Martin Heidegger’s book Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) has been all the rage in philosophy for the last century, with every work since either referring to it or intentionally ignoring its message and impact. While incredibly dense, it is clear that Heidegger’s project was quite pointed, and his criticisms of the last two millennia of intellectual thought are potentially damning. He believed that all thought was in error unless it was based upon a proper notion of man and its existence.
To remedy this, we must return to the pre-Socratics (yes, that means before Plato and his ilk) and reexamine our Being. His project is so complicated that it requires a new language, one intended to transform our world and our understanding.
While impossible to summarize or explain Heidegger in less than a book, I’ll try to lay down the basic points here for those unfamiliar or rusty. First of all, man exists, but is hurdling towards death, or inexistence (i.e. we are all mortal). Man is a Being-in-the-World in that he is aware of his existence, and he can become a Being-towards-Death as soon as he is aware of his potential inexistence (i.e. once he realizes he is mortal).
Coming to terms with this fact allows for authentic Being, in which man knows that he is a Being-towards-Death. Authenticity in turn creates angst, an unfocused fear, as man realizes that he isn’t at home in the world and will soon leave it.
Both society and technology (and virtually everything else) can distract man from living authentically and prevent him from becoming a Being-towards-Death. Finally, as referenced by the title, Being must take the form of time, as existence and inexistence mean nothing without time as their horizon.
Heidegger’s project is so audacious that it finds devotees in all circles, nearly all of which disagree on what he is all about and which aspects of his thought are worthwhile. What follows is a list of 10 films that deal with Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, either intentionally or unintentionally, and that allow for an interesting debate on his relevance to each film. I limited this list to one film per director.
10. Melancholia (2011)
In this 2011 art film, Denmark’s Lars von Trier presents his second installment of his unofficially titled “Depression Trilogy.” Melancholia follows two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) through a series of personal and familial trials as a neighboring planet, Melancholia, hurdles towards the earth.
The film begins with a short motif preparing viewers for catastrophe, set to the prelude of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the musical archetype of ambiguity and restlessness. As if the prelude alone isn’t enough to foreshadow what is to come, von Trier even depicts Melancholia subsuming the earth, Justine floating away on a pyre, and birds falling dead out of the sky.
Earth is hurdling towards inexistence. Yet, von Trier’s focus is not death, but rather the angst and uncertainty that Justine and Claire experience in their lives.
Justine, for example, is filled with angst. Her angst is not caused by the earth’s certain demise, as she is the only person to succumb almost happily to death, and later basks in the light of the approaching planet (she even says many times that they will all soon die!). Justine rather is struggling to come to terms with her own existence, and finds all of the societal functions to be distracting and annoying.
Claire, her sister, is trying to stay positive in the face of death, as reports and studies indicate that the earth’s days are numbered. She has several meltdowns, despite her husband assuring her that they will survive, and is almost incapacitated as she realizes she will soon die.
Interestingly enough, it is this realization that is able to save Justine. She only calms and is able to function when faced with certain death and, after telling Claire that Melancholia is coming to end the earth, comforts Claire’s son and plays with him in their last few hours (all of this is depicted in the first fifteen minutes, no less!).
In other words, only when Justine’s inexistence is certain can she overcome the angst accompanying her Being-in-the-world, and only when Claire’s inexistence is certain does she realize that she is a Being-towards-Death and her family will be no more.
9. Ikiru (1952)
Ikiru follows bureaucrat Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) as he searches far and wide for a way to give his life meaning after he has been diagnosed with an “ulcer”, (actually terminal stomach cancer). His first attempt fails miserably, as he enjoys a night on the town, ending in what can be termed “a very sad night of Karaoke.” His second attempt isn’t much better, as he admires a female employee and, after treating her to several dates and luxuries, tries to unearth what that brings joy to her life.
Once he has made her feel quite uncomfortable, he realizes that she is happy because she is able to do things for others. The final third of the film is dedicated to this, as Watanabe sets out to serve those in his community. All the while, he keeps it secret that he is dying, and pours his soul into overcoming the bureaucracy that he is a part of.
From the outset, Watanabe knows he is in a race against time to find meaning in life. In an early encounter in a nightclub, an acquaintance of his remarks that it is tragic “man can never realize how beautiful life is until he is face to face with death.” Watanabe eventually learns how to make his existence meaningful, and his struggle takes form against bureaucracy.
Not only is he struggling against the bureaucracy to help his community, but he is struggling to find the meaning of his individual existence in the sea of bureaucracy. Kurosawa’s bureaucracy here stands in for society and the things that can distract man from authentic existence and prevent him from coming to terms with his Being. Watanabe participates in this bureaucracy until he is “face to face with death”, and it is this realization that allows him to live authentically.
