The Apocalyptic Cinema of Panos Cosmatos

#filmanalysis #art #DietrichBonhoeffer #SergeiBulgakov #theology #GeorgesBataille #atmosphere #CarlJung #atmospherictheology

The films of Panos Cosmatos are known for their intense atmosphere and striking use of color, drawing viewers into a world that is at once eerie and awe-inspiring. In works such as “Mandy,” “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” and “The Viewing,” Cosmatos creates a sense of otherworldliness through his use of color, light, space, and atmosphere. The screen is transformed into a mystically cosmic spectacle, disclosing apocalyptic noumena behind the thin veil of the everyday. To elucidate these themes, this essay will draw upon atmospheric theory, Sergei Bulgakov’s theory of religious materialism, Carl Jung’s theory of color, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theory of revelation, and Georges Bataille’s theory of limit experience.


Atmosphere refers to the general affective quality of space and material environments when interacted with by agents. There are different models and theories about the ontology of an atmosphere. One metaphor is to say that atmospheres are like spatially extended emotions. Through the intentional staging of a material environment, a space can convey or encourage certain ranges of emotional or affective responses. Set design and staging within theatre is a great example. Professional production designers are highly skilled at constructing a stage that helps convey or support the affective qualities of the scene. Furthermore, as in the case of a haunted house attraction, human agents might not even need to be directly present in order for the space to radiate powerful emotions, such as fear.

Films likewise generate an atmosphere. Though it might not be as fully immersive as others, the staging of a film is capable of creating atmospheres that suture the viewer more deeply into the emotional landscape of the film. Panos Cosmatos brilliantly accomplishes this. For Cosmatos, the atmosphere is not merely a background, but rather an active agent in itself, playing as important a role as the actor.

Religious Materialism

In addition to emotional qualities, atmosphere can encourage or convey other types of emotional affects as well, such as religious affects. Religions throughout time have professed the religious significance of physical objects, sacred spaces, and material environments for worship. The 20th-century Russian Orthodox theologian, Sergei Bulgakov, called this “religious materialism” in his essay “Relics,” and the concept played a significant role in his own theology. In the essay, Bulgakov uses the topic of relics to articulate the vitality of the material world from a religious perspective and how, from his perspective, there is no such thing as dead matter.

Sergei Bulgakov's theory of religious materialism proposes that the material world is intrinsically connected to and infused with divine energies and attributes. According to Bulgakov, creation is not separate from God but rather a manifestation of God's presence and creative activity. Bulgakov emphasized the sacredness and spiritual potential inherent in the physical world, rejecting the dualistic notion that matter is inherently sinful or separate from the divine. Instead, he argued, based on the Orthodox doctrines of the Incarnation of Christ and deification of humanity, that matter is a vehicle for divine revelation and the realization of God's purposes, of which the Incarnation of Christ and sacraments like the Holy Eucharist are prime examples. As he wrote, “The spiritual bread, the heavenly food, is also bodily bread and food; by no means does the spiritual sacrament become incorporeal — rather, it is corporeal to the highest degree, corporeal par excellence. [...] [Christ] came not to destroy the world but to save it. Therefore, in the gracious life of the church, all that is spiritual is corporeal [...].” (Bulgakov, “Relics,” page 9, Boris Jakim translation).

For Bulgakov, the materiality of the world is not dead, but rather something sacred, given that it is thoroughly infused with divine life. However, this picture contrasts sharply with our Cartesian-capitalist paradigm in which matter is a dead resource waiting for exploitation. Material environments, human spaces, and urban buildings become little more than cogs in a wider machine. However, in the films of Panos Cosmatos, the world is strikingly more mystical and cosmic than the dead matter of modernity. Cosmatos’s cinematic worlds are pulsating with animated energies and spiritual dimensions that we cannot fully comprehend. Each landscape or set is permeated with a mystical and sublime awe, as if every part of the world is just a facet in a larger sacred space.

