From the archives: Lars von Trier, the Comedian

Lauded Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier's latest feature Nymphomaniac gets an online release this month in the U.S. with a limited theatrical release to follow. It's poster campaign has already raised a few eyebrows, if not more. Almost a decade ago, von Trier and I had a great conversation that had me laughing more than some of the comedians I had interviewed. Re-reading that discussion reminded me why none of us should be surprised that he's making films like Nymphomaniac. And given that one of 2013's most celebrated films was about slavery, it is more than coincidental that my conversation with von Trier all those years ago was about his project exploring the same subject matter, Manderlay


From the archives of my old journalism site ThenItMustBeTrue.com, here is Mr. von Trier making me laugh as we discuss neuroses, David Bowie, burning down the cinema, and a solemn promise that he'd someday make a comedy.


(Denmark, 2005) From his award-winning student films to Dogme 95—the daring film collective he co-founded to inject the artifice of filmmaking with greater artistic purity—to the minimalist, astonishing series he began with Dogville and continues now with Manderlay, Lars von Trier knows no limits.

The 50-year-old manipulates audiences as well as the conventions behind filmmaking so defty, so memorably, that his work never fails to provoke. That's not to say his movies are for everybody; those seeking Saturday afternoon escapism or a good make-out flick best turn elsewhere.

For instance, Breaking the Waves, which won the jury prize at Cannes in 1996, tells of a oil rig worker paralyzed in an accident who tells his wife that if she loves him, she'll have sex with other men. Dancer in the Dark—starring Icelandic rock darling Bjork—demonstrates a mother sacrificing her own life to save her young son. And now Manderlay holds up mirror to America's history of slavery. But like anything that comes from von Trier's hand, nothing is ever as simple as black and white. Ask anyone who has ever seen a von Trier film and bets are high that it left an indelible impression—unlike much of what we find in the multiplexes (or mass media in general) these days. 

And that's exactly the kind of movie von Trier wants to watch himself. He talks to us from his home in Denmark (random trivia: he rarely leaves the country due to various phobias about traveling) about what it takes to make films that are the complicated, messy stuff of human nature.

It is wonderful to speak to you.  I've been waiting years for this moment since I've been watching your movies for quite some time now.  I'm sure you get that a lot.

No, but I hope I can say something that's not too stupid.

(Laughs) You’ll be fine. I saw Manderlay last night. I wanted to wait until the last possible minute before speaking to you to watch it so that my reaction would be very fresh. Your movies tend to provoke a knee-jerk reaction, and then after thinking about it, one comes to a different conclusion on it.

Yes, thank you – I hope! (Laughs)

I don't know which one makes you feel more satisfied as a filmmaker. Is it that the film sticks with people and then they turn that reaction into some sort of action, or is it that you're looking to be immediately provocative?

(Sighs) It's a good question. I don’t know. Actually, the part of me that really cares about film and the part of me that is working with film doesn't care about these things, how it's received. But of course, there's another part of me that is a normal human being that of course likes it when people say, "Oh, Lars, I like your film very much!" The only thing that all directors hate is, "I like your old films very much." (Laughs) That's the worst thing you can say. For some strange reason it’s worse than if they didn't say anything!

I guess because it implies maybe that you once had something, but not anymore.

Yes—you misused your talent or whatever. (Laughs)

Right. I remember feeling surprisingly triumphant after Dogville and I think it was for two reasons: I was so impressed that you managed to pull it off—meaning the structure and the presentation of it—and then there was a very guttural kind of satisfaction that I got from the whole comeuppance at the end, Grace's revenge . The resolution of it all was so satisfying. That, coupled with the fact that you had managed to suspend disbelief—for me, anyway—for three hours with that kind of a structure was really gratifying. With Manderlay, I was used to the structure; I knew what was coming and how it was going to be presented. But at the end, I was very frustrated and I think it's because I was feeling, “This is such a problem in my country!” I grew up in Texas, but I’m Mexican American, and I think I can identify more with the slaves as an oppressed people because right now, it's my people who are being very much singled out in terms of anti-immigration with today's border controversies.


Yeah, yeah, I’m sure.

