Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier (born Lars Trier; 30 April 1956)[3] is a Danish film director and screenwriter[4] with a prolific and controversial[5][6] career spanning almost four decades. His work is known for its genre and technical innovation;[7][8] confrontational examination of existential, social,[9][10] and political[5][11] issues; and his treatment of subjects[11] such as mercy,[12] sacrifice, and mental health.[13]

Lars von Trier
Lars Trier

(1956-04-30) 30 April 1956
Alma mater
Years active1967–present
Notable work
MovementHyperrealism, Dogme 95, German Expressionism
  • Cæcilia Holbek
    (m. 1987; div. 1995)
  • Bente Frøge
    (m. 1997; div. 2015)
AwardsPalme d'Or, EFA, Cesar, Bodil, Goya, FIPRESCI
HonoursUnicef Cinema for Peace, Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog

Among his more than 100 awards and 200 nominations[14] at film festivals worldwide, von Trier has received: the Palme d'Or (for Dancer in the Dark), the Grand Prix (for Breaking the Waves), the Prix du Jury (for Europa), and the Technical Grand Prize (for The Element of Crime and Europa) at the Cannes Film Festival.

Von Trier is the founder and shareholder of the international film production company Zentropa Films,[15][16] which has sold more than 350 million tickets and garnered seven Academy Award nominations over the past 25 years.[17]

Early life and education

Von Trier was born in Kongens Lyngby, Denmark, north of Copenhagen, to Inger Høst and Fritz Michael Hartmann (the head of Denmark's Ministry of Social Affairs and a World War II resistance fighter).[18] He received his surname from Høst's husband, Ulf Trier, whom he believed was his biological father until 1989.[18]

He studied film theory at the University of Copenhagen and film direction at the National Film School of Denmark.[19] At 25, he won two Best School Film awards at the Munich International Festival of Film Schools[20] for Nocturne and Last Detail.[21] The same year, he added the German nobiliary particle "von" to his name, possibly as a satirical homage to the equally self-invented titles of directors Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg,[22] and saw his graduation film Images of Liberation released as a theatrical feature.[23]


In 1984, The Element of Crime, von Trier's breakthrough film, received twelve awards at seven international festivals[24] including the Technical Grand Prize at Cannes, and a nomination for the Palme d'Or.[25] The film's slow, non-linear pace,[26] innovative and multi-leveled plot design, and dark dreamlike visual effects[24] combine to create an allegory for traumatic European historical events.[27]

His next film, Epidemic (1987), was also shown at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section. The film features two story lines that ultimately collide: the chronicle of two filmmakers (played by von Trier and screenwriter Niels Vørse) in the midst of developing a new project, and a dark science fiction tale of a futuristic plague  the very film von Trier and Vørsel are depicted making.

Von Trier has occasionally referred to his films as falling into thematic and stylistic trilogies. This pattern began with The Element of Crime (1984), the first of the Europa trilogy, which illuminated traumatic periods in Europe both in the past and the future. It includes The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987), and Europa (1991).


Von Trier directed Medea (1988) for television, which won him the Jean d'Arcy prize in France. It is based on a screenplay by Carl Th. Dreyer and stars Udo Kier. Trier completed the Europa trilogy in 1991 with Europa (released as Zentropa in the US), which won the Prix du Jury at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival,[28] and picked up awards at other major festivals. In 1990 he also directed the music video for the song "Bakerman" by Laid Back.[29] This video was re-used in 2006 by the English DJ and artist Shaun Baker in his remake of the song.

Zentropa films

Seeking financial independence and creative control over their projects, in 1992 von Trier and producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen founded the film production company Zentropa Entertainment. Named after a fictional railway company in Europa,[19] their most recent film at the time, Zentropa has produced many movies other than Trier's own, as well as several television series. It has also produced hardcore sex films: Constance (1998), Pink Prison (1999), HotMen CoolBoyz (2000), and All About Anna (2005). To make money for his newly founded company, von Trier made The Kingdom (Danish title Riget, 1994) and The Kingdom II (Riget II, 1997), a pair of miniseries recorded in the Danish national hospital, the name "Riget" being a colloquial name for the hospital known as Rigshospitalet (lit. The Kingdom's Hospital) in Danish. A projected third season of the series was derailed by the death in 1998 of Ernst-Hugo Järegård, who played Dr. Helmer, and that of Kirsten Rolffes, who played Mrs. Drusse, in 2000, two of the major characters.

