The unfolding of the theme of self-sacrifice in Breaking the Waves
The Danish director Lars von Trier has been dealing with the theme of sacrifice, and self-sacrifice in particular, in number of films. The sacrificer not necessarily possesses an extreme personality, but is placed in an extreme situation. The extreme situation serves Trier as a mean to stretch moral ideas to their limit in order to examine their validity and to explore the depths of the human soul. In Dogville (2003), Grace sacrifices her freedom, for what seems to be until the last scene her life, but in the end, we know that it was for a moral ideal. Selma, in Dancer in The Dark (2000), makes a resolution to sacrifice her life for saving her son's eyesight. Bess, in Breaking the Waves (1996), sacrifices her life for the life of her lover. Since all films raises different complex moral, psychological and spiritual issues, each with its own context of the film's philosophy, I will focus only on one of them.
Some critics have interpreted breaking the Waves (1996) as a sheer attack on instituted Christianity. The sealed Scottish community indeed portrayed as unpleasant; Bess represents a melodramatic version of a common mental state of a believer (Bess says on herself "My gift is that I can believe"), and Trier percolates by her to the roots of Christianity. Bess resembles Jesus: she is discomfort with the church and has a personal dialogue with god, and is crucified.
The church dislikes strangers and believes in the word (The Jewish religion also does not welcome strangers easily and there were a cult "karaim" that until theses days lives only by the word of the bible). After a man talks in a kirk service about "the word" and "perfection" (of belief) Bess says, "You can't love the word, only one person." In that scene when she speaks where women are not allowed to speak but represents religious perfection, it is paradoxical that she who has just been banished is the only person that live their beliefs to perfection - fully practice "the word."
The difference between Bess and Jesus is that she is an admitted egocentric and her object is personal love. By acting against the norms of society she puts irrationality (physis) – "Love is a mighty power" (Jan, persuading Bess) in conflict with rationality (nomos) – "Sickness is a mighty power" (Dodo, relating to the sickness of Jan). God is blaming her for selfishness in wanting Jan to stay home - "thinking only of yourself." She is acting out of a feeling of guilt, trying to gain penance in the form of sacrifice. The paradox is that it is a relationship that based on egocentrically anyway - she aspires to be good to others in order to feel she is "a good girl," sinless, pure, to be "even" with god. There is a significant to the "benefit" of the sacrifice, as god asks "Whom do you want to save - yourself or Jan?"
The dialogue with god serves as her self-awareness. Since she plays the role of god, she can achieve forgiveness, only if she decides she is worthy of it. There is no external entity to hear her pleas, but it does not mean a reduction in punishment since she judges herself harshly than any god could. The dialogue in which god says "Maria Magdalena had sin and she is my beloved", shows her awareness to the permissiveness of her acts, and yet her will to forgive herself, for the sake of love.
There is tight equation logic beyond her sacrifice. This logic, as any logic, gives a sense of control, and immune us from chance. Bess can handle her extreme emotional state with the sense of control the act of sacrifice is giving her. The sacrifice makes sense in her world. Maybe she acts with no inhibition because she fights for her life - knowing she could not live a life with no meaning; the question of god to her "Whom do you want to save - yourself or Jan?" can be raised here also.
After Bess died, Dr. Richardson has to give a post mortem report. After the chairman read his report, saying "you described the diseased as an immature and unstable person, a person who due the trauma of her husband's illness, gave way in obsessive fashion, to an exaggerated and perverse form of sexuality", the doctor has a chance to change his mind and then he say she was "good", and the chairman of the committee says "On your medical opinion, the deceased was suffering from being good? Perhaps, this was psychological defect led to her death?" There is no way to see Bess as evil and the world as good. Since Bess is such an empathic character, we can understand that goodness is indeed a fault, in a world that lay on deceit and hypocrisy. When Bess married, the bell did not toll, because that church "do not need bells to worship God", but they do toll when she enter her doom, the ship. The film ends with a beautiful image of giant bells ringing, hanging in the skies, above a cathedral, as an alternative for instituted religion. Not only Lars von Trier does not reject spirituality but also he firmly embraces it, as the bells represent a pure sensual and metaphysical aesthetic form.