Then there’s this inherent belief that I think any oppressed people has where you're conditioned to feel that you don't deserve prosperity, you don't deserve equality, so you start to oppress yourselves, you know?

Yes, yes, but actually Manderlay is inspired quite a lot by a Danish photographer called Jakob Holdt. He has a theory about something he calls “internal racism,” which is the same thing. It’s actually very close to what I, in school, experienced by being ridiculed and tortured every day. You begin to believe that they're right, which is an unpleasant feeling. (Laughs)


Certainly. So there’s the issue of stepping away from seeing Manderlay and being forced to confront these issues that are around you every day. What do you—using your art to bring these issues to our attention—think we should be doing as human beings? Like, "I’m leaving this movie, I'm angry, and I see that things need to change." What is it that you're trying to communicate we should do on an everyday level?


My problem is that I'm actually stepping over my own line here—it happens as I'm getting older. (Laughs) With this film, I don’t know how to defend myself really. But it exists on several levels and one of the levels is, of course, something that is based on some American realities. But that is just a part of the film, and that is why it's kind of mixing things up a little bit. I did a film called Europa that was also based on facts somehow; it was based on a research.  It takes place in '45, and it was never to be considered political but of course it's an open wound in Germany with the Second World War…. My understanding of this whole problem of black and white people is that it somehow is something that you just don't want to touch in America.  Am I right?


I agree with that, but one of the things that made me more frustrated is the fact that I could extrapolate it into a bigger picture, which is: There are issues about power and oppression, yet slavery or the black and white thing are just symptoms of that bigger problem, which is that humanity inherently wants power, so there will always be an oppressor and an oppressed.


Oh, yes.  But that's what I mean that it's a film like Europa was.

Got it.  So it's a different example of the same problem.


Yeah, it is. You know, Second World War Nazi Germany, of course, had to take place in Germany, and this is just another side. I know that Europeans have been just as mean to slaves, but somehow America was built by slaves, right? And of course it does something to a country. The actors kept talking about something, which was when they said “I got a part,” others would ask, "Is it a white part?”. And that didn't mean that they were playing white, it only meant that the color did not matter. And these parts do not exist, it seems. It's very, very, seldom. Normally, the film industry in America—I see so little but my understanding is that the only thing you can, as a black actor, be is a hero or president, which is, at least, untrue. (Laughs) There hasn’t been a black president! But somehow, it is kind of that you paid your dues by having a black president, and then you can forget about the whole thing.


Yeah—we’re overcompensating.

Yeah. (Sighs) It's really difficult for me to say something about America and how the situation is, because there I'm really not an expert. But I can take some historical facts and I can make some kind of a dramatic story about it. But it was striking that it was so difficult to cast in America, and it was much, much easier in Britain.

Meaning that actors did not want to turn out for the roles or what?

Yeah! We couldn't cast any black parts. We had Danny Glover, but that was after a long time. It is a sore spot, especially since these people are, in my film, ridiculed as much as anybody in my films always are.


And it's interesting to talk about the film on that level of casting or development. I love the fact that you're playing with that system, because America seems to hold the standard for film as entertainment. Granted, your films are beyond just banal entertainment; they're not meant to be something that you just walk out of and say, "That's nice. What's for dinner?" But because America has a stronghold on popular culture and film and all sources of entertainment, we do standardize things like what you're talking about, which is that white actors play roles of substance, and other actors don't.  Everybody's stereotyped.


Yeah. It’s not black actors that are the crooks anymore—now it's another non-white race, some mixture that we don't really know where it comes from. (Laughs)


Exactly. I can only hope that the film challenges not just an audience, but the industry as well.

Yeah. I'm sure it's a process that will take some time and of course there are good black parts, but it’s not like white parts where it doesn't matter. I think that actually in Britain they have come a bit further in that direction. I had a lot of discussions with black British actors and it seems like they have come a tiny step further maybe in the film industry.

In general, when you're talking about the bigger picture—which is human nature and how this is a symptom of it—

Yeah, which is what the film is about.

Right, and how this is just one aspect of that, one manifestation of all of our inherent problems—are you trying to get us to think about it and then despair because there's really nothing we can do, or do you believe it that we can alter, over time through training or consciousness, these negative aspects of human nature? Are we at their mercy, or can we do something about it?

