Lars Trier was born in Kongens Lyngby, north of Copenhagen, the son of Inger Trier (née Høst, 1915—1989). He had believed that his biological father was Ulf Trier (1907—1978), until his mother revealed to him on her deathbed that he had been conceived as a result of an affair she had with her employer, Fritz Michael Hartmann. His mother considered herself a Communist, while his father was a Social Democrat, and both were committed nudists, and the young Lars went on several childhood holidays to nudist camps. They regarded the disciplining of children as reactionary. Trier has noted that he was brought up in an atheist family, and that although Ulf Trier was Jewish, he was not religious. His parents did not allow much room in their household for “feelings, religion, or enjoyment”, and also refused to make any rules for their children, with complex results for von Trier’s personality and development.
He began making his own films at the age of 11 after receiving a Super-8 camera as a gift and continued to be involved in independent moviemaking throughout his high school years. In 1979, he was enrolled in the National Film School of Denmark. His peers at the film school nicknamed him “von Trier”. The name is sort of an inside-joke with the von (German “of” or “from” used as a nobiliary particle), suggesting nobility and a certain arrogance, while Lars is a very common and Trier not an unusual name in Denmark. He reportedly kept the “von” name in homage to Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg, both of whom also added it later in life. During his time as a student at the school he made the films Nocturne and The Last Detail, both of which won Best Film awards at the Munich International Festival of Film Schools. In 1983 he graduated with the 57-minute Images of Liberation, which became the first Danish school film to receive a regular theatrical release.
After graduation he began work on the very stylized crime drama, The Element of Crime (Forbrydelsens element 1984), which won a technical award at the Cannes Film Festival. His next film was Epidemic (1987), which was also shown at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section. The film is partly a dark science fiction-tale of a future plague epidemic, and partly chronicles two filmmakers (played by Lars von Trier and screenwriter Niels Vørsel) preparing that film, with the two storylines ultimately colliding. For television von Trier directed Medea (1988), which won the Jean d’Arcy prize in France. It was based on a screenplay by Carl Th. Dreyer and starred Udo Kier. He completed the Europe-trilogy in 1991 with Europa (released as Zentropa in the U.S.), which won the Prix du Jury at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival and picked up awards at other major festivals. In 1990 he also directed the music video for the worldwide hit “Bakerman” by Laid Back. This video was reused in 2006 by the English DJ and artist Shaun Baker who did a remake of Bakerman.
Zentropa and The Kingdom
In 1992 he and producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen founded the movie production company Zentropa Entertainment, named after a train company in Europa, their most recent film at the time. The reason for doing this was to achieve financial independence and to have total creative control. The production company has produced many movies other than von Trier’s own as well as television series. It also has produced hardcore sex films: Constance (1998), Pink Prison (1999), HotMen CoolBoyz (2000) and All About Anna (2005). In order to make money for his newly founded company, he made The Kingdom (Riget, 1994) and The Kingdom II (Riget II, 1997), a pair of miniseries recorded in the Danish national hospital, the name “Riget” being a colloquial name for the hospital known as Rigshospitalet (lit. The Kingdom’s Hospital) in Danish. A projected third installment in the series was derailed by the 1998 death of Ernst-Hugo Järegård, who played Helmer, one of the major characters.
In 1995, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg presented their manifesto for a new cinematic movement which they called Dogme 95. It would however take a while before the first of these films appeared, and at this point many thought of the concept mainly as a radical idea with no future. In 1996, von Trier conducted an unusual theatrical experiment in Copenhagen involving 53 actors, which he titled Psychomobile 1: The World Clock. A documentary chronicling the project was directed by Jesper Jargil, and was released in 2000 with the title De Udstillede (The Exhibited). Von Trier’s next film, Breaking the Waves (1996), the first film in von Trier’s ‘Golden Heart Trilogy’, won the Grand Prix at Cannes and featured Emily Watson, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Its grainy images and hand-held photography pointed towards Dogme 95. The second was The Idiots (1998), nominated for a Palme d’Or, which he presented in person at the Cannes Film Festival notwithstanding his dislike of travelling. Dancer in the Dark (2000) was the final component of the trilogy. As originator of the Dogme 95 concept, which has led to international interest in Danish film as a whole, he has inspired filmmakers all over the world. Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, who created the Dogme 95 Manifesto and the “Vow of Chastity” together with their fellow Dogme directors Kristian Levring and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen shared in 2008 the European Film Award European Achievement in World Cinema.
Von Trier’s use of sexually explicit images in The Idiots (1998) started a wave of arthouse mainstream films with unsimulated sex, such as Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999), Baise-Moi (2000), Intimacy (2001), Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny (2003) and Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004). In 1998, Lars von Trier also made history by having his company Zentropa be the world’s first mainstream film company to produce hardcore pornographic films.
