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Notebook Primer: Lars von Trier

A career overview of the Danish filmmaker whose indelible and provocative films have made him one of contemporary cinema's leading figures.
Jeremy Carr
MUBI is exclusively streaming restored versions of Lars von Trier's The Kingdom I (1994) and The Kingdom II (1997), and will be premiering episodes of The Kingdom: Exodus (2022) beginning November 27, 2022.
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Lars von Trier. Photo by Peter Hjorth.
While many may proclaim the death of the author, and even more acknowledge that cinema is an art far more collaborative than the idea of a film's auteur suggests, there are nevertheless certain directors whose name on a film carries undeniable connotations. Among contemporary filmmakers, Danish provocateur Lars von Trier is one of the hardest to ignore. But this is not to say one knows exactly what one is getting with every von Trier picture. On the contrary, not only are his stylistic tendencies extensive and varied, but the stories he tells, even those ostensibly contained within thematic trilogies, are disparate from his preceding and succeeding features, in terms of settings, characters, and fundamental narratives. And yet, with every “film by Lars von Trier,” there remain certain assumptions, usually based on the inevitably jarring nature of his work, his bold chronicles of despair, sex, and violence, and his inventive, ever-evolving aesthetic. As challenging as it is to therefore define a Lars von Trier film, it’s even more difficult to downplay these (usually fulfilled) expectations.
The Element of Crime (1984).
The formal characteristics of von Trier’s work have, in particular, been in place since his formative years of filmmaking. Born Lars Trier in 1956 (he later added the ostentatious “von” to his name, an initial act of promotional cheek and a nod to like-minded formalists such as Josef von Sternberg and Erich von Stroheim), he starred as a young boy in the 1969 television series Hemmelig sommer (Clandestine Summer) and, after making 8mm films as a teen, enrolled in the National Film School of Denmark, where his ambitious student projects, like his 1982 graduation film, Images of Relief, heralded what was to come with his earliest, full-length efforts. The visual palette established in these award-winning shorts was transferred, first, to his feature debut, 1984’s The Element of Crime, an apocalyptic noir saturated in otherworldly hues of orange and yellow. Employing hypnosis as a narrative thrust (a repeated von Trier refrain), he crafts a nightmare detective yarn with subjective perspectives and correspondingly disconcerting camera angles and movements, situating the viewer in a dingy, organic world that is decomposing both morally and structurally. The Element of Crime bears many of the hallmarks of postmodern genre cinema, while Epidemic (1987) is a uniquely realized, self-conscious commentary on filmmaking itself, with a grainy, black and white presentation that assimilates a carefully executed construction with impulsive playfulness. Europa, on the other hand, is a blatantly fabricated picture with abundant special effects; it is stark, dreamlike, and, owing in part to an entrancing voice over by Max von Sydow, a spellbinding sensory experience. This 1991 film, with its occasionally absurd, Kafkaesque scenario of entrapment and entanglement, uses embellished lighting, sporadic color, rear projection, and rigid compositions to highlight a layered, artificial conception. 
Frequently embracing the influences of Wagner, Nietzsche, and Brecht, von Trier has also been informed by icons of art cinema likeAndrei Tarkovsky and his beloved Carl Theodor Dreyer. To that end, between Epidemic and Europa, he paid tribute to Dreyer by working from an unproduced screenplay by the fellow Dane and directing for television 1988’s Medea (he had also employed Dreyer’s recurrent cinematographer Henning Bendtsen for Epidemic and Europa). With this underrated film, a “personal interpretation and homage” to Dreyer, von Trier attempted to seize some of his idol’s enduring spirit, envisioning Dreyer’s own conceptual inclinations and, most notably, realizing his hypothetical use of color. Shot on video, transferred to film, and then transferred back to video, the result is a picture seeped in granular saturation and the muted and murky and yet stylized effusion of elemental attributes.
Following these dazzling, self-assured early films, evincing an experimental penchant for daring formal enterprise, von Trier traded in the stylistic flamboyance for something completely different. Spearheading the Dogme 95 movement with fellow director Thomas Vinterberg, based on a manifesto that established particular rules for a more hyper-realistic filmmaking aesthetic while eschewing others (granting some leeway in between), von Trier’s first attempt at a less mannered production came with 1996’s Breaking the Waves, where the tightly controlled images of Europa have given way to an erratic, shaky spontaneity. Even more artless and unstructured is von Trier’s “official” Dogme film, The Idiots. Released in 1998, its quaking technique works well with its discomforting subject matter and the incredulous behavior of its characters. A more compelling variation on the bearing came with the superficially impromptu atmosphere of 2000’s Dancer in the Dark, where the film’s vérité musical sequences express bursts of unbridled happiness in a choreographed act of escapism for its beleaguered main character, contrasting with its heavy-hitting scenes of unsentimental ferocity.