(Laughs) Uh, well, I think, thank God, it's not for me to say.

Well, let’s talk about you personally. In the film’s notes you mention very briefly that you were engaged in some sort of angst therapy, so let’s talk about your own little neuroses or problems—

Little neuroses?  (Laughs)


I'm sorry.  I have my own little neuroses, too, and I think that they're huge.


Yeah!


So are we slaves to them, or can we overcome them?


You know, it's always much easier to talk about mankind than to talk about yourself. Stalin said that one death is a tragedy, or one murder is a tragedy; a million is statistics. (Laughs) So let's talk about the statistics. I think what I'm doing, or what I think I'm doing, is that I'm showing some paradoxes or asking some unpopular questions about things, but I'm not answering anything. I'm kind of trained—in my family, if somebody says, "I did this and this," then we always play the devil's, uh, solicitor—what is it?

The devil's advocate.


Yes, yes—and say, "But what if this and this and this?" So that is actually what I'm doing. If somebody says, "Well, I'm a humanist and I do this and this and this," and then you say, "But imagine this situation," blah, blah, blah—just for the sake of the discussion and the thoughts that it provokes.


Right, which is smart, because there will always be somebody out there saying, "But what if…" or acting in the opposite way. Always.


Oh, yeah.


It's very easy, I think, to go overboard and fall into despair over the fact that nothing will ever get better, and why should I bother.


Oh yeah, yeah.  But I must say, I like humanism. (Laughs)  And don't take it too hard. If you can say anything, then it's sarcasm, what I'm doing.  My films are sarcastic.


Right—but they cut so deeply and the emotion comes across… That's the thing that I think that you're so deft at, the fact that you can present a story within these constructs that are so completely artificial, and require so much suspension of disbelief from an audience in order to function, yet the emotions and the interactions between the characters are so real. They're so believably ordinary that they could happen—they’re exchanges that are honest between people. It's too genuine.

Yeah, but that is the technique, I think. It has to ring true somewhere in order to be dangerous or interesting or whatever word you want to use.


But then, because it is so skillfully true, it's hard not to react to it. It's hard not to let it sit in your head and in your heart and make you either frustrated or—


But I do not mean to make anybody depressed.  I think maybe you should stop seeing my films. (Laughs)


(Laughs) No, never!

But I like a film to raise some questions.


Absolutely — it's much better. I much would rather be provoked than to be bored or just feel like my time is wasted.


Especially this feeling that when you come out of a cinema saying, "Ahh, that's very nice, the film is over, it was a good film, but now I’ll forget everything about it." That's not really fulfilling for me, that the film ends and everything is solved in the end.  That's not the kind of film I like, anyway.


That's when cinema becomes art, when—like any other good art—it sticks with you and provokes discussion and feelings.  So the work functions on several levels: you're trying to, I think, comment or cause change in greater society, and then as well within your craft. You started it with the Dogme movement and it continues with the series that began with Dogville. Is it more important for you to change things within the realm of film and filmmaking, or within society and the world in general?

Well...I am impossible with film. I think that film for me is very potent. My children ask, “Why is film so important?” I say, “I can’t tell you!” (Laughs) It is kind of a mistress. It is, as Karl Dreyer said, my only true passion. That’s why I said that I might have mixed in a little stupidly in this film. But somehow, uh, yeah, I don't know—forget it. Erase!


(Laughs) Let’s move on, then!


Yes. Now I'm making—for you, especially—a little comedy!


Oh, yay!


A light comedy, no message, not even a question or anything. It's kind of a feel-good film.


This isn't Washington [meant to be the third in the trilogy including Dogville and Manderlay]?  This is something different?

No, this is actually before I do Washington, because I had to have a little break. So now I'm making a film in Danish, with Danish actors, and it's a light comedy.


How come I don't believe you?  (Laughs)


But you should! And you will not be depressed.


I don't care about being depressed; I just want to make sure that my depression feels like it has—

That you come out on the other side with something.


Yes! Or that I will be provoked into acting on it, so that I can resolve it, I suppose.


