Danish director Lars von Trier was born 60 years ago, albeit without the ‘von’. That aristocratic affectation was added in film school because “it seemed the most provocative thing” that he could do at the time. With the change of his name came the conscious cultivation of a new persona. Trier, the aspiring young filmmaker, became von Trier, the confrontational construct.
However early this incident of invented identity came in his career, though, it was not without precedent. Von Trier has been bound up with the ideal of the artist-genius ever since his conception. He was the result of an extramarital affair, pursued by his mother not for romantic reasons but to secure creative genes for her future child.
This pair of events in the Trier family history (frequently referred to by von Trier in interviews) informs the way in which he presents himself to his audience. He is a prime example of an auteur, a film director whose vision is considered to be so distinctive and irrepressible that it dominates the production process.
This reputation is far from effortlessly attained, though. Each release is designed to incite debate, and every controversy courted off-screen serves to cement his status as an enfant terrible. If von Trier’s birth and name-change were auteurist initiatives that were “implemented quite deliberately”, in Peter Schepelern’s words, then most of his professional choices have performed the same function.
Critics of auteur theory argue that it obscures the collaborative elements of directorial work, elevating an individual in a reductive and unhelpful manner. However, the term retains relevance as a model that viewers continue to hold in high esteem and that studios and directors still knowingly capitalize on. It is within this context that von Trier’s cinematic output should be understood.
Von Trier has shown a longstanding interest in toying with the issues of authority and authorship, finding unique ways to seemingly undermine his auteur status even when he has no intention of letting it slip. He often works within narratives of control, feigning to lose power but pulling the strings behind the scenes all the same. A trio of his lower-key films illuminate this practice: The Idiots, The Five Obstructions and The Boss of It All.
The Idiots was von Trier’s only film made in accordance with the Dogme 95 manifesto, which called for a rejection of artificiality and a return to cinematic basics. Written with fellow director Thomas Vinterberg, the document set out ten rules that placed limitations on certain aspects of filmmaking. Among the demands were that the camera must be handheld, the film must be in colour, and the action must take place “here and now”. These confines were created to reduce the director’s authority, allowing for a more organic, unpredictable process. The final requirement was that the director must not be credited, thereby supposedly removing any auteurist authorship.
The Dogme movement broke up ten years after its formation, when von Trier and Vinterberg realised that the seed of its demise was present at its birth. The manifesto stated that genre films were not permissible, but its existence ended up catalysing a new genre itself.
In the documentary The Five Obstructions, von Trier challenges director Jørgen Leth to remake the latter’s 1967 short film The Perfect Human five times. For each version, von Trier provides a number of obstacles that must be negotiated. The first remake, for example, must be filmed in Cuba without a set and with no shot longer than 12 frames. As with the Dogme manifesto, von Trier alleges to stand far back from the directorial chair, but he still rules by proxy, compiling an account of his own. We later learn that von Trier has already made the fifth remake, but he demands that Leth accept the title of director for it.
Again, he uses his authoritative role to complicate issues of authorship, claiming a lack of involvement when this is evidently untrue. In one crucial exchange, von Trier writes a narration and commands Leth to read it, shamelessly putting words in the older director’s mouth.
The Boss of It All opens with a shot of von Trier, camera in hand, in the reflection of an office-block window. He puns that, as a comedy, the film is “not worth a moment’s reflection”. Similar scenes are scattered throughout, with von Trier later questioning a “pointless, primitive zoom” before announcing the arrival of a new character. He reacts to the action as it unfolds, apologizing for its flaws and offering a detached commentary.
The film was shot using Automavision, which determines camera settings at random and applies similar offsets to sound. The aim was to limit human influence and to encourage less calculated acting. This production process works in clear parallel to the plot, in which the owner of an IT company invents a boss to take the flak for his decisions. Both von Trier and his protagonist seek to liberate themselves from accountability, whether commercial or artistic.
