Lars von Trier is a Danish film director and screenwriter with a career spanning over forty years. Von Trier experiments with genre and technical innovation; his films highlight existential, social, political and mental health issues. He has received more than a hundred awards at world-class festivals. His films have sold over 350 million tickets and received seven Academy Award nominations in the last twenty-five years. He is the founder of the international film production company Zentropa Films.
Lars von Trier is the author of such cult classic films as Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Manderlay, Antichrist, Melancholia, Nymphomaniac, and finally his latest work, The House That Jack Built.
Lars, you seem very calm and kind of enlightened lately. Did something happened in your life that had a strong effect on you—that is, if it’s something you can share?
I wouldn’t say that it was something specific. I tried to change my life and… my films. You know, I want to get out of the dramaturgy of big-budget American films, and it’s so difficult for me, it’s as if a formula is put in your head when you’re a child, and that’s the way you tell your stories since. I’m trying… it’s like, you know, if you make two points, then the audience will draw a line between those two points. And that already is an imitation, you know. My idol is Tarkovsky, and some might say about The Mirror that it’s completely incomprehensible, but to me it’s pure freedom. The Mirror is fantastic.
Individuality and Art
Lars, where does this style of yours come from? What is it?
When you say style… You know, I wanted to get into film school, but it didn’t work out. Then I went to the university to study film. I saw a lot 16 mm films. And it was real cinema, you know. They showed us many films and I saw so many… And it was from them that I learned what cinema is. I determined for myself from what I can and can’t learn. That’s how the style came about.
I’ll push a little more: where does the context of this style come from, what makes it so unique?
Do you think it’s unique? I’m not sure about that. Actually, you know what the problem is… I am in a situation or at least I was a few years ago, where I could finance anything I wanted to finance—I mean I had the money. And that added to the pressure. I think it’s not right to waste money excessively, so I tied to go in a different direction. I think we can talk about complete freedom here, and the responsibility that comes from this freedom, the style that comes from responsibility has made it so, in your words, unique. I wouldn’t say I’m better than someone—I’m just in a very specific situation, and I hope that I will not run out of opportunities to create anything I want in the future.
How simple: freedom is the secret of success and, first and foremost, financial freedom…
Of course. If you work with other artists of your status, you are bound to clash and have to find a compromise. Or not. But when you are alone and make all the decisions on your own, this naturally creates some uniqueness.
Amazing. You said in an interview that your next plan was to shoot Etudes, 10-minute shorts. How is that going?
It’s not going at all. I’m currently writing the last season of Kingdom. It’s hard. You know, many of the actors who played in the first and second seasons of Kingdom twenty years ago have died, and it wasn’t easy to continue the series without them. A new angle is needed now, and that’s what I’m trying to do. Storytelling-wise, it’s a very traditional plot.
I’ll probably have to add some confusion and intrigue.
So, you’re starting to shoot the third season.
We will probably start shooting next year, either spring or autumn. We will need leaves off the trees.
What do you think about the Jante Law?
Jante Law has been an inspiration to me.
I think I have created my best works by swimming against the current. What do you know about the Jante Law?
I know a few things. I read about it when I lived in Denmark. It’s about restricting individuality—that’s the key point. The law says, “Don’t think you’re special, you are not.” This is the first law, if I’m not mistaken.
Yes, and I think I am special. It’s human nature to think of oneself as special. We are all individualists.
What motivates you to be a better person?
I am an atheist. I have to be a good person.
Does atheism motivate you?
It does, a lot.
What is the best advice you’ve been given so far?
The best advice I have been given came from one of my teachers. Whether you’re making noir or something else… when you’re making a genre film, try not to stray off the genre. Do you know what I mean? I always start with the genre, and then this road takes me somewhere else. So, that was the most important advice for me.
Do you think about death?
I think about death a lot. I have isolated myself in my home, because I have different symptoms…
What symptoms? Is it a fact or a phantom?
Of course, it’s a fact. I have tremors. My hands and body shake.
Does isolation help?
Yes, it helps. It’s good. Now I often go out into the woods for a walk. I am very interested in the trees and the leaves. I always have to work on stories and events that I find difficult to tell. It’s very difficult… The weather is beautiful today. I live by a small river. I have just returned from a romantic walk and circled around my house. I don’t know, I have a gardener, who comes and helps me sometimes. I also have a garden, but you wouldn’t call it a garden if you saw it. I potter about in there.
Illness and craziness
What crazy things are you capable of as a director?
Whatever I am capable or incapable of, I don’t want it to be crazy. Crazy, craziness is something that feels wrong…
All right, not crazy, let’s say…
Interesting. Yes, let’s call it interesting.
As an artist, you are a dreamer and a fighter…
A dreamer and a fighter?
Yes, this is kind of the impression I got watching your films.
Excellent! If that’s the impression, it’s great.
Glad to hear it, Lars. What was the sexiest dream you’ve ever had?
Let’s not discuss private stuff, I don’t trust this to the Internet.
Okay, I understand. We can talk about the sexiest dream you’ve ever had when we talk in person. What lies do you most often tell yourself?
I tell myself a lot of lies. That has to do with my anxiety. I have OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder, manifests itself as paranoid reactions such as extreme fastidiousness – Ed.). OCD means telling yourself lies all the time.
You also have OCD?
How far ahead can you plan?
Now I’m planning Kingdom 3 and I have no plans beyond that… The Etudes, on the other hand… Godard also made short films and did similar experiments.
