Issue 8 : Spring 2005





Otherzine issues

Top of page

Unwrapping the Enigma : a review of Jack Stevenson's book Lars von Trier

by Peggy Nelson

17 Feb 2005

From the book cover.

Jack Stevenson is your cool older brother who has been all over the world, seen people and places you could only imagine, or couldn't even imagine, and has come back to tell you about it. If it's difficult, obscure, or just plain weird, have no fear, Jack will explain it all to you. Today's topic is all three and more: allow me to introduce Jack Stevenson on Lars von Trier.

In his volume for the World Directors series published by the British Film Institute, Stevenson's Lars von Trier joins works on Jane Campion, Youssef Chahine, Atom Egoyan and Terence Malick, among others, in what promises to be a survey of the most influential and original directors working today. Published prior to the release of von Trier's Dogville, Lars von Trier puts the director's work in the context of his life, and both in the context of Danish and European history, politics, and cultural and filmic traditions. Stevenson presents the results of his investigation into a fascinating life in art.

Contradictions and paradoxes crop up throughout the story and I can't imagine there are any neat answers to them. How, for example, can you be a rebel when your parents never set any rules to rebel against? How can you rebel against the Danish film establishment when from practically your very first student film you've been acclaimed a genius, the saviour of Danish film come to earth ... and when today you are the Danish film establishment? Why do you take so many chances when your whole life is a desperate search for security? How can you be provocative when you come from a country so easy-going that nobody can be provoked? How can such an apparently temperamental and dysfunctional artist make so many of what have turned out to be brilliant business decisions?
(from the Introduction, p.5)

In 1996, Breaking the Waves cemented Lars von Trier's position as a significant auteur and director. He became a household name in households that didn't have the slightest idea what to make of him. Critics weren't prepared for actual seasickness induced by the handheld camera. Feminists were shocked to see such a brutal contemporary portrayal of female martyrdom through sex. Audiences were split over a dark film that lacked Bergman's carnivalesque as a balance. Life was bleak. God was perverse. Pleasure was death. Entertainment was ... not the point? "It's a work of genius," people said. "It's an important film. You must see it. But," they added, "I spent the whole time staring at the floor. It was excruciating... I couldn't stand to watch it!" Some loved it, some hated it, but categorizing the work was like trying to stuff mercury back into the tube. What was this film? Who was this guy? Was he just trying to piss everybody off?

Stevenson has done extensive research on von Trier's life and times, drawing from many sources including a number of works not yet available in English. There were the politics of a war generation, and the ennui of a generation after that. There was the permissive and socially progressive family, and the restrictive school and tormenting classmates. There were the art-school antics and acting out, and the first works of promise. There was the famous manifesto decades after manifestos went out of fashion in the art world. There were the reasons for Dogma 95, the upwelling of work it produced, and then the reasons to drop it. There were the strange neuroses, the fear of traveling that has frequently kept him from Cannes and other festivals; contrasted with the confidence and ambition that have driven him to realize a singular vision without compromise. There was the advertising work to make a living, there was the film studio/compound, there were the wives and infatuations, there was the self-mythologizing and 'the name.' But finally, hidden in the center of it all, there was von Trier himself, still a cipher despite all that description.

Von Trier invents identities, including adding the "von" to his name early on, perhaps at least partly in jest. He issues proclamations and says deliberately provocative things, and then contradicts himself. He has large ambitions for film prizes but then fails to attend the festivals. But he also set up a major film production studio, Zentropa, that not only produced a number of Dogma and other films, but spawned successful daughter studios. He invested in film equipment and made money renting it out to fellow filmmakers. Stevenson includes detailed behind-the-scenes looks at von Trier's productions, following the works as they develop, and not leaving out the personality conflicts, blow-ups and interpersonal alliances and battles central to most group endeavors in theater generally, but that seem particularly acute in von Trier's world.

But von Trier wasn't finished yet and during his press conference [at Cannes, for Europa] he referred to the president of the jury, Roman Polanski, as a midget ... it turned out to be the scandal of the Festival. Von Trier explained that Polanski had called himself a midget in his own film, Chinatown (1974), hence it seemed ok to use it as a casual witticism. But almost everyone else on earth took a different view ... 'Von Trier Amok in Cannes' screamed the front page ...

