Überman’s Best Friend

Foxcatcher, 2014, Bennett Miller 

“You ungrateful ape!”

Where do you go when you are already a champion? When you have scaled the summits of human endurance and summoned everything you have to give? Beyond your own human limits? Such was Friedrich Nietzsche’s conundrum when attempting to find purpose.

It is a fundamental part of our human nature to strive to better ourselves, and to set an example for those in our wake. But for the two main protagonists of Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, the way to achieve this is unclear.

Foxcatcher relays the true story of the intense and at times disturbing relationship between Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and the millionaire “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist” who becomes his mentor, John Du Pont (Steve Carell).

At its core, the story is one of attempting to find oneself without guidance.

Schultz is caught between his jealousy for the success of his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) and the still resonant loss of his parents as a child. Meanwhile, Du Pont is trying to live up to his illustrious family name and earn the respect of his stern mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave).


Channing Tatum, left, and Steve Carell in the film

A similar search for identity is found in Nietzsche’s iconic philoso-novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Cast adrift by the death of God, Zarathustra attempts to find a new purpose for humanity, free from the constrictive edicts of religion, eventually settling on the goal of becoming “Übermensch” (variously translated as “overman”, “superman” or “beyond man”).

The Übermensch is a newly evolved superior human that provides a hero figure for all of humanity. A noble, virtuous ideal to show us the way. In short, the Olympic hero that Schultz aspires to be in Foxcatcher.

Schultz, and to some extent Du Pont, have always lived in the shadow of others, doing what is expected of them and constantly coming out second-best.

Schultz’s meeting with Du Pont gives him a way out. A chance to be looked upon not as a lowly animal, but to transcend his own humanity and provide an ideal for future generations. However, in Du Pont he does not find a stepladder to greater things, but a master to obey.

There are frequent and powerful allusions to Du Pont treating Schultz like a pet, a faithful and innocent gun-dog to provide friendship, warmth, and occasionally, something on which to release his anger.

During a marvellous seen when Schultz excitedly introduces his new father figure to his brother, instead of allowing him to bound back out of the room with him, Du Pont commands him to “stay”. In this simple utterance, Du Pont draws the line in the sand between his world and Schultz’s.

Du Pont is the master, Schultz is the lap-dog. And if the Nietzschean Übermensch is about transcending our humanity – which means rising above our base animal instincts – then Schultz is surely barking up the wrong tree (sorry).

Carell as John du Pont

Carell as multi-millionaire John Du Pont

In fact, a more interesting attempt to become “man beyond man” comes in Du Pont’s own journey from desperate and dependent child to amoral lord of liberty. The shocking and unnerving climax to the film, when [SPOILER ALERT] Du Pont shoots down one of the main characters, marks perhaps the only point when anyone in the film becomes in any way close to Übermensch.

Some scholars, including Rüdiger Safranski, see the Übermensch as an aristocrat who has moved beyond the egalitarian norms of the middle classes to realise his own personal immunity to law. He is superior to the lowly masses, absolved of all moral responsibility, and so can kill as he pleases.

Perhaps Du Pont achieves what all of us are supposedly aiming for in an individualist society: complete freedom from reliance on others. Although it seems more evident from the film that reliance on others is key to what gives us purpose.

Dave Schultz (Mark’s brother) is portrayed as a dedicated family man, and is the only person in the film who genuinely seems happy. Whether our purpose is found through aspiring to greatness or being grateful for what we have, we can’t do it alone. Everyone needs someone.

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