Knight speaks to terrorism and fear generally, as Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) faces off against Kierkegaardian dread, loss, and isolation. Bruce is a stand-in for Job in many ways, as a wealthy man that is forced to watch all he knows and loves to crumble around him. Ultimately, both Bruce and Job receive everything they had back two-fold, both materially and spiritually, although I’m going to guess that Job’s tormentors were a bit more frightening and serious than Bane and the Joker.
Not only is Batman a stand-in for Job and a Kierkegaardian Knight of Faith (his faith is in the good will of the people of Gotham City), but the film also features a Kierkegaardian repetition. When Two-Face forces Commissioner Gordon to reassure his child, Batman witnesses a repetition from his father’s death. This time, he is able to step in and save Gordon’s son, the sort of act that Kierkegaard believes brings hope to the world of restoration.