The joys of Weltschmerz

Feeling too happy? Need something to remind you that life is a serious business? Here are our suggestions.
Michael Cook | Feb 19 2013 | comment  

Last week MercatorNet brought you its selection of movies to cheer you up. That was the Ying. This week’s selection is the Yang: movies which make you feel melancholy. Not depressed, exactly. Violence, horror, wretchedness, vulgarity and Hugh Grant may leave you feling bleak and depressed, but that is not the bittersweet feeling of melancholy. The Germans have a word for it: der Weltschmerz, the realisation of the aching pain of existence.

And the French know how to make films about it. The 50s and 60s were vintage years for Weltschmerz: years of film noir and existentiaiism, of lonely heroes and abandoned heroines. The list below reflects the editor's age, I suppose. We welcome your suggestions. 

* * * * * 

La Strada (The Road) 1954
Federico Fellini’s film won an Oscar for best foreign for this neo-realist drama about Zampanò , a circus strongman and a naïve young woman whom he buys from her mother as a servant. It has a wonderful, but unusual, cast – an American-Mexican in the lead role, Anthony Quinn, and another American, Richard Basehart, as “the Fool”. Giulietta Masina is incredibly good as Gelsomina, the sweet-natured girl whose spirit is broken by her brutish boss. If you don’t feel sad after this existentialist excursion, your Prozac dose is way too high. One of the best ever.


Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) 1964
Nobody makes better weepies than the French. Bring your tissues for this colour-drenched musical delight. Michel Legrand wrote the international hit musical theme – every word in the film is sung. The story is easily told: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love; girl falls pregnant, boy enters army and disappears. The final scene in which Geneviève, now a banker’s wife, meets Guy, at his petrol station as the snow falls gently at Christmas, is a marvel of bittersweet melancholia.


The Third Man (1949)
A film noir which is on every best-movies-of-all-time list. English novelist Graham Greene wrote the screenplay about a corruption in post-War Vienna. Wonderfully gloomy cinematography and a lively musical score. Wait for Orson Welles’s classic line: “in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."


Falling Down (1993)
Michael Douglas is superb as an unemployed engineer who snaps under the pressures of urban living and “goes postal”. The film is a savage comedy (watch the above scene from a fast food restaurant which is not McDonalds) but it ends – as you might expect – tragically.


Departures (Okuribito) 2008
The plot sounds quite grotesque, but this Japanese film is deeply humane. A young out-of-work cellist finds work as an undertaker in a small rural city. His wife is horrified and leaves him, but he sticks with the job as he gradually realises how much his ministrations help the living. Eventually his wife returns and when his own father dies she understands the dignity of his profession. A must-see film which won an Oscar for best foreign film in 2009. 


The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Director David Lean uses a huge canvas to paint a picture of heroism, leadership, obstinate devotion to duty and the futility of war. In 1957 it scooped the Oscars. A stern British officer maintains the morale of his men in a hellish prisoner of war camp by building a bridge for his Japanese foes. But British commandos blow it up at his moment of triumph. Unlike most war movies, its focus is character, not action. The final words are uttered by a British medic: "Madness!... Madness!"


... et finalmente, La Grande Weepie de tous le temps

Une aussi longue absence (The Long Absence) 1961
This marvellous film directed by Henri Colpi won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1960. A hobo in post-war France takes up residence under a bridge in a small town. The proprietress of a café begins to suspect that he might be her husband who disappeared in the war. Perhaps he has amnesia... The man is shy, nervous, and hardly speaks, but she tempts him into the café and they dance as their favourite song plays on the gramophone. And then? Well, I told you, it’s a very sad ending. (Sorry, this is rather self-indulgent as a copy is very hard to get. But see it if you can.)

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

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