The first few scenes of my screenplay concerning the German philosopher who wrote Beyond Good and Evil, The Antichrist, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, to name a few titles.
PRELUDE TO ACT I LOHENGRIN
EXT. BASEL UNIV. 1870 - COURTYARD - DAY
We see FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE from overhead, walking briskly away from us. He hurries over the old flagstone court straight for a lecture hall. No one else is in sight.
INT. BASEL UNIV. HALLWAY
Nietzsche makes his way to class beneath statues of gargoyles, a lion’s head, and a rearing horse. Hold a few beats on the horse.
The philosophy of wild and naked nature beholds with the frank, undissembling gaze of truth the myths of the Homeric world as they dance past.
MOVING SHOT behind the heads of eight students at eye level from stage left to right. Students listen seriously and take notes. A pair of students exchange impressed glances.
NEW ANGLE from Nietzsche’s right. Nietzsche is myopic. Although he is in his late twenties and physically vigorous, he somehow seems older than his years. He reads from a draft of his work. He is performing an act of oration at a lectern, testing his material against a fully engaged audience.
They turn pale, they tremble under Demeter’s piercing glance—
till the powerful fist of the Dionysian artist forces them into the service of the new deity.
The students are impressed by the forcefulness and eccentricity of the popular young professor. MOVING SHOT behind Nietzsche from his right to left.
Dionysian truth takes over the entire domain of myth as the symbolism of its knowledge. This it makes known partly in the public cult of tragedy and partly in the secret celebration of the dramatic mysteries, but always in the old mythical garb. What power was it that freed Prometheus from his vultures and transformed the myth into a vehicle of Dionysian wisdom?...
CLOSE SHOT on Nietzsche’s face.
INT. TRIBSCHEN STUDIO – ANOTHER DAY
...It is the Heraclean power of music.
CLOSE SHOT left profile of Wagner’s WOTAN, a bearded baritone in costume BELLOWING a note.
MOVING BACK, we see Wotan’s fist raised in a gesture similar to Nietzsche’s.
No! No! No!
WAGNER steps into frame, script in hand, and exaggerates Wotan’s pose. He is a small man in his mid-fifties somewhat elaborately dressed with a wide forehead and sideburns extending under his jawline. Nietzsche, seated, watches in the background.
Wotan repositions. Wagner turns on his heel and throws the script onto a chair with a theatrical flourish.
(without looking at Wotan)
EXT. TRIBSCHEN GARDEN
We hear OPERATIC SINGING from a distance.
NIETZSCHE and WAGNER walk slowly from stage left to right on a path. Nietzsche is very proper and has an almost uncomfortably chivalric bearing. Wagner is lively. Otherworldly, lacy white garlands hang in the frame. We hear the idyllic SOUNDS of nature around them.
What irritates me most is that I’m forced to play roles, and I despise falseness. I hate that at every moment I have to prove myself. I am constantly disappointed in myself and jealous of the world.
But, you’ve almost got it, my friend! Do you realize how close you are?
Well, one afternoon with the Master, and I feel like I can conquer the world.
What’s stopping you? When I was your age, I was already a wanted man in half of Europe.
You’d only written three of the greatest operas put to pen.
Wagner claps a hand to Nietzsche’s shoulder.
I learn a great deal from our little walks, young man.
If I learned a little more myself, I might one day rise from the trough of the false prophets.
The problem of your esteemed peers is that they have not earned the right to propound on genius. Our German geniuses have died away, leaving only self-important mediocrity. Our much praised composers, for example, have turned to corrupt middle-class sentiment. Theirs is the low road. We have no Beethovens! Yet, I see in you, my friend, the flower of the appreciation of beauty.
Wagner takes hold of a flower and wrests it rather violently from a branch.
True genius cannot help but hold beauty as the dearest guiding principle. Let music conduct you in all areas of endeavor, and you cannot fail. That I promise you.
If music will conduct my life, then it will be because you conduct the music.
Nietzsche and Wagner sit. The light is filtered softly through leaves.
I have in mind certain thoughts on the gods–my next work, the scale grandly conceived.
