Retributional spectatorship: Schadenfreude as a response to narcissism

After the Dark (John Huddles, 2013, Russia) presents its characters as intellectually and morally superior to “an average person” throughout the film. Set in the imaginative narrative unfoldings within a philosophy class, the film establishes itself as working towards the discovery of a highly complex ethical truth. The premise of the film is exposed when a philosophy teacher sets to test the intellectual abilities of high school graduating students by assigning them the roles of various work professionals and placing them in imaginary apocalypse scenarios, where the students must come up with criteria of how to decide who should be granted a place in a bunker with limited resources and who is to die. Before they even start the task, a discussion on the importance of philosophy takes place, outlining the superiority of those studying the discipline in comparison to most people who are “waddling through their days stuffing cheese pops down their gullets;” the teacher concludes his monologue with telling his students, “fortunately, you are not most people.”

The actual thought experiments that follow are shockingly underwhelming and reach no illuminating conclusion, disappointing the film’s premise of enlightenment. Furthermore, they are cruel; even the students acknowledge that and despise the teacher for it, while his defense is the claim that he is acting in the name of the greater good. Both the teacher and the film as a whole suffer from a severe case of inflated self-importance and belittle the idea of an average person. It is not surprising, then, that an average spectator finds it difficult to genuinely appreciate the film that claims to be enlightening but is in reality a disappointing display of narcissism.

In their account of good-bad art consumption, John Dyck and Matt Johnson argue against schadenfreude as a principal explanation for good-bad art appreciation, as it fails to explain a genuine appreciation we can have for good-bad artworks, and claim that bizarreness resulting from failed artistic intentions creates aesthetic value. Not to dismiss the film’s bizarreness – it absolutely is bizarre, from strange characterizations of characters who randomly quote various philosophers as a form of conversation, to the end reveal of an affair between the teacher and the protagonist student, which seems to completely undermine the image of the student the film takes most of the screentime creating – and that bizarreness produces aesthetic appreciation. However, I propose that in addition to aesthetic appreciation, schadenfreude accounts for some enjoyment of the film. After the Dark demonstrates that the two spectatorial responses can coexist, and suggests that schadenfreude can be a non-problematic response to artworks that themselves take stances of superiority. In these instances, unlike the classic schadenfreude-based spectatorial experience, the viewer extracts comedy from the artwork’s narcissism.



Link to After the Dark trailer:



John Dyck and Matt Johnson (2017), ‘Appreciating bad art’, Journal of Value Inquiry, 51(2), 279-292.

One comment

  1. Yes! I really like the proposal that schadenfreude’s moral value depends on the claims a artwork makes. That when it is in itself disrespectful, enjoying it’s failure is not. The enjoyment seems to be in the irony, then, in the incongruity between the self-asserted superiority and an un-superiour execution.

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