Inventing the Dogme 95 manifesto

In 1995 von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg presented their manifesto for a new cinematic movement, which they called Dogme 95. The Dogme 95 concept, which led to international interest in Danish film, inspired filmmakers all over the world.[30] In 2008, together with their fellow Dogme directors Kristian Levring and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg received the European film award for European Achievement in World Cinema.

In 1996 von Trier conducted an unusual theatrical experiment in Copenhagen involving 53 actors, which he titled Psychomobile 1: The World Clock. A documentary chronicling the project was directed by Jesper Jargil, and was released in 2000 with the title De Udstillede (The Exhibited).

The Golden Heart trilogy

Von Trier achieved his greatest international success with his Golden Heart trilogy. Each film in the trilogy is about naive heroines who maintain their "golden hearts" despite the tragedies they experience. This trilogy consists of: Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998), and Dancer in the Dark (2000).[31] While all three films are sometimes associated with the Dogme 95 movement, only The Idiots is a certified Dogme 95 film.

Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves (1996), the first film in his Golden Heart trilogy, won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and featured Emily Watson, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Its grainy images, and hand-held photography, pointed towards Dogme 95 but violated several of the manifesto's rules, and therefore does not qualify as a Dogme 95 film.

The Idiots

The second film in the trilogy, The Idiots (1998), was nominated for a Palme d'Or, with which he was presented in person at the Cannes Film Festival despite his dislike of traveling.

Dancer in the Dark

In 2000 von Trier premiered a musical featuring Icelandic musician Björk, Dancer in the Dark. The film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes.[32] The song "I've Seen It All" (co-written by von Trier) received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.

The Five Obstructions

The Five Obstructions (2003), made by von Trier and Jørgen Leth, is a documentary that incorporates lengthy sections of experimental films. The premise is that von Trier challenges director Jørgen Leth, his friend and mentor, to remake his old experimental film The Perfect Human (1967) five times, each time with a different "obstruction" (or obstacle) specified by von Trier.[33]

The Land of Opportunities films

A proposed trilogy, von Trier's Land of Opportunities consists of Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005), and Wasington, which is yet to be made. Dogville and Manderlay were both shot with the same distinctive, extremely stylized approach, placing the actors on a bare sound stage with no set decoration and the buildings' walls marked by chalk lines on the floor, a style inspired by 1970s televised theatre. Dogville (2003) starred Nicole Kidman and Manderlay (2005) starred Bryce Dallas Howard in the same main role as Grace Margaret Mulligan. Both films have casts of major international actors, including Harriet Andersson, Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Danny Glover, and Willem Dafoe, and question various issues relating to American society, such as intolerance (in Dogville) and slavery (in Manderlay).

The Boss of It All and The Early Years

In 2006 von Trier released a Danish-language comedy film, The Boss of It All. It was shot using an experimental process that he has called Automavision, which involves the director choosing the best possible fixed camera position and then allowing a computer to randomly choose when to tilt, pan, or zoom.

Following The Boss of It All, von Trier scripted an autobiographical film, The Early Years: Erik Nietzsche Part 1 in 2007, which went on to be directed by Jacob Thuesen. The film tells the story of von Trier's years as a student at the National Film School of Denmark. It stars Jonatan Spang as von Trier's alter ego, called "Erik Nietzsche", and is narrated by von Trier himself. All the main characters in the film are based on real people from the Danish film industry, with thinly veiled portrayals including Jens Albinus as director Nils Malmros, Dejan Čukić as screenwriter Mogens Rukov, and Søren Pilmark.

