The Films of Lars von Trier

This post is part of the LAMBs in the Directors Chair Event #28 on Lars von Trier. Read more here.

Lars von Trier, the controversial Dane who helmed such audience-dividing films as The Idiots and Antichrist, is the subject of this special post, in which I quickly review every single feature film he has ever directed, since I’m fortunate enough to have seen each one of them. All in all, he has directed fifteen feature films thus far (some of these made for TV), but how do they all hold up after critical analysis? Let’s start from the beginning.

Befrielsesbilleder (aka Images of a Relief) (1982): This genuinely disturbing prisoners-of-war film is more of an experiment than anything else for Lars von Trier. Available as a DVD extra or via YouTube, the film is only an hour long and doesn’t really make any sense at first glance. The screen soaked in reds, yellows and greens, the strange film has a dark and grungy look but is only momentarily fascinating and often boring. However, in all fairness, it does have it’s moments and isn’t really all that bad. 6/10

The Element of Crime (1984): I saw this film so long ago I barely remember it, yet The Element of Crime is, in certain ways, an artistically memorable film. Shot in a distinct neo-noir style with lush colours and darkly disturbing collaborations of tonally sickening hues, it’s an interesting, surprising little cult movie released in good form by the Criterion Collection. 7/10

Epidemic (1987): Even though this is possibly LVT’s worst film, I still think it’s quite underrated and definitely has moments of greatness. Featuring von Trier himself in the lead role, it’s a dark but humorous look into the screenwriting business and a Contagion-like illness that leaps from the page into real life, particularly in the film’s harrowing, stunning final sequence. 6/10

Medea (1988): Like Befrielsesbilleder, this is also available via YouTube and I’m definitely going to rewatch this sometime soon. Based on an unadapted screenplay by Carl Theodor Dreyer, this underrated film starring Udo Kier and Kirsten Olesen is visually marvellous and thematically rich. Wondrous to watch, and though flawed at times, consistently interesting and emotional. 7/10

Europa (1991): If those first four films were Lars von Trier finding his footing, Europa confirms that he has found it and is using it to take big steps. The final film in a trilogy beginning with Element of Crime and Epidemic, Europa is a stunning, lush film with hypnotic cinematography, great acting and powerful sequences of stunning, marvellous action, Europa returns to the popular theme of war and finds from it a powerful picture; the fruitful final cut of what Befrielsesbilleder was trying to be. 8/10

The Kingdom (1994): Originally a TV series then cut together as a film, this medical drama is funny, dark, amusing and colourful. The characters, particularly the vivid, profane Stig Helmer who screams “Danish scum!” from the rooftops of a structurally unsound hospital where inside, chaos reigns. Worth seeing, if anything, for the final sequence of the first series, in which an abortion goes horribly wrong and a woman gives birth to a fully grown man. In my opinion, the most graphic scene in von Trier’s entire filmography. 8/10

Breaking the Waves (1996): Though some may disagree, this is my favourite of all Lars von Trier’s films. Featuring Emily Watson in a career-defining performance as Bess MacNeill, the simple-minded but passionate young woman who is naively swept up into a darker world, much like many of von Trier’s heroines, with saddening consequences. 10/10

The Idiots (1998): I’ve taken a lot of shit for this, but I absolutely love The Idiots. I think it’s one of Lars von Trier’s absolute best works, and an uncompromising, unflinching look at social disorder and non-conformity taken to its extremes. At first a comic film making fun of the bourgeois with intentionally rebellious attitudes, it becomes in its third act a horrific, terrifying, disturbing look at intolerance, powerlessness and a complete loss of control. 10/10

Dancer in the Dark (2001): The trilogy that began with Breaking the Waves and The Idiots comes full circle with this, arguably von Trier’s most popular and widely loved film. While not admittedly one of my top favourites, it’s not noticeably weak and is genuinely powerful in its many song and dance numbers, wonderfully shot and coloured. Bjork’s performance as the haunted, blinding Selma is wonderful and a pivotal part of one of the saddest on-screen tragedies of recent years. 8/10

Dogville (2003): This is Lars von Trier’s film. More than any other work he has directed, this is perfectly symbolic of his style, oeuvre, beliefs, madness, sanity, control and recklessness. It is an ultimately nihilistic, pessimistic look at American life during the Depression, and it’s no more anti-American than any other similar film directed by an American. It’s three hours long and harrowing, moving and extremely well-acted, and if you’re looking at exploring Lars von Trier, it’s essential. 10/10

