The House That Lars Built: Inside Von Trier’s Madness And Genius
There is no middle ground when it comes to Lars Von Trier’s films. You either love them or hate them. His films have always provoked a strong reaction with many defending his radical style of storytelling and others condemning the Danish director who is perceived as openly exploitative of violence and misogynistic in tone. But the fury and supernatural power he brings is in another dimension and worth the price of admission. From his roots, Von Trier had the ability to make whole original stories and mold them against the grain of traditional storytelling.
Lars Trier – the “von” was added in homage to directors Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg – was born in 1956. In a moment that would change his views of the world, Lars learned from his dying mother that his father was not his actual biological father, but a former politician she worked for named Fritz Michael Hartmann. The reason for this was because Hartmann’s family were former musicians and writers and she wanted her son to take in their “artistic genes.” Trier grew up in a bohemian household that was left-wing, nudist, and with almost no rules to follow.
Trier attended the National Film School of Denmark and his 1982 graduation film, Images of Liberation, was given a regular theatrical release, the first movie to be bestowed such a privilege. In 1984, he would make his international breakthrough with The Element of Crime, a neo-noir set in Egypt in which a detective moves to Cairo while reminiscing of his past cases; tracking a serial killer back home, which is a Europe that is crumbling all over. It was the first of his “Europa Trilogy,” which also included Epidemic (1987) and Europa (1991), all being dark and dystopian, a mood that would carry into his 21st-century films.
But to Trier, he wanted to try something radical, something new in a growingly technological world. Digital cameras were brand new and Trier, along with fellow filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg, decided to create a movement called Dogme 95. The rules followed a stripped-down production list: shot on location, handheld camera, in color with regular lights, no genre involved, and no superficial action – all must be depicted as real. It lasted into the late 90s and early 2000s, but it was forced creativity that other directors around the world tried to emulate. Trier’s first film under Dogme 95 was The Idiots, about a group of friends who experiment with acting without any recognition of their behavior as if they were intellectually disabled.
Trier’s work for the last twenty years remains tied to some of these elements but has made alterations to tailor toward a mainstream look. This has allowed him to bring in major names to work with him including Nicole Kidman, Kristen Dunst, Willem Dafoe, Uma Thurman, and Matt Dillon. His work, including Dogville, Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac, was all shot on digital film and with continuous movement. He was his own cameraman, like Steven Soderbergh, and always writes and re-writes his scripts to the point where there is no final draft for the actors to follow.
However, Trier has gotten into trouble thanks to his desire for graphic depictions of sex and violence, as well as the controversy of his own remarks. Trier’s approach to actors is working them into the raw emotions he wants from them, but sometimes crossing a line that makes the production troublesome. Both Kidman and Bjork (Dancer In The Dark) have both spoken negatively about how he treated them, although Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg have defended him. Trier, who has openly struggled with his mental health issues, has been prone to deep depressive fits and his fear of flying forces all of his movies to be shot in Denmark. He said about himself, “Basically, I’m afraid of everything in life, except filmmaking.”
Despite the controversies, there is no question regarding how effective Trier’s works have been on viewers and other filmmakers. He is fearless and willing to provoke anger and disgust but always brings the artistic style to his movies. It all can be summed up by the two words spoken by a fox in Antichrist: “Chaos reigns.” Lars von Trier loves to create chaos in simple situations and it is his mind he pours out on the screen for people to usurp up – and then vomit it back.
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