The Depression trilogy

The Depression trilogy consists of Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac. The three films star Charlotte Gainsbourg, and deal with characters who suffer depression or grief in different ways. This trilogy is said to represent the depression that Trier himself experiences.[34]


Von Trier's next feature film was Antichrist, a film about "a grieving couple who retreat to their cabin in the woods, hoping a return to Eden will repair their broken hearts and troubled marriage; but nature takes its course and things go from bad to worse".[35] The film stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. It premiered in competition at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where the festival's jury honoured the movie by giving the Best Actress award to Gainsbourg.[36]

Melancholia and the Cannes press conference incident

In 2011 von Trier released Melancholia, a psychological drama.[37] The film was in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.[38]

Known to be provocative in interviews,[39] von Trier's remarks during the press conference before the premiere of Melancholia in Cannes[40] caused significant controversy in the media, leading the festival to declare him persona non grata and to ban him from the festival[41] for one year[42] (without, however, excluding Melancholia from that year's competition).[43] Minutes before the end of the interview, Trier was asked by a journalist about his German roots and the Nazi aesthetic in response to the director's description of the film's genre as "German romance".[44][45] The director, who was brought up with his Jewish father and only found out later in life that his biological father was a non-Jewish German,[46] appeared offended by the connotation[47] and responded by discussing his German identity. He joked that since he was no longer Jewish he now "understands" and "sympathizes" with Hitler, that he is not against the Jews except for Israel which is "a pain in the ass" and that he is a Nazi.[48] These remarks caused a stir in the media which, for the most part, presented the incident as an antisemitic scandal.[49] The director released a formal apology immediately after the controversial press conference[50] and kept apologizing for his joke during all of the interviews he gave in the weeks following the incident,[51][52][53] admitting that he was not sober,[54] and saying that he did not need to explain that he is not a Nazi.[55][56] The actors of Melancholia who were present during the incident – Dunst, Gainsbourg, Skarsgård – defended the director, pointing to his provocative sense of humor[57][58] and his depression.[59] The director of the Cannes festival later characterized the controversy as "unfair" and as "stupid" as von Trier's bad joke, concluding that his films are welcome at the festival and that von Trier is considered a "friend".[42] In 2019, von Trier stated that he made this remark at the "only press conference I ever had when I was sober."[60]


Following Melancholia, von Trier began the production of Nymphomaniac, a film about the sexual awakening of a woman played by Charlotte Gainsbourg.[61]

In early December 2013, a four-hour version of the five-and-a-half-hour film was shown to the press in a private preview session. The cast also included Stellan Skarsgård (in his sixth film for von Trier), Shia LaBeouf, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, Christian Slater, and Uma Thurman. In response to claims that he had merely created a "porn film", Skarsgård stated "... if you look at this film, it's actually a really bad porn movie, even if you fast forward. And after a while you find you don't even react to the explicit scenes. They become as natural as seeing someone eating a bowl of cereal." Von Trier refused to attend the private screening due to the negative response to Nazi-related remarks he had made at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, which had led to his expulsion from it. In the director's defense, Skarsgård stated at the screening, "Everyone knows he's not a Nazi, and it was disgraceful the way the press had these headlines saying he was."[62]

For its public release in the United Kingdom, the four-hour version of Nymphomaniac was divided into two "volumes"  Volume I and Volume II  and the film's British premiere was on 22 February 2014. In interviews prior to the release date, Gainsbourg and co-star Stacy Martin revealed that prosthetic vaginas, body doubles, and special effects were used for the production of the film. Martin also stated that the film's characters were a reflection of the director himself and referred to the experience as an "honour" that she enjoyed.[63]

The film was also released in two "volumes" for the Australian release on 20 March 2014, with an interval separating the back-to-back sections. In his review of the film for 3RRR's film criticism program, Plato's Cave, presenter Josh Nelson stated that, since the production of Breaking the Waves, the filmmaker von Trier is most akin to is Alfred Hitchcock, due to his portrayal of feminine issues. Nelson also mentioned filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky as another influence whom Trier himself has also cited.[64]

In February 2014, an uncensored version of Volume I was shown at the Berlin Film Festival, with no announcement of when or if the complete five-and-a-half-hour Nymphomaniac would be made available to the public.[65] The complete version premiered at the 2014 Venice Film Festival and was shortly afterward released in a limited theatrical run worldwide that fall.

