I sometimes hear a terrifying rumor that Friedrich Nietzsche’s insanity was a result of his atheism. From this telling we are asked to imagine Nietzsche as a modern Prometheus cursed by the gods for his arrogance. Even his ex-lover Lou Salome spread this superstitious warning—the added sting being that she was a psychoanalyst. But if fear is the ultimate goal for spreading such an idea, one need not make it theological. Nietzsche’s supposed last sane words capture any great thinker’s worst nightmare: “Mother I am dumb.”
To me, it is far more interesting to focus on the possible messages behind Nietzsche’s last public act. In the end, when having to pick between protecting the dignity of a man (god’s greatest creation) or the dignity of a horse, Nietzsche chose the latter. Was this just a side effect of his madness, or was it his final indictment against Christian divinity? Knowing his rare proclivity for public spectacle we might still ask another question: what kind of horse could bring Friedrich Nietzsche to such tears and infant clinging? Was the whipping that cruel?
The Turin Horse gives its audience a plausible hypothesis with its opening scene: Both the animal and its predicament would make even the most emotionally reserved weep.
The heavy creature, its face and chest nearly pressed up against the movie camera, its mouth twisting, its fur matted down by sweat and blustering wind, huffs out air and struggles to drag the wagon and the old driver down a path of wintered trees. The camera tracks to a profile shot of the horse and wagon. For a moment the viewer must focus on the driver, who looks like a retired disciple. He struggles to control his animal and vehicle. Only later do we learn that he is crippled having lost control of his right arm and part of his right eye. Then the camera shifts back to the creature lowering its head and shoulders, straining to pull the load. By this time we start to imagine that the horse is losing all the life in its eyes, or is this actually happening? The answer does not really matter. The creature has bewitched us in an instant. We now know that when this black and white masterpiece is not haunted by the shadow of Nietzsche, it is haunted by the shadow of his horse.
My favorite scene, however, has nothing to do with horses. It has to do with potatoes.
Twenty minutes into the film we see a pot set to boil. Two potatoes cook inside. We watch the water sizzle and steam off around them. A wooden spoon rests intentionally on the left side of the pot. From this arrangement, we know the woman who has placed it there, the driver’s daughter, is extremely meticulous. When she comes to stir and remove the pot she does so ritualistically, as if she were performing a last supper for the hundredth time. The meaning has been lost somewhere along the way, but she caries on methodically without question. She grabs a simple wooden bowl. She scoops in the potatoes. She sets the family table plainly. She looks vaguely religious—a strange mix between an emaciated mother of Jesus and common beggar. “It’s ready,” she says harshly to her father who rests in bed. This is the first moment of dialogue in the film.
What follows is the old man—once he makes it to the table—transforming into a wild dog. He grabs a potato like lightning, peels the skin off with his one good hand almost equally as fast. He does not care that it is too hot too eat comfortably. He smashes it in with his fingers and blows on it violently but weakly. It gets into his beard and mustache. He licks his lips and fingers. Less than two minutes after grabbing the potato, he has finished it. The camera pans again and we see his daughter. She has has been eating her food this whole time, studying each bite before she puts it into her mouth. She is not enjoying her food. She stops eating and cleans the dishes.
In this brief scene the audience learns an enormous amount about the two title characters. We see how they face life individually and silently even while eating together. Though this is the first meal in the film, it feels exactly like the last. The tension is eerily high, though this is not a scene about death. It’s about life, the most horrifying kind of life. You want to to tell the characters this. You want to shout it into your television. Then again, you do not tell it to yourself. The shadow of Nietzsche seems to be lurking somewhere in the background. Perhaps it would be whispering, “Evaluate. Create. Change. Dance,” if its main attention was not resting on the withering horse inside the barn.