Jung and Color

The sacredness of the atmosphere and material environments within Cosmatos’s cinematography is captured largely through the striking use of color. To understand this point further, I will turn to Carl Jung’s theory of color:

According to Jung, colors possess inherent symbolic and psychological meanings that resonate with the collective unconscious, the universal reservoir of ancestral memories and archetypes shared by all human beings. Jung believed that colors have a profound impact on our emotional and spiritual states, transcending their visual aspects. He viewed colors as carriers of archetypal messages and symbolic representations of psychic energies. For instance, red is often associated with passion, vitality, and danger, while blue is linked to spirituality, introspection, and calmness. Jung argued that these associations are not arbitrary but rather reflect deep-seated universal symbols that have emerged throughout human history.

Within the realm of religion, Jung posited that colors play a crucial role in the expression and experience of religious phenomena. He noted that religious rituals often incorporate specific colors to evoke particular psychological states and tap into the collective unconscious. For example, the color white is frequently associated with purity and divine transcendence in many religious traditions. Similarly, gold and yellow are often connected to the sacred and divine illumination. Jung also emphasized that individual psychological experiences of color can vary due to personal associations and cultural conditioning. While certain colors may have universal significance, their interpretation can be influenced by personal experiences, cultural contexts, and individual symbolism.

Even if one does not concede the idea that there are specific archetypal meanings inherent within each color, I do think it’s not far off to note that religious rituals and religious experiences often involve the use of striking colors. In nature, colors are beautiful, but they are often more muted. Rarely do we encounter, for instance, a natural landscape bathed in bright purple. And if such instances within nature do occur, such as in the Aurora Lights, then it fills viewers with a sense of otherworldly awe. On the flip side, incomprehensible lights often occur in mystical experiences, and sacred architecture regularly incorporates colored phenomena not typically found in nature.

However, in the films of Panos Cosmatos, the world is saturated with mystical and transcended light. It is as if the veil has been pulled back from our eyes, and we see the radiant, spiritual dimension of reality that permeates the world around us. Cosmatos's films are a powerful example of the transformative power of colors in our inner world. By using color to create a sense of atmosphere and evoke powerful emotions, he taps into the viewer's psyche in a way that is both profound and unsettling.

Bonhoeffer and Bataille: Revelation and Limit Experience

The interesting thing about Cosmatos’s films is that the spiritual and the divine are not always equated with the good. Of course, there are many instances of the transcendent, color-rich atmospheres that do convey beauty and goodness — especially in the first act of “Mandy” in which cosmic colors interspersed with radiant natural lighting are used to show the love between Red and Mandy. However, some forms of spiritual, otherworldly, or transcendent experience turn into absolute terror and horror. Often, this is the case when, in a Frankensteinian or Lovecraftian fashion, the human characters attempt to grasp and control the transcendent themselves. Without giving away too many spoilers, we can see this within the “bad trip” scene of “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” in which Barry takes a concoction of psychedelics and has an existential breakdown from which he cannot recover. “The Viewing” likewise features a recluse billionaire for whom the world and its inhabitants are objects to collect, but his aspirations of collecting something truly beyond our world lead to drastic consequences. Thus, within the films of Cosmatos, the spiritual world is both overwhelmingly beautiful and also terrifying, filled with phenomena and agents beyond our understanding.

In a sense, this sublimity of overwhelming beauty and terror in giving oneself to the Unknown, and hoping that it is good (while there is a threat it could lead to one’s own destruction) captures a sense of the harshness of religious experience in secular age. When people encounter something truly beyond their understanding, it can sometimes be perceived as a threatening force that leads to self-destruction because it breaks down the truncated, materialist world in which we believe ourselves to inhabit. This is perhaps similar to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about in his book “Act and Being.” For Bonhoeffer, when God reveals Godself, it breaks down our rational systems and subverts the expectations we have of reality. It’s almost like an inverted version of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraftian horror typically involves themes of the unknown, and the incomprehensible, often featuring ancient and malevolent beings that exist outside of human understanding. It relies upon the idea that human knowledge and understanding are limited, and that there are forces in the universe that are beyond human control and comprehension. When the characters encounter these incomprehensible forces, they are filled with a sense of dread and helplessness, often leading to madness, nihilism, and the futility of existence.

