You wouldn’t be wrong in wondering whether or not Lars von Trier inhabits the same world as the rest of us. His cinematic output is more than eclectic and, much like other directors who focus on the doom and gloom in the world, he has a very specific following. On the other hand, his works speak to a huge range of people, honing in on the human condition in a way like no other. Trier’s depressive mentality, whilst downbeat, considers the world in a way utterly unique and whilst others become consumed with the intricacies of trivial affairs, Trier can see right through it all.
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Trier is not like the rest of us; he began making films at the age of eleven, suffers from overwhelming bouts of depression and anxiety and will not travel by plane. In one interview, in fact, the director was quoted as claiming to be afraid of “everything in life, except filmmaking”. Funny then, that he is so apparently unafraid of controversy and the way in which he is perceived in the media. At the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, prior to the screening of his disaster film Melancholia, Trier infamously sympathised with Nazi heritage. Whilst there was huge public outcry and Trier was eventually named persona non grata by the festival, in retrospect it appears that he did not realise what he was doing. Trier’s comments were most likely not meant as a statement of hatred or controversy but rather, a slightly botched attempt on his part to understand all facets of the human condition. Perhaps what Trier meant to say was that, hopefully at least, a person cannot be wholly bad or wholly good. We have shades of both.
Throughout Trier’s works, this kind of thinking is prevalent and whilst there may be apparently “bad” characters in his works, on closer inspection, everything is not entirely as it seems. Those who we would normally label selfish and self-interested are constructed of an intricate balance of elements, each highlighted by Trier’s directing.
Let’s get the ball rolling, shall we? Trier has a colourful, vast history and if we’re going to kick things off, we better be snappy about it. In the mid ‘90s, a filmmaking movement sprung into life in Denmark. Dogme 95 was a strict, bare way of looking at film, constricted by heavily-imposed rules. Amongst other things, filmmakers had to shoot on location, were required to use hand-held cameras, could not dabble in genre movies and could not be credited for their work. Of course, Trier was at the helm of the very movement, having worked with his filmmaking colleague Thomas Vinterberg to form Dogme 95. Whilst Festen, the first Dogme film, upheld the code of conduct, films in its aftermath were a little more underhand. During filming for The Idiots, Trier used background music, detaching somewhat from the feeling of stark reality. Although the movement has since been disbanded, it is a useful way of understanding Trier as a director. He seems to be a glutton for punishment and if things aren’t difficult, then they’re not worth looking into.
Trier likes obstacles. In his 2003 collaboration The Five Obstructions with Jorgen Leth, Trier invented a series of challenges for the filmmaker to complete, asking him to remake one of his short films according to a number of different rules. Challenges ranged from reshooting the film in Cuba with no set, to remaking the film in the worst place in the world, without showing it. Trier guided Leth down a path of double-bluffing and betrayal, undercutting his attempts to adhere to the rules. In The Five Obstructions, Trier pushed Leth to his artistic limits, his gaze never faltering as he poked and probed the director.
In Melancholia, Trier focused on a character entirely and seemingly selfishly, removed from the world around her. On the night of her wedding, Justine insults her boss, defecates on her sister’s lawn and cheats on her husband. Soon after, she moves to her sister’s home, waiting for the planet Melancholia to pass by the earth in an almighty sequence. The film shows us the end of the world, first in an extended opening sequence and then through the eyes of the family onscreen. Out of all of the characters, the depressive Justine is most at ease with the impending doom. As she is already in a pessimistic state, the ending of things aligns in perfect harmony with her. She bathes in the apocalyptic light, assuming the worst will happen because she is condition to expect it. In Justine, Trier seemed to represent himself. Whilst she is depressed by the world, it is because she seems to know something that those around her do not. She lives apart from her family; she sees a reality hidden from the rest of us.
Much of Trier’s work has provoked responses of anger and disgust from audiences. His way of looking at his characters, punishing them and belittling them seems to suggest that he considers himself as a sort of cinematic god. But maybe that’s not the case. In Dancer in the Dark, Trier filmed Bjork as an immigrant single mother who works in a factory to make ends meet. Her passion for life lies in music and in order to escape from the situation in which she lives, she breaks into imagined, extended musical numbers. The film is breathtakingly tragic and much like many of Trier’s other works, watching it is a gut-wrenching experience. In the character of Selma, however, Trier finds a sort of redemption. Whilst her fate is undeniably terrible and ill-judged, she remains true to her faith in others throughout the film. Selma lives in a world apart from everyone around her and, in her daydreams, finds the place where she belongs. You get the sense that Trier feels the same way. Although he is consumed with the darker side of life, he seems to be wanting to tell us something about himself, rather than force a mentality down our throats. Trier is a dreamer; he lives apart from the rest of us.