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Ranked: Lars von Trier’s Filmography

Mar 25, 2021
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It’s been nearly 40 years since writer-director Lars von Trier shook up the film world when his debut feature film The Element of Crime premiered at Cannes. In the decades since, his films have provoked walkouts, controversies, critical tantrums, and much more. Guided by what he calls “obstructions,” von Trier has always found new and experimental ways to create cinema by getting rid of elements that were once deemed necessary to create it. His films are provocative not only in content, but in form—he is almost daring you as a viewer not to have a strong reaction to what he creates.

In a recent interview with Louisiana Channel, von Trier stated, “I’m convinced that provocations are very important, particularly in a democracy.” His unique style of reactionary, transgressive cinema represents a disruption to societal normalcy, exposing truths about human nature along the way. The films he creates are deconstructions of humanity, with an almost childlike fascination for the ugliest aspects of it. Through a series of film trilogies that have made up the bulk of his filmography (“Europa,” “Golden Heart,” “America” (which was never completed), and “Depression”), von Trier has built his own idiosyncratic cinematic language; one that isn’t afraid to break the rules and make the viewer feel uncomfortable in the process.

Last December, von Trier announced that he is currently in pre-production for the third season of his acclaimed Danish TV series The Kingdom, which is expected to be released in 2022. When his most recent film, The House That Jack Built, was released in 2018, he announced that it would be his last feature film. It’s hard to tell if von Trier is telling the truth, given his adoration for provocation in public as well as within his films. Either way, he certainly left a treasure trove of films to pick apart and talk about.

1

Nymphomaniac (2013)

What do fly fishing, Fibonacci numbers, Johann Sebastian Bach, ancient architecture, and parallel parking all have in common? They’re all related to sex, according to Lars von Trier. Nymphomaniac, his five-and-a-half hour magnum-opus and the final film in his “Depression” trilogy, throws everything it can at the viewer: a barrage of touchy societal issues, different filming styles, and a menagerie of thematic sidenotes and tangents, mainly provided by the character Seligman (played by Stellan Skarsgård), who is listening to the titular nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recount her life story in all its libidinous glory. Out of all of von Trier’s films, Nymphomaniac is the biggest mess of them all. It’s also the most human.

Everything we have come to know and love (or disdain, depending on the person) from von Trier is all here: a story with mystical realism that is divided into chapters, pitch-black humor, edgelord levels of provocation, Tarkovsky references, seemingly self-aware pretentiousness, cinematic deconstruction, messy editing, his signature blend of sacredness and profanity, a female protagonist who suffers a great deal, and above all, raw and unfiltered emotion. The character of Joe is probably the most interesting and complex out of all of von Trier’s protagonists. Above all, she is simply a woman that wants more out of life, and the way in which she clashes with a hypocritical, patriarchal society and finds her individuality over the course of the film carries a wealth of ideas and heartfelt empathy along the journey.

Just like von Trier isn’t afraid to break the fourth wall, he’s also certainly not afraid to be on-the-nose when he wants to be. The characters of Joe and Seligman may very well be mouthpieces for von Trier, but the inherent not-so-subtle nature of the dialogue only deepens the radical energy and philosophical underpinnings of the film. This is a film that revels in the extremes of human nature—there’s simply no time to be subtle. Nymphomaniac is a deconstruction of sexuality, making it a deconstruction of the human condition almost by proxy. It gets to the core of what makes us humans tick, and it isn’t afraid to offend along the way. This is von Trier at his most fearless, exposing the hypocrisy, the contradictions, and the genitalia of humanity. Nymphomaniac is a perfect, flawed, beautiful, ugly, human mess.

2

Breaking the Waves (1996)

Breaking the Waves is undoubtedly the first von Trier film to cement his own unique visual aesthetic as an artist. Created a year after the conception of Dogme 95, the film uses many principles from the movement to create a new visual language that has been imitated many times since. The handheld camerawork and especially the spontaneous editing, which favors energy and emotion over continuity and technical precision, gives the film an ephemeral, volatile life of its own. The film is certainly his most beautiful looking: shot on 35mm film, transferred to video, and then transferred back to film, the hyper-graininess and almost sepia-tinged color grading as a result of Robby Müller’s genius cinematography give the film an almost otherworldly quality, perfectly cementing the viewer in the classic von Trier-ian mystical reality of the film.

According to von Trier, the film was actually born out of a joke he conceived one day: “Could you screw your way into Heaven?” The result is a beautiful, transgressive, and heartbreaking meditation on devotion, spirituality, sexuality, and patriarchal oppression that is quite unlike anything else created before or since. Emily Watson’s powerhouse performance is perhaps the best in any von Trier film—his penchant for breaking the fourth wall seen in Watson’s repeated fleeting glances at the camera throughout the film creates an intimacy that only brings us closer to the character and her journey. Breaking the Waves is hellbent on mixing the sacred with the profane, and something transcendent occurs in the process. Hats off to von Trier for creating the most morality-testing, emotionally powerful, and thought-provoking joke of all time.

