The Films of Others
Slavoj Žižek sees a scene awash with "sentimental claptrap"
Interviewer: Joachim Scholl, Deutschlandradio Kultur
Slovenian cultural critic Slavoj Žižek struggles to come to terms with the Europe List of Europeans' favourite films. Movies such as "Life is Beautiful" by Roberto Benigni, "Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet) or "The Lives of Others" (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) do not convince him.
Joachim Scholl: What does Europe mean to you? How do you see the future? What is the most significant European invention, which its greatest structure? These are just some of the questions answered by over 20,000 people from 30 European and neighbouring countries in the Europe List online survey by the Goethe-Institut. Another was what is the best European film?
We proffered the answers to Slavoj Žižek. The Slovenian cultural critic and philosopher has become known in recent years through his rather radical interpretation of our day and age. This morning, we were on the phone with Slavoj Žižek in a Ljubljana studio, and first of all, I asked him about his take on Roberto Benigni's Holocaust comedy "Life is Beautiful." What is your opinion, Slavoj Žižek?
Slavoj Žižek: Everything in me riles against this placement. It's simply too easy a way out: the supposedly honourable sacrifice at the end – that's nothing more than sentimental claptrap. I would have concluded it completely differently – right before the moment of death. Before the father died, the son should have told him that he knew all along that he was being lied to and that he kept it to himself to spare him. If the son had kept this revelation till the end, it would have been a great ending. But the way it was done, it's nothing but namby-pambying.
"All good and proper, but I still don't like it"
Scholl: Further high placements go to "The Lives of Others," "Amélie," "Good Bye, Lenin," Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" and "Wings of Desire" by Wim Wenders. "The Intouchables," the recently successful French comedy, was featured as well. How do you read this choice, Mr Žižek? Is there such a thing as a common European sentiment to be discerned?
Žižek: Sentimentality is the word – all good and proper, but I still don't like it. Let's take the number two film: "The Lives of Others." I'll say this, although I count myself among the political left: this film isn't nearly anti-communist enough. They paint it as if the minister is only having the writer spied on because he wants to bed his wife. But in the real GDR, this scriptwriter would have been stalked anyway, horny statesman or no horny statesman.
This is typical of contemporary anti-communists: they are not anti-communist enough. They do not provide an appropriate rendition of the terrors of Stalinism. And this frightful sentimentality extends through all the films you've named, "Amélie" and whatnot. None of this convinced me. I might have gone for Haneke or Lars von Trier, that's what I would have liked. Everything else simply doesn't do anything for me.
Scholl: You once said, Mr Žižek, that to understand a society, one need only watch its films. Slovenians in particular, your fellow countrymen, favoured Michael Haneke's complex drama "Love;" you've already mentioned the director. What does this tell us about Slovenians?
Žižek: I think it means that this triangle of Slovenia, Austro-Hungary and several Scandinavian countries such as Sweden and Finland has Europe's highest suicide rates, and that is a sign of happiness. Because it is an indication of happiness to end one's life at the paroxysm of joy – not an indication of pessimism. Inversely, this shows why, when Sarajevo was under siege 20 years ago, which we just talked about, no suicides took place.
This is why I think Haneke and von Trier are very close to the truth about happiness and what goes on in happy countries. Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" is deeply indicative of a European mentality. The like of it is only possible in Europe.
Scholl: In an essay on European cinema, you spoke of films being a mirror of the imagination. Is there such a thing as an all-encompassing European imagination?
Žižek: This is what I tried to point out in the essay you just mentioned. It's precisely this point that "Melancholia" gets right, this feeling of happiness at the point of collapse. Not a rushing wave of joy in the moment of annihilation, but the feeling one gets when this world crumbles bit by bit and one feels an odd sense of contentment. Something like this is only possible in Europe – which is why I love it
"Antonioni, Fellini and so on – no!"
Scholl: The Europe List – including the Goethe-Institut's survey of the greatest European films. We are here today with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek on Deutschlandradio Kultur. In this essay on European cinema, you present precisely this hypothesis, Mr Žižek, that, by way of film aesthetics, this mixture of comedy and this melancholy feeling of loss you've just described is Europe's gift to Hollywood. Could you expound upon this? What exactly is this gift?
Žižek: This was expressly intended as praise of Hollywood, not as criticism. I've always been fascinated by Hollywood's openness towards foreign directors and writers. The greatest achievement of these non-American filmmakers is the accurate image of American society.
And what is more European than the great Hitchcock movies of the 1950s, such as "Vertigo?" Or the great Lubitsch films, "Ninotchka," "Trouble in Paradise" and the like. They are the most European movies of all time. To grasp the full brilliance of European cinema, you have to take a step out of Europe. Don't watch those long-winded artsy bits, Antonioni, Fellini and so on – no! Cinema at its most European is found in Hollywood.
Scholl: But it is precisely the great cinema tradition begun by Fellini, Mr Žižek, that is often cited as a delineation from the overpowering American Hollywood film. If I understand you correctly, you don't see any enmity, any antagonism, but convalescence?
Žižek: Yes, there are tensions, but in this respect I am more of the American camp than of the European. I recently re-watched some of the renowned art films of the 1950s and 1960s, such as "Cries and Whispers" by Ingmar Bergmann. It's nothing but an empty husk. Or Antonioni, when he made an attempt in Hollywood with "Zabriskie Point" – what a pathetic mess. The films that have lasted, however, are truly superior, such as the latest survey in "Sight and Sound," which places Hitchcock's "Vertigo" at the top. Precisely the films badmouthed as commercial sell-outs are the ones that have managed to last – they are the great ones. So I'll repeat myself: considering this discrepancy between European and American cinema, I prefer the American.
Scholl: Finally, Mr Žižek, we would like to know which film you would have placed at the top of our list of best European films. You've mentioned Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" several times already – your preferred choice, or are there others?
Žižek: Well, I may have a change of heart if I give the question some thought, but I stand by what I've said: for me, "Melancholia" is not a mournful film at all, but a film about happiness, that strange acceptance of what has occurred and exactly what we are lacking.
We often panic and say this is the end and we are stuck in a crisis. No – we need more films like von Trier's. It is a wonderful film and one that imbues us with a sense of peace – and that is exactly what we need right now. Walter Benjamin said it quite a long time ago. He said the real revolutionary is not some crazed Stalinist zealot but someone who is deeply melancholic.
Scholl: The Europe List, a survey of 30 European and neighbouring countries. Today, we heard philosopher Slavoj Žižek on the question of the greatest European film. Mr Žižek, thank you for talking to us and best wishes to Ljubljana!
Žižek: Thank you, it was an honour!
Scholl: Johannes Hampel assisted in interpreting during the conversation; we wish to thank him as well!