Lars von Trier is a filmmaker of simple extremes and polarities. He is both auteur and provocateur. He is control freak and breaker of conventions. Idealist and realist. Dogme 95, the filmmaking movement he is most associated with, seeks greater spontaneity through the imposition of 10 commandments and borrows the language of the catholic church, which the majority of Dogme filmmakers admit to having bent or broken. Similarly in The Five Obstructions the subject of the film, veteran Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth, is set free through the imposition of sets of rules or obstructions. These tensions and contradictions are at the heart of von Trier as a filmmaker and as a human being.
Von Trier and the Cannes film festival have nurtured a dysfunctional relationship based on mutual need and acceptance and rejection in equal parts. In 1984 he turned up in black leather and with a shaved head and was demonstrably underwhelmed when Element of Crime only won the Technical Grand Prize. Seven years later, when Europa didn’t win the top honour, he accepted the lesser Special Jury Prize by hilariously referring to Roman Polanski, the leader of that year’s Jury, as ‘the midget’. Due to some of his multiple fears – namely travelling and journalists, von Trier has spent relatively little time at Cannes, yet most of what has been said by him at the festival has facilitated and perpetuated many of the myths surrounding him.
But in the recent bout of verbal dysentery at Cannes, he was declared persona non grata for stating that he ‘understood Hitler’ and ‘was basically a Nazi’. The predictable reactions of outrage to these comments did not take into account von Trier’s complex relationship with his past and self perception: von Trier considered himself to be half-Jewish until discovering who his real biological father was. However, these comments also need to be taken in the context of the central thematic tensions explored in his films, in particular his fascination with the fatalistic folly of the idealist and the dark, brooding heart of German Romanticism. Melancholia represents the clearest joining together of these two strands in his work to date, the filmmaker was making wider observations about his Germanic roots as well as asserting an artistic statement of fact. If anyone would understand the murky, irrational nature of German Romanticism and its relationship with Nazism, it would be von Trier.
Romanticism developed as a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment, rejecting rational thought in favour of a wilful poetic irrationality and quixotic heroism. The early Romantic Friedrich Schlegel expressed the belief that ‘only in the exhilaration of annihilation is the sense of divine creation revealed’. One need not look too hard into 20th Century history to see the chilling consequences of such thinking and the roots of Nazism can be traced back to the seed of German Romanticism.
Goethe, often considered influential to the Romantics, registered his distaste of the movement by denouncing it as ‘sickness’. Karl Popper commented on the reaction of Romantic thinkers, like Fichte and Schegel, to Kant’s criticism of attempts to prove the existence of God, by saying ‘a new dogmatism becomes fashionable’. And, in forming his concept of history, Walter Benjamin, the German philosopher, also identified a messianic element in German Romanticism. This, and the redemptive power of the recovering the past, particularly in works of art, would form a key association for the Nazis with the Romantic Movement.
In reaching back to Romanticism Hitler and the Nazis took the ideals of the movement and brutalised them. The anti-Enlightenment strain of Romantic thinking mutated into the virulent anti-intellectualism of the Nazis. Interestingly, regular von Trier collaborator the brilliant, late Ernst-Hugo Jaeregard, once commented that the director is an ‘absolute opponent to all kinds of intellectual authority.’
Wagner, an influence on both von Trier and the Nazis, crystallised the ideals of German Romanticism into the Gesamtkunstwerk. Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk – the creation of an idealistic world over which he was sole creator and ruler not only has parallels in filmmaking but can be seen in many elements of Nazism – particularly and ironically in the conveyance of self expression and ruthless creativity in the treatment of its victims.
According to von Trier, his latest film Melancholia ‘dives headlong into the abyss of German Romanticism’ and begins with the end of the world, choreographed to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Melancholia’s lush cinematography and mise en scene combine the tempestuous elemental scenes of Johan Christian Dahl and Casper David Friedrich’s idealised motifs of German landscapes. Von Trier’s love for the aesthetics of the movement can also be seen in the post-diluvian cityscapes of Europe in Element of Crime, evocative of the crumbling Venice that Byron visited. Grimm’s Fairy Tales and the paintings of Otto Runge are evident in the supernatural woods of Antichrist and the faces of the children in Medea respectively.