3

Antichrist (2009)

Probably the most polarizing film in von Trier’s filmography, and likely one of the most polarizing films of the 21st century, Antichrist feels like a film that was made by someone who is on the brink of insanity. Written and directed by von Trier during an intense bout of depression and the first film in his “Depression” trilogy, it contains perhaps one of the most viscerally intense depictions of depression and anxiety in all of cinema, not only as a result of the scenes of physical extremity with which it is notorious for, but also because of the committed performances by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe. Gainsbourg’s performance in particular, which earned her the Best Actress prize at Cannes, is truly a revelation. Her depiction of a grieving mother contains masterful nuance and dimension, before exploding into almost Isabelle Adjani in Possession-levels of mania in the third act.

Antichrist blends realism with mysticism and horror with an uncanny, pitch-black sense of humor in a way that only von Trier can pull off. The film’s gritty, realistic portrayal of grief is contrasted by its heavy use of theology and folklore to portray a seemingly supernatural presence at hand. The film’s most ugly, extreme moments are contrasted with picturesque scenes of beauty and even moments that, intentional or not, come off as rather funny (the talking fox being one of the more obvious examples). The whole film feels like a fever dream, filled to the brim with such dense thematic symbolism and seemingly paradoxical emotional extremes that it reveals new layers long after the shock value of the final 30 minutes has worn off. “Chaos reigns.”

4

Melancholia (2011)

“The Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it.” The end of the world is imminent in the second film of von Trier’s “Depression” trilogy. Von Trier, who is known to base his primarily female protagonists off of aspects of himself, uses his own experiences with depression and anxiety to shape the two central characters in Melancholia, sisters Justine and Claire, respectively. The film’s two main actresses, Kirsten Dunst (who earned the Best Actress prize at Cannes for this film) and Charlotte Gainsbourg, completely ground the film with visceral weight in the portrayal of their respective neuroses, and Dunst gives a career-best performance in her depiction of a depressed newlywed, desperately trying to fake being happy on what should be the happiest day of her life.

The operatic quality of the film’s breathtaking opening sequence, in which all of human life is annihilated by the titular rogue planet whilst set to Wagner’s prelude to “Tristan and Isolde,” is in stark contrast to the gritty, naturalistic, almost Dogme-like feel to the rest of the film. This showcases a throughline in von Trier’s filmography, most explicitly occurring in the “Depression” trilogy: finding a detached, artistic beauty in destruction and chaos.

The film’s heavy usage of cryptic, sometimes cheeky symbolism not only intertextually binds it with the other films in the trilogy, but gives the film a heavy sense of von Trier’s unique blend of mysticism and reality that is most perhaps most prevalent in these three films. The end of the world has never looked so beautiful, and in von Trier’s opinion, Melancholia has the happiest ending of any film in his career. Given how most of his protagonists end up in his other films, it’s kinda hard to disagree.

5

The Idiots (1998)

The first film by von Trier made in accordance with his Dogme 95 manifesto (created alongside fellow Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, in which a filmmaker must abide by a set of 10 rules, which include forbidding artificial lighting and mandating handheld camerawork, among other things) and the second film in his “Golden Heart” trilogy, The Idiots is von Trier at his most unhinged. At least up until that point in his career. Completely shot with digital handheld cameras and featuring many scenes that would court controversy, the film is a complete spit in the face to what could be considered “good taste.” It is a film that, through the limitations inherent in the way it was filmed, creates an uncomfortable intimacy that feels all too real, even though the viewer is consistently made aware of the fact that they are just watching a film (granted that there are several shots throughout the film that clearly show either crew members filming or the boom mic in plain sight).

The abrasive filmic style inherent in Dogme 95 ends up being perfect for the abrasive subject matter of The Idiots, given that it deals with a group of people who pretend to be mentally disabled in public in order to rebel against society and let out their inner “idiot.” This is a film that feels almost like a live wire, ready to combust at the drop of a hat. Von Trier’s penchant for exhausting the emotional spectrum of a viewer is on full display here, as The Idiots can be hilarious, disturbing, uncomfortable, saddening, and strangely uplifting, sometimes all at once.

This film certainly did nothing to change the minds of critics who thought von Trier was nothing but a cinematic troll, but looking past the reactionary content and subject matter, this is a film of enormous depth that bursts with emotion in every scene. The way in which the film explores modern society’s deep seated discomfort with both mental disability and mental illness is harrowing, and the final scene is one of the most memorable in all of von Trier’s filmography. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself laughing and crying at the same time.

