Filmmaker Jeffrey von Davis has been booed and insulted for his documentary “Only a God Can Save Us.” He has been accused of cherry-picking from history and misrepresenting Martin Heidegger, widely considered one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. Frequently, members of his audiences have walked out.
Still, every seat in GDH 103 was taken on April 5 when Davis visited Knox for a showing of his film, which explores reasons that may have led Heidegger to join the Nazi party, and a post-film discussion.
“The film is not like other films,” Davis told the audience. “It forces you to read and to think.”
Such was apparent from the very beginning of the film, which opened with a long text by German writer Heinrich Heine. The rest of the film consisted primarily of interviews with Heidegger experts and acquaintances, all trying to get at what drew Heidegger to fascism.
“I started out as a Heidegger man. Then I found out he was a Nazi, and I was trying to reconcile this,” Davis said. “I had this idea that he was a moral philosopher, and he wasn’t at all.”
Heidegger’s most famous work, “Sein und Zeit (Being and Time),” addresses what he called the “essential” philosophical questions, which he felt had been ignored by contemporary philosophers. His primary concern was with the notion of being and the meaning of being, and he arrived at the conclusion that the need to be responsible for one’s own being was crucial—a core tenant of the philosophical school of existentialism.
“The issue with Heidegger seems to be that he was such a great philosopher, so let’s not stain his name,” Davis said.
“There seemed to be this idea that, ‘I erred big, but I think big and have a big mind, so it’s okay,’” one Heidegger expert said in the film.
Heidegger’s later works expand the notion of being to include notions of language and heroism, echoing Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch, or superior being; Heidegger’s hero would reunite society with its roots. The film’s title comes from a 1966 interview with Heidegger in which he alludes to the persistent need for such a hero. Some scholars have suggested that Heidegger viewed Adolf Hitler as a potential hero.
What was puzzling to freshman Sterling Kowalski, however, was how Heidegger was able to have good relationships with Jewish students and extramarital affairs with Jewish women while still supporting the Nazis.
“The core part of existentialism is that you are your actions,” Davis said. “This breaks down in [Heidegger’s] personal and political life.”
Still, Davis noted that Hannah Arendt, a Jew who became Heidegger’s lover at the age of 18, helped Heidegger after World War II precisely because his philosophy was so important. Scholars Davis interviewed added that Heidegger had a charm that partially arose from his fame and resulting sense of self-importance.
After serving as rector at the University of Freiburg during the Nazi period, Heidegger surprisingly faced few consequences for his Nazism, many people preferring to believe he had gone along with Nazism to save his own skin. For Davis, this explanation is too simplistic.
“I’m trying to pick out things in Heidegger’s writings that led him to support the Nazi movement,” he said of his idea behind making the film.
Given the complexity of Heidegger’s writings and the vast array of viewpoints on his Nazism, “Only a God Can Save Us” is more like a research paper than a cinematic marvel, something freshman Christopher Poore pointed out and Davis acknowledged.
“For film students, this is a horrible film. It’s basically talking heads,” Davis said. “For me, what was interesting were the ideas.”
Senior Brittany Amendolia noted that the film’s structure seemed much like Davis’ own experience with Heidegger, beginning with idealized, romantic shots of the German countryside, representing Davis’ initial fascination. As the film progresses, criticism of Heidegger abounds, and the film ends with one of Heidegger’s lovers poking fun at him, shattering the image of a dignified, moral philosopher.
“Wow! I never really thought about it like that,” Davis said in response to Amendolia’s analysis.
In the end, Davis told the audience that his film had failed to accomplish its goal of shedding light on and applying reason to on Heidegger’s Nazism.
“Just about everybody…gives a different interpretation of Heidegger,” Davis said. “I subscribe to the view…that a film is never completed. It is only abandoned.”