(gesturing toward the singing)
This Wotan is useless, but I’ll find another. Someone unknown. The end of the gods will occur in a great battle. They will leave the sphere of men in a fiery apocalypse. They know the end is going to come, and they live their lives anyway. The hero, Siegfried, necessarily dies, and we will mourn him with sad ceremony. The dwarves, of course, control the gold–those Jews!
Nietzsche smiles stiffly but before he is forced to respond, from among the vines and garlands rife upon the tended trail, COSIMA makes an airy appearance. She is mature, aristocratic, angular, and slightly defensive. Next to Wagner, she seems taller than she is.
Lunch is served.
(to Nietzsche, graciously but without warmth)
I understand you are enjoying your teaching?
(standing and clapping Nietzsche on the back)
Our Nietzsche will go on to great things.
(with a slight bow)
I am unreservedly grateful.
(nodding to Cosima)
Cosima returns the nod and turns to lead them toward the house. Nietzsche’s eyes follow her.
Wagner catches Nietzsche’s attention and makes a crude, possessive gesture about Cosima behind her back. Nietzsche smiles slightly and swallows uncomfortably. A leaf drifts down and rests on Nietzsche’s back. We hear the sudden, discordant CHATTERING OF BIRDS.
INT. NIETZSCHE’S ROOM, NIETZSCHE AND OVERBECK’S FLAT – THAT NIGHT
CHATTERING OF BIRDS FADES.
A white nightshirt flutters gently as it is draped over a chair.
NEW ANGLE. The room also contains a closet, a bed, and a bowl and ewer on a chest of drawers in front of a mirror. Nietzsche sits on the bed, loosens his tie, and pulls off his shoes. FRANZ OVERBECK leans against the doorframe, a rag and a pair of shoes in his hands. He is clean-shaven and dark-haired, an intelligent, sober presence.
And how was the Master today?
(almost to himself)
Amazing. Such grandeur. And the music.
Nietzsche lets himself fall backwards on the bed with arms outstretched.
Have you got any boot blacking?
Without looking or speaking, Nietzsche points to the closet. Overbeck moves to retrieve the small jar.
I could give a damn for philology!
That sounds like blasphemy, my son.
Overbeck sits on the nightshirt on the chair and proceeds to black his shoes.
He is a tonic, a stimulant! I am enraptured. All of my senses come alive. The entire atmosphere is utterly conducive to. . . And his home. . .And his wife. More than charming. Incomparable.
Nietzsche sits up abruptly.
Yes, I shall take you there.
Overbeck looks up.
It’s all been arranged. You will be as astounded as I was on my first meeting with the Master.
INT. NIETZSCHE’S PREVIOUS FLAT 1868 – EVENING
A distant RINGING. Nietzsche reads at a desk lit by a lamp in a corner of his room by an unshaded window. The day outside is gray with a dense rain falling. As the ringing continues, Nietzsche raises his head and returns to reading several times before realizing the bell might be for him.
EXT. NIETZSCHE’S SECOND-STORY FLAT FROM THE STREET
With the light behind him, Nietzsche unlatches the window and pushes it open.
Up here! Come in!
EXT. GATE, NIETZSCHE’S BUILDING
A little old TAILOR’S MAN with a wrapped package continues to RING the bell.
INT. NIETZSCHE’S FLAT
VARIOUS ANGLES. A clock in the background reads 6:30. Nietzsche stands at a mirror in a new evening suit examining the fit. The tailor’s man waits behind him.
Nietzsche stands in his shirttails with the new suit over his arm as the tailor’s man presents the bill.
I’m to be paid upon delivery.
I deal only with your employer. Good evening.
I’m to be paid upon delivery.
The tailor’s man grabs for the clothing. Nietzsche attempts to pull it away, and they engage in a surreal, slow motion tug of war. Nietzsche begins trying to force a leg into the pants.
Nietzsche lets go and assumes a dignified posture.
All right then. I assure you, your employer will hear of this.
After the tailor’s man has departed, Nietzsche sits on the sofa without pants examining a black jacket. He tosses it aside with frustration.
EXT. LEIPZIG STREET – SAME EVENING
The night is windy and wet. Nietzsche, wearing the black jacket, pulls his collar up with a jerk.
EXT. BROCKHAUS (WAGNER’S SISTER’S) RESIDENCE
The rain has stopped. Everything is wet and glistening in lamplight. Nietzsche prepares to mount the steps to the ornate front door when the door seems to open of its own accord.
