Let me set the scene. The year is 2006. Mega-producer and Millennium Films founder Avi Lerner is sitting on a chair made of bags of money, the result of the overseas gross of his latest van Damme opus, Until Death. As Lerner leans in to light a cigar with a Romanian 500 lei note, his assistant barges in.
‘Mr. Lerner, sir, we have a problem. We’re concerned with the image of Millennium Films. The Internet is abuzz with people making fun of The Wicker Man.’
‘Nonsense! That was a wonderful picture!’ screams Lerner.
‘I agree, sir. However, public consensus seems to be that Millennium is a shlock factory.’
Lerner becomes apoplectic.
‘Shlock?! SHLOCK?! YOU WANT ART? I’LL GIVE YOU ART!’
Lerner rummages through his script drawer and finally settles on the perfect script.
‘When Nietzsche Wept. THAT is art. There’s philosophy, there’s weeping. Never let them say that Millennium does not make art.’
And that’s how B-movie powerhouse Millennium / Nu Image Films put aside the van Dammes, Norrises and Undisputed sequels for a second and made a very serious Nietzsche biopic starring Ben (Chariots of Fire) Cross and Armand (Every Fucking Movie Ever Made, Especially the Shitty Ones) Assante. The concept of When Nietszche Wept is so completely hard to swallow that it often doesn’t feel real at all, even when you’re actually sitting there watching it. It has a hell of a lot more in common with Home for Purim or Simple Jack (movies that don’t actually exist) in its mind-blowingly artificial wrongness than any of the would-be prestigious biopics it attempts to ride the coattails of.
The film begins with Lou Salome (Katheryn Winnick) visiting physician Josef Breuer (Cross); her friend Frederich Nietzsche suffers from the ‘deepest despair’ and may very well kill himself unless Breuer cures him. Breuer refuses on the grounds that he is not a magician and despair cannot be cured. Nietzsche (Assante) is then introduced to us making the infamous supposition that God is dead in front of a nun, a priest, Lou and an a couple of bums. Lou is so completely under the spell of his intellect that they start skipping in fields and other such soft-focus gallivanting. Nietzsche is so taken with the bizarrely-accented Lou that he proposes marriage instantly but she rebukes him; she’s interested in a strictly student-teacher relationship. Nietzsche consequently throws a temper tantrum and threatens to kill himself.
Now, I’ll cop to it right away: I’m no Nietzsche scholar. I’m familiar with the guy in a roundabout way but I’m certainly not the guy who’s going to sit there and point out all of the film’s inaccuracies. If that isn’t enough, the film is based on a novel by Irvin D. Yalom that’s clearly taking liberties with biographical facts. I’m not even of the opinion that total factual accuracy is necessarily the best way to approach biography. Regardless of all that, it’s impossible for me not to see Nietzsche as a bushy-mustachioed adolescent throwing a dramarama over his first breakup. I mean, it’s no coincidence that quoting Nietzsche has basically become shorthand for ‘gloomy, overly dramatic individual’ but surely there’s a more subtle way to convey this than simply depicting him as the stereotypical jilted ‘nice guy’ who gets turned down by the most popular girl in school.
Breuer and Nietzsche begin a series of sessions in which the doctor attempts to cure Nietzsche’s sadness without ever letting him on that he’s doing such a thing. Breuer consults his good friend, Sigmund ‘Siggy’ Freud (played, hilariously, by Jamie Elman of Canadian sitcom Student Bodies) but makes no real advancement with his patient. Both men have their own internal struggles: Nietzsche with crippling migraines and Breuer with a never-ending bout of nightmares that greatly increase the bad-CGI budget. In order to get the stoic Nietzsche to speak up, Breuer tries the unthinkable: he will treat Nietzsche for his migraines and Nietzsche will become his confidant and help him get rid of the poorly-conceived nightmares where he falls down a CGI hole. It comes out that Breuer fell in love with a patient (Michal Yannai) but was forced to let her go when his wife found out and she now haunts his dreams (at one point he hallucinates watching her shit, complete with fart noises). In case you’re keeping track, there has been no weeping by Nietzsche at this point, although he has yelled and smashed his face into a mirror.
