Depressed Germans Have All the Fun

13 Nov

There’s a new Lars von Trier film out.  I don’t know if you follow Triers’ career at all, and I wouldn’t blame you.  His films are usually one step away from emotional snuff.  He’s probably best known for Dancer in the Dark, a film featuring Icelandic singer/artist/human freak-out Bjork as an immigrant who is gradually going blind.  She works ceaselessly (and in the end, futilely) to accumulate the money for her son to have an operation that will spare him a similar fate.  She is eventually framed for the murder of the cop who steals her earnings, and sent to the gallows.  Oh, and it’s a musical.

Needless to say, suffering and emotional torture are the binding ties of Trier’s characters.  Subtlety is not really a part of his bag of tricks, so it should come as no shock that his latest film centers on a similarly depressing outcome and is titled Melancholia.

This film is about the apocalypse, and the reactions of a chronically depressed woman and her slightly more put-together sister to the impending doom.  Something about a giant planet that is going to swallow up the earth.  I’m not writing a movie review; instead I’m focusing on one peculiar aspect of the film’s production and score.

That is the link to the first eight minutes of the film.  It more or less gives away the conclusion of the movie right away, so uh, SPOILER ALERT! I guess.  It’s called Melancholia.  It’s not likely to produce feelings of good cheer.  Watch it and come back to my blog.  I’ll wait.

So, what’s that music, you ask?  It sounds vaguely familiar.

It’s the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.  It contains harmonic language that completely disrupted the security and foothold of tonality.  Marcel Proust wrote that the Prelude was the greatest work of art of all time.  Music theorists were beside themselves trying to explain how in the hell Wagner could justify using the chords that he did.  In the first 5 seconds of that clip, you hear a solitary string instrument playing three notes, and then suddenly there is a chord that sounds, well, kind of disturbing  – F, B, D# G#.  Maybe not so unusual to modern Western ears, who have soaked up the influences of Wagnerian harmony and Debussian extended techniques.  But to the listeners of Wagner’s day, that chord was WEIRD.

Attempts to analyze the chord using contemporary harmonic techniques were wholly inadequate.  So, they called it the Tristan chord.  Wikipedia (and really, who better to trust on this subject than Wikipedia!) accurately reports that “it can be any chord that consists of these same intervals: augmented fourth, augmented sixth, and augmented ninth above a root.”

So. It’s a tritone with an aug6 and an aug9 stacked on top.  It’s not actually all that unusual – respelling the pitches in the chord as G#, B, D, F# produces a rather pedestrian half-diminished seventh chord.  It’s the positioning of the pitches vertically – and their relationship to the surrounding IMPLIED key – that makes it so freaking weird.  In 1865, this was groundbreaking stuff.  As the melody progresses, it lands on a dominant chord – E, G#, D natural, B.  If you respell the pitches of the Tristan chord using their enharmonic equivalents, or treat the chord as some kind of appoggiatura, you kind of get something resembling conventional harmony.  But let’s be serious – this is a metric ton of chromaticism for music that was only 50 years removed from Beethoven.

What’s most significant is how long the orchestra sits on this unusual chord.  They practically build a parking spot on it.  Dissonances of this caliber, prior to this time, were typically used for color and brief moments of tension.  They were usually resolved rapidly and added a certain juiciness to conventional harmonic progressions.  Tristan is an extended exercise in the rapidly crumbling facade of tonality.  Less than 50 years later, Arnold Schoenberg would drive the final nail in the coffin and people like me would gnash teeth in mourning.

Wagner was kind of an asshole and a basket case.  Today, we’d call him a drama queen.  He was, after all, the harbinger of German Romanticism – the celebration of the dark recesses of the mind and the romance of suffering.  Read up on Hector Berlioz if you want to understand the zeitgeist of Romanticism.  Berlioz was French, but he embodied the characteristics of the cultural misunderstanding of psychology and the celebration of the tortured artist and his unrequited overtures of love.

Why do I bring all this up in connection to the film?  Well, Lars von Trier was quoted as saying, shortly before the release of Melancholia, that he “desired to dive headlong into the abyss of German Romanticism.”

Abyss…diving…melancholy…you get the picture.

I found it rather fascinating that we have a film about the Earth crashing into a giant planet, underscored by some of the most disorienting and fatalistic music of the age, written and directed by a man who makes no bones about the true nature of depression – of its dank corners and odd moments of implacable calm.  And this is coming during a period in our history where scores of us (myself included) are ingesting antidepressants to keep our heads above the water in a world that we seem to be floating away from – a world where ceasing to care about living is in itself a form of liberation and peace.

Couple this with the recent spate of apocalypse rhetoric spread by money-grubbing preachers, Mayan hack scholars, and the History Channel.  No wonder we all want the freaking world to end – that’s got to be better than this dreary existence of low-functioning, pill-popping uselessness.  No wonder Trier used the most famous piece of music from an opera where everybody dies.

I’m linking a decent Slate review of Melancholia at the bottom of this entry.  The reviewer seems to take exception to some of the heavy-handedness, but they praise Trier’s depiction of depression as experienced through the protagonists.

It’s fascinating how mediums cross over and infuse each other with meaning, even 150 years apart.  That’s why I do this.

Slate review:


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