Von Trier had early on developed the habit of adopting literary devices to his cinematic renderings, using chapter titles, for example, to signal dramatic turning points, and in 2003, he also embarked on transforming theatrical artifice into film. With Dogville and its 2005 follow-up, Manderlay, von Trier devised drastically pared down sets to convey each film’s minimal interior and exterior facades, with sparse decor and little to no peripheral perspective. Accordingly, and to an astonishing and fascinating degree, the spectator engagement is arguably heightened as, like most of von Trier’s work, there is the overriding sense that whatever transpires in these tucked away hamlets is the most climactic situation in the world. Despite the formal void, the pretense quickly fades as the absorbing performances, exhaustive direction, and canny screenplays take hold.
Distancing devices are also employed in von Trier’s unabashed 2006 comedy, The Boss of it All, which the director introduces via his reflection in a window, offering assurances of a “harmless” movie to come. From there, the film is defined by unpredictable jump cuts, askew, even arbitrary camera placement (a computer program randomly altered the framing), and the banal colors of corporate veneer. By comparison, 2009’s Antichrist and 2011’s Melancholia bank on the visceral realization of psychological abrasion, as von Trier arranges composite imagery teeming with gorgeous illumination and stunning photography to complement and contrast each film’s harrowing realization of ecstasy, turmoil, and tragedy. More recently, Nymphomaniac (2013) and The House That Jack Built (2018) express a further succession of amalgamated styles. Nymphomaniac tackles audacious subject matter but approaches the material with a nearly clinical exhibition, injecting graphic illustrations that range from the humorously disconnected —visualized ruminations on mathematics, music, and fishing—to uninhibited interactions that required the use of more willing body doubles (the effective CGI blending of these porn star stand-ins and the actual actors is a technical feat in itself). Similarly, The House That Jack Built, von Trier’s depiction of unambiguous madness is something akin to an animate psychological profile, with digressions and musings on art and philosophy and associative inserts that may (or may not) help alleviate the horrific impression otherwise presented.
Breaking the Waves (1996).
This apparent quest for visual bravado and variance is not to suggest that von Trier’s narratives are secondary. Indeed, his stories and characters are as bold and engaging and often as affecting as his formal schemes. He has never shied away from contentious subjects, confronting all manner of controversial human behavior and, in many cases, leaving the ultimate meaning open to interpretation. The Element of Crime is, on its seedy surface, a murder mystery approached with morbid fascination by a detective who tracks down a serial killer in a gripping course of action, but ends up probing his own ambiguous past, his capacity for obsession, and the potential for identity transference. The story structure of Epidemic is even more multifaceted, as its film-within-a-film overlaps reality and fantasy in a revelatory meta-process, which, like several of von Trier’s later films, also acts as an autobiographical compendium of his personal fears and psychological challenges. Europa, the final film of von Trier’s “Europa trilogy” (with The Element of Crime and Epidemic), approaches the dangers and anxieties of post-war economic and social instability, personified by its idealistic protagonist, an American conductor working in Germany. He is one of a vast roster of von Trier characters who act with the best of intentions only to have their plans thwarted by scheming forces or their own individual undoing.
Following this principled throughline, Breaking the Waves was the first in what became von Trier’s “Gold Heart” trilogy, about good-natured individuals confronted by a skeptical society, who gradually ingratiate themselves but suffer for their personal commitment. Here, there is the devotion exemplified by Emily Watson’s Bess McNeill. She is, initially, the welcoming arms to one outcast, her betrothed oil rigger (Stellan Skarsgård), but when their unorthodox, sacrificial situation raises the ire of an ultra-religious community, she too becomes a social pariah, until her impervious piety, instant and enduring, is rewarded in a miraculous conclusion. The divisive basis of The Idiots, about a group of people who pretend to have mental disabilities in order to provoke a public response, is problematic to say the least, and while one may argue for its virtues as a treatise on liberation and conformity, its primary emotional propulsion is courtesy of Bodil Jørgensen’s Karen, who happens upon the troupe and sees the chance for companionship and perhaps the opportunity to exert her pent-up rebellion, but is often bewildered by the internal strife. Björk’s Selma Ježková, a Czech immigrant living in 1960s America in Dancer in the Dark, is likewise a kind-hearted, loving soul, subject to compassion and cruelty and always maintaining an almost mystical persistence. Even Medea, von Trier’s brooding take on Euripides’ Greek tragedy, is a case of outcast restitution meeting a tremendous force of will.