NIETZSCHE’S POV. MOVING UPWARD. We hear TRISTAN AND ISOLDE, and we see wrought iron railings on either side of the steps as we move up into the halcyon light cast from the doorway. Inside, we see dim figures carrying drinks and engaging in conversation passing across the entryway. Beyond, in bright light, Wagner turns toward us and stands beaming. His appearance is at once both comical and imposing; his attire is eccentric, but his demeanor, with his jutting jaw and clear eyes, is proud and confident.
INT. NIETZSCHE’S ROOM – RETURN TO PRESENT
Overbeck pauses in blacking his shoes.
The man has mesmerized you.
Nietzsche stands, moves to chest of drawers, and removes his necktie. We see his reflection in the mirror.
He’s like a father to me.
Your father was a minister, wasn’t he?
He’s expecting guests on Saturday.
EXT. CARRIAGE ENROUTE TO TRIBSCHEN SATURDAY – DUSK
VARIOUS ANGLES. We hear the opening strains of DAS RHEINGOLD. A carriage moves in the distance, passing through the dusklit Swiss countryside.
EXT. LAKE LUCERNE
The carriage stops at misty Lake Lucerne. The sun has descended behind snow-capped peaks wreathed in clouds, a few remaining rays streaking the sky.
A rowboat crosses the lake. Through the mist, an island appears. On the island stands a box-like villa, from the many windows of which candlelight shines. DAS RHEINGOLD ends before the water nixies break into song.
INT. DRAWING ROOM, TRIBSCHEN
Candle- and lamplight plays over couches and chairs, books, manuscripts, engravings, busts, potted palms, damasked walls, Lembach paintings, and figurines of characters from Wagner’s operas, including on the mantel a statuette of the character Siegfried raising a knife. There is a fire on the hearth and also butterfly cases with their delicate contents pinned to cloth backing.
Wagner stands at the hearth, raising a glass with his small son SIEGFRIED clinging to his leg. Siegfried’s posture replicates almost geometrically that of the Siegfried statue. Nietzsche and Overbeck stand next to Cosima. Several other guests are arranged around the room. Servants stand near doorways and unobtrusively attend to guest needs.
To my friends the professors!
The group ECHOES the toast. SIEGFRIED’S NURSE attempts to peel the child off Wagner’s leg. The boy CRIES, and Wagner pats him on the head without looking at him.
(to Siegfried’s nurse)
You have to be firm.
Siegfried’s nurse pulls the child away, and Wagner turns to the statue of his character Siegfried on the mantel.
We are only too happy to learn from you.
How familiar is Herr Professor Overbeck with the grand project? You know my first two operas. Alberich forges the magic ring from the stolen Rheingold. He loses it to the brother giants. One kills the other, keeps the ring, and becomes the dragon. Now, Siegfried is raised in the forest by Alberich’s brother Mime who schemes to hammer Siegfried into the sword that takes back the ring. Mime imagines he will then kill Siegfried and keep the magic power of the ring for himself.
Suddenly, he contorts himself grotesquely, hobbling about back and forth in front of the fire.
You see, of course, they’re the Jews!
We see Wagner’s total absorption for a few beats, and we hear an exaggerated SOUND of fire consuming wood. We hear an OMINOUS STRAIN from Wagner’s opera.
We have to raise German art from the depths back to its former greatness, the high art of Goethe and Beethoven!
His audience appears enraptured, almost swept up in his diatribe.
CLOSE ANGLE. Nietzsche’s face . . .
I include here extensive notes on the remaining scenes of the 30 in my screenplay.
Nietzsche plays piano for Cosima (NOTE: For the sake of dramatic narrative, and in keeping with Nietzsche's life right up to the time of his last written words, OVERMAN pursues possible if not plausible romantic tension between Nietzsche and Cosima Wagner.)
5. Discipleship to Wagner- Cut to N alone with W, on a stage; W is sloshed; we see that N drinks as minimally as politely possible; W talks about conquests--repulses N inwardly on this point; we doubt W’s sincerity; we see he is a posturing flamboyant blowhard; we see hints of a one-sided friendship.
