The controversial Danish film director Lars von Trier rarely gives interviews, but he allowed me into his remote bunkerby Mark Cousins / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Lars von Trier’s Dogville: he has said a film should be a bit painful
I’m in a tiny bar in Trastevere in central Rome. An Italian cover version of Doris Day’s “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” is playing. Candlelights flicker. It’s as mild here tonight as it was freezing in Scandinavia, where I’ve just come from and where my thoughts still are.
The subject of those thoughts is modern film’s greatest iconoclast, the Danish director Lars von Trier, co-author of the sackcloth-and-ashes 1990s Dogme manifesto which rejected the gloss and artifice of cinema. I filmed an interview with him a few days ago, and was lucky to get it. He says no to most interviews and, since his depression and the worldwide controversy surrounding the 2009 horror film that resulted from this melancholy, Antichrist, he’s been reluctant to come out of his cave. So I wrote to him not asking him to be in the film I’m making, but telling him that I need him in it, and he said yes.
The reason I’m thinking about Von Trier and not Trastevere is because he excited me. How do you film an iconoclast? What image do you shoot of someone who destroys conventional imagery? My attempt to be iconoclastic about this iconoclast started when I went to Film City, on the outskirts of Copenhagen, where his company, Zentropa, inhabits a former military barracks. I didn’t film the tank that’s usually parked there—Zentropa’s two fingers up to Danish social democracy—because it’s been filmed to death. Nor did I film the garden “piss gnomes” that Von Trier’s producer Peter Aalbeck Jensen urinates on; they, too, have been photographed a lot. I took a wide shot of the massive wall of awards for Zentropa films, what they call the “wall of shame,” and the sign beside it which says “No Artistic Integrity Beyond This Point.” Zentropa is such a self-mythologising company that these things have appeared in the press too, but less often, so I was getting closer to being original. And I filmed the outdoor, unheated pool where Von Trier and Aalbeck swim naked at lunchtime, and wanted to plunge in myself.
Then I got a more revealing shot. Von Trier works in a cottage-bunker that is detached from the rest of Film City, has its back turned to the other buildings and is banked up by mounds of earth because it was once the ammunition store for the barracks. I filmed from the main buildings; the bunker seems to be hiding, a bit like the man himself.
Fighting, acclaim, nudity, explosiveness, hiding—the imagery so far said something about the man who reinvented the derided genre of melodrama with his film Breaking the Waves (1996), and rejected much of the expressivity of film in his masterpiece Dogville (2003), which had no set, props or locations.
But I didn’t yet have the image that would refresh my sense of Von Trier. Then I sat down and talked to him. He smiled sweetly, played a kids’ videogame, trembled a little. Painted on a wall behind him was a four-metre timeline of the edit structure of Antichrist, surmounted, like the monarch of the glen, by a drawing of a deer at the moment of giving birth. At the front of his desk was a 10cm-high statue of a women seen from behind, bending forwards, naked from the waist down, presenting her vagina and anus not to Von Trier but to whoever sat opposite him, in this case me. I framed my shot wide to include the timeline and the woman. I had an image, a variation.
Von Trier talked tentatively about his own work but engorged when we hit on the subject of his fellow Dane, the late Carl Theodor Dreyer, who made the almost setless silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), as well as one of the most reviled films ever made, Gertrud (1964), about a woman who believes in perfect love and who, at the end, breaks your heart when she says “Am I alive? No, but I have loved.” Von Trier’s films, like Dreyer’s, are all about women, as are those of the other director he reveres, Ingmar Bergman. The greatest Scandinavian directors have been cinematic cross-dressers: far more interested in filming women than men.
Like David Lynch, Von Trier finds it hard to speak. A person who works with him tells me that squeezing out ideas is painful for him but that, when they come, they are “black pearls.” Black pearls. I have a thought. In one of Von Trier’s first films, Epidemic (1987), he says that a film should be like a pebble in a shoe: a bit painful. Suddenly I have my image. Not gnomes or tanks or pools. At the train station at Film City there are lots of big images of Von Trier, the statue-kicker over, the trickster. In one of them we can see his shoes. I put my camera on the ground and film them out of focus, then put a pebble in the foreground of the shot, in focus. Literal, I know, but a bit new.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.