Another exceptional example of this dominant character trait and its related narrative genesis is Dogville’s Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), who takes in Grace (Nicole Kidman), the daughter of a gangster, and attempts to integrate her into his small, Depression-stricken settlement. She is the definitive outsider and he is the personification of good will, but the situation leaves them susceptible to harsh hypocrisy (in his case) and humiliating abuse (in hers). Von Trier confronts the underbelly of small-town coalitions, the battle of self versus the community, and the dueling forces of behind-closed-doors duplicity and public decency, and when Grace returns in Manderlay, now played by Bryce Dallas Howard, she again stirs up the local establishment, in this case an Alabama plantation. Only this time, the upending of her good intentions reinforces the futility of enacted civility that often plagues von Trier’s demoralized protagonists. Comprising the first two thirds of another, as-yet unrealized trilogy—the so-called “U-S-A Land of Opportunities” trilogy—these scathing discourses on humanity’s lethal susceptibility to hierarchical ambition are as pessimistic as they are perceptive.
Far lighter in tone is The Boss of it All, where Jens Albinus’ failed thespian is enlisted to act the part of a struggling IT company’s CEO, enduring the blame for the company’s shortcomings while trying to keep the befuddled workers content. He tries his best to maintain the ruse but is hilariously out of step in this deadpan assessment of office policies and politics. It is a marked reprieve before Antichrist, a picture laden with dread, malevolent influences. The grieving parents played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe form a disquieting union, where intimate contemplation is juxtaposed with torrents of chaos in a tense, haunting film about isolation, female physicality, trauma, the constructs of evil, and the supposition that nature itself is a destructive force. The ultimate destruction, however, emerges from Melancholia’s two-fold interplay of individual angst, manifested by sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and impending global devastation. Gainsbourg returns in Nymphomaniac, in which its subject heroine recalls her complex, sexually candid life story, finding fault in her “sinful” behavior and fearing herself to be a “bad” person. But the film’s thoughtful, methodical exposition reveals a very human pursuit. The first-person recollections of a lurid life are echoed in The House That Jack Built, where Matt Dillon’s titular killer attempts to elucidate his psychopathic methodology and surveys the messy intricacies of his compulsiveness and the mundane obstacles that often leave him in a state of bumbling distraction.
Dancer in the Dark (2000).
To tell the stories he chooses to tell, to develop the characters he chooses to create, Lars von Trier has often taken an impudent path underscored by realistic, unflinching detail, and extreme distributions of violence and pain, opting for an uncomfortable, striking depiction of certain events. And this, in many ways, has been a primary cause of the aforementioned associations with his work; this and his scandalous public statements and tendency to shock at film festivals (where he has nevertheless been routinely successful). Although this inclination started off modestly, a dramatic shift occurred with The Idiots, from its objectionable premise to its brief, semi-pornographic orgy. A film like Dancer in the Dark, for all its joy, is also a painfully resolute depiction of hardship with sudden acts of unbearable violence, and while the punishment enforced on Grace in Dogville is relatively discrete in terms of actual depiction, the nature of the abuse is likewise brutal and unsettling.
In recent years, von Trier has elected for a more explicit interpretation of unconventional lives and startling single sequences. With its foreboding, unrelenting tenor and presentation of ecological aggression, Antichrist moves from the wary estimation of grief and guilt to a detonation of raw emotion and acts of sexual violence. Nymphomaniac, as its title suggests, takes the carnal content even further, and with the benefit of an unrated release and a healthy allotment of time (the uncut parts one and two run nearly six hours total), von Trier pulls no punches as Gainsbourg relates her pained and pleasured odyssey. The House that Jack Built fosters a similar headway in which the sadistic steps taken by Jack include the jaw-dropping murder of children and a macabre, walk-in freezer, a symbolic house of horrors.
