From The Sunday Times Culture section, by Jeff Dawson. Published September 11, 2011
It seems somehow fitting to find Lars Von Trier holed up in a bunker. On the outskirts of Copenhagen, on an old air force base, he springs from the low concrete outhouse that serves as his office, at safe remove from the hangars and nissen huts that nowadays closet his Zentropa studio.
A dishevelled, be-stubbled chap, dressed in crumpled plaid shirt, black jeans and open toed sandals, he leads you from a Danish sizzler of a morning into the cool, dark interior. Greeting you far more enthusiastically than you expect, he bids you sit on one of the facing battered couches between his desk and the remote-controlled helicopter propped up against the wall while he rummages for mineral water.
This was the munitions dump, he explains. See, no windows. Just slits. In the event of an explosion, the blast would be directed upwards, taking off the roof. Damage limitation — a not unfamiliar concept to the anointed enfant terrible of European cinema.
As bad boys go, Von Trier in an immediately likeable one — an entertaining conversationalist and an open book of an interviewee, armed, to boot, with a sardonic wit of extra–sec dryness, without question the source of much of his trouble.
But where, oh where, to begin? For a man whose prodigious talent is matched only by his capacity to outrage — usually with tongue planted firmly in cheek — there was something inevitable that, even by his own provocative standards, Von Trier would one day say something too incendiary. The director has a new film out, Melancholia, though you suspect everything, for some time, will be overshadowed by the press conference he gave in support of it at May’s Cannes Film Festival.
It has been reported to death. But, for the record, let’s recap. “I understand Hitler,” he had declared, a statement he could have brushed off as black humour had he not embellished it with a verbal ramble vaunting his appreciation for Third Reich art and that “Israel is a pain in the ass”, before adding the capper, “Okay, I’m a Nazi.”
There is context to mitigate much of what Von Trier said, including the not insignificant matter of language — his deadpan humour delivered in a second tongue (English), with any residual nuance leached in subsequent translations. But it was a dumb thing to say. In the crucible of film luvviedom, potential career suicide. Von Trier apologised, but to no avail. He was struck off; excommunicated; told to pack his bags and leave forthwith… To take to the naughty step with Mel Gibson.
Today… and this is very Von Trier… he can’t help but wring dark mirth from his predicament. “I don’t know how it is with these Persona Non Grata things,” he says. “I never heard there was a time limit on it. I’m very interested since I might go to Cannes for reasons other than for a film festival. Does that mean that I still have to not go closer than 150 metres of the Palais that is now used for exhibiting shoes?”
But you know that it hurts, for a former winner of the Palme D’Or a spectacular fall from grace. “I have been unpopular in my time,” he says, “but I’ve always gotten over it. This time it was overwhelming.” It is grimly pertinent that Melancholia should be about the end of the world. And set to Wagner.
In spite of the hoo-ha, the film performed rather well, bagging Kirsten Dunst a Best Actress award for her role as Justine, a young bride afflicted with an incapacitating case of depression — the same torpor that visits Von Trier periodically and which has left him with a slight stammer and a case of hand tremors. You could call the film an extreme Philadelphia Story, Justine’s wedding day funk set against the backdrop of a rogue planet (Melancholia) hurtling towards Earth, threatening to splatter not just the lavish country nuptials, but life as we know it.
The 56-year-old director had written the script for Penelope Cruz and had wanted to make it purely about mental illness. Research revealed that mediaeval quacks attributed such things to the alignment of heavenly bodies. “I asked a scientist when would this be possible [a planet crashing into earth]? And he said, ‘It can happen tomorrow,’ which made me very happy,” says Von Trier, referring as much the destruction of civilisation, you fancy, as the vindication of his plot point.
For a man supposedly hawking his wares, Von Trier is actually a bit down on the movie. Or rather, having “a little guilt” about this “Anti-Dogme” opus. Its armageddon CGI and sumptuous visuals fly in the face of the minimalist filmmaking creed (Dogme 95) of which he was a founder.