6

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Dancer in the Dark is a deconstruction of the American dream from von Trier, this time achieved through utilizing and subverting a genre that is inherently American: the musical. The final film in von Trier’s “Golden Heart” trilogy (all of which depict a loving and passionate female protagonist who gives freely to others at the expense of herself), Björk stars as Selma, a factory worker that is slowly going blind whose only solace lies in the extravagant musical numbers that she creates in her imagination. But this is certainly not a lavish Technicolor MGM musical—the film is shot with cheap handheld digital cameras, and as a result, it is as ugly as the reality that Selma inhibits.

Straight off the bat, this is a film that, from a distance, seems like it shouldn’t work: it’s visually unappealing, some of the supporting acting is quite amateurish, and the plot becomes more and more ridiculous as the film goes on. The fact that it ends up all working together anyway is incredibly impressive. That it is one of the most heartbreaking and devastating cinematic experiences ever captured on film (or, in this case, digital video) is simply miraculous.

Björk won the Best Actress award at Cannes for this film, and it is worth watching simply for her performance—she completely embodies the role of Selma, and it is near impossible to not empathize with her struggle as the film progresses and her circumstances become more and more dire. If you want to put yourself through a cathartic emotional wringer for two and a half hours, this is just the film for you. And even if you don’t, the soundtrack is at least worth checking out.

7

Dogville (2003)

As stated earlier, von Trier is known to break the fourth wall quite a lot in his films. With Dogville, the first film in his “America” trilogy, he takes it to new heights by getting rid of every wall. Shot on a soundstage representing a town street with chalk outlines representing houses and shops, the film is heavily influenced by Bertold Brecht’s “epic theatre” movement. This conceit is no mere gimmick, though. By having many cast members visible at any given time (granted that there are no walls) and by making the viewer constantly aware that they are only watching a film, Dogville becomes a postmodern deconstruction of the corruption that lies within the American dream, made even more real and vivid by getting rid of any semblance of realism.

Every character in the film is an obvious metaphor for an aspect of American society. The inherent skeletal nature of the film in terms of visuals and characterization, as well as the quirky voiceover narration from John Hurt, allows the viewer to distance themselves from the events of the film. This might be a flaw in any other film, but von Trier uses this distancing in order to illustrate to the viewer the big picture of American society as an abstraction, one in which many interpretations can be made. The result is a thematically dense pitch-black comedy about America, and it reveals something new during each subsequent viewing. And believe it or not, it only took von Trier one week to write the script!

8

The House That Jack Built (2018)

Lars von Trier has been called many things by critics and audiences over the years: a misogynist, an egomaniac, a nihilist, etc. With The House That Jack Built, he takes everything that he has been accused of and throws it back at the viewer in the most disturbingly violent but cheekily self-aware way imaginable. Von Trier lives vicariously through his protagonist, a serial killer named Jack (played brilliantly by Matt Dillon), to analyze his own life’s work as a filmmaker and his relation to the public.

Utilizing an archival footage/voiceover narration-heavy directorial style that von Trier did with Nymphomaniac and taking it even further in this film, The House That Jack Built feels almost like a two-and-a-half hour long PowerPoint juxtaposed with scenes of Matt Dillon killing people. Everything is here: the misogyny, the egotism, the complete and utter nihilism, turned up to 11. But what do we gain from this as a viewer?

The House That Jack Built is one of von Trier’s most challenging films. It is an almost academically presented deconstruction of art, and it forces the viewer to question the boundaries and limitations of it in a narratively skeletal but crudely blunt fashion. It embraces the comedy within brutality to a point where humor and discomfort become merged together. If the idea of a Lars von Trier TED Talk sounds repulsive to you, avoid this film like the plague.

9

Europa (1991)

The final installment in von Trier’s “Europa” trilogy (and his third feature film overall) sees von Trier at his most artistically realized up to that point in his career. Europa, which takes place in post-WWII Germany, works almost like a deconstructed, experimental 1940’s film noir, as von Trier takes many techniques present in the cinema of that time (rear projection, utilizing color in an otherwise black and white film) and utilizes them in such an over-the-top way that it becomes a subversion of the very genre he is imitating. And film noir really is the perfect vehicle for a story like this.

The dark, seedy underbelly and gray morality of post-war Europe that was hinted at in his first two films is fully delved into in this work, as an idealistic American expat working as a train conductor in Germany (played very amiably by Jean-Marc Barr) faces the hard realities of the country he works in and has to decide which stance to take politically, realizing over the course of the film that morality isn’t black and white, and idealism can only get one so far.