I’ve got to hand it to Millennium: apart from the dodgy casting and leaden pacing, When Nietzsche Wept doesn’t particularly scream ‘cheap, misguided attempt at prestige’. They’ve managed to use real sets (in Bulgaria, no less) and made the thing look half-decent. Of course, it doesn’t change the fact that the cast is made up of Lerner’s stock company (Yannai made six movies with Lerner and his band of merry gentlemen in 2007 alone) and their sliding scale of terrible accents or that the gauzy lighting and overall brownness of everything recalls dreary British soap operas. When Nietzsche Wept covers itself in shiny baubles but they can’t hide its roots. The film’s best/worst parts are the dream sequences, elaborate hallucinatory affairs that become hilarious thanks to the film’s limited budget and the director’s Homer Simpson-like usage of visual effects (no star wipes here, sadly, but lots of slow-motion and cross-fade abuse). They’re really the only parts that show any kind of effort beyond the bland, History Channel-esque presentation of the majority of the film.
Part of the appeal of When Nietzsche Wept is the egregious miscasting of DTV gangster mainstay Armand Assante as the titular teary-eyed existentialist. While it pains me to say this, Assante is only garden-variety miscast here. It helps tremendously that half his face is obscured by Nietzsche’s fantastic broom of a moustache. It both enhances his performance (by making him look a lot less like the dude from Judge Dredd) and hinders it. I’ve never sported a giant, curtain-like mustache myself so I can’t speak to their comfort level, but I would assume they have to be at least somewhat endurable or else no one in the history of the world would ever have sported them. I don’t really get this impression from Assante’s performance, however; his facial expressions constantly suggest that concentration and highly-regulated breathing patterns (and not, as one would assume, spirit gum) is the only thing keeping that bushy ol’ thing on there. Winnick is really the actress who comes off the worst in the film. Saddled with a ridiculous Russian-by-way-of-Toronto accent and the thankless role of making Nietzsche act like a crazy motherfucker, Winnick looks disturbingly amateurish in a film that’s already pretty close to being something you’d skip over on a Sunday afternoon. Her performance reminds me of that old cliché of high school students putting on Death of a Salesman – she comes across like the equivalent of a 17-year-old Willy Loman.
To be perfectly honest, I tuned out of When Nietzsche Wept several times. It reaches Masterpiece Theater levels of talky and while I can’t really fault a movie for that, I can certainly say that talky combined with didactic conversations of characters explaining Nietzsche’s theories to each other and spouting shitty, stilted dialogue does not make for a potent mix. It’s not even such a terrible idea; I’m sure the source novel is at least a mildly interesting read. As a film, however, it’s a complete bore and never transcends the feeling of adults playing awkward, boring dress-up. When Nietzsche Wept reminds me of one of the most notorious failures in cinematic history: Richard Fleischer’s ill-advised Che! Both films have such ridiculous historical casting that they automatically lead you to assume that they’ll be the most careless and hilariously inappropriate biopics in existence. Neither of these films is as bad as they look, nor are they fraught with completely ridiculous historical fabrications. Both, however, are shitty for the same reason: they’re flat, boring approaches to history that focus on the least interesting aspect of their respective subjects. The meeting of Nietzsche and Breuer never actually happened – not a foreign concept in historical fiction. Yet the film’s pairing of these two historical figures actually makes their respective stories less interesting. When Nietzsche Wept is talky, visually flat and didactic… but it’s not embarrassing and rarely campy. I even kind of respect its ambitions. It’s the worst kind of Why Does It Exist? fodder. The boring kind.
So why does it exist?
Although I’m unsure that the death of God features on many high school curriculums, this film serves as the perfect filler for an underachieving substitute teacher’s use. It has all the leaden, stuffy atmosphere of a Merchant-Ivory production paired with the didacticism of low-rent educational videos – only the slightest whiff of Millennium-brand preposterousness comes through and even that basically amounts to adolescent dramatics. Surprisingly, it’s the only English-language film about Nietzsche. That also makes it the best, sadly. It’s exactly the type of movie that I hated to have teachers spring on me when I was a teenager and that seems to be where it will thrive: half-watched by a gaggle of gangly, hormonal teenagers absent-mindedly doodling pictures of dicks on desks.