von Trier Born 30 April 1956
In the era after the Second World war, Scandinavia was admired for having the world’s most tolerant and provident societies. But Lars von Trier’s mother, who worked for the Danish social ministry in the 1950s and 1960s trying to find locations for institutions for people with learning difficulties, still encountered prejudice in affluent areas of Copenhagen where her family lived. Lars was born in 1956 and brought up in what he recalled as a culturally radical home where only strong emotions and religious faith were forbidden. He was a disturbed boy, who had ‘a phobia about everything but spiders, and he could easily develop that’; he particularly had an obsession with control, saying that he felt he had constantly to rearrange objects in his surroundings to avert disaster. At the age of 12 he ran away from school and then briefly attended a remedial day centre. He later referred to this as a ‘mental hospital’. Since he wanted to be mad, he felt ‘very much related to the outcast’.
Von Trier’s compulsions about arranging the world around him were a strong motivation for moviemaking, at first with a Super 8 camera given by his mother (he practised tracking shots on his bike) and later on 16mm at the Danish Film School. His education there gave him limitless opportunities for what he described as his ‘fetishistic attraction to film technology – it was just fantastic to be able to touch all these appliances’. This interest in technology set his early style in three student films (all won awards), his TV commercial output (he made dozens) and his first trilogy of features. He was capable of imitating the lighting, cutting and camera techniques of any of his favourite directors. His first widely-seen film, Europa (1991), was, remarked the critic Derek Malcolm, ‘Orson Welles crossed with Ingmar Bergman with a dash of Fellini stirred in … so dark a noir that even its shadows had shadows’. Von Trier acknowledged its debts to Hitchcock’s work of the 1940s but still liked issuing wild manifestos with his films, denouncing commercial cinema. He called himself ‘a simple masturbator of the silver screen’ (masturbator, since, he insisted, everything in a film was for solely the pleasure of the director).
But after Europa, he left the cerebral, cinematic-referencing style behind. This was partly for personal reasons. He has said since that changes in his life shook its foundations. His father, who was Jewish, died; his mother told Lars that the dead man was not actually his father. Soon after, she also died. Von Trier was without identity (he had always thought himself of Jewish descent, if atheist and prone to flirtations with other religions), and without bearings. He had a breakdown. Moreover, during these uncertain years, his first marriage ended in divorce. Needing to earn money, von Trier undertook The Kingdom, a television soap-opera (later edited into a four-hour film released in 1994) influenced by David Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks. Film commentator Jonathan Romney noted that it was done for the cash, but that it had ‘freed up a lot of energy for him’.
Von Trier’s 1995 film Breaking the Waves was five years in production. Its source was his favourite childhood book, a Danish fairy story, Golden Heart. It’s a tale of a girl who goes into the woods clothed and with bread in her pocket, and ends wandering naked, with nothing, but saying ‘I’ll be fine anyway’. Von Trier considered that to be the definition of martyrdom, of goodness – Breaking the Waves is a film about goodness. Paradox is its operating technique: it is a naturalistic movie about miracles; a Cinemascope film shot with a hand-held camera; a series of improvised and eccentrically-cut sequences, but the resulting film was electronically manipulated, transferred to video so that its colours could be enhanced, then returned to film stock.
At this point, Von Trier seems to have re-read his old manifestos as an inspiration for Dogma 95, both a group of movie-makers and a set of principles, ‘a vow of cinematic chastity’. Dogma 95 set out to establish a ‘new form of honest cinema’ without artificial lighting, added music or bought-in props. All films were to be shot in sequence with handheld cameras and the directors were not to be credited (von Trier had, much earlier on, said ‘The auteur concept was bourgeoise romanticism from the very start, and therefore false’). The Idiots (1998), was supposed to have been made under Dogma rules, involving improvisation – the actors followed their characters by imitating symptoms of cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome (‘spassing about to find their inner idiot’, their inner ‘unadulterated purity’). The improvisations went as far as filming genuine sexual reactions – ‘a hard-on,’ von Trier said, ‘has to be reality’. In fact the film failed to pass the censors for public showing in several countries. Von Trier’s newest work, Dancer in the Dark, was premièred at this year’s Cannes, where it won both the Palme d’Or and loud derision in the theatre. It certainly many Dogma 95 rules: although a melodrama about a Czech refugee put upon cruelly by fate, sickness, accident and the US law, it has prolonged fantasy sequences based on her entrancement by Hollywood musicals.
Von Trier’s next project has not yet been made public – although we’re not to worry, since ‘I get my ideas from my anxieties, and there’s enough material there for years’. However, we do know about his most peculiar concept, the film Dimension, which is being shot at a rate of two or three minutes annually and is scheduled for completion in 2024. ‘It’s a whodunit,’ von Trier explains wickedly, ‘but we don’t know who done it yet, because we don’t know who’s alive in 20 years’ time.