8. Primer (2004)
Primer follow four engineers working in a corporation by day and experimenting at home by night. As often happens, experiments with weight-manipulation lead two of the engineers, Aaron (Shane Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), to discover a way to manipulate time. And, as any smart Machiavellian engineers would do, they keep this discovery from their friends and go back in time to make money on stocks, predict sports results, and change events from their past.
These efforts go terribly awry and, using what is now termed the “Prestige effect”, create a series of complicated and interwoven timelines in which there are several Aarons and Abes and each new version of their former selves must avoid the other versions of their past selves (or, perhaps more importantly, past colleagues).
The “Prestige Effect” is a theory of time travel that came about after Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige was released. In The Prestige, each time a character manipulates space (or time), he produces another version of himself. In Primer, as Abe and Aaron manipulate time, they are doubled in space, and so there are additional “Aarons” or “Abes”. Not only does this create ethical problems, but it creates problems of personal identity.
Being, it seems, is inextricably tied to time, as Heidegger posited, and thus time is the Aristotelian form of Human life (i.e. it is a characteristic that human life must have). Thus, as time is manipulated, so is Being. This means that not only is a new Being created ontically speaking (which is to say, in very simplified terms, that there is a new physical and mental Being produced), but a new Being is also created ontologically speaking (or existentially), which is aware of its own existence.
This is exemplified by the “rats in the attic” Aaron’s wife believes she is hearing, which is actually a past version of Aaron that the current Aaron has drugged and locked away. Both Aaron’s are aware of their existence, and thus both Aaron’s are Beings-toward-Death produced by manipulations of time. Primer is about a pandora’s box, in which any manipulation of time creates an irreversible manipulation (and multiplication) of Being, and thus existence is permanently altered.
7. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)
Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathie Amalric), formerly the editor of Elle Magazine, suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1995 rendering him comatose for 25 days. The film begins as Bauby awakens, and is initially told from his perspective. Gradually viewers begin to realize what has happened, and a neurologist explains that Bauby has “locked-in syndrome”, causing him to be physically paralyzed but mentally fully present.
Gradually he develops means of communication, consisting mostly of him blinking as an assistant points to particular letters or asks simple questions. He begins to relive memories, to fantasize, and to dictate his story so that it can be recorded. He is visited by his children and their mother, telephoned by his mistress, and questioned by his friends, yet in all of these events he finds himself physically unable to cry or communicate at all.
In his view, he is trapped in his own body, which he sees as a diving bell, but his soul is free, as a butterfly. He recalls a friend trapped for four years in Beirut and his aging father trapped in his apartment, and begins to understand their entrapment. Yet, his writings are in stark contrast to his thoughts, which are mostly regrets of his past life and the things he has done.
Bauby’s existential crisis causes these regrets—he came very close to death in his stroke and is now to remain a Being-towards-Death until he finally dies. It’s hard to imagine something more terrifying than being trapped, awaiting your end, and it seems that this entrapment would be truly paralyzing for the soul. Yet, it is this realization, this turn to authentic life that allows Bauby to be free.
He ignores social norms, fantasizes about the nurses and people around him, screams whatever is on his mind to the top of his lungs (despite not being able to make a sound), and lives in radical freedom, a Sartrean paradise in a sense. It is striking how Bauby finds this paralysis to be rewarding, because it forces him to come to terms with his own existence.
He “watch[es] his past recede, reduced to the ashes of memory” and moves beyond his inauthentic self. Because he knows he is soon not to be, he is able to be whatever he wants.
6. Metropolis (1927)
In year 2026, Metropolis is ruled by wealthy industrialists who oppress and abuse its lower class by keeping them underground and working to produce the energy necessary for such a world. Metropolis is ruled by businessman Joh Frederson (Alfred Abel) whose son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), enjoys a life of leisure until he decides to see what life is like for the lowest class because he is attracted to one of its members, Maria (Brigitte Helm).
Freder is horrified at what he sees. He begins helping the workers and eventually meets Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an inventor working on a robot to bring chaos to the city. Rotwang captures Maria and disguises his robot to look like her, which he then releases, wreaking havoc on the world and causing the workers to revolt.
Throughout his works, Heidegger warned of the dangers of technology, pointing out that without a robust understanding of our existence, there is no way to understand how we exist in relation to technology. He queried whether technology could be a means to an end, or a human activity, but these definitions cannot tell us the essence of technology.
He was not worried about technology that could cause death, like the machine that explodes upon Freder’s arrival or the robot convincing everyone to revolt, but was rather concerned with how technology can make us forget about death and about our very existence. The world of Metropolis is filled with worker bees, ceaselessly laboring to serve those above them.
They have no notion of what it means to exist or where their existence puts them in the world. It is only catastrophe that awakens them, as the underground begins to flood during their revolt. The idea is that we, too, work frivolously in our daily jobs, obsessing over things that don’t actually matter, and so this dystopian society is actually a possibility.