So, do you want to do an experiment that no one else did in short films, and if it works, you will apply it to your future films? Is that what you mean when you say experiment?
Yes, but the most important thing here is to take the result as a game… I mean, you have to want to play. If you lose interest, it’s like a dog losing interest in a ball and just tossing it aside… It should be fun, and that’s how I try to do it. It is true that the ending of Kingdom is not much fun, but the main reason is my lack of psychological precision. But you were asking about something else…
Will we see the application of this experiment in your future films?
I get very upset when I’m asked about the experiment. I’m not experimenting, I have seen the film in my head already. So, it’s not an experiment, it’s expression.
Yes. But I think it’s very important not to think about how the audience will see the film. Think about the audience as little as possible. Think about how you’re going to see the film yourself. I make films for myself, and if there’s somebody else out there who benefits from them or likes them, it’s great. But basically, I do it for myself.
Which ones of your films are special to you?
One of the films I like best is Dogville, there’s a lot of me in it. But there’s a lot of me in all my films. As Ingmar Bergman said once in an interview, you should use yourself a lot, and I have used myself all the time. Take any scene in any of my films, and they will be talking with my voice. So, I put a lot of myself into my films. Maybe not in an obvious way as Bergman says. He made fantastic films that I still enjoy.
I don’t watch new films, you know. To be precise, the films I watched in film school were enough for me to last a lifetime. I have a beautiful box, my treasure chest with films in it, and that’s where my world is. That’s why I don’t watch modern films. The problem is that they might attract and excite me, and then I can’t be trusted as a scientist—I consider myself a scientist. If you want to go east, then you have to continue going east. Even if I find something interesting in the west, I have to ignore it and go my own way, to the east.
Is it a life principle, going east?
What do you expect to find in the east?
Oh, when I say east… It’s just an idea, a kind of suggestion. It’s like a computer game. You know, maybe it’s a little difficult to understand but for me, I can see that there’s a line, and I… lean to the east. If you’re asking about Eastern films, yes, I have watched several new films, and they are all based on the latest technological advances. I’m trying to use modern technology as little as possible.
That’s an interesting position in our technological world. Lars, if as a graduate of a Danish acting school and a US directing school, I offered you a part in my film, would you take it? Is it even possible to cast you?
I see. It’s a no then.
That’s very kind of you, because people often don’t take no for an answer, they keep pushing. They stalk me. But I tell them I’m going east and I need all my concentration. Yes, it’s interesting, it can be, and of course I’m a very selfish person.
Lars, I’m going ask you two questions. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. But it will be great if you do.
I watched and read all your interviews, and one of them was interesting in a weird way. I’m talking about Russian blogger Ksenia Sobchak. Do you remember it?
How did you feel when she opened your refrigerator and looked inside? It was very uncivilized of Ksenia, I felt uncomfortable watching that. Why did she peek into your fridge?
So what? She wouldn’t have found anything interesting in there. Honestly, I don’t have anything interesting in my refrigerator. Like other directors I know, I… you know, many directors who could talk about films and their becoming have died. And I try to keep my private world private.
And the second question. If you had twenty-four hours to spend with Adolf Hitler, what would you do with him?
Kill him?.. Hitler was actually injected with heroine and amphetamines every day. It would be interesting to talk to him when he was high. I think he needed some medical help to be so evil. And he never visited the concentration camps himself, he didn’t allow himself to see the real violence, he just sat in his bunker or at home, making decisions. And even the generals disagreed with him and he… yeah, he went east, too. And that’s was a mistake. Then the second front opened… Hitler couldn’t fight.
What would I ask him? I’d ask him what he has in his refrigerator. The problem is, because of his extreme measures… never mind, that’s an old conversation, I’m just saying what occurred to me in Cannes. That’s what I was trying to explain back then. Look at all the history channels—it’s all about Hitler, everything is about him. Sure, there are also films about Stalin, but in all fairness, he’s no match for Hitler. But was Stalin good? How about you? What would you ask from Stalin if you spent twenty-four hours with him?
An international passport to flee the country.
And he would have you shot. He sat at night, personally making lists of people to be executed. That was his night reading.
Lars, in one of your interviews you said that art needs censorship. Dictatorship facilitates the progress of art. Since you want to go east, would you move to our problematic region—Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia? Come and see what it takes to create in Azerbaijan, how art flourishes.
No, I’m comfortable where I am. In that bit about dictatorship, I meant that there are certain artists that indeed flourished in a dictatorship, and it’s very interesting. I was talking about Speer, about Leni Riefenstahl. They were lucky to have been able to prove themselves. Speer, for example, was a very mediocre architect, but he was able to realize his boundless fantasies under dictatorship. Large-scale projects were greenlighted.
If we talk about dictatorship, we must also talk about the problems of democracy. What do we see in Europe now? There’s a big turn to the right. Is Trump an example of democracy now? What is there to be done if people are too stupid for democracy? And what do we do with the Internet? That is an invention no science fiction writer could have come up with. We use the Internet now, the Internet gives everybody a voice and recognizes everybody’s freedom of speech, and it has become very difficult to manage. And I am not a politician.
Lars, as I said, I hope we will meet again and have a heart-to-heart conversation in person. I would love that, because you are one of the greatest, legendary directors living today. I admire and appreciate you.
And I hope I’ll stay alive for a few more years.
Interview by Orkhan Ata