A Controversial Filmmaker’s Career and Motives Re-Examined

He’s been called a racist. A misogynist. A spiteful man who disrespects the rules of cinema and is casual with showing unsimulated sex and/or graphic violence. In my opinion, he’s one of these things, and thankfully it’s not one of the first two.

Lars von Trier is a filmmaker, who has been making movies since the 80s. Recently he was banned from Cannes Film Festival for making comments in which he states he “sympathises with Hitler.” A couple of years before at the festival, he named himself “the greatest filmmaker in the world.” People have taken offense. First off, I’d like to point out that both those comments were jokes! Admittedly, the Hitler comment was in very poor taste, but the man isn’t exactly known for his comedy. We’ve all said things that we’ve immediately regretted, and although the anger with von Trier is understandable, I think the man was clearly kidding, and did not mean it. As for the comment about being the “greatest filmmaker in the world”: that was a perfectly valid response to a snide journalist who was offending von Trier by insulting him and the film he was promoting (Antichrist).

The controversial attitude von Trier possesses was perhaps examined best in his mockumentary/movie The Five Obstructions, in which he challenges famous filmmaker Jorgen Leth to remake one of his films five times under five different conditions. The film showcases von Trier’s strange and quirky sense of humour. He loves seeing people discomforted; I wouldn’t say it gets him off, but it gives him a strange satisfaction, and I can sort of see where he’s coming from. Seeing people squirm in their seat can be more interesting and thought-provoking then seeing them smirk, without being sadistic.

Pretty much all of his other films are designed to make people squirm and feel discomforted. Whether it’s Emily Watson prostituting herself silently on a bus in Breaking the Waves, the quirky group sex scene in The Idiots, or a baby getting shot in the face in Dogville (I won’t even go into the things that occur in Antichrist), it’s obvious he sees making people uncomfortable as more of a fruitful and intriguing way of entertaining them. Not necessarily that he wants them to be entertained; he wants them to feel weirded out, even disgusted, but not quite sure of why. Take for example the end credits of Dogville and Manderlay; they feature disturbing images of America’s grittier history, but the soundtrack he chooses to play is upbeat, almost happy; this is a direct contrast to make the audience feel angry but unsure; is von Trier trying to say something, or is he just trying to piss me off? Could it be both? In my opinion, it is. He wants the moment of realisation where people finally discover something to be accompanied by a varying emotion, such as discomfort, rage, or sickness.

This really makes him unique to me. Not many directors would do this. Sure, he’s pissing people off by doing it, and that’s a risky choice for a filmmaker, but if you see his sick sense-of-humour in it, and learn how to laugh at yourself, then you’ll see what point he’s trying to get across. It’s not an easy thing to appreciate, but I respect von Trier for having such balls. If he pisses the viewer off, then fine! The people that are easily pissed off by small humorous things that might be in bad taste are the sort of people who should stay away from his films. Thankfully, not all of them practise this annoying trend: Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark are two notably very accessible films from the director’s catalogue that the general viewer can watch and enjoy without feeling like von Trier is laughing at them.

You know, he might not be laughing at all. Another point I’d like to make is that he might be trying to teach us something about how easily annoyed we are by things we view as “taboo” or “pretentious,” instead of having an open and considerate mind about it. Von Trier doesn’t consider any of the things he’s done pretentious or taboo, and the increasing amount of sex and violence in his films show that his determination to prove to us his point is intensifying, and that if we want to be able to watch his films, we need to learn to appreciate what he’s saying.

So what do you think? Have I got it all wrong? Is he a bastard that deserves nothing but hatred? Or do you agree with me? Have I missed something out? Leave a comment below, and thanks for ranting reading!

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Posted on August 23, 2011, in Filmmakers, Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. You know my thoughts on this guy so I won’t bore you again.

    What I found interesting about this article is that you mention shocking images and upbeat music. Reminds me a little of The Smiths. Their music was always up beat and dancey and yet the lyrics were REALLY depressing and shocking. I guess this juxtaposition is just standard and well trodden. A classic artsy formula.

    This is meant in no way to undermine von Trier, I am just placing his work along with other artists to help me understand it more.

    I still have no inclination to see most of his work.