Hitler, the frustrated artist with an appreciation of Kunst limited to German Romanticism, was also the perverse idealist and saw idealism as the premise of all human culture. His subversion of the Romantic ideals of will and purification in the name of creating the Thousand Year Reich, brought about his downfall and that of Germany – it had Europe teetering on the brink of destruction. This hubristic nature of the crusading idealist who, in their drive to do the right thing find themselves perpetuating the very evil they sought to overcome, is the recurrent theme in von Trier’s work.
In Element of Crime the dogmatic faith in methods shown by the central protagonist, detective Harry Gray – leads to him becoming the very child killer that he is pursuing. The Golden Heart trilogy sees a series of women martyr themselves ultimately for lost causes. The theme is even less subtly bludgeoned in Dogville and Manderlay, when Grace discovers that the theory and practice of her idealism are two very different beasts. In both Element of Crime and the American Trilogy, there is a pervading sense of an ideological aftermath bound up with the dystopian continent portrayed in the films.
In Melancholia, von Trier’s latest idealist-protagonist is Kirsten Dunst’s character, Justine. She plays a depressive whose ability to cope in the world increases as the world’s end nears. As von Trier was surely also aware, the Melancholic, one of the Four Temperaments of human nature classified by Galen in the second century, is also an idealist.
Elements of Melancholia are vividly pre-echoed in his 1987 work Epidemic. Just as Melancholia reflects personal aspects of his experience of depression, von Trier described Epidemic as a ‘very private film’. Both works deal with idealism, an apocalyptic event and make central use of the music of Wagner. Epidemic is a metafilm and in many senses it is meta-von Trier. The mechanics of his personality and his approach to film making, the anxieties, fascinations, contradictions and tensions inherent in his work are candidly exposed.
Epidemic sees two writers script a film about an epidemic spread by an idealistic doctor intent on curing a plague. As scriptwriters continue, lost in their work, they are oblivious to a real life epidemic of a plague-like disease spreading through the world outside. Here, von Trier casts himself in the role of the vulnerable idealist, the role usually assumed by his female leads. As if to emphasise this he strips and bathes in front of the camera in a bathroom scene reminiscent of the fundamentals of many horror films.
Epidemic also illustrates his idealistic vision of the world and is shot and lit beautifully, in contrast to the grainy handheld shots that would form part of the Dogme manifesto and its insistence in portraying the ‘real ‘world.
If the Nazi comments at Cannes served any useful purpose, they seem to have rechannelled the orthodox accusations of misogyny aimed at von Trier – this, despite him lazily trying to bait his detractors at the now notorious press conference by talking of co-stars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst lezzing up for a porno film. Von Trier has always maintained that it’s actually the women in his films that he identifies with, saying that ‘The male protagonists in my films are basically all idiots who don’t understand shit. Whereas the women are much more human, and much more real.’ If von Trier should be accused of anything in his films, it should be misandry. His male characters are often manipulative, passive, shallow or poorly formed. In Antichrist the arrogance of Willem Dafoe’s scientifically minded character leads him to break the ethics of psychotherapy – in treating a loved one – thereby hindering her recovery. His idealised and patronising view of women unleashes violent, dark forces in her.
Furthermore, Antichrist’s apparent woman-hating is something much deeper and reflects an anxiety of something profoundly defective in nature itself. It is nature – life-giver and life-taker – that is embodied in the women in von Trier’s films, that is not just beautiful and fecund but cruel and brutal. Bess or Selma try to play God with the fate of their loved ones in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark respectively. Gainsbourg’s grief-racked mother in Antichrist seems in symbiosis with the shadowy, hostile woods. This thread is continued in von Trier’s latest work. Dunst’s melancholic Justine is counterbalanced by her more normal sister Claire played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Justine tries to put an end to her anxiety and doubt by throwing herself into the ritual of marriage, but finds her innate temperament is not suited to the material world. In a continuation on the theme opened in Antichrist, it is hinted that the attempt to tame her nature unleashes a power simultaneously destructive and beautiful. In her depressed state Justine concludes that ‘The Earth is evil – all life is evil,’ that there is no God and ‘Life is only on Earth – and not for long.’ Yet, as the rogue planet Melancholia advances the end of life on Earth, Justine finds herself transformed – electrified and powerful – by her need for pathos, drama and, as Danish poet Tom Kristensen wrote, her longing for shipwrecks and sudden death.
That ‘Life on Earth is evil’ is a melancholic and anxious world view – one shared by von Trier through most of his life. Yet for him, this way of seeing, with ‘the troll shard in my eye’ also represents the search for truth and real nature of the human condition and it has been the driving force of his creativity and his films.