Lars von Trier: The Natural

Lauren Bacall and Lars von Trier on the set of Dogville (2004)

If you were to ask any movie­maker with a clue
to list  the world’s most fascinating and important contemporary
directors, and if you were to get an answer that had some thought
behind it, the name Lars von Trier would undoubtedly appear on
that list. Von Trier stands alongside such contemporaries as Wong
Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love), Michael Haneke (The Piano
Teacher
) and Tsai Ming-liang (What Time is it Over There?)
as one of the most compelling auteur figures of his generation.
His work is probably more formally innovative than any comparable
director.

Von Trier’s early work was defined by highly stylized technical
bravura at the expense of characterization and narrative: The
Element of Crime
and Zentropa are awash in the complex
cinematographic gimmickry of rear projection, color tinting and
various photographic trickery that initially marked the Danish
wunderkind as a sort of film school whiz kid, enamored with his
bag of technical tricks (and not particularly fascinated with humanity).
But then von Trier’s cinematic perspective shifted to focusing
on emotionally intense portraits of female martyrs, conveyed with
his own peculiar sort of hyper-naturalism.

With his Danish television miniseries “The Kingdom” (recently
reinterpreted by Stephen King for American viewers as “Kingdom
Hospital”) serving as an unlikely transitional work, von Trier
abandoned the flashy aesthetics of his inaugural efforts for a
more naturalistic approach. The actors’ performances now took precedence
over the cinematographer’s bag of filters and gels. But his newfound
love of low-tech-a change ostensibly initiated to minimize the
artifices involved in creating cinema so that emotional intimacy
can be conveyed with immediacy and passion-is, of course, its own
sort of self-conscious artifice. This was not so apparent with
von Trier’s masterful Breaking the Waves, a draining saga
of a wife’s self-sacrificing love in 1970s Scotland that won the
1996 Cannes Grand Prix. But his technique became more obvious with The
Idiots
, a film now famous for its introduction of von Trier
and his Danish cine-prankster pals’ Dogme 95 manifesto, which dictated
that their films be shot with a laundry list of “back to basics” specifications
(only available light, no music score, handheld camerawork, etc.). Dancer
in the Dark
, the musical that finally garnered von Trier his
much-prized Cannes Palme D’or (despite being arguably his weakest
film), continued in a similar vein, though the film did not officially
adhere to the Dogme rules.

Von Trier has continually crafted films that expand the boundaries
of the medium, though with his less accomplished films, his playful
instinct to provoke and experiment sometimes seems like the only
real substance. His new film Dogville, however, is the director’s
best work since Breaking the Waves-and perhaps even his
best film to date. The movie is a parable of small-town exploitation
and revenge, with Nicole Kidman as a mysterious traveler arriving
in a Rocky Mountain village in the 1930s. Von Trier’s
now-famous method of production design (the film’s eponymous town
is created entirely through stagebound markers and facades) represents
the director’s most successful effort at fusing a spare cinematic
aesthetic with an emotional purity and honesty.

“All the actors did well but it’s a bit like
children.
I have four, and when you’re with one, you’re a
human being. When you’re with two, you’re a policeman…
It’s ridiculous to work with an actor if you don’t
give that actor your attention.”

MM spoke with von Trier about
his moviemaking methods just prior to Dogville‘s American
release.

Travis Crawford (MM):There’s
a comment that I’ve always loved in Stig Björkman’s documentary
on you,
Tranceformer. You remarked that film is a startlingly
superficial medium, but if you can accept that reality, you
can use the medium to express sincerity. Do you still feel
the same way now?

Lars von Trier (LVT): Oh, that’s
the problem with saying stuff at a lot of different times in
your life-you’re always confronted with it later. (laughs)
I think that the theatrical style that Dogville represents
is taking that idea of artificiality one step further. The whole
medium has to do with make-believe-it’s not life that you see
up on the screen. But part of the thrill is that we have to work
as an audience to make it into a story, or a character, or life,
or whatever. So if you simplify it even more and make it more
abstract, you have to work even harder, but it can be more fulfilling
also. That was my theory, anyway.

MM: How did you originally arrive
at the idea to shoot
Dogville on stage sets?

LVT: The story of the film was inspired
by this Bertolt Brecht song from Three Penny Opera, “Pirate
Jenny.” When you simplify, there are a lot of questions that
arise: What should you keep and what should you take away? It’s
not simple to stylize it; there has to be meaning. One of the
rules we had was that whatever prop would be there would be something
that, at one point in the film, was needed. If you look at the
props in the film, you will know that, at a certain point, they
will be used for something. And that’s also a technique from
computer games.

MM: Your work is defined by each
film’s specific stylistic or technical approach, like the sets
in
Dogville, the Dogme manifesto of The Idiots, the
multiple cameras in
Dancer in the Dark. What comes first
for you: the method of moviemaking to be followed by an appropriate
story vehicle for the technique, or the story and characters,
followed by the moviemaking approach?

LVT: It varies. In the case of Dogville,
I did the story first, and in fact originally wrote it as something
that should be shot on location. The good thing and the bad thing
about my situation now is that I don’t have to ask anybody. But
if I keep on doing these films-and the next film will also be
done with chalk marks on the floor-then eventually nobody will
give me money to do another one! (laughs) But with The
Idiots
, the rules were there before the story, and with Zentropa,
we worked with a lot of back projection, and that was the idea
before the story came. But in Dancer in the Dark, the
[method] came later.