But then Von Trier was ever the bundle of contradictions — the alleged mistreater of women whose actresses get showered with accolades; the scathing critic of America who has never been there; the plain old Mr. Trier whose aristocratic “Von” is an affectation; the legendary travel phobic who confesses that he’s recently been piloting helicopters… not toy ones but the real thing.
Though there is no greater irony than this — the boy brought up in a leftwing Jewish household, whose mother was in the Danish resistance, and who now finds himself cast as an anti-Semite. “if you saw my home, I have angry Jews looking at me from every corner of the room. It was like I was actually kind of being attacked from the inside somehow.”
A bit of backstory here – though raised as a secular Jew (by virtue of his father), in an ultra-bohemian environment, family holidays spent at nudist camps, Von Trier’s world was rocked at the age of 33. On her deathbed, his mother confessed that Lars’ biological father was not her husband, Ulf Trier, but rather a German, Fritz Hartmann, her ex-boss, whom she’d selected for parenthood on account of his artistic genes — a bit of DIY eugenics.
It prompted a good deal of soul-searching on the part of her bemused son and a brief conversion to Catholicism. The question at Cannes had been phrased around whether the sturm and drang of Melancholia was a flowering of a new-found appreciation of German Romanticism.
Was Von Trier trying to be funny with his response? “Yeah it was a joke,” he says, “I also suffer from the problem that since all these people have come here and nobody says anything, that I have to give them something.” He quotes a Danish writer friend. “The idea was when I said, ‘I was a Nazi,’ all I meant was ‘Come and play with me,’ which I think is the closest to the truth.”
He likens himself to a Hans Christian Andersen character, Clumsy Hans, a slapstick creation upon which Donald Duck was based. “Nobody was there to help Clumsy Hans by saying, ‘What do you mean when you say you understand Hitler?’ Because then I could come with an explanation, because even Clumsy Hans means something when he says something.”
Von Trier lies down and puts his feet up as if on a psychoanalyst’s couch. A bit of white belly pops out between the shirt buttons. France is very touchy about the war, he says, a hostage to political correctness; any intellectual discussion of Nazism should take for granted a horror at the Holocaust, “the worst crime against humanity”; Albert Speer was a great architect regardless of his associations; there are a lot of Jews who are not enamoured with Israel’s foreign policy, which was what he was meant by that particular remark.
Has he had hate mail? No. But plenty of endorsements. “Unfortunately I’ve made the wrong friends. Form Iran I had suddenly some supporters.”
This is not the first time Von Trier has eulogised what he calls, awkwardly, the “Nazi aesthetic”. Recently I read him enthusing about the design of the Stuka. “The Spitfire was a much better plane,” he elaborates. “But the Stuka is what you see in Star Wars”.”
He starts to get a bit unfocused, comparing the Nazis to Disney in terms of their appropriation of other cultures (he hates Uncle Walt for stealing Denmark’s fairytales). “I believe that we are all Nazis, and that we are all Jews,” he opines, suggesting that we each have the capacity for good or evil. “I am a cultural Jew. Even though the sperm might not have come from my father. This is my upbringing. This is my identity. I want to claim that I’m as good a Jew as any Jew.”
There are some who regard Von Trier’s whole career as being predicated on shock. Over the years he has… proclaimed he is “the best film director in the world”; announced himself “a masturbator of the silver screen”, called Roman Polanski a “midget”. His film, The Idiots, discomfited some with its perceived lampooning of the mentally challenged and its full-on penetrative sex (see also Antichrist). John C. Reilly stormed off the set of Dogville in protest at the slaughtering of a donkey live on camera. “If I had one dollar for every time I was talked about…” Von Trier quips.
