Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields—bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Lars von Trier.
When you think about the enfant terribles of modern filmmaking, there are a handful of directors that probably come to mind: Quentin Tarantino, Harmony Korine, and Danish director Lars von Trier. Von Trier’s most recent high profile controversy came at Cannes last year when he claimed he was a Nazi and that he had sympathy for Adolf Hitler. The look that Kirsten Dunst gives him at 0:23 in this video says it all—not the best thing to joke about when promoting a new film (or any time really), but it says something for both their talents that Kirsten Dunst went on to win the award for best actress for her role in the film he was promoting, Melancholia. Von Trier didn’t fare so lucky and got booted out of the festival.
But von Trier isn’t a director who shies away from controversy. He’s the sort of guy who doesn’t just tread on eggshells but puts on hobnailed boots and crushes them gleefully before rolling around in the mess and laughing. He’s controversial. That’s what he does, and because of this his films often put you on edge—the Michael Haneke school of filmmaking, but with added mischief and nudity.
Von Trier started his career with the crime drama film The Element of Crime, followed by a sci-fi meta-film Epidemic and Europa, together known as the European trilogy. As well as subverting the genres they were based on, the style was experimental and marked the arrival of a new, singular talent in European cinema. After this, he made a highly-regarded TV series called The Kingdom and its sequel The Kingdom II. Set in a hospital, it featured supernatural elements and bizarre characters and was compared to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.
In the mid-1990s, von Trier and a group of Scandinavian directors, most notably Thomas Vinterberg, formed the Dogme 95 movement and manifesto which put restrictions on the directors—like only using natural light, filming on location, using handheld cameras—to allow them to express themselves without the extravagant distractions of modern filmmaking. As part of this movement, von Trier made The Idiots, Vinterberg made Festen, and Harmony Korine made Julien Donkey-Boy. Von Trier’s contribution courted controversy because it featured a group of adults pretending to be mentally disabled, running around causing chaos, having sex, and generally mucking around.
With Von Triers’ films, it isn’t just the subject matter which is challenging—subject matter which mixes genres and expectations with taboo subjects—but he also challenges himself with the way he makes them. For instance, he went from the Dogme 95 rules to shooting Dancer in the Dark completely digitally, so it became almost an antidote to the restrictions of the avant-garde movement, despite the film having a few elements associated with the style. Explicit nudity is also something that’s quite frequent in his films, rattling the cages of the censors and confronting the stuffy codes of cinema that separate its content from the adult film industry. His films are like anti-popcorn movies—awkward, confrontational, bizarre, frustrating, tackling human relationships in all their messy glory while menacing us with uncomfortable scenes and unhappy endings.
His next film, Nymphomaniac, will star Charlotte Gainsbourg and is about a woman’s sexual history from infancy to middle age. Below is a selection of some of his work:
The surreal series features ghosts, satan, and von Trier’s own take on the Greek choruses of antiquity—a pair of Down’s syndrome dishwashers who comment on the action. It also twists, mangles, and merges the genres of B-movie horror and medical drama for a unique, distinct, and just plain weird TV show.
Dancer in the Dark
Björk plays a Czech immigrant who’s gradually going blind and works at a factory while trying to look after her son. The film is full of industrial sounds and a plot that ends in tragedy, in what must be one of the bleakest musicals ever made.
Genital mutilation and the breakdown of a relationship feature in von Trier’s take on the horror movie. The death of their child sees a couple heading off to a cabin in the woods to experience strange visions and violence in a very grim film that’s unlike any conventional or unconventional horror film you’ll ever see. Relationship counseling, it isn’t.
After taking on the horror movie, von Trier distorts the conventions of the disaster movie, where our beloved planet is about to collide with another. The film can be a frustrating experience and is without Bruce Willis to save the day, but it’s original and is one of those films that stays with you long after, haunting your mindscape.