Europa feels almost like an oddball in von Trier’s career, as his next film, Breaking the Waves, would be a complete departure from the overtly technical and formalistic filming style used in this film, along with his two previous films to a certain extent. Nonetheless, it truly is a very lovable, moving, and thought-provoking oddball of a film.

10

The Five Obstructions (2003)

Von Trier has been vocal for many years about his usage of “obstructions” as an integral part of his artistic process—creating a set of rules and restrictions on what one can and cannot do while making a film provided the very essence of his infamous Dogme 95 movement, and it serves as the basis for this boundary-pushing documentary co-directed by his mentor and fellow Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth. The premise is simple: von Trier challenges Leth to remake his 1967 short film The Perfect Human five different times, each time with a new set of obstructions imposed by von Trier. The result is a deeply fascinating meditation on finding creativity through limitations and the artistic process itself—it’s like an updated version of von Trier’s 1987 film Epidemic, but more tightly constructed and focused. The complex and sometimes competitive relationship between Leth and von Trier is truly fun to watch, and even heartwarming at times. And who ever thought a von Trier film could be heartwarming?

11

Epidemic (1987)

Von Trier’s sophomore film (also the second film in his “Europa” trilogy), may feel like a minor effort at first glance, but further exploration into the film reveals the bold ideas and bursting creativity present in his first foray into experimental filmmaking. Von Trier’s signature use of fourth-wall-shattering metacinematic technique is on full display, most notably in the film’s title being watermarked in the upper left hand corner of the frame for almost the entire film.

Epidemic, which consists of a film within a film (within a documentary?) in which von Trier and co-writer Niels Vørsel play themselves, provides the viewer with a meta-narrative that feels like a product of 1960’s counterculture, using these avant-garde techniques to explore the artistic process and how one’s environment has a direct impact on the art one creates. In this case, of course, it is a bitterly cold and alienated post-war Europe, now seen in gritty 16mm black and white, as opposed to the moldy-textured sepia of von Trier’s previous film, The Element of Crime. It is worth watching for the haunting end scene alone, and if you stick it out for the end credits, you’ll even hear a pop tune written by von Trier for the film. And it’s actually pretty catchy!

12

Manderlay (2005)

The second film in his never-finished “America” trilogy, Manderlay sees von Trier returning to his Brechtian-influenced minimalist theatre performance schtick that was utilized in the trilogy’s first film, Dogville. It would be hard to deny the boldness of von Trier’s filming style, as well as his blunt treatment of the history of slavery in America, but ultimately, Manderlay ends up feeling like diet Dogville. The themes being presented in this trilogy, primarily regarding the hideous underbelly of various facets of American history, and its usage of minimalist production design in order to draw these themes together, was achieved masterfully in Dogville, whereas Manderlay comes off as half-baked by comparison. Despite its faults, the film still manages to deliver a somewhat powerful punch, as von Trier manages to do what he does best—depict disturbing and uncomfortable truths about human nature in a cheeky and satirical way that only he can pull off.

13

The Element of Crime (1984)

It’s no secret that von Trier is a fanatic of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkvosky—his films consistently reference moments from Tarkovsky films, and Antichrist is actually dedicated to the man himself, strangely enough. The Element of Crime, von Trier’s first feature-length film, is one that can’t seem to outrun its influences, as it clearly has Tarkovsky written all over it. From the heavy usage of trickling water as a motif and the fluid camera movements, it isn’t difficult to tell where von Trier got his inspiration. This is not to say the film doesn’t have elements of von Trier’s own artistic idiosyncrasies in it—his penchant for utilizing deliberately ugly cinematography is revealed in the sickening yellows and oranges that primarily dominate the color palette as a means of depicting a dilapidating post-war Europe (this marks the first film in von Trier’s “Europa” trilogy).

The film itself is a rather uninteresting detective mystery story with (intentionally?) melodramatic acting, and it definitely doesn’t invite many rewatches. The Element of Crime sees von Trier trying to find his own artistic voice while borrowing heavily from his influences—luckily he would soon hone his singular vision in much more memorable and interesting films.

14

The Boss of It All (2006)

You would never think that a film like this was the predecessor to von Trier’s dark and brutal Antichrist. As a matter of fact, you would most likely never guess that this was a von Trier film at all. As his only straight-up comedy film, one has to hand it to Lars for trying to break new ground, even if the result isn’t particularly memorable or satisfying. The Boss of It All does at least manage to showcase his affinity for experimentation with new cinematic techniques—it is the first (and only) film to be shot using “Automavision,” an invention by von Trier where camera movement is entirely dictated by a computer, leaving whatever is in the frame at any given time up to algorithmically-based chance. Von Trier would later state regarding his invention: “If you want bad framing, Automavision is the perfect way to do it. It was rather pleasant to lose control. In this case, I wanted to lose control 100 per cent.”


By Joey Arnone

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