The Conscience of Morality in Lars Von Trier's 'The House That Jack Built'
"Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires which we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they're expressed instead through our art. I don't agree. I believe Heaven and Hell are one and the same. The soul belongs to Heaven and the body to Hell."
Lars Von Trier is back, with much more controversy than ever. His new film (uncut, as he intended it to be) caused dozens of walkouts at Cannes and unsurprisingly, is a full 153 minutes of gore, profanity and violence - every element that makes a Von Trier film distinctly different from any other film - but it uses these often controversial 'R-rated' elements to its advantage, adding up to a complete, masterful, defined and layered work of art.
THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT is a poem about our humanity and inhumanity: a close-up observation of morality. The film itself is complexly riddled with symbolism at each and every turn, mastering itself to be thought-provoking despite its savagery and brutality. It meanwhile also serves as a structured essay and examination on the concept of our unproven, 'immortal' afterlives - the ideology that accepts the existence of the realms of heaven and hell, as a perceiver of our moralities, whilst judging our souls according to their antecedent 'laws' of morality and immorality.
Von Trier has built a deep and profound narrative - at its core lies Jack, a psychopathic serial-killer, played convincingly by Matt Dillon. From my perspective, Jack's role in this narrative is the role of our inhumanities in life, and Verge, mysteriously played by Bruno Ganz, represents our humanity, or at least the slightest bit of humanity we have left in us (as a population),at times judging our inhumanities, yet letting it roam free in its predatory ways (although it becomes a prey to the grand scheme of life and death in the end).
This can also be seen as a toned-down, grounded and life-sized version of the 'shoulder angel' concept - a plot device in films used for dramatic (and/or humorous) effect, to depict the inner conflict(s) of a character, presented by a tiny angel and devil on either shoulder of a character. The angel usually represents conscience and righteousness whilst the devil represents temptations and urges. My belief is that Jack is the tiny devil in this narrative, giving in to his temptations of being a serial killer, murdering another victim every time he starts to feel guilt and self-anguish. Verge can be seen as a toned-down, less faithful representation of the angel, always seemingly questioning Jack's vicious actions, however never really getting in the way of his crimes, letting Jack unleash his inner predatory-instincts without any restrictions and in the end letting him (and his own immorality) succumb to his own pretentious 'god-complex', resulting in his demise to the eternal steps of death.
However, that poses the important question, if Jack was the ruthless representation of the devil, and Verde the angel, who's the conflicted character deciding between temptation and righteousness in this depiction of the 'shoulder angel' concept? I believe that although Lars keeps it ambiguous, there are three ideally possible choices: Von Trier himself, the human race as a population or our individual moralities as distinct living individuals who have watched/will watch this film.
Firstly, Lars Von Trier. A controversial film, made by an even more controversial and highly criticized director. There are many speculated theories out there that believe the film is a representation of Von Trier's inner thoughts and desires. Just as Jack said within the film, "some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires which we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they're expressed instead through our art." This might point as to why Von Trier made a deeply symbolic film about morality and a serial killer, as the murders portrayed in the film, carried out by Matt Dillon's Jack, are those acts we cannot perform with our real lives, as they are viewed as inhumane and illegal, resulting in conviction and jail-time (or the death penalty). Von Trier has gone on to portray his merciless 'inner desires' in his films - his art-form. He is a painter decorating his canvas with his thoughts and ideas, letting his remorseless imagination run free with viciousness, as his canvas is a liberal art-form upon which he can commit prohibited atrocities.
Secondly, the human race as a population. Bigger symbolization on this one, as it refers to an entire population of independent, living beings, but I think Lars' film still manages to make it work. In this context Jack represents the sins we commit as a population: the ignorantly ignored immoralities we commit in mass numbers, almost like a bundle of sin, packaged within an entire species of living beings. Verde would be a representation of our moralities and good qualities we have as a whole population: moralities that shine some good light upon our world and redeem us as a civilization in minor ways (though still not excusing our evils). A perfect example of our immoralities as a population would be global warming, where we have singlehandedly 'poisoned' the Earth by our harmful ways of life: littering trash everywhere, dumping waste in the ocean, rivers and lakes, resulting in pollution that kills animal and plant life, as well as the use of cooling towers in chemical plants and factories that in turn produces a harmful smoke that pollutes the ozone layer and traps heat in the atmosphere that results in melting ice caps.
In this context, Verde would represent the part of the population that tries to be a 'solution' to the problem, such as the humane effort of reducing the use of plastic (that pollutes ocean life), and recycling, thus being a positive collective effort from our society. Another example, more closely linked to the movie in a way, would be the moralities, values and manners passed down through generations in society. Bad morals and values are sometimes passed down in society to younger generations: often a reflection of their parents' generation. Values that might have been seen as a norm for previous generations might have evolved into a long-gone tradition now.
