Scandinavia's foremost living auteur and the catalyst of the Dogme95 movement, Lars von Trier is arguably world cinema's most confrontational and polarizing figure. Willfully devastating audiences, he takes risks few filmmakers would conceive, mounting projects that somehow transcend the grand follies they narrowly miss becoming. Challenging conventional limitations and imposing his own rules, he restlessly reinvents the film language. The Danish director has therefore cultivated an insistently transnational cinema, taking inspiration from sources that range from the European avant-garde to American genre films.
This volume provides a stimulating overview of Trier's career while focusing on the more recent work, including his controversial Gold Heart Trilogy (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, and Dancer in the Dark), the as-yet unfinished USA Trilogy (Dogville and Manderlay), and individual projects such as the comedy The Boss of It All and the incendiary horror psychodrama Antichrist. Closely analyzing the films and their contexts, Linda Badley draws on a range of cultural references and critical approaches, including genre, gender, and cultural studies, performance theory, and trauma culture. Two revealing interviews that Trier granted during crucial stages of Antichrist's development are also included.
About the Author
Linda Badley is a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University. She is the author of Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic and Writing Horror and the Body: The Fiction of Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Clive Barker and the coeditor of Traditions in World Cinema.
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Lars von Trier
By Linda Badley
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2010 Linda Badley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMaking the Waves Cinema as performance
"Lars von Trier—genius or fraud?" asks a May 2009 Guardian Arts Diary poll. Its subject is arguably world cinema's most confrontational and polarizing figure, the results: 60.3 percent genius, 39.7 percent fraud. Trier takes risks no other filmmaker would conceive of, mounting projects that somehow transcend the grand follies they narrowly miss becoming, and willfully devastates audiences. Scandinavia's foremost auteur since Ingmar Bergman, the Danish director has premiered all but one of his ten features at Cannes and reigns, as IndieWIRE would have it, "the unabashed prince of the European avant-garde" (qtd. in "Trier"). Challenging conventional limitations and imposing his own rules (changing them with each film), he restlessly reinvents the language of cinema.
Personally he is as challenging as his films. After having written some of the most compelling heroines in recent cinema and elicited stunning, career-topping performances from Emily Watson, Björk, Nicole Kidman, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, he is reputed to be a misogynist who bullies actresses and abuses his female characters in cinematic reinstatements of depleted sexist clichés. He is notorious at Cannes for his provocations and insults, as in 1991, when he thanked "the midget" (Jury President Roman Polanski) for awarding his film Europa third, rather than first, prize. At home in Denmark, his uncensored, frequently petty outbursts are regularly reported in the tabloids. In 2005, for instance, he referred to Zentropa colleagues Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen's collaborations (Open Hearts, 2002, Brothers, 2005), which had outperformed him critically and at the box office, as "crap" (Pedersen). Just as often, his outbursts have political import, as in February 2006, via video broadcast, he sarcastically thanked Danish Minister of Culture Brian Mikkelsen (who had selected The Idiots  for an official Danish "canon") for "nationalising our culture" (McGwin). The previous year at Cannes, in a scene worthy of Michael Moore, he called U.S. President George W. Bush an "idiot" and an "asshole," lending vituperation to the already divisive Manderlay (2005), his film about an Alabama plantation practicing slavery into the 1930s, by claiming to be "60% American" (Higgins)—an assertion made more offensive by his celebrated refusal or inability (he has a fear of flying) to set foot in the United States. (In other words, coming from a small country infiltrated by America's media-driven cultural imperialism, he has found it not merely his right or duty to make films about the United States but impossible to do otherwise.) A similar effrontery had provided the catalyst for Dogme95, the Danish collective and global movement that took on Hollywood in the 1990s and continues to be well served by the punk impertinence of the Dogme logo, a large, staring eye that flickers from the rear end of a bulldog (or is it a pig?).