It is fascinating to read how von Trier develops and changes over time, from early amorphousness into the distinctive artist of today. But in the same way we can look back at baby pictures and see the adult, but not look at a baby and be able to predict how it will grow, von Trier as an enfant terrible was not guaranteed to become himself. A combination of natural drives, choices, bad mistakes, happy accidents, and willpower, he creates and re-creates himself as Stevenson describes the messy, segmented arc that becomes a life.

Von Trier was the founding father and instigator of Dogma 95, the group that stood for and successfully fomented a new wave in filmmaking, against such special-effects laden Hollywood vehicles like Jurassic Park and Die Hard. Advocating a kind of production "unplugged," Dogma 95 contained ten rules, such as shooting must be done on location, the sound must never be produced apart from the images, and the camera must be handheld. Its aim was to promote integrity and honesty in filmmaking, and take a stand against relying on technological tricks and becoming too distant from the medium. Dogma 95 became an international cultural sensation, and although von Trier later moved away from a strict adherence to all of its doctrines, it was successful in producing a number of major, unique films, including von Trier's The Idiots and Julian Donkey-Boy by Harmony Korine; and in raising a critical voice against film becoming too commodified, too much of a consumer product stamped out by big culture factories.

Von Trier's work cannot be summed up in a short review, or even in a book-length biographical essay like Stevenson's. But a few key points can be highlighted. Despite Dogma 95's declaration of independence from Hollywood, (its influence and its heavy reliance on special effects and technology), at least three of von Trier's major works can be seen as a distinctive homage to the American film tradition. In Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville, von Trier took the most basic, kitschy vehicles of a love story, a musical, and a western, respectively, to make a major statement about how even the most tired, ordinary format can be reinvigorated by a sincere, original, and brutally honest approach.

Breaking the Waves is perhaps the most violent (although there's debate about that) but is also the most conventional in its interpretation, being a tragic tale of love denied along the lines of Romeo and Juliet. The ultimate sacrifice of one of the lovers is the condition for the survival of the other, so that although love is present, it is not experienced; at least not for long. In Dancer in the Dark, the musical numbers are not where the performers break out of the story and 'face the audience,' as it were. Instead, they are the sections of the greatest interiority, the places where the thoughts and desires of the protagonist are closest to the surface, creating an uncomfortable yet striking tension between the psychological depth of the issues, and the formal artifice of song and dance. And in Dogville, the western, the action takes place completely in one town, lacking both the adventure of traveling through the western landscape, and also that landscape itself. Instead of vistas, the town, which is situated in the mountains of Colorado, is represented by a plain back stage with chalk outlines on the floor where the buildings are. The wild west turns on an examination of the frontiers of good and evil, and by eliminating the scenery, von Trier tells us where he thinks we need to focus.

Additionally, Von Trier puts these formats in the service of some heavy themes. He's concerned with God and sex, and the Christian tradition of opposing these two, an opposition that gets played out culturally in the representation of women. Women are equated with sexual temptation and thus in opposition to God, so this representation becomes necessarily destructive to a female character. As in some of the films of fellow Dane and artistic mentor Carl Dreyer, he films narratives where women represent sex and the fall from grace, and must be punished. But von Trier goes further than this. When the dialogue is with God, the possibility of communication with other people (or the environment, generally) is ruled out. God is an abstraction, and abstractions overpower and obscure the real. The draw of an abstract principle resists the incursions and thousand small deviations that comprise the actual experience of a person, place or situation. God co-opts/eclipses/trumps all relationships – even the one between the audience and the film. This relates directly to von Trier's fondness for handheld camerawork. And not just handheld, but in Breaking the Waves it was wobbly, deliberately vertiginous, absolutely disallowing the possibility of projection. You won't get into this character, he seems to be saying, you won't get into this film. But sitting there in the audience you can see it up there on the screen, and it's intense. The film draws you in and pushes you out with the same strength, a paradoxical position that leads to anger and psychological violence: you see it, you want it too, you <i>must</i> get in, you will force your way in! But then you in the audience are in the position of the bad guys in the film; you are mirroring their emotional state. So you must confront the issues the film raises on the most immediate level; not later, in a conversation about the movie, but directly, during the experience of watching it.