The House That Jack Built and the return to Cannes

In 2015, von Trier started to work on a new feature film, The House That Jack Built (2018), which was originally planned as an eight-part television series. The story is about a serial killer, seen from the murderer's point of view.[66][67] Shooting started in March 2017 in Sweden, with shooting moving to Copenhagen in May.[68]

In February 2017, von Trier explained in his own words that The House That Jack Built "celebrates the idea that life is evil and soulless, which is sadly proven by the recent rise of the "Homo trumpus – the rat king".[68] The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Despite more than 100 walkouts by audience members when initially screened at the Cannes Film Festival, the film still received a 10-minute standing ovation.[69][70]

Aesthetics, themes, and style of working


Von Trier is heavily influenced by the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer[71] and the film The Night Porter.[72] He was so inspired by the short film The Perfect Human, directed by Jørgen Leth, that he challenged Leth to redo the short five times in the feature film The Five Obstructions.[73]


Von Trier's writing style has been heavily influenced by his work with actors on set, as well as the Dogme 95 manifesto that he co-authored.[74] In an interview with Creative Screenwriting, von Trier described his process as "writing a sketch and keep[ing] the story simple...then part of the script work is with the actors."[74]

While reflecting on the storytelling across his body of work, von Trier said, "All the stories are about a realist who comes into conflict with life. I’m not crazy about real life, and real life is not crazy about me."[74] He further described his process as dividing different parts of his personality into different characters.

Von Trier has cited Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer as a writing influence, pointing to Dreyer's method of overwriting his scripts then significantly cutting the length down.[74]

Filming techniques

Von Trier has said that "a film should be like a stone in your shoe".[75] To create original art he feels that filmmakers must distinguish themselves stylistically from other films, often by placing restrictions on the film making process. The most famous such restriction is the cinematic "vow of chastity" of the Dogme 95 movement with which he is associated. In Dancer in the Dark, he used jump shots[76] and dramatically-different color palettes and camera techniques for the "real world" and musical portions of the film, and in Dogville everything was filmed on a sound stage with no set, where the walls of the buildings in the fictional town were marked as lines on the floor.

Von Trier often shoots digitally and operates the camera himself, preferring to continuously shoot the actors in-character without stopping between takes. In Dogville he let actors stay in character for hours, in the style of method acting. These techniques often put great strain on the actors, most famously with Björk during the filming of Dancer in the Dark.[77]

Von Trier would later return to explicit images in Antichrist (2009), exploring darker themes, but he ran into problems when he tried once more with Nymphomaniac, which had 90 minutes cut out (reducing it from five-and-one-half to four hours) for its international release in 2013 in order to be commercially viable,[78] taking nearly a year to be shown complete anywhere in an uncensored director's cut.[79]

Trier also attributes most of his profound ideas to that of his previous mentor, Thomas Boguszewski. "Thomas' genius is one I could never match," says von Trier, "but it would be a shame not to try."[80]

Approach to actors

In a Skype interview for IndieWire, von Trier compared his approach to actors with "how a chef would work with a potato or a piece of meat," clarifying that working with actors has differed on each film based on the production conditions.[81]

Von Trier has occasionally courted controversy by his treatment of his leading ladies.[82] He and Björk famously fell out during the shooting of Dancer in the Dark, to the point where Björk would abscond from filming for days at a time.[83] She stated about Trier, who among other things shattered a monitor while it was next to her, " can take quite sexist film directors like Woody Allen or Stanley Kubrick and still they are the one that provide the soul to their movies. In Lars von Trier’s case it is not so and he knows it. He needs a female to provide his work soul. And he envies them and hates them for it. So he has to destroy them during the filming. And hide the evidence."[84] Despite this, other actresses such as Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg have spoken out in defence of von Trier's approach.[84][85][86] Nymphomaniac star Stacy Martin has stated that he never forced her to do anything that was outside her comfort zone. She said "I don't think he's a misogynist. The fact that he sometimes depicts women as troubled or dangerous or dark or even evil; that doesn't automatically make him anti-feminist. It's a very dated argument. I think that Lars loves women."[87]

Nicole Kidman, who starred in von Trier's Dogville, said in an interview with ABC Radio National: "I think I tried to quit the film three times because he said, 'I want to tie you up and whip you, and that's not to be kind.' I was, like, what do you mean? I've come all this way to rehearse with you, to work with you, and now you're telling me you want to tie me up and whip me? But that's Lars, and Lars takes his clothes off and stands there naked and you're like, 'Oh, put your clothes back on, Lars, please, let's just shoot the film.' But he's very, very raw and he's almost like a child in that he'll say and do anything. And we would have to eat dinner every night and most of the time that would end with me in tears because Lars would sit next to me and drink peach schnapps and get drunk and get abusive and I'd leave and...anyway, then we'd go to work the next morning."[88]