Subject to exploitation, perverse curiosity, and ethical scrutiny, von Trier’s aggrieved souls —besieged by their own psychosis or dealing with the cruel hand of fate (blindness, paralysis, the death of a child, all are particularly potent)—have nevertheless provided remarkable opportunities for the actors who accept such roles and are, for better or worse, tested to the limits of their talents and tolerance. His antagonistic directorial practice has led to complaints and accusations (from Björk and Kidman most famously), but at the same time, there have been many others who have not only returned to work with von Trier repeatedly, but have done some of their best work under his direction: Udo Kier, Dafoe, StellanSkarsgård, and, maybe the most admirable example—certainly the notable female example—Gainsbourg, who has turned in several courageous and vulnerable performances.
Emily Watson, lauded for her turn in Breaking the Waves, conveys a surface simplicity that is warm and subtle, testifying to her faithful optimism, but she also expresses a touching, at times hysterical, passion. Hers is one of many von Trier faces marked by poignant desperation and excruciating anguish. See, too, Björk, who was equally commended for her debut performance as Selma, winning Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. (So angered by the allegedly abusive experience with von Trier, she essentially retired from acting after this introductory tour-de-force.) Her endearing spirit is scarcely contained by the camera—any of the 100 used by von Trier for certain sequences — as she delivers a redolent glimpse into the inner turmoil of a mother’s love. The same could also be said, with a twisted variation, for Kirsten Olesen and her heart-wrenching Medea. Furthermore, entire ensembles like those in Dogville (Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara, James Caan, Chloe Sevigny, and Philip Baker Hall, among others) give von Trier’s work a diverse, demonstrative communal authenticity.
The Kingdom: Exodus (2022).
Nearly any von Trier production could be seen as emblematic of these entwined attributes, but one that stands out, partly due to its timeliness and its perpetual medley of styles and formats, is the television miniseries he created for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. The Kingdom, or Riget, so named for its Copenhagen University Hospital setting, Rigshospitalet, is about the enigmatic and practical goings on at its eponymous facility. Released in 1994 and 1997, respectively, the first two seasons of The Kingdom had their multiple mysteries largely unresolved following the deaths of several key cast members and some uncertainty concerning how to proceed, but the years-long gap was finally fulfilled in 2022 when von Trier returned to the series with The Kingdom: Exodus.
In this eerily ominous location, where the “chill and damp” of the site’s past have left, according to its opening narration, “small marks of fatigue” on its present situation, elements of a traditional medical drama—the day-to-day tensions and trifles of its embattled staff—are encased in a fantastic backdrop of ghostly horror and inexplicable manifestations. The urgency and impulses of the show’s reality, accentuated by a hand-held camera and naturalistic performances, are productively paralleled by the supernatural incidences that emerge alongside the scientific processes, just as the pitch-black humor wrestles with the sinister unease. The queasy coloring and von Trier’s fitful technique capture the show’s assorted allies and adversaries, the sundry conspiracies, and the manifold dramatics that are dynamic and intense (and intensely amusing). Menace seeps in and spreads as the series progresses and von Trier offers up the grotesque, the tender, and the eccentric: “In all this silliness lies evil,” states the young male dishwasher seen in the first two seasons, essentially stating the show’s fundamental premise.
For The Kingdom’s first two seasons, von Trier appears as a master of ceremonies at the end of each episode, but for Exodus, while his literal presence is gone, he adds an extra dimension of self-referential construction, beginning as an elderly fan finishes watching the second season on DVD and, like many actual viewers at the time, is left unsatisfied by its gaping conclusion. She seeks answers at the actual hospital, where the series was not only shot but where the events apparently occurred (again, von Trier intersects fiction and reality), and this third installation proceeds to its sepia-tinged hysterics. The rivalry between the Danes and Swedes endure, contemporary barbs now prod modern day political correctness, and, alongside numerous appealing callbacks to the show’s initial run, there is a new allocation of conniving individuals, earnest considerations, and a substantial dose of surrealism.
Here, as elsewhere, there is the spiritual and the physical, the divine and the deranged, the guilty and the innocent. Lars von Trier’s career to this point has comprised a stunning offensive of conflicting and corresponding characters and scenarios, instances of virtuosic formal inventiveness oscillating with melodramatic conventions as instincts and inhibitions clash with compelling desires, inevitable power struggles, and ill-fated idealism. In these films of widely and wildly fluctuating tones, von Trier transcends ostensible genres by creating a body of work that is distinctly his own, singular in world cinema for its devilish provocation.


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