For Lovecraft, much of the horror comes from a revelation that humanity is little more than an ant to the cosmic, extra-dimensional monsters. However, for Bonhoeffer, this gets turned on its head. The horror is not that God is malevolent or uncaring, but rather that God is so loving, is so full of grace, is so beautiful, that we feel like minuscule dirt compared to God’s Perfection. For Bonhoeffer, this is especially the case in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, in which this Perfection and Grace become incarnate in a particular person.

Back to the films of Panos, we can see this angst and struggle captured brilliantly in his films. There is a primal and cosmic dimension to the emotions and struggles of the characters. Stepping into the atmosphere is like stepping into another world, parallel to ours, in which everything radiates with the sacred. Or, stated another way, perhaps it is like taking our secularist blinders off for a brief moment and allowing the incomprehensible spiritual dimension of reality to rapture us.

The Bonhoefferian reading of Panos’s films brings some parallels to the theory of limit experiences as developed by the French philosopher, Georges Bataille.

According to Bataille, limit experiences are transformative and ecstatic encounters that push individuals beyond the boundaries of their ordinary existence, challenging established norms and rationality. Bataille believed that limit experiences arise from activities that involve risk, transgression, and the breaking of taboos. These experiences confront individuals with the limits of their own existence and reveal the underlying instability and irrationality of human nature. Examples of limit experiences can include acts of intense sexuality, ritualistic practices, extreme physical activities, or encounters with death.

Furthermore, as developed in his book Erotism, a limit experience can also be created through an experience of the intense combination of the erotic (not necessarily just sex) and the horrific. This is because limit experiences entail a loss of self and a dissolution of individual boundaries. In these moments, individuals transcend their individuality and merge with a larger whole, experiencing a sense of continuity and connection with the universe. Bataille associated limit experiences with a kind of sacred or mystical state that disrupts the everyday order and opens up possibilities for profound transformation. He notes that both erotic encounters and moments of horror (especially witnessing death) bring about this loss of self into the broader world, like pouring water into the ocean.

Bataille argued that limit experiences are essential for individuals to confront and transcend the constraints imposed by society and rationality. By pushing individuals to their limits, these experiences enable them to access a different realm of experience that is typically suppressed in everyday life. Through this confrontation with the limit, Bataille believed that individuals could gain a deeper understanding of themselves, the world, and their place within it.

Within films like “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” “Mandy,” and “The Viewing,” characters are shown having such limit experiences — situations that break down rationality and bring about a loss of self. However, such limit experiences often lead to the character’s own destruction, rather than the reconstitution of a consciousness that embraces a newfound sense of transcendence. These limit experiences are quite different from the types of experiences described by mystics, such as St. Teresa of Avila or Julian of Norwich. Perhaps this is because the saints and mystics were more embedded within a symbolic and living religious tradition that already embraces the sacred. Their limit experiences were reconstituted into a deeper awareness of God’s love and grace. Contrarily, for the characters within the Cosmatos filmic universe, no such structuring existence. It is simply the raw, unfiltered extremity of human experience, without any reconstitution into a higher meaning or purpose. In a sense, this capture the type of underlying nihilism latent within the secular. The spiritual and mystical is all around us, but we have all but lost our categories and structures for engagement.

Conclusion and Additional Remarks

In conclusion, the films of Panos Cosmatos are a powerful example of the transformative power of color and atmosphere in cinema. By creating otherworldly atmospheres, often using bright and striking colors, Cosmatos taps into the viewer's psyche in a way that is both profound and unsettling. His films convey a sense of the sacredness and spiritual potential inherent in the physical world, echoing the ideas of Carl Jung and Sergei Bulgakov. Furthermore, the sublimity of overwhelming beauty and terror captured in Cosmatos's films reflects the harshness and struggles of encountering the divine in a secular age, resonating with the ideas of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Georges Bataille.

But of course (and to perhaps entirely subvert my own writing) most religious experiences are not that extreme. In fact, they usually are cultivated within the small liturgy of the everyday, building up over time and transforming us step by step into a new person. There is great hope in this, because it means that we don’t have to rely upon the apocalyptic to dictate our religious experiences. It can start right now.