6. Rejection of Cosima- That evening we see W all tuckered out; N and C are in the parlor; N is at the piano; C touches him provocatively, perhaps gently petting his head (she knows, perhaps, of his migraines), but gets no reaction; true-blue N, chivalric, scared, plays something Liszt and ignores the invitation; C says nothing, but coldly leaves, hurt, embarrassed.
7. Errand-Boy- Cut to N hurriedly running errands for the W’s, per C’s request, before and after classes--Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” here--in a frenetic, stylized sequence. We hear in V.O. C reading her lists, spilling over each other, cutting each other off--”would you mind getting us a” and “so good of you to”--and included is concern for N’s growing health problems. N takes on Chaplin-esque physical comedy movements in this frenetic sequence. Finally we see him exhausted in his tiny Basel office faced with a daunting stack of work.
8. Headaches- We open on N, still in his office surrounded by work; we can see by his clothes and the difference in the paperwork around him that it is another day. N is suffering from terrible migraines. He gets a letter from his sister. She and her hubby are doing splendidly in Nueva Germania--CUT to the Forsters sweating in tight garb in the South American heat with an oppressive drone of insects buzzing--close-up on each- -“We are happy in our splendid work” of anti-Semitism, racist doctrine, etc. N, wracked with headaches, pukes.
9. Franco-Prussian War- (We hear a knock on a door.) Close-up on Siegfried’s tin soldiers; we see a child’s hand, huge in the foreground, place a tin soldier on horseback in the “field”; a door opens and N appears in the background; W and C want to dissuade N from his already having enlisted as a medical orderly (as a Swiss citizen); we suspect there is a certain amount of games-playing; we suspect W dissuades out of jealousy--W and his Norse battle-gods lose face; C complies because she knows on what side her bread is buttered and because she is a woman scorned; at the same time, we supect N’s pure motives--but none of this is said. W and C remind in V.O. flashback of N’s previous military service ending due to a riding accident: CUT to rearing horse, N being thrown; (we hear a sound like an unearthly horse whinnying--it is the piercing whistle of a train); CUT to N at train station; N is surrounded by vulgar masses saying goodbyes, etc. ZOOM IN slowly on soldier in railcar window--bearded, haggard, yet hard, grim, a one-eyed man; cut to N looking up, slightly awestruck; cut back to one-eyed man; zoom in slowly on empty socket as we overlap the fade out of this scene with the fade in of the next...
10. On the Battlefield- Fading in: outstretched limbs of men and horses; we pan slowly across the battlefield to “Moonlight Sonata”; after approx. two minutes of this, we cut to N with orderlies, soldiers and, presumably, prostitutes; these five women look very much like London’s East End Victorian prostitutes; it is not said yet we suspect that N has, at some point in his life, visited a brothel before, and that the experience may have in some way left him wounded; we hear in V.O. that W and C have gotten married while N was away--a battle lost for N, if not the war; pan across another battlefield, perhaps as N leaves on train, wracked with pain--dysentery, etc.; carnage of battlefield with smoke and dying fires.
11. X-mas- Cut to W’s X-mas candlelit banquet, 1871; X-mas, we learn, is also C’s b-day; N’s seat is empty; he has been back from the war for over a year, health shattered; with low camera angle from the table we see a wreath hanging on the wall looks like a crown of thorns on missing N; N has posted C an early copy of “B of T”; C is critical, dismissive; we see that W has no idea C is prompted to criticize having been scorned by N; W is glad to upstage N with his “gift” to C of a musical dedication; we suspect we are seeing a certain amount of prostitution at the this festival of self-promotion...
N is too busy to come for C’s birthday. As a gift, Nietzsche sent Cosima five drafts of prefaces to five unwritten books like a choice cherry. Wagner reads them aloud, and the group doesn’t understand them. They think he’s getting too big for his britches.
Cosima sends N a letter indicating N’s absence had pained Wagner and critiqued his five prefaces.
Students are not showing up to his classes.
12. Rejection by Cosima- N gets cold reception from C; his health is still poor; we sense C gets the “upper hand”; N is consoled by Elisabeth, who, despite not having read anything of N’s, defends her big brother the genius, showing us how E could play an important part in N’s life in spite of herself.