This wrestling with the angel (or the devil) of abstraction continues and develops in his next films. In Breaking the Waves Bess was mentally challenged; in the musical, Dancer in the Dark, Selma was going blind, underscoring the impossibility of real relationship, of entry into the character. In the latter, the paradox of the most personal scenes being musical numbers set to Bjork's strange percussive melodies presented a more nuanced version of the contradiction in inviting, yet not allowing, the viewer into the movie.

In Dogville the narrative is more secular, but the yearning for the Abstract is again to blame both morally (in the violent relationships) and metaphysically (the chalk outlines). The female character, Grace, is 'too good to be true' and represents the violence done to relationship by God, here represented as 'Goodness.' Her trying to be wholly good seems like such a noble aspiration, but in fact it denies relationships, which is why the town where she is hiding doesn't work out. If you show up with the idea of being good and selfless and forgiving about everything, people get aggravated. You seem like some kind of robot or Stepford Wife. Where's the real you? Why doesn't anything phase you? And they start acting out to try to get a rise out of you. Von Trier shows what happens when there are no ethical stops to that process, if you're on the frontier where anything goes. And also what happens when you finally take frontier justice into your own hands. In the end, when Grace finally trades in abstraction for the real, she goes back to her family, seen as necessarily violent and flawed (gangsters), but real. The ending is as satisfying as any Clint Eastwood revenge sequence.

But von Trier takes these themes even further. Bess/Selma/Grace can be seen as a continuum, one character in three phases, starting the same story to try to get to a different ending, like the Magic Theater of the Steppenwolf. All three get what they want, although Bess and Selma are both martyred. Bess is a victim, and the closest embodiment of the traditional punishment for woman as temptress. Selma is a victim but also acts, resisting the temptress label with bad sweaters and a language barrier, and her influence outlives her in the characters of her son and her friend. But Grace is not martyred. In the end she takes control. Her revenge is the revenge for all three characters, her agency a response to the traditional passivity of female representation. You don't have to kill the women off to get rid of the metaphor: let them do it themselves. They'll dismantle the entire theoretical structure, kill off the whole town and set the buildings on fire. And drive off, into a new metaphor. It will be fascinating to see what von Trier does next. If sex and virtue are not opposed, if women are allowed to be people and not just repositories for unchosen metaphors – what then? What will that world look like?

In the end, the reader is left wanting more. Although Stevenson wisely refrains from psychoanalyzing at a distance, the accumulations of contradictory and fascinating tendencies in one individual beg for further insight, and pique our curiosity about what makes von Trier tick. And as for the work, Stevenson has done a fantastic job of tracing the evolution of the films' development and production, from mutating early conception to the influence of the completed work, with a keen ear for anecdote and the telling detail, but work of this complexity demands a theoretical treatment as well, to do it justice.

Lars von Trier's life and work continue, and will await their definitive biographer and critical placement. Stevenson's book is an excellent introduction to and overview of an influential and misunderstood artist, who in the end is trying to communicate difficult but necessary truths. Truths we should be trying to hear.

He has that very rare quality of being thoroughly human, he never ceases to explore and work with his own duality, his inner schisms. It all comes together – past, present, future; childhood, adolescence, manhood; business, art, private life – and he demands that you see it as a whole. And if you don't 'get it', what does he care? He offers you his entire life as a work of art. There is not much more he can do, and yet that is perhaps a greater challenge than many a 'customer' can cope with because it requires that you, like him, provoke yourself into dealing with yourself honestly.
Most of us find that frightening. We compartmentalise: work goes in one little box, spiritual issues in another and basic instincts in the smallest, almost forgotten box way back in the darkest corner of the closet. And that just won't do with Lars von Trier. In order to perceive his genius, you must get in touch with your own.
(p. 190)

Jack Stevenson. Lars Von Trier. 2002
World Directors Series
British Film Institute Publishing
21 Stephen Street
London W1T 1LN

Peggy Nelson <> is a painter and writer for OTHERZINE.