In each of these three films, von Trier keenly embraces his apparent forfeiture of authority and/or authorship — but was either ever lost? He may have followed predefined limitations in The Idiots or randomness in The Boss of It All, but in both he defined the parameters and later departed from them. In the former, he confessed four breaches of his own rules. In the latter, he reserved the right to discard any shot. Tellingly, the Automavision was not even used for scenes in which he featured.
Nor was the authorship of The Idiots or The Five Obstructions ever truly in doubt. As the co-founder of the Dogme movement, von Trier’s involvement in The Idiots was widely known. Whether or not his name could be found in the credits was a triviality. In The Five Obstructions, von Trier’s handing over of directorial credit to Leth was readily apparent to the audience, and was central to the narrative that he was gleefully presenting.
However paradoxical it may seem, then, these experiments strengthened his reputation as an auteur who seemed to constrain aspects of direction or leave them to chance, yet still attained the result that he wanted. The limitations that von Trier introduced served to underline, rather than undermine, his sense of control. Each was tied to the film’s conception and had an insurmountable impact on the production process.
For a cast or crew member to deviate from the structure that von Trier had put in place would be to challenge the whole enterprise. His decisions to shoot in natural light or use Automavision, for example, were so fundamental to the films in question that they could not have been overturned by anybody else. His choices to use a chalk-drawn set in Dogville and incorporate fantastical musical numbers in Dancer in the Dark operated in a similar manner.
Such confines offered von Trier a fool-proof path to auteurism, ensuring that his distinctive vision was irrepressible precisely because it was unavoidable. The director is known for refusing to share the meaning of his scripts with his cast and crew, and the strict sets of filmmaking rules that he put in place helped to communicate his intentions unambiguously. Because the auteur’s objective was codified within technical guidelines, it could not be questioned or inadvertently altered. As a result, his admirers could correctly claim that he had dominated the production process, whatever the end result. Von Trier has not always pulled off this manoeuvre successfully, though, and this has never been more obvious than with his 2011 film, Melancholia.
In Melancholia, the absence of enforced technical constraints led von Trier to adopt another, rather less watertight, method of communicating his ideas to others involved in the film’s creation. The production process, like the film itself, was dominated by the music of Richard Wagner — more specifically, the composer’s Tristan Prelude.
For von Trier, the piece was “the greatest artwork of all time”, as he believed that Proust had previously declared. He sought to use the piece to highlight the “true value” of melancholia (both the condition and the fictional planet that gives the film its title), cinema and the arts as a whole. Through this supposedly inherent value, he positioned art as humanity’s only hope for redemption, something which gave him “some joy, but I still think life is a terribly bad idea.”
Because he failed to share this vision, though, Melancholia was pulled down a route that von Trier neither foresaw nor welcomed. Others acted upon their own interpretations of the Tristan Prelude, which varied vastly from the director’s own. Kirsten Dunst, who won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her leading role as Justine, remarked in one interview that: “If you try and talk to him about what the film is about, he’ll just make a joke.” She considered her character to be an extra-terrestrial, while acknowledging that she had never discussed that reading with von Trier.
The grandiose “Wagner moments” that von Trier frequently referenced while shooting influenced Manuel Alberto Claro’s cinematography, resulting in a polished visual aesthetic that von Trier later dismissed as being too close to mainstream American film, “the lowest of cinematic common denominators.”
Perhaps the most significant misunderstanding of all, though, was between the approaches of von Trier and Kristian Eidnes Andersen, the film’s sound editor. While von Trier was wary of resorting to Hollywood-style hedonism, Andersen’s primary concern was getting “into the emotions” of the Tristan Prelude. Andersen made edits and cuts to the piece that compromised its coherence as a whole in order to enhance the viewers’ emotive response. Far from giving the composition the respect that von Trier believed it deserved, this act damaged the director’s entire project.
It’s no surprise, then, that von Trier claimed to be “ready to reject the film like a wrongly transplanted organ”. By expressing his dislike for Melancholia, the director was able to position it as an anomaly in his back catalogue, a narrative of control in which he, for once, did not come out on top. Within a career built upon authority and authorship, Melancholia constitutes a rare (von) Trier initiative that was not implemented so deliberately.