Dogme shows where the provocateur and auteur come together. Claiming a new democracy in which (in the manifesto's words) "anybody can make films," Trier and the Dogme "brothers" marked out a space for independent filmmaking beyond the global mass entertainment industry. Similarly working out of Zentropa, his production company, the lynchpin of a collaborative "Film Town" near Copenhagen, he situates his own projects outside the pale, further marking them off within trilogies: the obsessively stylized Europe Trilogy, the raw and radically unironic Gold Heart Trilogy, and the drippingly sardonic (two-thirds-completed) USA—Land of Opportunities Trilogy. The political Trier reflects enduring philosophical and aesthetic allegiances and extends the important impulses of his work as a whole, having emerged out of the defiantly transnational outlook of his early films, through which he set himself off from all things Danish. Although he rarely leaves Denmark, he has cultivated a European and uniquely global cinema. Making his first features primarily in English, he quickly found a niche in the international festival circuit. At odds with the Danish industry's preference for heritage films, social realism, and native language, he drew inspiration from a wide swath—from the genius of Andrei Tarkovsky to movements such as Italian neorealism and the international new waves of the 1960s-1970s to American auteurs Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch. Trier's long-term affinity with German culture—from expressionism and New German cinema to the writings of Karl Marx, Franz Kafka, and Friedrich Nietzsche—extends to equal passions for Wagnerian opera and anti-Wagnerian (Brechtian) theater, enhancing a central dichotomy in his practice. Similar contradictions emerge between his modernist identification with European high art and a fascination with American genres. These are united in a passion for postmodern bricolage; thus in 1983, he compared filmmaking to "a supermarket, where you go around with your little cart and pick things up" (Schwander 16) and described his first feature The Element of Crime (1984) as "a bastard child of a mating of American with German film" (Larsen 39). However different, these German and American mythologies afforded a diversity and range—geographical, political, and emotional—that Danish culture lacked. Similarly, he draws on "low" and exploitation genres: from horror/ science fiction to the "woman's picture," pornography, and even propaganda.
From the outset, Trier has presented himself as a contradictory, eclectic, European, and transnational figure within a global postmodern (as opposed to Danish) context. For this reason, and to account for Trier's larger impact, this book assumes a broadly comparative framework. Intended to supplement Peter Schepelern's and Jack Stevenson's groundbreaking studies, which emphasize the Danish context and reception of his career, it also draws on Mette Hjort's essential work on small-nation cinemas and Trier's catalytic role in their resurgence within an increasingly transnational environment.
In spite or because of his flaunted internationalism, Trier has become the standard-bearer for Nordic cinema. Like Bergman and Carl Th. Dreyer, whose visions transcended nationality, he has exploited the Scandinavian "imaginary"—bleak landscapes, Lutheran austerity and self-denial, the explosive release of repressed emotions—to project it elsewhere: on the harshly photogenic seacoast community of Breaking the Waves's (1996) Hebrides or in Dogville's (2003) bare-stage minimalism. He has similarly appropriated the Northern European Kammerspiel (chamber play) that Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg had condensed into a charged medium. Reincarnating Dreyer's martyrs (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928; Ordet, 1955) and the anguished female performances of Bergman's films for the present era, he has invented a form of psychodrama that traumatizes audiences while challenging them to respond to cinema in new ways.
Along the way, Trier's provocations have revolutionized the Danish film industry. In its exotic mélange of sources, The Element of Crime could not have been more different from Danish social realism. Made in English, set in a festering, postapocalyptic Europe, it challenged Danish Film Institute policies that funded only native-language films about Danish subjects. Its international success led to a 1989 Film Act that expanded the definition of a Danish film to include any film produced by a Danish company that contributed to film art and culture (Hjort, Small Nation 12–13), essentially denationalizing the industry. In 1992, to fund Breaking the Waves and assume control over his films, Trier and producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen founded Zentropa Productions. In accommodating Trier's eccentric strengths, Zentropa's business model offered other filmmakers an independent alternative both to the state-supported Danish Film Institute and the commercial Hollywood model (Ostrowska), becoming what Screen in 2002 called "the creative and business powerhouse" that "reinvigorated an industry" (Hjort, Small Nation 8) and eventually stimulated a renaissance in Nordic cinema.
