Early in his career Lars von Trier declared that “film should be like a stone in the shoe.” Over twenty years later the ageing enfant terrible has stuck firmly to this principle, and has arguably become the most influential and interesting director working in Europe. Von Trier is a polarising figure, he is loved and loathed in equal measures. Just like his films he is “a stone in the shoe”, an irritant, a complainer, and an unlimited source of controversy. Von Trier has been accused of misogyny, arrogance, insincerity, and (perhaps worst of all) anti-Americanism. According to some he is a spoilt brat who amuses himself by making films that manipulate the viewer’s emotions. Von Trier would mischievously admit that all of this is true – even if it isn’t.
He is Denmark’s eternal problem child. For his first feature film, The Element of Crime (1984), he refused to accept anything less than the best film prize in the world – the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or. He reacted to his defeat by calling Roman Polanski, the foreman of the jury, a midget.
Equally, von Trier has been described as the personification of art-house aesthetics, he is admired as a visionary, lauded for his honesty, and championed as a rebel who has provided an essential alternative to mainstream cinema. His method causes the necessary discomfort to provoke a response from the audience, whether that be to stimulate thought or to criticise the film. His films incite debate through their exploration of what it is to be human and the way in which we coexist in society, and von Trier argues that it is through this discussion that democracy lives and evolves.
Lars von Trier was born Lars Trier (he added the aristocratic title in homage to Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg) in Copenhagen, 1956. An extremely liberal upbringing forced the young von Trier to make the usual parental decisions for himself, and the responsibility of this left him with a high level of self-discipline but also chronic anxiety, a variety of phobias, and a need for control. He is erratic, enigmatic, tormented, but in his creative judgements von Trier is fearless.
He began with The Element of Crime, a crime story that was inspired by film noir and German Expressionism. It follows a detective attempting to solve a series of child murders in a Europe that is decaying and without hope. Its bold visual style mimics films such as The Asphalt Jungle (1950) with its low-key lighting and dramatic shadow patterning. The film displays a precision and technical polish as a result of thorough storyboarding. Von Trier’s meticulous planning of each shot in advance was part of his extreme desire to control every detail.
The Element of Crime was the first film in von Trier’s “E” trilogy, in which he conveys an apocalyptic Europe in the past, present, and future. Epidemic (1987) and Europa (1991) are set in similarly nightmarish urban landscapes and deal with controversial subject matter. Europa, for example, is notable for its sympathetic treatment of Nazis.
Von Trier followed this with The Kingdom, a Danish language television series that proved hugely popular. The Kingdom is a modern day ghost story set in a hospital, and works as both a social satire and as horror. The eccentric cast of characters playing doctors, patients, and staff exist in a space where the mundane is mixed with the mystical and the scientific merges with black humour and the grotesque. Recently remade by Stephen King as Kingdom Hospital, King’s version lacks everything that was so brilliant about the original.
The Kingdom is also crucial because it marks a clear change of direction, and von Trier allowed himself to break free from the constraints of his perfectionism. It was at this point he began his exploration of the nature of film through the contrast between the artificial and the real. Dogme 95, the avant-garde film movement started in 1995 by von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, is concerned with precisely this idea. Intended as an alternative to Hollywood’s special effects laden blockbusters, Dogme 95 emphasised the importance of plot and the genuine human emotions of the performances. The ten rules of the manifesto insist upon the use of hand-held camera, on-location shooting, and only available sources of light, music, and props. This is designed to aid realism, spontaneity, and fluid, natural performances. The movement gained international appeal and encouraged unknown filmmakers, as it gave them the opportunity to make recognised films without the need for huge Hollywood budgets. In other words, the rules are a starting point in recognising cinema as an artificial product that is paradoxically still capable of revealing the truth.
These ideas influenced von Trier’s Golden-Hearted trilogy, comprised of Breaking the Waves (1996), which deals with religion and eroticism in a small Scottish village, The Idiots (1998), which is von Trier’s only Dogme film to date, and Dancer in the Dark (2000), his Palme d’Or winning musical. The documentary style of the trilogy is occasionally transgressed, such as with the title chapters in Breaking the Waves and the fixed cameras and brightening of colours for the musical sequences in Dancer in the Dark, there is a tension between the artificial and the real.
Von Trier’s treatment of women has been criticised as misogynistic. These films are stories of female virtue and self-sacrifice in harsh, male-dominated societies, and are reminiscent of Carl Theodore Dreyer’s oeuvre. Yet, both the audience and von Trier are supportive of the female protagonist, and because he genuinely believe that only women could be so courageous their altruism becomes an act of strength rather than of weakness.
In between her infamous fights with the director, Björk is said to have felt rather than acted the part of Selma in Dancer in the Dark, and von Trier’s films are emotional experiences. The characters always act realistically, human behaviour and emotion are at the centre. The *USA* trilogy exemplifies this. Grace’s journey through Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005), and the forthcoming Washington, is real, even though everything around her is artificial. Grace is a departure from the *Golden-Hearted* figure, she is willing to sacrifice herself, but there is a limit – her protest is violent and universally relevant.
A fusion of film, literature, and theatre, von Trier’s tale of revenge develops on a set of remarkable transparency. The space is explored like an unfolded map, the lines on the ground resembling the imaginative games of children. The setting exposes the artificiality of film, and works in much the same way as Brecht’s distancing technique (Verfremdungseffekt) to prevent audience passivity. Von Trier’s aim of active engagement is emphasised through the rough movement of the hand-held camera and non-continuity editing, where the audience are forced to search for the most significant elements within the frame.
Von Trier may be dishonest, disruptive, and at times, downright infuriating. His stories of pain and human suffering are often disturbing to watch. But his determination to use cinema as a way of challenging ideas and inciting debate is inspiring. His quest is for the essential truth of humanity. Give von Trier three hours and he will enrich your mind and crush your heart.