13. “Birth of Tragedy” Adversity- We see N with W laying foundation cornerstone at Bayreuth; hammer hits spike like nail in coffin. A small casket is placed alongside the stone. The casket contains a telegraph from King Ludwig: “This day which is so significant for all of Germany.” Wagner hammers three times: “”;
Bless you, my stone, long may you stand and firmly hold!
Cut to N no longer being appreciated by his students; there is a bad reaction against “B of T” promoted by jealous rivals; Pamphlets against BofT and open letters in newspapers. Wagner does an open letter in defense of Nietzsche and attacking attacker. Irwin Rohde supports N.
Crazy, hideous woman claims to be Dionysus and loves BofT. Nietzsche recounts incident to Wagner.
N has a dream at the end of the scene where Michelangelo’s Bacchus gets beheaded (the invisible sword-stroke on the marble sounding like the hammer on the cornerstone spike), blood fountaining from the upheld marble wine cup as though it were a severed neck; the little satyr or faun giggles and kicks its cloven marble hoof--
14. Seeing Wagner Clearly- Smash cut to little Siegfried running to W’s side with outstretched arms; it is clear that W has not bothered to read “B of T”; W shows no interest in N’s problems, only interested in N’s praise of him–he doesn’t know N at all; he wants N to resume his old idolatry of him by following him to Bayreuth--where the W’s are in fact now moving...
15. Ill-Health: On Leave- Nietzsche goes on month-long “cure” in Geneva; helping Wagner found Bayreuth is, strangely, one reason for the leave-taking; he meets Mathilde Trampedach and hastily proposes marriage--making a fool of himself...
16. Composing- N overcomes this with music, and writing: we hear “Toccata and Fugue”; N’s pen rises and falls like a conductor’s baton; his hands fly over pages super-induced over the hands of the Bach-playing organist fluidly, perhaps opium-induced; images of his writing rise and fall behind him (N is seated at his desk, seen from the front, low angle) in accordance with the musical notes; at the key break three or so minutes into “Toccata” we switch to outdoor scenes of N hiking moving among more images of his writing which flit about in time with the music; doors in trees open and shut like cuckoo clocks and the doors on pipe organs; the forest is playing the music; when the tree-doors open, we see flashing glimpses of N’s creations, his as-yet-unformulated, all-too-unformulated, concepts (prior to 1878)...
17. Break with Wagner- N attends first Bayreuth Festival “Ring” performance; he is sickened by the rampant racism and jingoism of the vulgar mob; he is despondent at what he knows is the loss of his friend, despondent at realizing that his friend was really a dream all along, that W’s true self was a racist opportunist; much opportunity for music used in conjunction with stage shots and observers.
18. Ill-Health: Resigns- N so sick that he is forced to resign; E supervises breakup of N’s house, things, takes N back to Naumburg and Mother; he then “experiences moments of visionary bliss during which he is overwhelmed by such profound insights into the riddle of life that he wept with joy.”
19. The Wanderer and His Shadow- V.O. of N’s letters to Overbeck: we see N traveling alone; summer in St. Moritz, winter in Genoa, spring in Genoa, summer in Sils Maria, fall in Genoa, winter in Genoa, spring in Messina; N mentions E’s and Mother’s coldness and distancing as Christian fallout (“And they haven’t read a word”); N has met Paul Ree, and recounts E’s reaction on learning Ree was Jewish; we see N traveling by train, in the right cities for him in the right seasons; we see N juxtaposed against passengers with close-knit family ties, loved ones, jobs, roots; we see N eating alone, observing, maintaining the bearing of a regal military prince traveling incognito...
20. Meets Lou Salome- Ree introduces Lou Salome to N; she is exactly what he is looking for--N seems to fail to understand, or not care, that Ree needs someone to “chaperone” the two of them; Lou, intoxicating, Artemis-like, must be had but cannot be had (she is twenty-one now and remains a virgin until she is thirty-six); images of horses spin by them on a carousel at a carnival; they see a tightrope walker, an elephant, a leopard; elsewhere together beer hall music abounds; N gets E to spend summer (as a “chaperone” of his own) with Lou and N in Toutenburg together; N spends fall alone in Leipzig, Rapallo in Nov.