Morals such as common courtesy and kindness can be linked as a righteous trait passed down from generations and can be linked to Verge's symbolism of morality. In this situation we are the generations of people passing down these traits, values and morals (and immoralities) to the next generation, where we could either morally pass down good traits (Verge) or bad traits (Jack).
Thirdly, the individual moralities of every living individual who has watched/will watch Von Trier's latest film. This refers every singular individual's morality, being a more specific reference of symbolism than the previous two choices. An individual's morality can almost be compared to the very same situation in the film where Verge questions Jack about his killings and why he carries on with them: Jack gives a perfect example of a man walking between two lamp posts (as illustrated below), where his front shadow grows and then fades near the middle, and then he starts to grow a back shadow as he walks towards the next lamp, until he starts to reach it, which is when it reduces and his front shadow starts to grow again.
In the film, the front shadow represents his pride that grows after he kills, as he starts to feel good and confident about himself, but after some time passes following his last killing, he starts to lose confidence and starts to feel his own guilt and anguish wear down upon himself; his front shadow fades and his back shadow grows - a representation of Jack's guilt and nervousness, as well as his temptation to kill again. When he reaches the next lamp post (the point where he feels the most guilt and most tempted to kill again), he finds a victim to murder - feeling confident and full of himself again, furthermore completing a cycle that repeats, on and on.
This can refer to individuals in many ways, as Jack's temptations to kill can be linked to the cycle of an addict, in which their temptation is the relapse, where they feel an urge to use again, or drink or act on their temptations (depending on their addiction). In a huge way, Jack's urges to kill, which has made him a serial killer, has in a way made him an addict to murder. Just like an addict, he goes through the various stages of addiction (in a cycle). Jack feeling confident and good about himself after a murder is in the same vein as an addict's high after using. Jack experiencing guilt and self-doubt after some time passes is the same as an addict going through withdrawal, both wanting to give in to their temptations: Jack to kill and an addict to use/act upon their urges. Jack murdering another victim runs along the lines of an addict's relapse, in which they give in to their urges and start using again. In no way is murder, especially that of a serial killer, anything close to other addictions, but it links the actions of Jack to the actions of an addict (an individual), in which they go through the same cycle.
In the most simplest of terms, Verge represents the good in us (our moralities) and Jack represents the bad in us (our immoralities). Specifically talking about the morality in one designated individual, Jack represents all the sins committed by this singular individual, including minor sins that wouldn't be seen as crimes yet can still be seen as a sin, such as being impolite. Verge would represent the good acts performed by this individual, even if these acts were minor, such as holding the door for someone (an evident sign of manners) or maybe even resisting an urge or temptation, especially if it was an urge to do something in the vein of Jack's actions. This idea could be further linked to the thoughts of an individual that concerns their morality, for example a thought that may conflict this individual's morality. A conflicting thought like this could refer to a thought that may be about something controversial or something demeaning.
If the individual's thoughts were to agree with this demeaning message then it would be considered an immorality, such as a faded-down version of Jack's thoughts on wanting to kill and the ruthless ideas going through his mind as he schemes up his next murder However, if they resisted this thought or disagreed with it, they would feel more moral about themselves, linking them to Verge's character and symbolism as a more righteous figure than Jack. This completes the linkage of Jack and Verge as 'shoulder angels' to the symbolism of this in the movie, showing that Von Trier may in fact use Jack and Verge to symbolize, in simple terms, 'good & evil'.
I believe that Von Trier's latest film goes beyond all its thoughtful symbolism - even to question our identities as a population, such as questioning our moralities and the existence of it in our modern society. The acts that we perform in society. Our place beyond life, in the afterlife. The precedented ideas that judge who ends up in heaven and hell and who is worthy of which realm. Our positions in life - how our destination is judged by our experiences and how we tend to deal with them through all the ups and downs.
It represents humanity and our morals and immoralities. It uses its violent and inhumane elements to stand for a perfect symbolization of human life and the actions that we produce (morally or immorally). Though it is controversial in nature through its violence and over-the-top savagery, it's personally a poetic work of art built up brilliantly by Von Trier's masterful development of hidden meanings and layers over layers of symbolization. It's purely magnificent just how deep THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT transcends, as on the foreground it may seem a brutal mess, but delving deeper, the film puts itself out to be a purist mosaic of varied symbolism and ideas that perfectly link together to speak out about the conscience of human morality.