Sexual harassment allegation

Björk made a public statement regarding von Trier's sexual harassment during the production of Dancer in the Dark,[89] in which von Trier remains unnamed, though the Los Angeles Times has found corroboration identifying him.[90] In the Facebook posting, Björk describes the difficulties in facing his retribution: "It was extremely clear to me when I walked into the actresses profession that my humiliation and role as a lesser sexually harassed being was the norm and set in stone with the director and a staff of dozens who enabled it and encouraged it. I became aware of that it is a universal thing that a director can touch and harass his actresses at will and the institution of film allows it. When I turned the director down repeatedly he sulked and punished me and created for his team an impressive net of illusion where I was framed as the difficult one." She also stated, "And in my opinion he had a more fair and meaningful relationship with his actresses after my confrontation so there is hope. Let's hope this statement supports the actresses and actors all over. Let's stop this. There is a wave of change in the world".[89][91] Von Trier has denied the accusations made against him,[90] and Björk responded by detailing the sexual assault episodes.[92]

Frequent collaborators

Von Trier has a known penchant for working with actors and production members more than once. His main crew members and producer team has remained intact since the film Europa.[93] The list of actors reappearing in his films, even for small parts or cameos, is also extensive. Many of them have repeatedly expressed their devotion[94] to von Trier and willingness to return on set with him,[95][96][97] even without payment.[98][99] He uses the same regular group of actors in many of his films including Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier and Stellan Skarsgård who was cast in several Lars von Trier films: Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and Nymphomaniac.

Note: This list shows only the actors who have collaborated with von Trier in three or more productions.

Personal life


In 1989, von Trier's mother told him on her deathbed that the man von Trier thought was his biological father was not, and that he was the result of a liaison she had with her former employer, Fritz Michael Hartmann (1909–2000),[101] who was descended from a long line of German-speaking, Roman Catholic classical musicians. Hartmann's grandfather was Emil Hartmann, his great-grandfather J. P. E. Hartmann, his uncles included Niels Gade and Johan Ernst Hartmann, and Niels Viggo Bentzon was his cousin. She stated that she did this to give her son "artistic genes".[102]

"Until that point I thought I had a Jewish background. But I'm really more of a Nazi. I believe that my biological father's German family went back two further generations. Before she died, my mother told me to be happy that I was the son of this other man. She said my foster father had had no goals and no strength. But he was a loving man. And I was very sad about this revelation. And you then feel manipulated when you really do turn out to be creative. If I'd known that my mother had this plan, I would have become something else. I would have shown her. The slut!"[103]

During the German occupation of Denmark, von Trier's biological father Fritz Michael Hartmann worked as a civil servant and joined a resistance group, Frit Danmark, actively counteracting any pro-German and pro-Nazi colleagues in his department.[104] Another member of this infiltrative resistance group was Hartmann's colleague Viggo Kampmann, who would later become prime minister of Denmark.[105] After von Trier had had four awkward meetings with his biological father, Hartmann refused further contact.[106]

Family background and political and religious views

Von Trier's mother considered herself a Communist, while his father was a Social Democrat. Both were committed nudists, and von Trier went on several childhood holidays to nudist camps. His parents regarded the disciplining of children as reactionary. He has noted that he was brought up in an atheist family, and that although Ulf Trier was Jewish, he was not religious. His parents did not allow much room in their household for "feelings, religion, or enjoyment," and also refused to make any rules for their children, with complex effects upon von Trier's personality and development.[107][108]

In a 2005 interview with Die Zeit, von Trier said, "I don't know if I'm all that Catholic really. I'm probably not. Denmark is a very Protestant country. Perhaps I only turned Catholic to piss off a few of my countrymen."[103]

In 2009, he said, "I'm a very bad Catholic. In fact I'm becoming more and more of an atheist."[109]

Mental health

Von Trier periodically suffers from depression, and also from various fears and phobias, including an intense fear of flying. This fear frequently places severe constraints on him and his crew, necessitating that virtually all of his films be shot in either Denmark or Sweden. As he quipped in an interview, "Basically, I'm afraid of everything in life, except film making."[110]

On numerous occasions, von Trier has also stated that he suffers from occasional depression which renders him incapable of performing his work and unable to fulfill social obligations.[111]

Awards and honors



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