Lars von Trier is an important Danish film-maker. Born to nudist hippie atheists, the then Lars Trier (the von was later added as a joke) would begin making films aged 11, on receiving a Super-8 camera as a gift. He enrolled in the National Film School of Denmark and continued making films such as Nocturne (1980) and The Last Detail (1981), both of which won the Best Film award at the Munich International Festival of Film Schools. He graduated from film school and made The Element of the Crime (1984), a highly stylised and very bizarre orange and black pudding of a movie. The film concerns the hunt for a paedophillic child murderer and was very well received, going on to receive a nomination for the Palm d’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, which it didn’t win, but did go on to win the Technical Grand Prize at that same festival.
He followed The Element of the Crime with Epidemic (1987, a truly great year), a brilliantly reflexive and postmodern film about the film-making process and the spread of contagious disease. After Epidemic came Europa (1991) – a quite boring film about Nazis and trains which inexplicably won three awards at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. Lars was so angered that he had only won three awards and not the prized Palm d’Or that he gave the presiding judges the finger and walked out of the festival – more about fun at Cannes later on. After Europa came The Kingdom (1994), a TV series made for Dutch television about a haunted hospital.
In 1995, Lars von Trier became annoyed about something. Nobody knows quite what, but he was so annoyed that he joined up with fellow Danish film-maker Thomas Vinterberg to create the Dogme ’95 film movement, at the centre of which was a monastic pining for more truth and reality in cinema, and the rejection of falsity and illusion. Notable films in the Dogme ’95 style include Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), Italian for Beginners (2000), and Lars von Trier’s very own The Idiots (1998). The Idiots was an exercise in extremity and offensiveness, with a story surrounding able-bodied and minded people releasing their ‘inner idiot’, ‘spazzing out’ (the film’s term, not mine) in public places for a sense of unthinking release and to shock the ‘normals’. It’s a great piece of work that is more sensitively handled than you’d expect from a film with so much dribbling and semi-erect penises. Typically, the release of the film was surrounded by controversy and remains a touchy subject to broadcasters, who invariably receive buckets of scorn whenever they try to air it.
After the storm that surrounded the release of The Idiots died down, von Trier made Breaking the Waves (1998). A touching story about a woman trying to cope with the slow death of her husband after a terrible accident through doing what she sees as the will of God, having random sexual encounters with strangers. Breaking the Waves went on to win critical acclaim from Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese and the Grand Prix at Cannes (again). Presumably von Trier’s finger wasn’t invited that year.
Von Trier confounded expectations with his next film, Dancer in the Dark (2000). An upbeat musical starring Bjork as a cleaner who is slowly going blind, Dancer manages to combine heartbreakingly depressing scenes of manipulation and abuse with bizarrely upbeat musical numbers. The film gained mixed reviews, with critics claiming that it was either the greatest thing they had ever seen, or the worst thing they had ever seen. The film is insane in its brilliance and also won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. Cannes and von Trier go way back. Not happy with following any kind of predestined or expected path, von Trier followed the straightforwardly nuts Dancer in the Dark with the dry and experimental The Five Obstructions (2002), a film in which the angry Dane angrily goads fellow Dane Jorgan Leth into remaking von Trier’s favourite short film ‘The Perfect Human’ five times, with five different obstacles preventing him. It’s fantastic and comes more highly recommended than Dogville (2003), one of his dullest films. It’s bloated, it’s long, and it’s far too pleased with itself, and was so boring that von Trier had to kill a donkey before anyone would talk about it. The sequel Manderlay (2005) falls into much the same pitfalls as its predecessor, but with added boredom and cardboard performances. Avoid!
In 2006, von Trier scripted the interesting Dear Wendy for his old Dogme ’95 buddy Thomas Vinterberg, and also found time to direct The Boss of It All (2006), a little-seen office politics comedy, notable for using a computer program to determine the camera movements, presumably to replicate the scrutinised and closely observed mechanical world of the office. It was little-seen outside of Denmark.
Then came Antichrist (2009). A shocking tale of a couple in the death throes of a relationship beset by tragedy that showed the world just how terrifying Charlotte Gainsbourg could be with a hammer. Antichrist’s sex and violence credo seemed to cause every mouth in the media to foam with rage. As ever, the sex and violence sounds repugnant but is completely justified… well, as justified as a block of wood to the testicles ever could be, anyway. Antichrist re-established von Trier to a new generation of English-speaking cinema-goers unfamiliar with his earlier films, and his next film Melancholia (2011) seems like it will follow in this trajectory. The trailer makes the film look like Jack Bauer and Mary Jane help the woman from Antichrist stop the end of the world but, in typical von Trier fashion, nothing can be predicted except trouble at Cannes, which he gave us this year by the bucketful by allying himself with the Nazis, showing a tattoo of the word “FUCK” along his fingers, and eventually getting himself ejected from the festival.
We should treasure him.