There are many parallels between the films The Passion of the Christ, by Mel Gibson, and Antichrist, by Lars Von Trier. Both films are the product of Catholic directors, and give expression to a particularly Catholic worldview—a worldview which has a peculiar relationship with pain, suffering, and violence. Both films received mixed reviews on the Tomato meter, each hovering around 50% with critics (although Gibson’s film was much more popular with the masses). In both cases, critics felt that any supposed message the filmmaker was trying to convey was obscured by the relentlessly graphic, seemingly gratuitous violence (among the critics who defended both films was former altar boy, Roger Ebert).
There are other parallels, which may or may not lend themselves to analysis of the films: for instance, both directors have struggled with alcoholism and depression, and have complicated relationships with the film industry. In the case of Gibson, it was The Passion of the Christ, a deeply personal project largely funded and marketed with his own money, that all but destroyed the careers of both him and actor Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus. The reasons for this are inseparable from the century-spanning history that The Passion is connected to. Because the film follows the Gospel account of Christ’s last days, it has been widely criticized as an antisemitic film, and while the film does attempt to portray some of the Jews in a sympathetic way, there are notions built into the Gospel narrative that make these charges difficult to defend against. Like much of Christiandom, this movie doesn’t necessarily have anything against any particular Jews, but it is necessarily anti-Jewry. When Hitler said there was only “one decent Jew…and he killed himself,” he was referring to the short-lived philosopher Otto Weininger, but he could just as well have been talking about the biblical Christ himself. While the historical Jesus was most likely a Pharisee, and early Christians were considered a Jewish sect, the Christ depicted in the New Testament tells the Pharisee leaders “you belong to your father, the devil[!]” As we know, the available written accounts of Christ’s life were all composed decades after the existing Yeshua was long gone, during a time when Christianity was a growing as a religion, and seeking converts among the Goyim. These accounts, which attempted to portray Gentile leaders such as Pilate sympathetically, and Jewish leaders like Herod as diabolical, are inconsistent with the other available records, but it is of course the former on which the Christian faith—and Gibson’s movie—is based.
As Jean-Paul Sartre had observed, antisemitism, like all racism and other essentialist and authoritarian forms of thinking, is informed by an underlying irrationalism. The antisemite hates the Jew because of her imagined power, and hates her because of her apparent weakness. The story of Judas provides a clear example of this sort of contradiction. The main problem of Judas is that his role is, in a sense, determined by the cosmic necessity of Jesus being betrayed and condemned in order for the Passion and Resurrection to happen. If Judas’ betrayal was God’s will, then why does he—and by extension, all the Jews (and ultimately everyone who rejects Christ)—have to bear the moral blame for the deicide? The musical Jesus Christ Superstar addresses this question without providing an answer. In The Last Temptation of Christ, this problem is addressed by adopting the position, not explicitly found in the Gospels but in other texts rejected by Christiandom, that Judas was in fact following secret instructions given by Jesus to turn him in to the priests. Roger Ebert said of Scorcese’s adaptation that “perhaps Judas is Scorsese’s autobiographical character in The Last Temptation…the mortal man walking beside him, worrying about him, lecturing him, wanting him to be better, threatening him, confiding in him, prepared to betray him if he must.” In this light, Mel Gibson is probably closest to Simon Peter, someone compulsively eager and fearful, willing to stumble across the surface of waters whose depths he can’t penetrate. His telling of the Gospel story presents the mystery not in terms of internal existential conflicts but as a brutal struggle with external, unknowable forces.
This is what makes The Passion, if not a horror film per se, very much like one. Von Trier’s movie is, on the other hand, an intentional a take on the horror genre, in the “artsy” vein of films like Santa Sangre or Herzog’s Nosferatu. Antichrist is a take on “cabin in the woods” movies, of which Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead is the best prototype. It takes place in a remote clearing in the wilderness called “Eden,” which makes it easy for us to get the religious themes of the film: the characters, named “He” and “She,” are the primordial couple, and this is a story about the doctrine of original sin—or the loss of innocence—represented by the death of the couple’s toddler, which opens the film. The parents were having sex when the child died, and the sex is, in an indirect way, implicated in the child’s death. The “original sin” of Adam and Eve was their partaking of the fruit of knowledge—a word that, in the Bible, is associated with sex. It was the “carnal knowledge” of the first man and woman that brought death into the world, if only due to the simple fact that one has to be born in order to die. Women, of course, tend to bear most of the blame for this situation. Von Trier used a beautiful Aria from Handel’s Ranaldo at the beginning and end of the film, but he could just as well have used the song Pretty Girls Make Graves by Smiths.
The Handel piece, Lascia ch’io pianga, which translates to “Let me weep” in English, is about someone confined to an unfortunate fate. Written for female soprano, it was also famously performed by male castratos, a fact which adds a different level of tragic meaning to the tune. This may be in part why this piece was used in both Antichrist and Nymphomaniac, the first and third parts of Von Trier’s so-called “depression trilogy,” respectively. Both of these films deal with the extremes of human sexuality, placing the male and female as opposing sides of these extremes. Charlotte Gainsbourg is the female lead in both, and presents female sexuality as unquenchable flame, capable of engulfing anything it touches. This view of women and sexuality as an intractable problem for men seems to lie at the core of the Abrahamic faiths. In Antichrist, the male protagonist comes to realize that She is not the Eve of the book of Genesis, but Lilith of earlier Hebrew stories—Adam’s first wife who refuses to submit, and becomes a demon. It is only after He destroys She that the curse is broken. The feminine “spirits of nature” that haunted the forest emerge from Eden as a herd of faceless, now fully-clothed women and girls, stripped of their former sexual power.
The principal antagonist in The Passion of the Christ, the Devil, is also played by a woman, and references to the serpent in Genesis remind us again of that forgotten woman, Lilith. But this devil is now androgynous in form, unrecognizable as such to the Christian world of Gibson. This film can’t necessarily be said to be anti-woman; the men are, on the whole, portrayed less favorably than the female characters, who seem to understand the truths of the film that escape the boorish men. If anything, the film is a rejection of “masculine” institutions of church and the state, or specifically, a rejection of legalism in favor of intuitive modes of life. Christ is, in these respects, a decidedly “feminine” deity.
Both the Passion and Antichrist are critical of rationalism, which are viewed as impotent against the intuitive forces of life. This is a standard theme of horror films, which will use characters (often male) that initially have a skeptical hubris that is contrasted with the dire nature of what is happening. In Gibson’s film, Pontius Pilate is puzzled, but ultimately incredulous about Christ’s “truth”—a truth his wife “knows,” but can’t tell him. In Antichrist, Willem Dafoe’s character is convinced that his wife’s problems are simply due to traumas that he can help repair with his knowledge of psychotherapy, but gradually learns that the problems are beyond his depth. All horror films (with the possible exception of zombie flicks) are primarily about the limits of human reason, and the subsequent lack of control that this entails. In this sense, horror films are religious films.