Three of these films, Constance (1998), Pink Prison (1999) and the adult/mainstream crossover-feature All About Anna (2005), were made primarily for a female audience, and were extremely successful in Europe, with the first two being directly responsible for the March 2006 legalizing of pornography in Norway. Women too like to see other people having sex. What they don’t like is the endless close-ups of hammering bodyparts without a story. Lars von Trier is the first to have realised this and produced valuable quality porn films for women. — Stern No. 40, 27 September 2007
Lars von Trier’s initiative spearheaded a European wave of female-friendly porn films from directors such as Anna Span, Erika Lust and Petra Joy, while von Trier’s company Zentropa was forced to abandon the experiment due to pressure from English business partners. In July 2009, women’s magazine Cosmopolitan ranked Pink Prison as No. 1 in its Top Five of the best women’s porn, calling it the “role model for the new porn-generation”. Lars von Trier would return to explicit images in his self-directed Antichrist (2009), exploring darker themes.
In 2000, von Trier premiered a musical featuring Icelandic musician Björk, Dancer in the Dark. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The song “I’ve Seen It All” (which Trier co-wrote) received an Academy Award nomination for Best Song. The Five Obstructions (2003), made by Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth, is a documentary, but also incorporates lengthy sections of experimental films. The premise is that Lars von Trier challenges director Jørgen Leth, his friend and mentor, to remake his old experimental film The Perfect Human (1967) five times, each time with a different ‘obstruction’ (or obstacle) specified by von Trier. He then directed two films in his announced ‘U.S. trilogy’: Dogville (2003), starring Nicole Kidman and Manderlay (2005), starring Bryce Dallas Howard in the same role – as Grace. Both films are extremely stylized, with the actors playing their parts on a nearly empty soundstage with little but chalk marks on the floor to indicate the sets.
Both films had huge casts of major international actors (Harriet Andersson, Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe, etc.), and questioned various issues relating to American society, such as intolerance in Dogville and slavery in Manderlay. Controversy erupted on the 2004 set for Manderlay when actor John C. Reilly walked off the Trollhättan, Sweden, set in late March. Reilly walked off the film when he learned that an upcoming scene involved the slaughter of a donkey for food. The film’s producer says the animal—who was old and not expected to live much longer—was killed off-camera by a certified veterinarian, in accordance with Swedish law. Reilly was replaced by Zeljko Ivanek. The U.S. was also the scene for Dear Wendy (2005), a feature film directed by von Trier’s “Dogme-brother” Thomas Vinterberg from a script by von Trier. It starred Jamie Bell and Bill Pullman and dealt with gun worship and violence in American society.
In 2006, von Trier released a Danish-language comedy film, The Boss of it All. It was shot using a process that von Trier has called Automavision, which involves the director choosing the best possible fixed camera position and then allowing a computer to randomly choose when to tilt, pan or zoom. It was followed by an autobiographical film, De unge år: Erik Nietzsche sagaen del 1 (2007), scripted by von Trier but directed by Jacob Thuesen, which tells the story of von Trier’s years as a student at the National Film School of Denmark. It stars Jonatan Spang as von Trier’s alter ego, called “Erik Nietzsche”, and is narrated by von Trier himself. All main characters in the film are based on real people from the Danish film industry, with the thinly veiled portrayals including Jens Albinus as director Nils Malmros, Dejan Čukić as screenwriter Mogens Rukov and Søren Pilmark in an especially unflattering portrayal as sex-obsessed school principal Henning Camre.
Von Trier’s next feature film was Antichrist, an art film about “a grieving couple who retreat to their cabin in the woods, hoping a return to Eden will repair their broken hearts and troubled marriage; but nature takes its course and things go from bad to worse”. The film, which includes sexually explicit content, stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. It premiered in competition at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where the festival’s jury honoured the movie by giving the Best Actress award to Gainsbourg.
The Cannes Film Festival Ecumenical Jury, which gives prizes for movies that promote spiritual, humanist and universal values, also “honoured” the film with a special “anti-award”; a spokesman for the jury described it as “the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world.” In 2010 the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported on their website that the film production company Zentropa is reportedly making more revenue from suing movie pirates in Germany that have downloaded Antichrist illegally than from box office and DVD sales, demanding a payment of around 1,300 euros per download to avoid legal action.