The Five Obstructions (2003): Though in the style of his Dogme 95 experiments Lars von Trier refused to be credited as director of this, he is clearly the auteur in charge, and in this fascinating, marvellous experiment he challenges his mentor Jorgen Leth to recreate five new versions of Leth’s short film The Perfect Human with rules imposed by von Trier to hinder his progress. A genuinely interesting, amazing look at the creation of art on film. 9/10

Manderlay (2005): The second in an as-yet unfinished trilogy that began with Dogville, Manderlay replaces Nicole Kidman with Bryce Dallas Howard, a grievous, terrible and nightmarish error. Howard is awful, and I mean awful in every single film I’ve seen her in, and her presence only serves to ruin this flawed and uninteresting sequel that has a great cast apart from her, but simply cannot keep its intriguing premise afloat. 5/10

The Boss of It All (2006): Now here’s an underrated movie. Whilst some people will find the editing style annoying (the random jump cuts and shot changes were chosen by an automated computer, for reasons that tie in nicely with the film’s theme of a loss of corporate control), I embrace them, and I think this atypical von Trier comedy is hilarious and well-made. The actors are likable and bring grace and humour to their parts, and this is a delightful film to watch. 8/10

Occupations (2008 Short): While this isn’t technically a feature, I thought it was worth giving this absolutely laugh-out-loud hilarious short film which was included in the Chacun son Cinema anthology a mention. Watch it here.

Antichrist (2009): Ah, the infamous Antichrist. Love it or hate it, it’s a Lars von Trier movie and you’ve got to give the director some credit for its stylishness and genuinely thought-provoking material. I have heard too many people call it pretentious garbage to stay silent. I completely disagree with that, and I think this is a well-made, supremely well-acted horror film with content that’s explicit but not gratuitous and running themes that are powerful and not for a second exploited. Some say “artsy fartsy trash,” I say a “powerful, effective, great movie,” and certainly one to be debated for ages. 10/10

Melancholia (2011): Lars von Trier’s latest cinematic outing is the more popular and generally liked Melancholia, which continues the visual style adopted in Europa, ignored for a little while, then picked up again for Antichrist. From the film’s marvellous, mindbending opening overture (which I’m very happy to have seen in a cinema) to its explosive finale, the film is an emotional, dark ride through the side of the human psyche von Trier has proved himself an expert at excavating, and a really great movie. 9/10

There. Those are my thoughts on each and every single Lars von Trier film so far. What do you think of them? Leave a comment below.

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Posted on July 12, 2012, in Filmmakers, Movies, Profile and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 41 Comments.

  1. I’m going to try to see a few more films of his before making my post, specifically Element of Crime,The Boss of it All, and Europa as these sound like they would appeal to me the most.

  2. I am ashamed to say I’ve only ever seen melancholia which conveniently only came out a few days after finishing a heavy duty film philosophy book where it mentioned plenty about Von Trier.

    I guess I should get watching the rest, any advice on which to see first or i what order?

    • Try watching Dogville, Antichrist, Breaking the Waves and Europa next. Then after that move on to films like The Idiots and The Boss of It All. The Five Obstructions is also a good place to start because it’s a really great look at the heart of von Trier’s directorial beliefs.

  3. He’s really hit or miss for me. I appreciate his integrity and attempts to do new things, but it doesn’t always work. For me, Breaking the Waves, Five Obstructions, and Melancholia were pretty great, but I didn’t like the artificiality of Dogville and Anti-Christ was unbearable! (although I did like the talking fox) The Celebration which is Dogma 95, but not LvT, is also great.

    I am always impressed by the amount of films you are able to take in and synthesize.

  4. Reblogged this on The Movie Scene and commented:
    Lars von Trier has quickly become one of my five favorite directors. I should make a post about him… you know, once I finish watching all of his films (currently ten for sixteen!).

  5. For me, Lars von Trier is Europe’s top filmmaker whether people like him or not. I personally love the guy as he’s someone I’m influenced by. Having wrote an Auteurs piece on him and wrote an essay on Breaking the Waves. He is clearly a filmmaker I’m always looking forward to whenever he comes out with something. I really hope he makes Wasington one of these days. BTW, what you think of The Kingdom II?

    • A bold statement – Europe’s top filmmaker? Hard to argue.

      I must be straightforward and honest and say I rented The Kingdom II but I was just too damn lazy to watch it. Have to rectify that. The Kingdom I was great however and I am curious about the second series.