MM: Since Breaking the Waves, you’ve
moved from films that have focused on showy technical wizardry,
into more naturalistic, realistic work-but these films are
every bit as stylized as
Zentropa or Element of
Crime. Do you see this development into spare naturalism
as being its own form of artifice?

LVT: I don’t. I can see the line
between the first film and what I’m doing now, but I don’t analyze
it. I don’t have a goal where I find out what strange effects
I should put into it. It’s more based on feelings; it’s intuitive.
I can look in the mirror and say that I haven’t been prostituting
myself too much. But I want to do three of these types of films-and
I will have to do something in between so I can cheat my distributors
into believing people will come to the cinema.

MM: On the subject of cheating
distributors: why is there a two-hour cut of
Dogville in
addition to the full-length, three-hour cut?

LVT: Yeah, yeah. (long sigh)
I edited the three-hour version but, contractually, we had to
deliver a two-hour version also-which is fine with me. I had
a good friend, Anders Refn, the editor of Breaking the Waves,
and he edited it down to two hours. I’m sure it’s probably a
better film (laughs), but the other film is really my
film. The two-hour version is fine, but it’s not the way I would’ve
edited it.

Film has a lot of compromises all
the time, but you also have people like me who take themselves
very seriously. It goes from the Hollywood system to the auteur
system, but all aspects of life are compromises-even your private life. That’s
what being a human being is all about, making compromises. But
then it’s a matter of how clever you are at it. I’m sure the
three-hour version is too long, but I have this little thing
where all the films that I like are too long. All my favorites
are far too long-I’m a great fan of Barry Lyndon, and
that film is far too long. The Fellini films I like, they
never end… There has to be a certain amount of pain for the
audience!

MM: Well, that’s why it’s art,
right? Was it difficult directing such a large ensemble cast
of forceful personalities in
Dogville?

LVT: I wouldn’t say difficult, because
they’re all very good actors.
I was surprised that all these people wanted to work on this film and not be
very well paid. But in order to do my best work, I have to make my actors feel
good. And I was ashamed to see Philip Baker Hall just sitting in a rocking
chair for so long, just reading Mark Twain.
He was a patient and fantastic man, but I didn’t feel good about it. And the
same is true for some of the others.

I think they did well, but of course it’s
much easier when you just have two people in a room and you can
give them all your attention. So in that sense, it wasn’t a big
pleasure. But all of them are people that I would love to work
with if there were only one or two. It’s a bit like children.
I have four children, and when you’re with one, you’re a human
being. But when you’re with two, you’re a policeman. (laughs)
And no offense meant, because I’m not saying actors are children.
I’m just saying you want to give them your attention.
It’s ridiculous to have a child if you don’t give it attention, and it’s ridiculous
to work with an actor if you don’t give the actor attention.

Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson
in Breaking the Waves (1996)

MM: Your last two films have
been set in a mythical, set-bound America-and
the same will also be true for your next two films,
Manderlay and Washington, correct?

LVT: Yes, when you have seen them,
you will know all about America!

MM: What’s the fascination with America?

LVT: Since I’ve never been there,
it’s a very mythological place to me. I’m sure if you saw the
nouvelle vogue films, you would find France a very exotic place.
I’m very happy to have not been to America, because it’s more
mythological that way. A lot of the films I love come from America.
It’s like making a film that takes place on Mars, except I have
a lot of secondhand information about America.

MM: When Dogville premiered
at Cannes last year, there was a certain critical
contingency that found it very anti-American..

LVT: But I don’t think it was American
criticism, it was just political criticism, because I get the
same from other places. Either you agree with the content of
the film on a humanistic level, or you don’t. It would be nonsense
to be offended by this film if you were American, because I can
only represent a man who has seen America on film and television.
And my knowledge of human nature doesn’t come from America, it
comes from Denmark; whatever characters you invent come from
your life. I’ve been reading Steinbeck and I have this feeling
about America, and this is what I’m trying to put into this film.
But it might be untrue to everyone else but me. These films may
in some way be about America, but no more than Breaking the
Waves
is about Scotland, or Zentropa is about Germany.

Jean-Marc Barr in Zentropa (1991)

MM: So is The Idiots about
Denmark? It’s your only film in recent memory actually set
in your home country.

LVT: I would say it’s very Danish-but
I’m sure very few people would agree with that. In right-wing
circles on the Internet, I’m said to be very anti-Danish. But
maybe I’m anti all nationalities. We have to get rid of all these “nations,” because
that’s nonsense.

MM: Have you had any input into
the making of “KingdomHospital,” the U.S. TV
adaptation of your series “The Kingdom”?

LVT: No. I had a talk with Stephen
King about it, and he had some ideas that sounded exotic. I would
love to see it-it will be funny, I’m sure.

MM: And you’re okay with them
remaking it?

LVT: Oh, yeah. I’ve found that whatever
people do to the work you create is out of your control. Either
you spend your life going around the world checking copies and
projection rooms, or you just say, “This is what I’ve done, this
is my original, now do with it what you want.”

MM: Who are some of your influences?
You’ve mentioned Brecht and Fellini, and I know that you’re
an admirer of Carl Dreyer’s work.

LVT: Orson Welles was a very
big influence on me. Right now, I’m looking at Apocalypse Now and a lot of
Scorsese’s work. Tarkovsky also, and some French filmmakers. I don’t
see new films very much, and I don’t read any books, I have to say.
I think there’s a point in your life where you kind of fill up your
hard drive, and then you use that. The alternative is to go in many
directions, and I’m trying to keep to the direction that I can see
in my work. MM

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.