Need one mention the anti-Americanism of Dancer in The Dark, Dogville and Manderlay which, for all their merits, are rather facile as commentaries upon their subjects — capital punishment, intolerance and slavery. “The American President yesterday talked about being ‘the greatest nation on earth.’ I get extremely provoked by that,” he says. “I get provoked every time I hear Britannia Rules The Waves, but it helps a little bit that Britannia isn’t ruling the waves. Hahahaha.”
Even fans felt that his last film, Antichrist, was just a calculated exercise in revulsion, culminating, as it did, with a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) severing her own clitoris with a pair of scissors. He smirks. “It was Marilyn Monroe who said, ‘If you can’t handle my worst, you don’t deserve my best.’”
The plight of Von Trier’s women always crops up. Bjork never acted again after her experience on Dancer In The Dark. On Melancholia, Dunst certainly gets put through the wringer, as did Emily Watson, Nicole Kidman, Bryce Dallas Howard and Gainsbourg before her. But he refutes allegations of misogyny. “Saying I don’t like women would be like saying that I don’t like giraffes. Which is nonsense,” he says. “I like women and I prefer them to men I must say.” Melancholia’s Justine is semi-autobiographical. “I tend to feel better represented when I’m a she somehow.”
It does not escape notice that Von Trier has a rather aggressive tattoo etched across the knuckles of his right hand, the letters F-U-C-K. “But fuck can be positive and[ital] negative, cant it?” One must take much of this stuff with a pinch of salt. Nicole Kidman once told me Von Trier was a “visionary”. There are few in film as inventive.
In Melancholia, Justine believes “Life is evil.” “I can tell you we are alone in the universe,” chirrups Von Trier. “There is no God.” If he has a true religion (and if one is really rooting for Nazi allegories), it’s his devotion to the rulebook. Dogme 95 was a punkish rebuke to the overblown stadium rock of Hollywood, with its manifesto of stark realism and “vow of chastity” — no props, no music, no lighting. Though, with The Idiots, Von Trier’s only official Dogme venture, he later admitted he’d cheated a bit.
After Dogme, came the ingenious Dogville, and its less satisfactory sequel Manderlay (which he now regrets making), which had their scenery painted out on the floor of a soundstage. His office comedy, The Boss Of It All, was shot using a computerised camera that made conventional directing redundant.
More recently there was his experimental The Five Obstructions in which he got veteran Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth to repeatedly remake one of his own short films under different conditions, an exercise he’s supposed to be repeating with Martin Scorsese. “I haven’t heard from him since Cannes,” he shrugs. “I don’t know I that means if he was not pleased about my performance there. I doubt it because he’s clever and a good guy.”
He’ll be rattling the cage with his next one, The Nyphomaniac, which he’s currently having “tremendous fun writing” based on the sexploits of his female chums. It will be very explicit, he promises, using full-on close–ups patched in from porn actor stand-ins (this being Scandinavia, Zentropa has its own adult film division). “I don’t think we will have Nicole Kidman in this film, hahaha.”
But now for a ride. Von Trier takes me for a spin in his car — a filthy Saab estate whose mess of an interior is more befitting a bag lady. He wants to play me his new talking book, Finnegan’s Wake. (Rather amusingly “The Great American Songbook” CD has to be ejected first.) The box set cost him three hundred US dollars and he can’t understand a word of it. Can I? No. He laughs. “James Joyce, that fuck.”
The main building of Zentropa is a treasure trove, with its wall of awards and memorabilia, including the prosthetic naked lower half of Charlotte Gainsbourg. Outside are the “pissing gnomes”, the little garden statues upon which the menfolk ritualistically relieve themselves, one of which Catherine Deneuve unwittingly hugged for a photo. Young Zentropans scurry beneath company flags and Marxist slogans, like some of kind of socialist youth camp.
There had been a grim prelude to our interview, the Anders Breivik killings in Norway, about which Von Trier had expressed genuine shock. But when the subject crops up over lunch, in the company of others, he just can’t help himself.
The weather had been glorious.
“It was a good day for it,” he remarks.
Clumsy Hans, I say.
He looks sheepish.