And not by burning down the cinema?

(Laughs) Exactly. Let's talk about the making of the film and try to get back on a level that's not so existential. When you're doing these productions 
 specifically Dogville and Manderlay  and then when you go into production on Washington — what is it that you demand from the collaborators who are there with you, your DP and your actors and even your producer Vibeka [Windelov]? What is it that you want from them so that you can do your job when you're making this, and how is that different from other films, like this Danish comedy that you're making right now? 


First of all, Manderlay and Dogville have been shot in a quite isolated spot in Sweden. And that means that everything and everybody stays at the same place and are together all the time. We have a relatively short shoot, but we don't leave until we are through, and that means that there's a lot of social obligations. It’s not so much a question of producing a film in the normal sense, because we are at a studio and there's no weather and there's nothing that really can go wrong in that sense. It's more a question of making people feel good, or not too bad. And Vibeka's very good at that, I must say.


So do you leave that social organization to her?


Yes, yes, I do. The, the problem is that what you don't get with Vibeka is the bad guy and somehow, you need a bad guy also. It's just very Danish and naïve to believe that you can do without a bad guy. Actually, that is what the comedy is about! It's called The Boss of it All, and it is about a man who is an actor who is hired to play the boss because the man who owns the company only wants to be the good guy.


That's great!


Yes. (Laughs)


So this story comes from too much personal experience, perhaps?


Oh, yes. (Laughs) We always talk about how what we really want is a little house that, where whenever one opens the door, inside the house sits this guy who is the bad guy who is in control of everything, and whenever there's a question from the actors or whatever, you go in there, and then you come out crying, and then you know.


(Laughs) You obviously never want to be the bad guy.


Well, the problem is that I turn out to be the bad guy, because I'm not very efficient when I have to face the actor. I have to be on good terms with the actors in order to make the film. Then I have to clean up a lot, too, and I don't want to do that.  So, it's quite important that I'm not the bad guy, at least in the six weeks when we shoot.


What's the difference between being the bad guy and being the director—having your own vision and knowing what you want and the fact that because you're in charge, everybody else needs to defer to that vision, that end result? I mean, why would that be bad?


That's not exactly how I how I see it. If you want something good out of these good actors, then you have to give them as much freedom as you can. And this is important for me. Then I can be the bad guy on the editing table. But it's very important for me to get a lot more solutions to a problem than my own when we shoot, because I'm collecting a lot of material from the shoot. First we start every day by shooting the scene with no rehearsals whatsoever, just have the actors come and do it the way they think it should be done so we actually do a lot of different versions. So in order to get so much, the actors risk themselves by being bad or acting something that they can’t just justify. That is, I think, a gift from an actor, that they would go that far, and that demands very close relationships.


That's very true. This film is such a stripped-down production where every little element seems to hold tremendous weight. How much of, say, the angles and the lighting and the movement or blocking is established while you're writing, is in your own head beforehand, and how much comes out during rehearsals or during, like you said, those very first run-throughs?


On purpose, I don't think about how it's going to look at all when I write. It's only the story and the characters, of course, and then I try to get as close as I can with the lines that I'm writing. But I have a good experience of leaving a lot to be done when we shoot because then it's much more fulfilling. It's unpleasant for the actors and for myself if I have too much of an idea of how the scene should be before we shoot. You know, the first films I did, I had a very, very precise storyboard and very precise idea of how things should be, and it was much more frustrating to go and shoot because you could only get maybe seventy percent of your ideas. But if you don't have any ideas, only kind of a platform, then you gain a hundred percent instead of losing thirty percent.


Sure— it's that rule about not being a slave to expectations.


Yes. If I just decide not to go into certain parts, then it's a more fulfilling way to work.


Yes, because you leave yourself open to more discovery.


And also because another part of the creative process is to shoot the film and if you’re just following a text, then it's no fun. It's not fulfilling for anybody.

That's true. Back to the trilogy: I’m curious why you went with a heroine and if you felt like a woman was perhaps easier for an audience to forgive or to latch onto.


