Nietzsche at the Movies


Nietzsche often gets used in popular culture as a kind of shorthand for dark mysterious anger and brooding solipsistic intellect. I take this to be a serious misunderstanding of this fundamentally life-affirming philosophy. Nietzsche’s work was infamously first misappropriated by the Nazis (with the guidance of N’s conniving sister). The Nazi’s misreading of N’s concept of the superman helped gird a genocidal machine with the false semblance of ‘philosophical’ armor.

This weekend the wife and I saw and thoroughly enjoyed Little Miss Sunshine (this is not to be confused with the Roger Hargreaves epic from the Mr. Men and Little Miss series)


 This movie depicts the bizarre odyssey of the dysfunctional Hoovers as they try to get little Olive Hoover (charmingly acted by Abigail Breslin) to the “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant all the way in California.

 Olive’s angry, intense teenage brother Dwayne has not spoken for over 9 months. He communicates only through sullen glares and written notes (sample — “I hate everyone!”)

Dwayne is inseparable from his battered copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. He also has a huge banner with an imagistic drawing of Nietzsche (with a powerful mustache) hanging on his wall. A strange moment occurs when suicidal Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) looks at the banner and nonchalantly avers: “Nietzsche, huh?” Frank later claims to be America’s pre-eminent Proust scholar.

I haven’t read Proust.

I liked the movie a lot, and of course I love literary references. But Nietzsche is my favorite philosopher and I hate to see him misrepresented as a humbug or a misanthrope or a miscreant of any sort. Nietzsche wanted people to think for themselves and avoid the static slavery of indoctrination (“the herd”). In this sense, N’s ideas do inform Little Miss Sunshine‘s heroes, the bizarre, nonconformist Hoovers. But N’s work also warns against easy symbols and singular readings, while stressing the importance of embracing life. Nietzsche’s writing is not the mute echo of anger and resentment and hate; Nietzsche’s wiritng is the booming voice of joy and movement and life. And maybe sunshine.

nietzsche courtesy munch

10 thoughts on “Nietzsche at the Movies”

  1. n’s shine is nearly blinding. he wants you to stare ’til the muscle spasms begin, the character armor breaks, you start seeing fibonacci’s spiral and bright pink phosphoenix everywhere, suddenly everybody chatting in timeless epigrams.

    one needn’t attempt the intensity with which that arachno-leonine prophet took his liberatory project. “caution, not wisdom. in doses.”

    joyous, Yes…frolicking…


  2. I think the goal of including Nietzsche as the idol of a teen-angstish kid is commenting ON the very fact you’re trying to prove. Nietzsche is often misunderstood as a pessimist or a nihilist or any number of negative connotations. But I think to include him as Dwayne’s idol is trying to poke fun at the teenagers who read Nietzsche in their period of angst and don’t pick up on his life affirming philosophy. They basically pick up one of Nietzsche’s works and interpret it to support their own “rebellious” agenda. So I think Sunshine is making fun of the fact that Nietzsche is misinterpreted rather than misinterpreting him themselves.


  3. I actually watched the movie again last weekend, and I see your point, Stephen.
    Dwayne misreads Nietzsche in a big way: he denies fun, he denies life. By the end of the movie, he’s cured of his gloom; however Nietzsche really never works into any of this. I agree with you that the movie might be making fun of misreadings of Nietzsche; the structure of the movie, however, only helps to reinforce (very public) misconceptions about Nietzsche. It relies on the audience to “get” Nietzsche in order to get the level of satire to which you’re referring–but at the same time if the audience doesn’t “get” it on that level, they will “get” (misread) that Nietzsche is a dark, brooding, angry guy. That is, while aiming for smart satire, the film reinforces a stereotypical misreading of Nietzsche by not shedding any light on his actual writings: he’s presented as a commodity equal to angst.