Dogme's international success marked the beginning of Trier's direct engagement with cultural politics. It was launched on March 20, 1995, in Paris's Odéon Théâtre at an international symposium marking cinema's first century when Trier pronounced recent cinema "rubbish," read from a manifesto, and showered the astonished audience with red leaflets before abruptly departing. Dogme (dogma in French) required abstinence from Hollywood-style high-tech "cosmetics," calling for an oppositional movement with its own doctrine and ten-rule "Vow of Chastity." In contrast to the Cahiers du Cinéma critics, who created an opening for fresh, personal films and, in the process, generated the French New Wave, Trier invented Dogme as a performative space. Europa's technical virtuosity had proved a dead end, and he had found working "imperfectly" with an ensemble on his television miniseries The Kingdom (1994) a joy. As Peter Schepelern comments, Dogme "might have been augured from the start" (Schepelern and Björkman), and it continues to inform his oeuvre. Coming up with the infamous rules was "easy," claims their cowriter Thomas Vinterberg: "We asked ourselves what we most hated about film today, and then we drew up a list banning it all." The idea was "to put a mirror in front of [the movie industry] and say we can do it another way as well" (Name of This Film). Coinciding with the digital revolution and offering a recipe for low-budget films, the initiative took on a revolutionary, anti-Hollywood stance whose all-important side effect, Mette Hjort has shown, was to stimulate an oppositional form of globalization, "a network of audiences with a genuine global reach" through which individual directors and small countries could compete ("Globalisation" 155).
Since Dogme, Trier's aesthetic choices, themes, and aims have followed this logic—even when displaying a brazenly un-Dogmatic artifice. Filmed in Denmark, Sweden, and Germany and financed as international coproductions, Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville, Manderlay, and Antichrist were made "as if" American—in English with star-studded international casts with (often) a cacophony of accents. In their defiant inappropriateness, they might also be viewed as "accented" in the sense that Hamid Naficy uses the term to denote filmmakers and cinemas positioned in a marginal and antagonistic relation to the norms of Hollywood entertainment, which pretends to be ideologically neutral or lacking accent (Naficy 23; Penner and Stichele 14). Claiming to be "occupied" by American mediatized culture, dispossessed and exiled, culturally and ideologically, from his country and himself, he thus set four (of six) of his post-Dogme films in America, flaunted his use of American genre stereotypes, and deployed a European ideological aesthetic in the service of critique. Filmed on an empty stage with chalk marks for streets and buildings (while reflecting America's "true" face in its minimalist, European mirror), Dogville and Manderlay culminate Trier's quest as outlined in the Dogma manifesto for a "pure" cinema of emotion and provocation. Even the titular (if nonexistent) character of The Boss of It All, his Danish satire on empty-suit capitalism shot by a computerized "cinematographer" called Automavision, resides in America. But there is yet another sense in which Trier found himself "American" or at least other than "Danish."
More than any auteur in recent memory, Trier's personal life is a public myth featured in the elaborate metatextual apparatus that accompanies nearly all his productions. His manifestos, rule making, and interrogations of the medium emerge from what he claims are profoundly personal needs, and interviewers are hard pressed to steer him from subjects such as his childhood, phobias, and medications. Speculation about authorial intentions, always risky, is especially so when Trier's image is so overtly self-constructed and publicly staged, and when contradicting previous statements is integral to his game. A demonstration model of the intentional fallacy, he is an auteurist critic's dream subject and worst nightmare.
The issue gets trickier when considering the role of psychoanalysis in the myth of Lars von Trier. A long-term therapy patient, he uses therapeutic language to explain himself to himself and others, speaking of creativity as "a means of survival" beyond any mere "need" or "desire" and claiming that "your driving force is connected to your psychological insecurities" (Björkman, Trier 16). The psychoanalytic model is ubiquitous in his oeuvre. Regressive hypnosis is the key narrative device and metaphor of the Europe Trilogy, physical and psychic trauma haunts the hospital miniseries The Kingdom, and mental impairment is central to Gold Heart Trilogy whose heroines, along with The Idiots' titular protagonists, achieve a sublime schizophrenic transcendence. The Europe and USA trilogies re-expose the scars of the Holocaust, the American Depression, and slavery.
