Lars von Trier (born Lars Trier, April 30, 1956) is a Danish avant-garde film writer-director (in)famous for his experimental storytelling and mercilessly bleak subject matter.
A notorious proponent of melodrama, his works are often considered to be heavily on the cynical side of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism, to the point of nihilism. They're also deemed to center around emotional pain and depression, and just as often portray humankind as inherently evil creatures that are more than happy to exploit, torment and ultimately destroy the few kind and selfless individuals in the world. Do bear in mind that this is the popular stereotype of his work, and that his films have taken a variety of approaches, though a focus on angst is frequently present. (The aforementioned generalization mostly applies to his "Depression Trilogy", a Thematic Series made while he was struggling with the aforementioned disorder.)
Von Trier is also known for his weird ability to make actors perform way beyond their personal boundaries, and being one of the cofounders of the Dogme '95 manifesto. He also has a tendency to group his films into trilogies involving similar themes.
The "von" in his name does not come from German nobility, but is in fact an in-joke-ish nickname von Trier had amongst his fellow students in film school. He ultimately decided to keep the nickname to pay homage to Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg, who also added their "von" later in life.
Von Trier publicly revealed in August 2022 that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. As a result, he announced plans to take a break from filmmaking in order to adjust to life with the disease.
Lars von Trier's works include:
- The "Europa" Trilogy:
- The Element of Crime
- The "Golden Hearts" Trilogy:
- The "USA, Land of Opportunity" Trilogy (Unfinished):
- The "Depression" Trilogy:
- And Also:
Lars von Tropes:
- Break the Cutie: Lars' Signature Style. Take a cute actress, Emily Watson, Kirsten Dunst or even Björk, and put her through the most hideous psychosexual torture imaginable. There's a reason Bjork took 22 years to make another movie.
- California Doubling: His films are almost never shot where they're set, with the notable exception of Breaking the Waves. Many of his films are set in the United States (specifically Western Washington state due to similar locale), but are shot in Scandinavia. Von Trier has a severe fear of flying that keeps him from traveling to-and-from the U.S.
- The Cloud Cuckoolander Was Right: In nearly every one of his films, this is the case. Given the sorts of things von Trier says, you could argue that he sees this as an Author Tract.
- Compelling Voice: Used in The Element of Crime by an unnamed Hypnotist on the protagonist, who proceeds to relate the story. In Europa, it's by The Narrator Max von Sydow… and is used to hypnotize the audience.
- Control Freak: Every actor he has ever worked with has characterized von Trier as this. Some (Stellan Skarsgård, Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg) seem to tolerate this enough to work with him again, while others (Björk, Nicole Kidman, James Caan) do not. Then there are some (Jean-Marc Barr, John Hurt, Udo Kier) who admire him enough to become part of his Production Posse, despite this trope.
- Crapsack World: The top quote should illustrate what kind of worlds von Trier creates.
- Creator Breakdown: A rather nasty bout of Depression was the main impetus for his aptly named "Depression Trilogy": Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac. Melancholia is about a woman with crippling depression, mirroring the director's. It's still ongoing and he thinks that The House That Jack Built might be his last if it continues to get worse.
- Deconstruction: The Europa Trilogy is a deconstruction of Idealism.
- Lampshaded in Epidemic, where Lars von Trier's Author Avatar explains the story of the film he's working on which mirrors the films plot.
- This continues in Dancer in the Dark, which deconstructs Hollywood Musicals and the medium of film itself as means of escapism. And Manderlay, which specifically deconstructs the White Man's Burden trope.
- Deus Angst Machina: All the time.
- Dogme '95: Co-founder and author of the Dogme 95 Manifesto and "Vow of Chastity" along with fellow Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg. Vinterberg directed the first Dogme film — Dogme #1 — The Celebration, while von Trier directed Dogme #2, The Idiots.
- Downer Ending: Very common in his movies. It would be easier to list the movies of his that don't have these, though when they don't, they tend to be a very bittersweet variation of Earn Your Happy Ending.
- Dysfunction Junction: Every one of his movies ever.
- Bizarrely, von Trier is the product of a Real Life example, as well. He was born to a pair of Communist Nudist parents — you read that right — and was raised in an environment where "Everything was permitted, except for Religion, Feelings, or Enjoyment," to use the man's words. The lack of rules his parents set for him caused him to go strongly in the opposite direction, sowing the seeds for the Control Freak he grew up to be. In addition, his Father used to routinely condemn "Golden Hearts" like Jesus Christ, eventually causing him to embrace Christianity in an act of rebellion (this also inspired the title of his second Trilogy, all of which involve self-sacrificing heroines). It's been said that Lars is one of the few filmmakers with a backstory as singular as his films.
- Eagleland: A pretty strident Type #2. Negative reactions to his depiction of America in Dancer in the Dark inspired him to do a film that was EVEN MORE critical of America, Dogville, the first part of his "USA, Land of Opportunity" Trilogy. However, von Trier himself has stated in interviews he did not intend Dancer in the Dark to be a criticism of America.
- And he's adamant about the fact that he'll never visit the USA, due to his fear of flying.
- He has cynically stated that his latest film, The House That Jack Built, will be an allusion to the rise of Donald Trump.
- Euroshlock: How his most shocking work is often described.