    • Like The Smiths comment, though I’m not sure what Von Trier would think of you saying that.

      I understand that you don’t want to see his movies, but can’t you just give one a try? How about Dancer in the Dark? It’s a musical starring Bjork the singer in an amazing role. Very accessible and enjoyable, and not artsy, pretentious or excessive. There’s no sex and only one scene of violence. I think you’ll like it; might even be one to watch with the wife, even though the ending is quite sad. I can honestly see you liking that movie.

      Boy, I try too hard, don’t I?

  2. I adore von Trier. I love his sense of humour, and I appreciate his willingness to push the boundaries of cinema, and what is acceptable as cinema. Pretty much the only film I’m looking forward to this year is Melancholia, and Antichrist is a spellbinding piece of cinema.

    I even ‘get’ his sympathising with Hitler comment. It’s so easy to just use shorthand to vilify Hitler, it’s a comforting way of labelling someone who did do horrendous things. But it’s too simplistic to just blindly label someone in such a way. I’d never defend Hitler or his actions, but I feel it’s important to bear in mind that history is always written by the victors, and human beings are incredibly complex creatures – and should be thought of as such. To imagine another person complexly is a truly difficult task, which is why it’s easier to just use simplistic terms to label people. Despite what the media may tell you, there is no good vs bad or us vs them. So in this regard, I sympathise with von Trier and his (admittedly badly timed) comment.

    Sorry if this came across as a rant, and I hope my point is clear… I don’t want to sound like a Nazi-sympathiser.

    • It’s okay, I get what you mean, and I agree. I think what he meant with the Nazi comment was that he knows what it feels like to have to hide away in a bunker while half the world hates you. But still, to say that he’s a Nazi while sitting at a press conference in FRANCE OF ALL PLACES? Not wise.

  3. Ha yes, it really was a badly thought-out attempt at humour – it’s just a shame the media latched onto it. At the end of the day, it’s a comment that is easily dismissed… until news outlets start circulating it the way they did. Then it becomes something more than an ill-conceived spur of the moment joke.

    • I feel sorry for him. Getting banned from Cannes is going to hit him and his career hard.

      • Honestly i didn’t feel that bad for him. And i also think the ones who love him will continue to watch his movies anyways, so i don’t see it affecting his career that much.

        • You’re right, but I still think he’s very misunderstood by a lot of people who’ve judged him based on the stupid things he’s said and the sex in his movies rather than examining them further and giving the man some time.

      • For me, i just think he is one of those people that should just avoid talking as much as possible. I honestly felt more bad for Kirsten Dunsts when i saw the clip…she looked extremely uncomfortable

        And as for the sex…well i’ve seen unsimulated sex in a few movies, and i’ve haven’t see a case where i felt it added something to a movie that a simulated sex scene couldn’t

        • He does talk too much. While apologizing for the Nazi comment in an interview, he started rambling about other things including his home country of Denmark, which he proceeded to casually call a “shithole.”

          I think generally, unsimulated sex in movies is unnecessary, but I would argue that the penetration shot in the opening scene of Antichrist was quite well-chosen because it really jolts the viewer back into real life and makes the sex seem much more real, subconsciously making the child’s death seem much more real as well. I applaud Lars for his choice there.

  4. So, as you know, I rewatched Dogville today, and my head was once again swirling with ideas. (Granted, I fell asleep because school is exhausting, but I got most of the way through.) What do you think Dogville means? What is he trying to portray with what characters. I have personal come to this initial conclusion: Grace = the over eager LIberty complex.hero complex, the town of Dogville – the nice facade of loveliness and open mindedness, while underneath is America’s true xenophobia and judgment, and Grace’s father and the gangsters = America’s trigger happy government/military/dissatisfaction when something doesn’t go their way. What about you? I also speculated that the people of Dogville could be the various countries around the world, such as in the UN, who really don’t like the US that much.

    • Those are some interesting and very valid ideas. I never really thought of the film like that, but I like your enthusiasm for it, it is a great movie. You should write your own piece about it, if you haven’t already.

      • Yeah, I’m thinking about writing about it this weekend if I have the time. I just have to finish my rewatch of it, haha.

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