Quora answer: What are the best existentialist films?

Jun 26 2011

Hubert Dryfus picks out Hiroshima Mon Amor http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiroshima_mon_amour

For me it is Andre Rublev http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrei_Rublev_(film)

Why do I like Andre Rublev better than all other films?

I like it best because it comes closest to portraying a whole world.

Most films are slices of the world which they portray. Few films strive to portray the whole world not just a slice, or several slices of it.


Why is it existentialist?

Existentialism is a movement in Western Philosophy with Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Heidegger and others. It is really a rebellion against the normal view that the Being of Essences is primary, and it instead says that the existence of the individual is primary, and normally concentrates on the absurdity, or paradoxicality of individual existence. Hubert Dreyfus has a great course on Existentialism that has been recorded as an audio and has been released previously. Not sure if it is still available. In it he discusses Hiroshima Mon Amor and how it exemplifies Kierkegaard’s philosophy and then he talks about Brothers Karamazov and how Dostoevsky has similar distinctions as those made by Kierkegaard but predating him, and with no known influence between the two thinkers: one a philosopher who wrote works like a novelist, and the other a novelist who wrote philosophically. Heidegger took up the Existentialist banner but what he meant by it was the ecstasy by which dasein as being-in-the-world projects the world from groundlessness which envelops dasein. For him it was a way to talk about something prior to the separation of the dual of subject and object. Heidegger developed the theme of authenticity when dasein frees itself from the Group (They, mitsein). Sartre on the other hand concentrated on the theme of human freedom and we have radical choice to make our world as we see fit at every moment instead of falling into bad faith. However, all of these philosophers never really free themselves from the pale of Being, from the shadow of Being, and thus their views of existence are still entangled in Being. Thus being embedded in the Western Philosophical Tradition they never manage to take a stand outside Being, as Exi-stance suggests. So Existentialist themes tend to be about contradiction, paradox and absurdity, one of the limits of the worldview as seen in Plato’s divided line, i.e. the limit of Doxa (opinion, appearance). For Kiekegaard our religious views are absurd not rational as Hegel taught. For Heidegger it is the paradox of avatarism, where something projects the world in which it finds itself, i.e. dasein is like Christ, god and mortal at the same time. For Sartre it is the fact that being-in-itself and being-for-itself and being-for-others are in radical conflict and that the synthesis of being-in-and-for-itself and being-in-and-for-others cannot be reconciled. The only choice is radical freedom of choice where the individual chooses the life that is meaningful to themselves without their life being stolen by others or by becoming reified into a thing. Consciousness appears as groundless, i.e. out of Nothingness but that in fact is what gives us our radical freedom.

The key scene for me in Andre Rublev is when the boy whose father was the bell maker but died, and he claimed to know the secret of bell making, but in the end after he successfully makes the bell he admits that his father died without telling him the secret. This is the existentialist scene par excellence. The boy was self made by his radical choice to pretend he knew the secret, and by pretending he actually did know the secret and was successful against the odds of making a bell that rang and was not cracked. The boy took his chance by a choice of radical freedom to remake his life by pretending to have a secret he did not have. The paradox is that knowing the secret is pretending to know the secret and that changes the world for the boy who becomes what his father was the Bell Maker.

Of all these theories of what existentialism is probably Sartre’s is the best. Now Sartre’s work Being and Nothingness is considered Passe, and it is generally accepted that he just did not understand Heidegger. Heidegger wrote his Letter on Humanism to draw a distinction between himself and Sartre, between the NAZI and the COMMUNIST. Heidegger was anti-humanist and accused Sartre of implicit humanism. But we now know that Heidegger’s Being and Time was based on the unpublished works of Husserl which are very similar in theme and tone to Heideggers (so called genetic phenomenology in Husserl). Also we know that Heideggers lectures on Aristotle were key to the development of his phenomenology in an effort to distinguish his phenomenology from his teachers. And also he returned to the Phenomenology of Hegel for inspiration taking the term Dasein from Hegel’s logic. At one place Heidegger says dasein is Geist (spirit/ghost/mind). So Sartre’s interpretation of Heidegger in light of Hegel so that he could fit phenomenology and existentialism into a Marxist context may not have been too far from the truth. Sartre redeemed himself by writing Critique of Dialectical Reason, his most brilliant work, which of course no one studies. This work is very close to what Cannetti talks about in Crowds and Power where the pack is like the fused group of Sartre.

Dostoevsky is trying to show that his version of Russian Orthodox Christianity, is the solution to the dualism of Protestantism (the inquisitor) and Catholicism (the returned Jesus). Each major point in the novel according to Dreyfus tries to posit that solution to the points made in the inquisition that merely remain paradoxes. In effect the story revolves around the choice of one of the brothers to take responsibility for the murder of the father who deserved death even though he was not guilty an existential choice.

Kierkegaard raises the ante by saying that all religion is absurd, and cannot be understood by reason at all, case in point Abraham’s decision to kill his son when the law is thou shall not kill. The miracle that saves the son cannot be understood by reason, and thus actually all human existence is really absurd due to its religious dimension.

Heidegger is really using Existence as a technical term to get beyond dualisms set up in Humanism i.e. subject/object dichotomies. It is really a way of talking about how Being gives rise to itself from itself in human beings, beyond what we can will, i.e. as an ecstasy we cannot control and which we find ourselves engulfed by.

It is Sartre that focuses on the problem of human freedom, and how we have the freedom to break from the past, and the expectations of others, and he used that philosophy to underwrite revolutionary movements around the world. Sartre went back to Hegel as the source of all these existentialisms. And he was probably right about that because Hegel in his logic specifically identifies nothing which is the opposite of Being as Buddhist Emptiness, so in fact of all these philosophers Hegel has the true nature of Existence in mind as the distinction from which to build his philosophy of the Logic of Being.

In the movie Andre Rublev the whole movie is in black and white when it is talking about his art, but in the end we see his art in color. What is being said by this is perhaps that in spite of the harshness of the world within which Andre Rublev existed he had visions of what lay beyond that world, but which grew out of the world that encompassed him. In effect his art was a way of embodying the spirit of Orthodox Christianity that rose above that world to make it something different when one considered Gods relation to that world. To me Andre Rublev is the ultimate movie because it draws a picture of a whole world in which Andre Rublev lived and then his radical freedom to imagine what was beyond that world and give that vision to others through his art.



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