  6. The only film of Mr. von Trier’s that I have seen thus far is Melancholia, which now sits comfortably amongst my top 100 favorite films of all time. (I love me some Kiki Dunst) Given how much I loved Melancholia, I definitely need to check out more of his material (The Idiots sounds fascinating, but friends of mine who’ve seen it hated it and thought it offensive).

    I’m a new follower of your blog (due to my undying love for Fellini’s 8 1/2 that led me here) and have been doing so for the past two weeks now, and highly appreciate your film taste. It led me to check out The Rules of the Game and The Double Life of Veronique, both of which I now love to pieces. The Seventh Seal, Werckmeister Harmonies and Mouchette are next on my list of foreign films. I guess what I’m saying is thank you!

    • If you liked Melancholia there may be a reasonable chance you’ll like The Idiots even though it is quite different. I don’t find the film offensive at all, and I celebrate its non-conformist values and attitudes. I think it’s refreshing, funny, deep and dark. Not perfect, but the kind of film that I’m a sucker for when it’s well-made and with a purpose.

      If you love films like 8 1/2, The Rules of the Game and The Double Life of Veronique, I think it’s fairly safe to assume we have similar film tastes, and I hope you check out The Seventh Seal, Werckmeister Harmonies and Mouchette soon, among others that might interest you. You’re very welcome and thank you for commenting. It’s nice to know I’m still introducing new people to films they might not ordinarily have checked out, and it’s one of the biggest reasons I blog.

  7. I’ve seen Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Antichrist, and Melancholia. Where should I go from here?

  8. Tyler, this post is right up my alley. I actually own The Element of Crime, The Kingdom series and I also own Vinterberg’s The Celebration. I have been waiting for a good version of Breaking The Waves instead of the bare bones, region 1 DVD version out there. I’ve seen just about all the films in his canon but The Boss Of It All and his shorts. I still have to see Melancholia, been busy… so many films so little time. It’s in my Netflix queue though.

    Other than the films mentioned above I really liked The Five Obstructions, Dancer In The Dark and Dogville. Antichrist just didn’t do it for me. Too artsy for even me! Lol. I saw a bootleg copy of The Idiots on VHS many, many years ago. Might have to watch that one again.

    I love that Lars used Udo Kier so often. He’s one of those European actors like Kinski that you can’t take your eyes off. He’s certainly been the choice of cult directors since the 70’s. Warhol, Argento, von Trier, Van Sant, E. Elias Merhige, Herzog, Carpenter, Zombie and yes… even Uwe Boll.

    Hey Tyler, you of all people may know the answer to the this. What was the deal with the Epidemic credit, in red, in the upper left hand corner of the frame for the entire length of the film?

    • You’ve seen quite a bit, then! But you have to see The Boss of It All, don’t wait!

      I think it’s neat he used Kier so often as well. I remember Kier in small roles in some of those films, particularly Europa and Breaking the Waves.

      I have no idea why the EPIDEMIC sits there in the corner for the whole film. I think it’s one of Lars’ many incomprehensible jokes. I didn’t mind it, but it did get grating and annoying after a while.

  9. I didn’t really know he had so much going on before Breaking The Waves. I’m torn between that and Dancer in the Dark as my favourites. Have to say I didn’t like Melancholia. Dogville is a brilliant and bold experiment. I’m certainly going to have to check out The Boss of it All.

  10. I have seen Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, The Five Obstructions, Antichrist, and Melancholia. Breaking the Waves is the clear stand-out for me. A truly soul-rattling movie. That said, I’ve liked every film of LvT’s that I’ve seen. Even Melancholia with its dull second half.

    What I like about von Trier is that he never pulls any punches. He gets an idea and then runs with it, no matter what obstacles might be in his way or whom he may offend. We could use more film-makers like him in the world.

    Very nice write-up, Tyler!

    • Melancholia‘s dull second half? I love the second half! :/

      Seriously though, you’re right. He doesn’t pull punches and I admire him for it. As crazy a person as he may be, he makes great films. I don’t like to see people judging his films based on his personality. He and his films are often very different creatures.

      • Most people seem to really dig the second half. Me, I found it – somewhat – plodding and unengaging. The first half with the wedding had me thoroughly fascinated on the other hand. The dysfunction hidden beneath the surface, how everything seemed normal only not quite, what was going through the bride’s mind to make her act the way she did… Wonderful stuff.