    1. On the contrary, Nietzsche was a dark, brooding angry guy. Like Dwayne quoted, he hated everyone – and could not understand the reason or origins of optimism. It wasn’t until Nietzsche’s reoccurring illness, thought to be described as syphilis, did Nietzsche start re-thinking for himself, and not by means of others, and moving toward a point of transcendentalism. You see Dwayne’s realization from “gloomy” to “joyful” when he speaks with Frank up on the peer explaining to Dwayne that without the most tragic moments in life are the best because that’s when we really can appreciate how to live joyfully. The film is not satirical of Nietzsche; it basically takes the audience on a journey through Nietzsche’s transforming philosophy.


  4. “Nietzsche wanted people to think for themselves and avoid the static slavery of indoctrination (”the herd”). ”

    No, Nietzsche didn’t want “people” to think for themselves and avoid the herd. People are the herd, and most can’t stand to breathe the high air of the mountains where one sees that everything is perspective and there is no “there” there, only an abyss. Only a very few, the truly free spirits can stomach the “truth”. In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche says in part II that the best base souls can hope for is cynicism. Dwayne may fit this category. Still in the herd, but Nietzsche would perhaps give him credit for being sick to his stomach there.

    Other than that, I agree with your point. Nietzsche knew himself that he would be misunderstood (Ecce Homo in particular cries out, “Do not misunderstand me!”).


  5. What i have yet to misunderstand is.. how could one possibly misinturpret N’s intent through his writing as portrayed in “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. Could someone explain to me how one could be reluctant to not reckognize what appears to be the sense of wisdom through godlessness and acceptance of existence through its infinite nature that Nietzsche seems to be promoting throughout the novel ???? I just don’t see how he may be seen to be nihilistic throughought the book (maybe because i have barely read the book thus, but i am still curious).


  6. Dwayne’s family assumed his oath of silence was some sort of self-discipline tactic to help him reach his goal of becoming a test pilot. But that’s not the real reason..

    When you climb a mountain and take its magesty and splendor to heart, and spend some time there, you are liable to think very differently about those people you left in the valley, no?

    Nietzsche paints such an inspiring, heroic picture of what a person can be, SHOULD be, that it is not surprising Dwayne should feel such dissappointment and contempt at his family and the world in genereal, especially since he is an angry youth: “You’re not my family; I ####ing HATE you people! Are you kidding me?! Divorce?! Suicide?! Bankruptcy?!” These are the very human, all to human failures Dwayne has been reading about, looking down apon from aloft.

    ..Why would someone take a vow of silence because of Nietzsche? Answere: Contempt with a capital C. What was Nietzsche’s alternative? The Overman, the Overlife. But what Dwayne had to learn way that…well, maybe–probably– nay, definitely–we have to learn to live for something less than Uber if we are to bear the world, bear our families, and bear ourselves.

    Dwayne’s dad had to learn these things, too. Infact, when his book got shot down, as sad as it makes me to say it, Nietzsche’s Overman died, too (note things he had told his daughter about weak people and why she shouldn’t eat ice cream).


    1. “These are the very human, all to human failures.” – ;) well said… and most people wouldn’t have gotten this if they had not read up on Nietzsche themselves.


  7. Maybe we shouldn’t make too much out of the allusion from the from the film to Nietzsche. But since we are playing around with interpretations, here is my take.
    seems to me that there are three main points to keep in mind when reading Nietzsche.
    1. His a naturalist
    2. History: Everything about us human beings, culture/biology are all deeply historical, this is a fundamental method for him (genealogy of morals) Presupposes that our history are the source of our current concepts. Ex. Morality
    3. Personal experience: “what matters to me” can only be answered in a personal way or the alternative that there is no answer to the question. Any answer has to be from one’s self experience. Precursor to existentialism?

    SO… Dwayne’s attitude at the end of the film seems to me can be interpreted in two ways.
    1. He has become “uberman”, one who lives according to his own values that doesn’t contradict his naturalist/biological self.
    2. He has become someone that seems to find value in human connection, some what of a critique on Nietzsche. That it is impossible to extricate oneself from the established values that one is born into. BUt it was done from self experience….hmmm

    Anyways, I would refrain from passing a value judgment on Dwayne in order to affirm my own.


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