Von Trier’s latest work is Melancholia, a psychological disaster drama; shot between 22 July and 8 September 2010 at Film i Väst’s studios in Trollhättan, Sweden, and with exteriors in the area surrounding the Tjolöholm Castle. Magnolia Pictures has acquired the distribution rights for North America. The film was in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Von Trier announced that after finishing Melancholia he hopes to begin production of The Nymphomaniac, a two-part film about the sexual awakening of a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The director explained how he got the idea for the upcoming project: “my DP on [Melancholia], Manuel Claro, at one point voiced a surprising prejudice. He urged me not to fall into the trap that so many aging directors fall into – that the women get younger and younger and nuder and nuder. That’s all I needed to hear. I most definitely intend for the women in my films to get younger and younger and nuder and nuder”. The announced cast includes Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LaBeouf, Willem Dafoe, Connie Nielsen, Jamie Bell, Jens Albinus, Jesper Christensen and Nicole Kidman.
Von Trier suffers from multiple phobias, including an intense fear of flying. His fear of air travel frequently places severely limiting constraints on him and his crew, necessitating that virtually all of his films be shot in either Denmark or Sweden, even those set in the United States or other foreign countries. Von Trier has had a number of his films featured at the Cannes Film Festival over the course of his career, and each time has insisted on driving from Denmark to France for the festival and back. On numerous occasions von Trier has also stated that he suffers from occasional depression which renders him incapable of performing his work and unable to fulfill social obligations.
Lars von Trier has said that “a film should be like a stone in your shoe”. In order to create original art he feels that filmmakers must distinguish themselves stylistically from other films, often by placing restrictions on the filmmaking process. The most famous restriction is the cinematic “vow of chastity” of the Dogme95 movement with which he is associated, though only one of his films, The Idiots, is an actual Dogme 95 film. In Dancer in the Dark, jump shots and dramatically-different color palettes and camera techniques were used for the “real world” and musical portions of the film, and in Dogville everything was filmed on a sound stage with no set where the walls of the buildings in the fictional town were marked as lines on the floor.
Von Trier often shoots digitally and operates the camera himself, preferring to continuously shoot the actors in-character without stopping between takes. In Dogville he let actors stay in character for hours, in the style of method acting. These techniques often put great strain on actors, most famously with Björk during the filming of Dancer in the Dark. Often he uses the same regular group of actors in many of his films: some of his frequently used actors are Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier and Stellan Skarsgård. He is heavily influenced by the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer and the film The Night Porter. He was so inspired by the short film The Perfect Human directed by Jørgen Leth that he challenged Leth to redo the short five times in feature film The Five Obstructions.
Von Trier has on occasion referred to his films as falling into thematic and stylistic trilogies. This pattern began with his first feature film, marking the beginning of The Europa Trilogy, though he claims a trilogy was not initially planned, instead being applied to the films in retrospect. The Europe trilogy illuminated the traumas of Europe in the past and future. This trilogy includes The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987) and Europa (1991). The Golden Heart trilogy was about naive heroines who maintain their ‘golden hearts’ despite the tragedies they experience. This trilogy consists of Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998) and Dancer in the Dark (2000). While all three films are sometimes associated with the Dogme 95 movement, only The Idiots is a certified Dogme 95 film. The USA: Land of Opportunities trilogy follows the character of Grace, and is set in a stylized American past.
Von Trier has stated he was inspired to make a trilogy about the United States as a reaction to Americans at the Cannes film festival who said he had no right to make the Dancer in the Dark, which was often viewed as being critical of a country he has never been to (and has no intention of ever visiting, due to his phobia of travel); however, von Trier himself has stated in interviews he did not intend it to be a criticism of America, saying the film takes place in a “fictional America”. Von Trier proposed the films as ‘a series of sermons on America’s sins and hypocrisy’, inspired by the fact that American movie makers have made many movies about places across the world to which they have not travelled. All three movies will be shot in the same distinctive style, on a bare sound stage with no set and buildings marked by lines on the floor.
This style is inspired by 1970s televised theatre. The trilogy will consist of Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005) and the so far not produced Washington. The Depression Trilogy consists of Antichrist, Melancholia and the yet to be completed, Nymphomaniac. All three star Charlotte Gainsbourg and deal with characters that deal with depression or grief in different ways. This trilogy is said to represent the current depression that von Trier himself is currently going through. The Kingdom (Riget) was planned as a trilogy of three seasons with 13 episodes in total, but the third season was not filmed due to death of star Ernst-Hugo Järegård shortly after completion of the second season.