        • I loved the second half. I thought the dialogue and atmosphere was – moreso than the first half of the film – reminiscent of Antichrist, and some of the spookiest stuff von Trier’s ever laid on screen. The dysfunction of the family (also reflected in his good pal Thomas Vinterberg’s amazing film Festen) is a pivotal part of the film and I enjoyed that too.

  11. Interesting post on a director who polarizes many, Personally I’m not sure what I think from what I’ve seen his films are well made but I found Antichrist too intense. I might need to watch it again to see what I think second time round.

  12. I may have some problems with old Lars, but Melancholia and Breaking the Waves were really good. Mind you, I’m a bit too scarred after Dogville (hard to believe I watched it almost a year ago) to go back for some more of his work. I do quite want to see Dancer in the Dark and The Five Obstructions, though!

    • Dancer in the Dark you’ll like. It does get pretty dark when it gets dark, but it’s also quite light and bubbly at times. The Five Obstructions is just essential, particularly if you’re interested in what goes on inside the trickster von Trier’s mind. You would also like Europa. One of the lightest, most mainstream movies of them all.

  13. Enjoyed reading your article, Tyler!

    I’m not sure I like the person Lars von Trier, who, granted is a prankster, but does seems arrogant and tactless to me in press conferences.

    That said I’m a fan of his film output, and have reviewed 5 Lars Von Trier films this past week for the LAMB director’s event July 16th

    • Von Trier should keep his bloody mouth shut and just stick to making films. Though when he does open his mouth it’s funny. In one of many interviews after the Nazi comment, he referred to his home country of Denmark in passing as “a shithole.” I laughed at how casually he said that; almost as if he didn’t realize he was saying it. Further reason why he shouldn’t do interviews. Though one recent interview he did with Mark Kermode was quite nice, and harmless.

  14. Fantastic write-up of one of our favorite filmmakers. I think I agree 100% percent with every grade you’ve given (I may give Dancer a 10/10 and Antichrist a 9/10) but either way, great work here.

    Couldn’t agree more that Dogville is HIS film. It has his name written all over it.

  15. Excellent post Tyler. I’ve mentioned before but I also admire your admiration and appreciation for this marvellous filmmaker.

  16. Christian Hallbeck

    I agree with your opinions and ratings on “Breaking the Waves” and “Dogville”. These are clearly von Trier’s best films.

    I don’t know how he did it, or if it was intentional at all, but to me every single shot in “Breaking the Waves” is a subjective shot from the point of view of God. I can’t free myself from that feeling. I find it confirmed in the vignettes as well as in the last shot.

    “Dogville” is von Trier’s most important film. Very few films are as important as this one.

    I don’t agree with your opinions and ratings on “Antichrist” and “Melancholia”. I think the former is a better film than the latter, but heading in a direction that doesn’t appeal to me. “Melancholia” is a waste of time to watch. It’s empty, predictable and badly acted.

    From a technical aspect “Europa” is perhaps von Trier’s most impressive film.

    It’s VERY hard not to cry at the end of “The Idiots”. Don’t you agree? You must admire von Trier’s skill in manipulating your feelings…

    A well written write up, Tyler!

    • Interesting that you didn’t like Melancholia. I loved it, and am planning on seeing it again soon, but for me it doesn’t come close to Antichrist, which is simply one of the most chilling films I’ve ever seen.

      I do agree on your statement about The Idiots. The final scene for me was what made the film. I think it’s one of the most tense, terrifying, shattering denouements I’ve ever seen on film, and yet it’s so subtle and awkwardly silent that I can’t really think of any other scene quite like it.

  17. From what I’ve read about his films, a lot of them seem to have a female character who is undergoing a struggle of some sort and also the mainfestations of these emotions. Would you agree?

    • Definitely. In fact, he devoted an entire trilogy to this theme alone (the trilogy consisted of Breaking the Waves, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark), though it can also be found in other films such as Medea, Dogville, Antichrist and Melancholia.

  18. After watching Melancholia, I want to watch some of his other films that I haven’t seen. I don’t recall seeing Dnacer in the Dark but I’m curious to see Bjork act as I am a fan of her music.

  19. Not an easy task to review all of von Trier’s films in one post, but you’ve done it admirably. You may notice my Befrielsesbilleder trackback where I quote your review; I watched all of his movies over the summer, so I’ve been looking to see what other von Trier fans have to say about his entire ouvre. Have you seen any of his earlier shorts, like Nocturne or The Orchid Gardener (one of the few I haven’t been able to find)?

  1. Pingback: Collecting Images of Liberation (Befrielsesbilleder, 1982) | Zepfanman.com

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