Trauma is not only his inevitable subject but also, as Caroline Bainbridge has stressed, his films' affect ("Making"; Cinema 114–19, 135–37) and primary aim: to induce emotional, ethical, and intellectual distress in audiences, other filmmakers, and himself. Think of Antichrist's culminating shock/schlock effects, for instance, or The Five Obstructions (2003), Trier's "Dogumentary" challenge to former mentor Jørgen Leth to remake his too-"perfect" short film The Perfect Human (1967) five times according to perversely counterintuitive rules such as "#2: Bombay," which requires him to film himself experiencing his own personal hell. (When the imperturbable Leth makes a poignantly multilayered metafilm, Trier snaps: "This is therapy, not a film competition with yourself!") The notion of "therapeutic trauma" is attached to the metacinematic apparatus surrounding Trier's collaborations and films, adding yet another level of performativity and self-construction to what are already psychodramas or confessions. Freud may be dead, but Trier's practice brings psychotherapeutic myths and methods to the creative act, which he portrays as inseparable from self-fashioning—a process with crucial cultural and political ramifications.
What Roger Luckhurst and Mark Seltzer have called our current "trauma culture" helps contextualize Trier's case. As depth psychology has lost credibility, identity has shaped itself around the concept of trauma, and as Seltzer suggests, a mediatized trauma discourse has become our common language, whether through confession of psychological damage on television talk shows or in the public display of "torn and open bodies" (1). On one hand, in art and theory, as Hal Foster writes in Return of the Real,
the discourse of trauma continues the poststructuralist critique of the subject by other means, for there is no subject of trauma; the position is evacuated.... On the other, in popular culture, trauma is treated as an event that guarantees the subject [which] ... however disturbed, rushes back in as witness, testifier, survivor. Here is indeed a traumatic subject, and it has absolute authority, for one cannot challenge the trauma of another.... In trauma discourse, the subject is evacuated and elevated at once. (168)
Magically resolving contemporary culture's two opposing imperatives, deconstruction and identity politics, this "strange rebirth of the author, is a significant turn in contemporary art, criticism, and cultural politics" (Foster 168).
Trauma discourse goes some distance in explaining why Lars von Trier shapes his identity so publicly around personal crisis. His psychomythology offers a microcosm of the existential subject in our late or post-postmodern predicament. He portrays himself as a child in a world without borders, given complete freedom by his radical leftist mother, and forced to erect the structures of his identity. He was born "Lars Trier" in Copenhagen on April 30, 1956, the second child of Inger Høst and Ulf Trier. "Cultural radicals" (as he describes them) employed in the Social Ministry, both had master's degrees in political economics, progressive social views, and artistic tastes, and lived comfortably in the wooded suburb of Lundtofte (Stevenson, Lars 6–7). Ulf, who was Jewish, was a kind and tolerant social democrat. Inger, an ardent communist and prominent feminist who had fought in the Danish resistance and associated with various left-wing writers, nourished Lars's creative ego, charging him with complete autonomy while discouraging religion, emotion, and bourgeois pleasures. With freedom came a terrible burden of choice—of having to decide not simply when but whether to go to the dentist (Björkman, Trier 4–6). Thrown back on himself, he was persistently anxious. "I was forced to create an internal authority, and that isn't particularly easy for a child," he told Björkman. "I thought I was responsible for the whole world" (Trier 7). This lack also resulted in a compulsion to construct elaborate games and impose systems of rules on himself and others.
Excerpted from Lars von Trier by Linda Badley Copyright © 2010 by Linda Badley. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
MAKING THE WAVES: CINEMA AS PERFORMANCE....................1
Prescient Affects: Student Films....................16
Hypnotic Virtuosity: The Europe Trilogy....................21
Subverting the Kingdom: Television....................47
Performative Politics: Dogme95 and The Idiots....................54
Performing the Feminine: Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark....................69
(Up)staging the American Dream: The USA Trilogy (Minus One)....................101
Comedy, Automavision, and The Boss of It All....................131
Theatre of Cruelty: Antichrist (An Epilogue)....................140
INTERVIEWS WITH LARS VON TRIER....................155
Interview, September 2006....................155
Interview, October 2007....................167