(1956 - present)
Three Key Films: Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2004)
Underrated: The Idiots (1998) Perhaps the most outwardly provocative von Trier feature, The Idiots reveals much about the director at odds with himself and his mission. Von Trier’s onscreen surrogate Stoffer (Jens Albinus) struggles to keep his troupe of “Idiots” together in their revolutionary mission, all the while feeling the pull of self-doubt and eventually, comically, succumbing to the realization that we are all of us players in a more or less predictable human drama.
Unforgettable: Breaking the Waves’ Bess prays for her new husband Jan to return home from his job on an oil rig. Bess’s Calvinist church community has already been introduced as cold and unforgiving, so she takes her plight directly to God. In her Academy Award-nominated screen debut, Emily Watson speaks both the voice of Bess and the voice of God, sternly responding to the young woman’s wishes and hinting that the bargain they strike might not lead to the pleasure Bess seeks. Von Trier fills the handheld frame with his actress’s pleading face, and Watson sets the stage for the other “golden-hearted” female protagonists who appear in von Trier’s films into the next decade.
The Legend: Born Lars Trier in Kgs. Lyngby, Denmark in 1956, the man we call Lars von Trier acquired the “von” while attending the National Film School of Denmark. Placing the young filmmaker in the lineage of von Sternberg and von Stroheim, this sort of affectation is standard for von Trier, a natural-born provocateur whose antics inspire both adulation and derision.
At present, von Trier is a difficult figure to defend. His preposterous performance at the Cannes press conference for Melancholia (2011) resulted in sound bites about forgoing his Jewish roots, sympathizing with Hitler, and being a Nazi. To say these things is at best the product of exceedingly poor judgment and at worst an admission of a disturbed ideology. Yet, given his past penchant for ridiculous statements at Cannes (including calling jury chair Roman Polanski a “midget” and proclaiming “I am the best film director in the world”), it’s no shock that von Trier would try to up the ante and risk a backfire at the moment of great potential success.
For better or worse, this is the same conflicted spirit that drives his ever-changing artistic output. His Europe trilogy (1984-1991) was the product of intense cinematic formalism. With The Kingdom (1994,1997), he provided a Twin Peaks-jolt to Danish television, and his Golden Heart Trilogy of Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, and Dancer in the Dark (2000) produced some of the most affecting performances by women in recent years.
More than any single statement or manifesto within his storied career, it is von Trier’s conception of Dogme 95 and its anti-aesthetic that briefly energized international independent film production and refocused the attention of the film world on Scandinavian cinema. Mette Hjort’s Purity and Provocation, one of the better publications on the subject of Dogme 95, provides a context for discussing and understanding the creation and the content of von Trier’s work. By putting cinema in a rigid “uniform”, von Trier and his associates aimed to lose not only the influence of polished narrative cinema, but to purposefully lose control of the process entirely. Of course, once the anarchic Dogme ran its course, von Trier turned his back on it, as well.
Von Trier’s constant molting could be even better described as purity through provocation, taking each impulse to the limit as a means of exorcising personal and artistic crises. The Five Obstructions (2003), co-directed with Jørgen Leth, cannily documents the very method of being tormented towards a breakthrough. Though most von Trier films don’t literally examine this dynamic relationship, they do share a search for deliverance that immerses the viewer in the difficult circumstances of the characters’ lives: The loss of Karen’s young son in The Idiots, Selma’s blindness and imprisonment in Dancer in the Dark, Grace’s forced labor and rape in Dogville (2003), and the multiple mutilations of Antichrist (2009).
Though von Trier usually leaves some room for salvation, never more powerfully so than in Breaking the Waves: Bess goes through hell on earth, but she ascends to the sound of heavenly church bells. In the wake of his most recent Cannes scandal, von Trier has told reporters that he’s “an idiot that should just stay home in Denmark and never talk to anybody.” That self-prescription might not prove to be his salvation, but it should provide some temporary relief until the next press conference inevitably comes around. Thomas Britt