- Fake Aristocrat: He was born Lars Trier, but added the aritstocratic "von" in college, either as an Appropriated Appellation (according to one story, his friends nicknamed him that in mockery of his highbrow artistic pretensions) or as a satire of other fake "von" filmmakers, such as Erich von Stroheim or Josef von Sternberg.
- Le Film Artistique: Lars nearly always has a strong Narrative, and he tends to go lighter on the more esoteric stereotypes of this trope, but he gets enough mileage out of the Camera Tricks, maudlin subject matter and controversy associated with the trope for three directors.
- Film Noir: His work shows a strong influence from the genre, especially his early films. Of course his interpretation of the genre flirts with Deconstruction.
- For example, The Element of Crime deconstructs the Femme Fatale.
- Flanderization: Over the course of his career, his plots have become simpler, the content of the stories harsher, and his characters meaner and meaner.
- Hobbes Was Right/Humans Are Bastards: This is something to be expected in his works. A lot.
- Insane Troll Logic/All Germans Are Nazis: Apparently, the reason why von Trier can't be a Jew (despite really wanting to) and instead being a Nazi was solely because he was German.
- In Which a Trope Is Described: "The film Dogville as told in nine chapters and a Prologue."
- Jitter Cam: More like "handheld camera work". Omnipresent throughout his work, and a great example of Tropes Are Not Bad.
- Melodrama: Part of his Signature Style. Has less to do with Soap Opera as with the works of Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg, both of whom inspired him to add the "von" to his surname.
- Minimalism: Beginning with Breaking the Waves, von Trier began a process of paring his films down to their essentials. The Idiots and aforementioned Breaking the Waves began by eschewing Special Effects and slick photography and focusing on character and story instead. Dancer in the Dark continued the trend, while streamlining characterization and plotting to a level of simplicity reminiscent of the Silent Era. Dogville and Manderlay eliminated sets and most props, filming everything on a large soundstage with buildings marked by lines of chalk. And finally Antichrist brought it all down to only two actors engaged in a series of Mind Games, though it did make use of some CGI. Melancholia and Nymphomaniac bring things back to a level of sophistication not seen since Breaking the Waves, though the characters are still as broadly drawn as they've been since Dancer in the Dark. And almost uniformly unpleasant.
- Missing Episode: Wasington [sic], the third film in The "USA, Land of Opportunity" Trilogy. von Trier's depression forced him to make Antichrist instead. Jury's out if he'll ever make it, especially after he stated that The House That Jack Built might be his last film.
- Oddball in the Series: The Boss of It All is a straightforward workplace comedy starring frequent collaborator Jens Albinus, supposedly made at the outset of his depression as an attempt to regain his enthusiasm for filmmaking.
- Onscreen Chapter Titles: Many of his films are structured into chapters introduced by on-screen title cards.
- Signature Style: Including, but not limited to:
- Long opening sequences with beautiful slow-motion cinematography.
- Use of classical music.
- Extensive use of handheld camerawork.
- Use of a chapter format with intertitles (usually hand-drawn).
- Several shocking and/or disturbing images.
- A general tone of extreme melancholy, possibly venturing into full-on nihilism.
- Characters giving philosophical monologues that more or less spell out the film's central themes.
- A completely depressing or heavily bittersweet ending.
- Production Posse: His go-to acting ensemble includes Udo Kier, Jean-Marc Barr, Stellan Skarsgård, Jens Albinus, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Dafoe, Jeremy Davies, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, John Hurt, and Željko Ivanek. He works frequently with DPs Robby Muller (until his death), Anthony Dod Mantle, and Manuel Alberto Claro.
- Stage Names: His birth name is the rather generic "Lars Trier".
- Straw Misogynist: It's often debated about how misogynistic his films actually are or aren't.
- Supernatural Fiction: Appears both overtly (Riget) and subtly (Breaking the Waves, Melancholia) throughout his work, and often overlaps with Magic Realism. His only films to date to have no supernatural or paranormal elements whatsoever are The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville and Manderlay.
- Transatlantic Equivalent: Todd Solondz shares his affinity for black comedy and nightmarish, misanthropic situations.
- Thematic Series. To date, Lars has made four:
- The "Europa" Trilogy deals with, yes, Europe, specifically the precarious sociopolitical positions it was left in in the aftermaths of WWII and the Cold War. The films also work as a deconstruction of Film Noir, and contain a recurring theme of Hypnotism as a storytelling device.
- The "Golden Hearts" Trilogy eschews the technical precision of the "Europa" Trilogy and refocuses on, to use Lars' words, "Honesty"; each film is shot with rough cinematography with a hand-held, restlessly moving camera, and features an innocent, pure female protagonist pitted against insurmountable odds. It's probably for these films that Lars is the most famous.
- The "USA, Land of Opportunity" Trilogy pares things down further, verging on Minimalism as sets and most props are eliminated. We follows Grace, another Cutie continuously broken throughout a skewed, satirical America. As of 2018, only two films of the trilogy have been made, making this perhaps an Orphaned Series.
- And The "Depression" Trilogy utilizes the most technical wizardry since the "Europa" Trilogy, stars Charlotte Gainsbourg, and is about, well, guess.
- There Are No Therapists: In all his work, there is one. And he just makes things worse.
- Troll: Although to what extent depends on who you ask.
- Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Has a crippling fear of flying. He'll drive to the Cannes Film Festival when one of his movies is in competition, rather than take a plane.