When you mention the name Lars Von Trier, you get a decidedly diverse set of reactions. Many mainstream film fans have no idea who he is. They’ve never seen his work, perhaps could name check a movie or two they’ve “heard” about, and are perhaps better versed in his various recent tabloid tales than anything he’s done on celluloid. Others may be a bit better informed, mentioning his no-frills filmmaking ideal Dogme ‘95 or his controversial Cannes outbursts. On the other hand, it will be the rarified cinephile who can walk through the man’s output over the last few decades, delineating his output in both specifics and subtextual generics. Indeed, Von Trier is that kind of artist, an auteur with a singular vision that occasionally gets carried through (and away) within stark expressions of his own personal complexities. He doesn’t shy away from the difficult or the contentious, but he does occasionally let it do too much of the talking.
With the arrival of his latest, a sex-filled saga of psychological dysfunction also known as Nymphomaniac (or Nymph()maniac Vol. 1 and 2), we thought it would be time to illustrate our love of the clearly creative (and contentious) filmmaker by picking the 10 best examples of his creative output. Granted, there is only 13 features, one documentary, two TV mini-series, and some shorts to deal with, but on the upside, when Von Trier is great, he’s gobsmacking. In fact, he may be one of the most consistently amazing moviemakers out there today. Sure, he’s also incredibly divisive, with just as many hating his output as celebrating it, and you have to get around his often elusive ideologies in order to appreciate his art and approach, but when you consider the number of adored filmmakers who can’t offer up a single significant film, let alone 10, you start to understand our Von Trier appreciation. He may be a rogue, but he makes great films, beginning at the beginning, more or less:
As he would do with his far more impactful Dogme ‘95 style, Von Trier played with the rules of the cinematic artform for this tale of a young American struggling to “bring happiness” to a post-WWII Germany. After becoming a conductor for the sleeper car of a train, he falls for a woman, and a pro-Nazi plot, but instead of playing out in a traditional manner, Von Trier goes highly experimental, including rampant use of rear-projection as well as subtle transitions between monochrome and color elements. While some argued style over substance, it all has a power that’s unique to the filmmaker’s creative output.
After the international success of Breaking the Waves, Von Trier decided to head full bore into his Dogme ‘95 manifesto, making this weird little comedy as a result. Shot entirely on digital cameras and eschewing all the production perks the moviemaking treatise mandated, the end result plays out like an arthouse Jackass. A group of “anti-bourgeois” adults decide to find their “inner idiot” by acting developmentally disabled in public. Naturally, things get taken a bit too far, leading to all manner of misunderstandings and personal pitfalls. As humor, it’s an acquired taste. As proof of Von Trier’s talent, it’s excellent.
As part of the director’s planned “USA - Land of Opportunity” trilogy, this film suffers from a surreal stunt which gives the entire production a patina of falseness. Nicole Kidman is a woman on the run from mobsters who holes up in the title town, trading manual labor for protection. The problem? There is no town, just a bare stage set with chalk outlines and indications where doors and walls should be. Again, Von Trier enjoyed experimenting with the prerequisites and perils of cinema. In this case, however, a powerful story is marred by a rather meaningless visual gimmick.
In this incredible documentary, Von Trier challenges one of his favorite filmmakers, Jørgen Leth, to remake his favorite film of his, The Perfect Human, within a quintet of artistic and aesthetic challenges, including 12 frame shots, use of the worst place on Earth as a backdrop, and via cartoon. At first, his collaborator seems eager. But once he (and we) learn that film is more than just changing locations or visual approaches, it becomes obvious that Leth dislikes Von Trier’s premise. The result is one of the most telling expressions of the complexities of creativity ever.
Otherwise known as Riget (and remade by none other than Stephen King as Kingdom Hospital), this amazing TV mini-series about a haunted Danish medical center became many a mainstream film fan’s first real introduction to Von Trier’s work. While controversial (a Greek Chorus of dishwashers with Down’s Syndrome is usually the target of protest), it was sold as a scary movie experience, especially in those days where rental outlets were looking for anything to drive in-store traffic. Telling a tale about how the supernatural steps in to guide and confuse the intelligent and scientific, it stands as a solid piece of genre jerryrigging.