From co-creating a filmmaking movement to continually subjecting his female protagonists to horrific situations to getting banned from Cannes, Lars von Trier is nothing if not controversial. The Danish writer/director’s infamy remains inseparable from his art — by design. Sometimes it has resulted in acclaim, with nine of his features screening in competition in the festival that would declare him “persona non grata”. Sometimes, it has changed cinema, as evidenced in the Dogme 95 manifesto. Sometimes, his approach to his characters has seen off-screen parallels, with his Dancer in the Dark star, Björk, recently levelling sexual harassment claims against him.
Even his adoring collaborators describe von Trier as challenging. “His main drive, in his work and his career, is his desire to provoke,” explains cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, while frequent star Stellan Skarsgård contends, “As soon as he feels the audience is getting what they’re expecting, he gets upset with himself.” On-screen, the proof is rampant in the likes of Breaking the Waves’ brutal love story, Antichrist’s exploration of grief, Melancholia’s depiction of depression and Nymphomaniac’s near six-hour journey through female sexuality.
Before you dive into Vice’s ode to von Trier, let us fill you in on the basics of the rebellious filmmaker's career.
The von Trier essentials
In Lars von Trier’s films, which are often made in thematically linked trilogies, his protagonists are forced to rally against trying circumstances. Given the polarising nature of his work and his public statements, it could easily be argued that he feels like he’s doing the same. Indeed, in 2007, when he contributed the short Occupations to French anthology effort To Each His Own Cinema, he dedicated its three-minute running time to dispensing violence upon a moviegoer who doesn’t give his film the requisite attention and appreciation. Set around the fictional premiere of von Trier’s Manderlay, the director plays himself. It was released before his most famous public controversy — the provocative press conference comments that saw him banned from Cannes (more on that, here).
When it comes to sending a message, the short isn’t subtle, but that has never been his forte. In 1991, Europa caught the attention of the film-viewing public with a countdown that endeavoured to place viewers under von Trier’s spell, after all. From Breaking the Waves onwards, his treatment of his female characters has been blunt and brutal, but with a purpose. The cruelties and difficulties of life can’t be escaped, his features posit, but the emotions that come with them need to be felt. As part of his approach, three of his leading ladies — Björk in Dancer in the Dark, Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist and Kirsten Dunst for Melancholia — have won Cannes’ Best Actress prize.
In addition to his own cinematic output — first making a splash with 1984 crime effort The Element of Crime, testing the limits of storytelling with Dogville’s chalk-outline sets nearly two decades later and getting comedic with 2006’s The Boss of It All included — von Trier is well known for his hand in the Dogme 95 movement, which he co-created alongside fellow Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg. At its heart sit 10 rules dictating how movies should be made, favouring on-location shooting and sound, handheld camerawork and drama narratives reflective of everyday life. The second feature produced under the manifesto was his own The Idiots, a characteristically divisive tale of adults releasing their inhibitions by letting their inner idiot loose. Once again, as his entire career demonstrates, nuance doesn’t suit von Trier.
Three things you mightn’t know
- Born Lars Trier, he added von to his name in film school — reportedly at the suggestion of a classmate, and possibly as a winking tribute to directors Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg, who had done the same.
- Von Trier has only ever been nominated for one Oscar, for Best Original Song for Dancer in the Dark’s "I’ve Seen it All". He won, sharing the prize with Björk and lyricist Sjón Sigurdsson.
- He is famously afraid of flying, shooting his films in Denmark and Sweden, and driving to Cannes each year.
Five films you really need to see
Europa: Von Trier’s breakout title takes an experimental approach to post-World War II life, earning three awards at Cannes — Best Artistic Contribution, the Jury Prize and the Technical Grand Prize.
Breaking the Waves: As moving as it is shocking, Breaking the Waves earned widespread acclaim for its unconventional look at the joys, tests and troubles of life and love.
Dancer in the Dark: Inspired by his love of The Sound of Music — and using three songs from it — von Trier blends his Dogme 95 ideals with the musical genre in the visually and emotionally stunning, Palme d’Or-winning, Björk-starring drama.
Antichrist: Described by von Trier as a horror film, Antichrist’s violent examination of a grieving couple (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) escaping to the woods to cope with the loss of a child isn’t easily forgotten.
Melancholia: Living up to its title, the Kirsten Dunst-starring drama is both poetic and bleak in its depiction of a depressed bride’s unhappy wedding day and the impending end of the world. (Read review)
Who’s sharing the von Trier love?
Jamie Bell: Bell featured among Nymphomaniac’s ensemble cast, alongside Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman and Willem Dafoe.
Anthony Dod Mantle: The Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire cinematographer shot von Trier’s Dogville, Manderlay and Antichrist.
Stacy Martin: Playing the younger version of Joe, Nymphomaniac’s protagonist, was the High-Rise and The Childhood of a Leader actress’s first film role.
Jean-Marc Barr: Working with von Trier since 1991’s Europa, Barr also featured in Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Manderlay, The Boss of It All and Nymphomaniac.
Stellan Skarsgård: After featuring in von Trier’s 1994 miniseries, The Kingdom, the Swedish star played the male lead in Breaking the Waves, and also appeared in Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac.
David Ehrlich: Indiewire’s senior film critic. Read Ehrlich’s take on Nymphomaniac and the infinite loneliness of Lars von Trier for the now-defunct The Dissolve.
What should I watch next?
Watch von Trier discuss his films and career on SBS On Demand:
Stream The Vice Guide to Film now at SBS On Demand: