Lars von Trier (b. Lars Trier, 30 April 1956) is a Danish film director and screenwriter. He has a prolific and controversial career spanning almost four decades. His work is known for its genre and technical innovation, confrontational examination of existential, social, and political issues, and treatment of subjects like mercy, sacrifice and mental health. His political and humanitarian work was honored in 2004 with the Cinema for Peace awareness award.
Among more than 100 awards and over 200 nominations in festivals worldwide, he has received the Palme d'Or (for Dancer in the Dark), the Grand Prix (for Breaking the Waves), the Prix du Jury (for Europa), and the Technical Grand Prize (for The Element of Crime and Europa) at the Cannes Film Festival. In 2016 Trier began filming The House that Jack Built, an English-language serial killer thriller.
Lars von Trier is the founder and shareholder of international film production company Zentropa Films, which has sold more than 350 million tickets and garnered seven Academy Award nominations over the past 25 years.
Life and career
Early life and career breakthrough
Trier was born in Kongens Lyngby, north of Copenhagen, the son of Inger Høst and Fritz Michael Hartmann (the head of Denmark's Ministry of Social Affairs and a resistance fighter). He received his surname from Høst's husband Ulf Trier, who he considered his biological father until 1989. The director would later become famous for his honesty to journalists about his complex family and upbringing, as well as the impact it had on his identity, beliefs, and artistic process.
Trier studied film theory at the University of Copenhagen and film direction at the National Film School of Denmark. At 25, he won two best school film awards at the Munich International Festival of Film Schools for the films Nocturne and Last Detail, was branded the German nobiliary particle "von" for his name (possibly as a satirical homage to the equally self-invented titles of directors Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg), and saw his graduation film Images of Liberation released as a theatrical feature. In 1984, The Element of Crime, Trier's breakthrough film, received twelve awards in seven international festivals including the Technical Grand Prize at Cannes and a nomination for the Palme d'Or. The film's slow, non-linear pace, innovative and multi-leveled plot design, and dark dreamlike visuals convey an allegory for European historical traumas in a unique way and heralded a new voice in film.
His next film, Epidemic (1987), was also shown at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section. The film features two storylines that ultimately collide: the chronicle of two filmmakers (played by Lars von Trier and screenwriter Niels Vørse) in the midst of developing a new project, and a dark science fiction tale of a futuristic plague—the very film Trier and Vørsel are depicted making.
Trier has occasionally referred to his films as falling into thematic and stylistic trilogies. This pattern began with The Element of Crime (1984), the first of the Europa trilogy, which illuminated the traumas of Europe both in the past and the future. It includes The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987) and Europa (1991).
Lars von Trier directed Medea (1988) for television, which won him the Jean d'Arcy prize in France. It is based on a screenplay by Carl Th. Dreyer and stars Udo Kier. Trier completed the Europa trilogy in 1991 with Europa (released as Zentropa in the US), which won the Prix du Jury at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival and picked up awards at other major festivals. In 1990 he also directed the music video for "Bakerman" by Laid Back. This video was reused in 2006 by the English DJ and artist Shaun Baker in a remake of "Bakerman".
In 1992 Trier and producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen founded the film production company Zentropa Entertainment, named after a fictional railway company in Europa, to achieve financial independence and have total creative control over their projects. The production company has produced many movies other than Trier's own, as well as several television series.
Inventing a style manifesto
In 1995, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg presented their manifesto for a new cinematic movement which they called Dogme 95. The Dogme 95 concept, which led to international interest in Danish film, inspired filmmakers all over the world. In 2008, together with their fellow Dogme directors Kristian Levring and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg received the European Film Award European Achievement in World Cinema.
In 1996, Lars von Trier conducted an unusual theatrical experiment in Copenhagen involving 53 actors, which he titled Psychomobile 1: The World Clock. A documentary chronicling the project was directed by Jesper Jargil, and was released in 2000 with the title De Udstillede (The Exhibited).
From international sensation to auteur director
Lars von Trier achieved his greatest international success with his Golden Heart trilogy. Each film is about naive heroines who maintain their 'golden hearts' despite the tragedies they experience. This trilogy consists of Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998), and Dancer in the Dark (2000). While all three films are sometimes associated with the Dogme 95 movement, only The Idiots is a certified Dogme 95 film.
Breaking the Waves and The Idiots
Breaking the Waves (1996), the first film in his "Golden Heart Trilogy", won the Grand Prix at Cannes and featured Emily Watson, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Its grainy images and hand-held photography pointed towards Dogme 95, but violated several of the manifesto's rules, and therefore does not qualify as a Dogme 95 film. The second in the trilogy, The Idiots (1998), was nominated for a Palme d'Or, which he presented in person at the Cannes Film Festival despite his dislike of travelling.
Dancer in The Dark
In 2000, Lars von Trier premiered a musical featuring Icelandic musician Björk, Dancer in the Dark. The film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. The song "I've Seen It All" (which Lars von Trier co-wrote) received an Academy Award nomination for Best Song.
The Five Obstructions
The Five Obstructions (2003), made by Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth, is a documentary that also incorporates lengthy sections of experimental films. The premise is that Lars von Trier challenges director Jørgen Leth, his friend and mentor, to remake his old experimental film The Perfect Human (1967) five times, each time with a different 'obstruction' (or obstacle) specified by Lars von Trier.
The "Land of Opportunities" Trilogy
The proposed trilogy consists of Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005) and Wasington, which is yet to be made. The two movies were shot in the same distinctive style, on a bare sound stage with no set and with buildings marked by lines on the floor. This style is inspired by 1970s televised theatre.
Dogville (2003) starred Nicole Kidman and Manderlay (2005) starred Bryce Dallas Howard in the same role as Grace. Both films are extremely stylised, with the actors playing their parts on a nearly empty sound stage with little but chalk marks on the floor to indicate the sets. Both films had casts of major international actors (Harriet Andersson, Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe, etc.), and questioned various issues relating to American society, such as intolerance in Dogville and slavery in Manderlay.
The US was also the scene for Dear Wendy (2005), a feature film directed by Lars von Trier's "Dogme-brother" Thomas Vinterberg from a script by Lars von Trier. It starred Jamie Bell and Bill Pullman and dealt with gun worship and violence in American society.
In 2006, Lars von Trier released a Danish-language comedy film, The Boss of It All. It was shot using a process that he has called Automavision, which involves the director choosing the best possible fixed camera position and then allowing a computer to randomly choose when to tilt, pan or zoom.
It was followed by an autobiographical film, The Early Years: Erik Nietzsche Part 1(2007), scripted by Lars von Trier but directed by Jacob Thuesen, which tells the story of Lars von Trier's years as a student at the National Film School of Denmark. It stars Jonatan Spang as Lars von Trier's alter ego, called "Erik Nietzsche", and is narrated by Lars von Trier himself. All main characters in the film are based on real people from the Danish film industry, with the thinly veiled portrayals including Jens Albinus as director Nils Malmros, Dejan Čukić as screenwriter Mogens Rukov, and Søren Pilmark.
Exploring popular genres, cinematic limits and the personal struggle
The Depression Trilogy consists of Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac. All three star Charlotte Gainsbourg and deal with characters who suffer depression or grief in different ways. This trilogy is said to represent the depression that Trier himself experiences.
Lars von Trier's next feature film was Antichrist, a film about "a grieving couple who retreat to their cabin in the woods, hoping a return to Eden will repair their broken hearts and troubled marriage; but nature takes its course and things go from bad to worse". The film stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. It premiered in competition at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where the festival's jury honoured the movie by giving the Best Actress award to Gainsbourg.
In 2011, Lars von Trier released Melancholia, a psychological drama. The film was in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Cannes press conference incident
Known to be provocative during his interviews, during the press conference before the premiere of Melancholia in Cannes, Lars von Trier's remarks caused high controversy in the media, leading the festival to declare him a "persona non grata" and ban him from the festival for one year (without however excluding Melancholia from that year's competition). Minutes before the end, Trier was asked by a journalist about his German roots and the Nazi aesthetic in response to the director's description of the film's genre as "German romance". The director (who was brought up Jewish and only found out that his real father is a non-Jewish German in later life) appeared offended by the connotation and responded discussing his German identity. He joked that since he is no longer Jewish he now "understands" and sympathizes with Hitler, that he is not against the Jews except for Israel which is "a pain in the ass" and that he is a Nazi. The remarks caused a stir in the media that in its majority presented the incident as an antisemitism scandal. The director released an apology statement immediately after the controversial press conference and kept apologizing for his joke during all of the interviews he gave the weeks succeeding the incident, admitting that he was not sober and that he does not need to explain that he is not a Nazi. The actors of Melancholia who were present during the incident (Dunst, Gainsbourg, Skarsgård) defended the director, pointing on his provocative sense of humor and depression. The director of the Cannes festival later characterized the controversy "unfair" and equally "stupid" to Trier's bad joke, concluding that his films are welcome at the festival and that Trier is considered a "friend".
Following Melancholia, Lars von Trier commenced the production of Nymphomaniac, a film about the sexual awakening of a woman played by Charlotte Gainsbourg.
In early December 2013, a four-hour version of the five-and-a-half-hour film was shown to the press in a private preview session. The cast also included Stellan Skarsgård (in his sixth film for Lars von Trier), Shia LaBeouf, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, Christian Slater, and Uma Thurman. In response to claims that he has merely created a "porn film", Skarsgård stated: "... if you look at this film, it's actually a really bad porn movie, even if you fast forward. And after a while you find you don't even react to the explicit scenes. They become as natural as seeing someone eating a bowl of cereal." Trier refused to attend the private screening due to the negative response that he received to Nazi-related remarks made at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, which led to his expulsion from the festival. In the director's defense, Skarsgård stated at the screening, "Everyone knows he's not a Nazi, and it was disgraceful the way the press had these headlines saying he was."
For its public release in the United Kingdom, the four-hour version of Nymphomaniac was divided into two "volumes" —Volume I and Volume II—and the film's British premiere was on 22 February 2014. In interviews prior to the release date, Gainsbourg and co-star Stacy Martin revealed that prosthetic vaginas, body doubles, and special effects were used for the production of the film. Martin also stated that the film's characters were a reflection of the director himself and referred to the experience as an "honour" that she enjoyed.
The film was also released in two "volumes" for the Australian release on 20 March 2014, with an interval separating the back-to-back sections. In his review of the film for 3RRR's film criticism program, "Plato's Cave", presenter Josh Nelson stated that, since the production of Breaking the Waves, the filmmaker that Lars von Trier is most akin to is Alfred Hitchcock, due to his portrayal of feminine issues. Nelson also mentioned filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky as another influence whom Trier himself has also cited.
In February 2014, an uncensored version of Volume I was shown at the Berlin Film Festival, with no announcement of when or if the complete five-and-a-half-hour Nymphomaniac would be made available to the public.
Lars von Trier is working on a new feature film The House That Jack Built, which was originally planned as an eight-part television series. The story will be about a serial killer, seen from the murderer's point of view. Shooting is planned to start in the autumn of 2016.
Aesthetics, themes, and style of working
He is heavily influenced by the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer and the film The Night Porter. He was so inspired by the short film The Perfect Human directed by Jørgen Leth that he challenged Leth to redo the short five times in feature film The Five Obstructions.
Trier has said that "a film should be like a stone in your shoe". To create original art he feels that filmmakers must distinguish themselves stylistically from other films, often by placing restrictions on the filmmaking process. The most famous such restriction is the cinematic "vow of chastity" of the Dogme 95 movement with which he is associated, though only one of his films, The Idiots, is an actual Dogme 95 film. In Dancer in the Dark, he used jump shots and dramatically-different color palettes and camera techniques for the "real world" and musical portions of the film, and in Dogville everything was filmed on a sound stage with no set, where the walls of the buildings in the fictional town were marked as lines on the floor.
Trier often shoots digitally and operates the camera himself, preferring to continuously shoot the actors in-character without stopping between takes. In Dogville he let actors stay in character for hours, in the style of method acting. These techniques often put great strain on actors, most famously with Björk during the filming of Dancer in the Dark. Often he uses the same regular group of actors in many of his films: some of his frequently used actors are Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier and Stellan Skarsgård.
Trier would later return to explicit images in his self-directed Antichrist (2009), exploring darker themes, but he ran into problems when he tried once more with Nymphomaniac, which had ninety minutes cut out (reducing it from 5½ to 4 hours) for its international release in 2013 in order to be commercially viable, taking nearly a year to be shown complete anywhere in an uncensored Director's Cut.
Approach to actors
In a Skype interview for IndieWire, Trier compared his approach to actors with "how a chef would work with a potato or a piece of meat," clarifying that working with actors has differed on each film based on the conditions of the production.
Trier has occasionally courted controversy with regards to the treatment of his leading ladies. He and Björk famously fell out during the shooting of Dancer in the Dark, to the point where Björk would abscond from filming for days at a time.
Despite this, other actresses such as Kirsten Dunst have spoken out in defence of Trier's approach.
Trier has a known penchant for working with actors and production members more than once. His main crew members and producer team has remain intact since the film Europa. The list of actors reappearing on his films, even for small parts or cameos is also extensive and many of them have repeatedly expressed their devotion to Lars von Trier and willingness to return on set with him, even without payment. Stellan Skarsgård was cast in several Lars von Trier films: The Kingdom, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac.
|Actor||The Element of Crime||Epidemic||Medea||Europa||The Kingdom||Breaking the Waves||The Idiots||Dancer in the Dark||Dogville||Manderlay||The Boss of It All||Antichrist||Melancholia||Nymphomaniac||Total|
|Siobhan Fallon Hogan||Yes||Yes||2|
|Preben Lerdorff Rye||Yes||Yes||2|
|Nikolaj Lie Kaas||Yes||Yes||2|
During the German occupation of Denmark, von Trier's suggested father Fritz Michael Hartmann worked as a civil servant and joined a resistance group, Frit Danmark, actively counteracting any pro-German and pro-Nazi colleagues in his department. Another member of this infiltrative resistance group was Hartmann's colleague Viggo Kampmann, who would later become prime minister of Denmark. After von Trier had had four awkward meetings with his biological father, Hartmann refused further contact.
In 2005, von Trier said, "I don't know if I'm all that Catholic really. I'm probably not. Denmark is a very Protestant country. Perhaps I only turned Catholic to piss off a few of my countrymen."
In 2009, he said, "I'm a very bad Catholic. In fact I'm becoming more and more of an atheist."
His mother considered herself a Communist, while his father was a Social Democrat. Both were committed nudists, and Trier went on several childhood holidays to nudist camps. His parents regarded the disciplining of children as reactionary. Trier has noted that he was brought up in an atheist family, and that although Ulf Trier was Jewish, he was not religious. His parents did not allow much room in their household for "feelings, religion, or enjoyment," and also refused to make any rules for their children, with complex effects upon Trier's personality and development.
In 1989, von Trier's mother told him on her deathbed that the man whom von Trier had thought was his biological father had not been, and that he was the result of a liaison she had had with her former employer, Fritz Michael Hartmann (1909–2000), who was descended from a long line of German-speaking Roman Catholic classical musicians. Hartmann's grandfather was Emil Hartmann, his great grandfather J. P. E. Hartmann, his uncles included Niels Gade and Johan Ernst Hartmann, and Niels Viggo Bentzon was his cousin. She stated that she did this to give her son "artistic genes".
"Until that point I thought I had a Jewish background. But I'm really more of a Nazi. I believe that my biological father's German family went back two further generations. Before she died, my mother told me to be happy that I was the son of this other man. She said my foster father had had no goals and no strength. But he was a loving man. And I was very sad about this revelation. And you then feel manipulated when you really do turn out to be creative. If I'd known that my mother had this plan, I would have become something else. I would have shown her. The slut!"
He periodically suffers from depression, and also from various fears and phobias, including an intense fear of flying. This fear frequently places severe constraints on him and his crew, necessitating that virtually all of his films be shot in either Denmark or Sweden. As he quipped in an interview, "Basically, I'm afraid of everything in life, except filmmaking."
On numerous occasions, von Trier has also stated that he suffers from occasional depression which renders him incapable of performing his work and unable to fulfill social obligations.