Actually, the whole trilogy was inspired by “Pirate Jenny” from Bertolt Brecht—a girl that wants everybody to die. And I think it's more interesting. Somehow, when it's a female character, you get more levels. (Laughs) Because when it's male, you tend to see them as…well, of course it depends on who's doing it. But there are so many heroes and so many films with men. I like to work with women.


That's been evident in a lot of your films and you do it well.


Some women. As long as they're not Icelandic, I like to work with them.


(Laughs)  Ah, okay!


That was a little tough. But that was my mistake.


Well, it was a tough story. [referring to Dancer in the Dark, starring Bjork]


Yeah.  (Laughs) You know, Icelandic people are the closest we've come to slaves in my country, because, Denmark has had Iceland as a colony for four hundred years or something like that, so we're really close to the subject.

Wow, that’s something I never knew about. Tell me about using David Bowie's "Young Americans" as the theme song for these two films. I presume it will be in Washington as well. 

Oh, yes. I've been writing this script for some time now, and it must wait until I've done the comedy.


Certainly—get this other thing out and maybe recover.  Has David seen the films?


I think so, yes; I gave him copies. I actually thought of having him in the film.


That would be really great!


I don't know if he wants to do that. I’ve not talked to him about it. But he was to my generation and to me he was a big, big inspiration. Somebody asked him if he did not think that he made better music when he was younger, and he said, "Yeah, but I felt so terrible. I would rather make worse music and feel good!” (Laughs) And I can understand that.

Do you fear that as you grow and perhaps learn more about yourself and feel more comfortable in your own skin—


But I don’t. I feel worse and worse so don’t worry about that.


Oh, do you? (Laughs)


Yeah.


Well, I was just wondering if you felt maybe that if you ever resolved all of these personal issues—


I would love to do that, and I would love to, in that sense, leave my mistress behind. Yes, I would like that. I would love that. I feel like Mr. Bowie on that. And then you won't get depressed—there's a lot of advantages.


(Laughs) Right. But from afar, people look at an artist and the existence is very much romanticized, you know, the pain.


Oh, yes, yes. But I'm sure that he doesn’t look like a happy person, when you look at David Bowie in his young years, and for a guy like me it was extremely interesting and very, very important to see that.


It's totally captivating and it's always great to have another person going through all of that so you can just sit in your bedroom and listen to the record and relate to it but not actually be addicted to the drugs or in a pointless marriage or whatever. It's much easier to have somebody else do it for you, and that's why we have artists, I suppose.  But you would be willing to give the art up?


Oh, yes, yes. If you gave me the wonder drug, I would, I tell you.


Wow. So the art is a direct manifestation of a lot of your own pain or drama?


Well, I wouldn't say that, but I think it comes from the same source. I believe that very much.  And of course when you're working and you're using the same source, then it doesn't come out as bad things if you use it to tell a story or whatever.


Yeah, that's the key.  To wrap up everything and take us back to Manderlay, I was wondering about the inscription on the manner, “Little, little can I give“.


Yeah — it's from the state song of Alabama, which some lady wrote after being inspire by the national socialism of Germany, not in a political way, but just the nationalism and all the young men in uniform, I don't know. (Laughs) She wrote “Alabama State Song” and that is from it: “Little, little can I give thee.”


Did that just sort of echo the sentiment of the story? I don’t know—


I don't know either; I think it's a little bit funny, but on the other hand, we use it in a strange kind of romantic way, these little songs.  So it's not entirely taking the piss.


Sure.  (Laughs) It can have tremendous resonance, I suppose, just like they say one person can change the world when who really believes that they can be that one person—not very many people.


Yeah.  That’s very American. That’s what we talk about in the third film.


To believe that you can or to believe that you can't be that one person?


No, the whole dream that you can be what you dream. That is what should keep us alive—the dream that we can one day be the greatest of the world. That is what we will have to talk about for the third film.


I don't know if it's being the greatest in an egotistical sense, but just that you can make the world a better place.


Oh, yeah, change is good. But the American dream is more, “I can make it,” right?


Oh, sure. But that's why I'm trying to change the perception of the American dream here.


(Laughs) That's very good and I leave it up to you. I will not do any more of that sort; I will only do light comedy.


photos ©Astrid Wirth

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