The Phone is Off the Hook: love, dreams, and psychoanalysis in “When Nietzsche Wept” (2007)

When Nietzsche Wept

Nietzsche once said, “A thought comes when it wants to, not when I want it to.”

While the philosopher was getting at how ideas, intentions, and passions come into our conscious field without our effort or direction, and often despite our wishes, it also applies to this movie.  As anyone who has used Netflix will attest, the DVD comes when it wants to, not when I want it to.

I had added When Nietzsche Wept to my account for two reasons: one, Nietzsche was in the title, and two, Nietzsche would be played by the legendary, reclusive, highly selective actor-extraordinaire Armand Assante.  It seemed too good to be true, and as I mused on the title and examined the box art online (obviously pandering to the lowest common denominator, painting the famed genius as a love-sick sop, a mere pretense for some romantic roller-coaster), I began to doubt.  However, my superego firmly insisted that it was my duty to view any and all films bearing a philosophical title, so I had to compromise.  I decided to set When Nietzsche Wept at the end of my  queue, and did my best to repress any memory of it.

After roiling about in my subconscious for a few months, the dubious movie washed up on my mental shores last night, demanding attention. I lay down on my couch, bid my sanity farewell, and took the plunge.

When Nietzsche Wept (Based the eponymous book by modern psychoanalyst Irvin D. Yalom- yes, these people are still running around) is a surprisingly deep, intellectually involved, and curiously probing period piece centering around philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (Armand Assante), father of psychoanalysis Dr. Josef Breuer (Ben Cross), his upstart protege Sigmund “Siggy” Freud, and poet/flirt/genius collector, Lou Salome, set in the culturally pregnant atmosphere of late 19th century Viennese high society.

First off, Vienna, especially the Vienna of this age, bears some words of introduction.  This is the Vienna of Freud, Breuer, and Nietzsche of course, but it is also the Vienna of none other than steel tycoon Karl Wittgenstein, european counterpart of Andrew Carnegie, whose wife Fanny assembled nightly dinner parties of geniuses, eccentrics, aristocrats, and Bohemian vagabonds in a mad scramble to find the Next Big Thing, who hired an obscure tunesmith known as Brahms to teach his young son Ludwig piano- Ludwig Wittgenstein, manic genius and soon to become, arguably, Mind of the 20th Century.  This Vienna was the social playground of such artistic dabblers as Richard Wagner and Gustav Klimt, such lightweight scribblers as Rilke and Carl Jung.  This Vienna was the absolute high water mark for Western culture (or so Oswald Spengler and some other heady German apocalyptics would have us think).

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The infamous Wagon picture: the real Lou Salomé, Paul Rée, and Friedrich Nietzsche.  

When you and your best friend are yoked to a cart and the woman you love is holding a whip, you know it’s time to bail.

In this roiling melting pot of ideas, money, and ethno-cultural hubris, was concocted the special sauce that would be spread on everyone’s sandwiches for roughly the next century, the sauce that still comes standard issue with anything you order from an academic English or Sociology department, the sauce we must to this day on occasion discreetly scrape off our intellectual buns before chowing down.  I speak, dear readers, of Psychoanalytic Theory.

And if you watch When Nietzsche Wept, you can see it happen- see the steaming strands of malarkey weave themselves into the pasta of Young Siggy’s mind, so the bearded, cigar-fixated fiend can one day birth his bizarre brainchild.

As one of the characters says at some point, “It all starts with a woman.”  Nietzsche is depressed, suicidal, and on the edge of despair after being led along by Russian poet (and one day celebrated psychoanalyst in her own right) Lou Salome.  Dr. Josef Breuer is in the midst of a mid-life crisis (a term coined by followers of Freud- ah, the mind-boggling influence of this group!), bored with his successful Vienna practice and pining after a hysteric patient he has fallen in love with, Freud’s early test case alias Anna O. (real name Bertha Pappenheim, who would go on to become a pioneering feminist).  Salome plays the matchmaker and brings the two great minds Breuer and Nietzsche together so they can cross-pollenate and continue with their great projects, Nietzsche with his book Thus Spake Zarathustra, and Breuer with his tutelage of young “Siggy” Freud.

I will spare you the juicy details and emotional roller-coaster, but leave you with a tidbit, a tiny morsel of the absolute strangeness of this independent, Bulgarian-made movie, that will hopefully entice you to seek it out (by the way, it gets five Melodicas out of five):

In a dream sequence, Breuer and Nietzsche are paddling along in some body of water. Tchaikovsky is playing in the background.

Nietzsche: I love it, Joseph.

Breuer: What do you love?

Nietzsche: Tchaikovsky.

Breuer: Why?

Nietzsche: Swan Lake!

“Ahahahaha!”  They laugh in unison like marionettes.  The camera zooms out to reveal they are in a giant, Swan-shaped paddleboat.  Then a thunderous bell tolls, and Breuer starts to scream.  A giant clock is ticking in the sky- his life ticking away.

Nietzsche: Paddle faster Josef, we are going to die!

Breuer continues to scream, paddling faster. Nietzsche laughs manically, shouting, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but death can never hurt me!”  They are promptly swallowed by a whirlpool.