In 1989, von Trier’s mother revealed on her deathbed that the man who he thought was his father was not, and that she had had a tryst with her former employer, Fritz Michael Hartmann (1909–2000), who descended from a long line of Roman Catholic classical musicians (his grandfather was Emil Hartmann, his great grandfather J.P.E. Hartmann, his uncles included Niels Gade and Johan Ernst Hartmann and thus Niels Viggo Bentzon was his cousin). She stated that she did this in order to give her son “artistic genes”. Until that point I thought I had a Jewish background. But I’m really more of a Nazi. I believe that my biological father’s German family went back two further generations. Before she died, my mother told me to be happy that I was the son of this other man. She said my foster father had had no goals and no strength. But he was a loving man. And I was very sad about this revelation. And you then feel manipulated when you really do turn out to be creative.
If I’d known that my mother had this plan, I would have become something else. I would have shown her. The slut! During the German occupation of Denmark, Fritz Michael Hartmann worked as a civil servant and joined a resistance group (Frit Danmark), actively counteracting any pro-German and pro-Nazi colleagues in his department. Another member of this infiltrative resistance group was Hartmann’s colleague Viggo Kampmann, who would later become prime minister of Denmark.
After four awkward meetings with his biological father, the man refused further contact. The revelations led von Trier to attempt to “erase” the connections with his stepfather by converting to Catholicism, and to rework his filmmaking into a style emphasizing “honesty”. I don’t know if I’m all that Catholic really. I’m probably not. Denmark is a very Protestant country. Perhaps I only turned Catholic to piss off a few of my countrymen. In 2009, he declared, “I’m a very bad Catholic. In fact I’m becoming more and more of an atheist.”
Controversy at 2011 Cannes Film Festival
On 19 May 2011, Cannes Film Festival’s board of directors declared von Trier persona non grata for comments he made during a press conference for his film Melancholia the day before, an unprecedented move for the film festival. Responding to a question by The Times film critic Kate Muir about his German roots and his comments in a Danish film magazine about the Nazi aesthetic, von Trier claimed to have some sympathy for and understanding of Adolf Hitler, and then jokingly claimed to be a Nazi himself:
Von Trier at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
What can I say? I understand Hitler, but I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely. … He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit. But come on, I’m not for the Second World War, and I’m not against Jews. … I am of course very much for Jews, no not too much, because Israel is pain in the ass, but still how can I get out of this sentence. … — Press Conference for Melancholia, Cannes, 2011
Referring to the art of Nazi architect Albert Speer, von Trier added: … he had some talent that was kind of possible for him to use during… Ok, I’m a Nazi. Then, to Toronto Star film critic Peter Howell, who questioned whether Melancholia could be an answer to Hollywood blockbusters and asked von Trier if he could “envision doing a film on a grander scale than this”, von Trier replied: On a grander scale? Yeah. Yeah that’s what we Nazis, we have a tendency to do things on a greater scale. Yeah, maybe you could persuade me into the final solution with journalists. … Hours later, von Trier released a brief statement of apology about his comments at the press conference: “If I have hurt someone this morning by the words I said at the press conference, I sincerely apologise.
I am not anti-semitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi.” The next day, the festival directors held an extraordinary meeting, deciding his remarks were “unacceptable, intolerable and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity that preside over the very existence of the festival. […] The board of directors condemns these comments and declares Lars von Trier persona non grata at the Festival de Cannes, with effect immediately.” Afterwards, von Trier held a news conference of his own in Danish. His first remark to the Danish journalists was: “If any of you journalists will beat me, so just do it. I will enjoy it.” He went on to say that “The Holocaust is the worst crime that ever happened. I have nothing against Jews. I have a Jewish name, and all my children have Jewish names.”
He admitted that his remarks about the Nazis had been misguided, saying “It was really stupidly done and it was in the wrong forum. At the press conference with Danish journalists, there were no problems, but I do not think the international journalists understand my Danish humor.” But he also said he was proud to have been kicked out of the Cannes festival: “I am proud to have been declared ‘persona non grata’. It is perhaps the first time in cinematic history, it has happened. … I think one reason is that French people treated the Jews badly during World War II. Therefore, it is a sensitive topic for them. I respect the Cannes festival very highly, but I also understand that they are very angry at me right now.” Speaking to other news outlets he said that his comments were “very sarcastic and very rude, but that’s very Danish.”
He also added, “I don’t sympathize with Hitler for one second.” In the October 2011 issue of GQ, von Trier is quoted in an interview saying he was not really sorry for the comments he made, only sorry he didn’t make it clear that he was joking. He added, “I can’t be sorry for what I said—it’s against my nature.” On 5 October 2011, von Trier was interviewed by police in Denmark about his remarks at Cannes. Afterwards, he announced that he had ‘decided from this day forth to refrain from all public statements and interviews’.
Von Trier was made a Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog on 14 January 1997. Ten years later von Trier decided to hand back the prize, saying that the Danish royal family are just “simple people of bad quality”.