21. Death of Wagner- March and April in Genoa, May Rome, summer Sils Maria; N hears that W has died; we hear “Ride of the Valkyries” as if from a distance, muted, faded; N recalls in flashback his and W’s final meeting in Sorrento, fall of 1876; we see N on a hike in Sils Maria that leads to his idead of Eternal Recurrence.
Nietzsche encounters bust of Wagner at train station
22. Rejection by Salome- N has come on too strong for Lou; she dumps him for Ree.
23. Birth of Zarathustra- We see N alone on hike in mountains, hear his Zarathustrian thoughts in V.O.; we see N bathing naked in a high mountain waterfall, sluicing himself; then there is silence, stillness; the intro to Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” begins as the camera pans closely on the body of water over which it is swiftly moving; as the music grows, the view widens, all in a continuous unbroken shot, and we speed over mountains arrowstraight higher and higher, till the musical intro ends at the highest peak in sight.
24. Moves to Turin- Five years have passed; it is now 1888, N’s fatal year, effectively; he has acknowledged his need for support from his sister and mother, yet they alienate him; he has left Sils Maria to winter in Nizza, summer again in Sils, winter in Nizza, summer in Sils, winter in Nizza, summer in Sils, winter in Nizza (1887 now); then in April he moves to Turin (still somewhat petty and misogynistic, smarting from the scars left by Lou; he enters the city in typical eccentric fashion, to the land of Bizet--we hear a snippet of “Habanera”); then it’s summer in Sils one last time; by fall he moves to Turin.
25. Beginning of Fame- At the Univ of Copenhagen Georg Brandes lectures on N; cut from classroom to V.O. on N in Turin, lying down with a cold cloth on his face looking like the Shroud of Turin--we hear Handel’s “Messiah”; still in V.O., we see N fumbling, stumbling, myopic, frugal, “high-maintenance,” somewhat creepy, unknown to N, to a woman and her daughters in a restaurant...
26. Dictation to Disciple- N delivers a lecture to foppish Koselitz, who gladly assumes slavish role for N due to N’s declining eyesight; N takes on W role, but improved.
27. Overbeck- We see Overbeck getting a letter from N, then having to defend him--we see that O is worried for N--the reactions against him, the boldness and outlandishness of his claims, his rootlessness, his bad health; somewhere, perhaps overheard in the background, we hear of Jack the Ripper...
28. Talking to the Horse- Close-up on N speaking; we hear various sounds--street sounds, marching bands, mutterings; the camera slowly pulls back to reveal he is talking closely to a mistreated horse with a carriage behind it; N seems oblivious to a gathering crowd; continuous shot, no cuts; when camera pulls to widest point, holds several seconds before cutting.
My wife Cosima brought me here.
29. Inside the Asylum- Overbeck arrives at the Finos to pick up N; the Fino children have looked through N’s keyhole and spied on him jumping about by himself naked in Dionysian rites; his medication is working well enough now that he recognizes O; on the train to Basel, though (O takes N to Jena Asylum) N is sings songs wearing the nightcap he asked for as a parting gift from David Fino--N the fool is Dionysus; inside the asylum, someone yells out that he’s Jack the Ripper; the camera travels down the winding halls to N; close-up on his face; from somewhere come the vicious sounds of snapping dogs; fade to long shot of N being taken by E back to Naumburg, where N stays, a virtual zombie, until his mother dies in 1897; E takes N to Weimar and sets up shop; she has control of all of his writing, and of him.
30. Display and Release- the year is 1900, sometime prior to August 25; E has done exactly what N feared: she has made him a prophet; she runs a business whereby tourists pay to see N propped in the white robes of a prophet; from N’s perspective, vacant, mindless Christs in robes carried on crosses by people visiting to see N on display are casually dragged; we hear E’s rehearsed lines, all lies, not a word true; close-up on N: as E’s racist lies fade away, muted, we hear to growing strains of the choral “Ode to Joy” sequence in the Ninth; close-up on N’s eyes; we see something there, as if there is a flash of cognizance; N throws off robe and jumps out window before E and tourists came make it in the room where he stands on display; N dashes naked across grassy field as music grows; as music climaxes, we see N has become Dionysus; Dionysian imagery abounds in a growing cornucopia that fills the screen with N as D at center, loosely resembling Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment”; image holds, but does not freeze; at climax of music fades to black.