Overrated: Lars von Trier

Why is the pretentious Danish film maker and self-styled Nazi taken so seriously?

Film Overrated
A manufacturer of sordid, demeaning piffle: The Danish film director Lars von Trier (illustration by Michael Daley)

“I’m a Nazi” is not generally seen as an acceptable thing to say in polite society, indeed anywhere — but that was avant-garde Danish film director Lars von Trier’s proclamation at a press conference to launch his 2011 film Melancholia at the Cannes Film Festival.

Von Trier went on to say, “We Nazis, we have a tendency to try to do things on a greater scale.” He was perhaps refreshingly unwilling to suck up to his audience: “Maybe you could persuade me into the final solution with journalists.” 

Von Trier was of course keen for his statement not to be misunderstood. He thus went out of his way to explain what kind of Nazi he was: “What can I say? I understand Hitler, but I think he did some wrong things . . . He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him, and I sympathise with him.”

Von Trier was also adamant that he was not an anti-Semite — or at least not too much of an anti-Semite. “Come on, I’m not for the Second World War, and I’m not against Jews. I am very much for Jews. No, not too much, because Israel is a pain in the ass.”

As might be expected these comments caused a rumpus at Cannes and von Trier was declared persona non grata at the Festival. After some perfunctory apologies he decided that he was done for ever with interviews and public statements — and he has broadly kept to this.

Does anyone seriously believe that an edgy contemporary Danish film-maker really is a Nazi? I would rather doubt it. 

What von Trier was presumably doing was saying the most offensive thing that came into his head to outrage what he would see as pedestrian bourgeois sensitivities. Unsurprisingly, making light of the worst crimes ever committed and embracing the most murderous ideology in history did just that.

This did not, however, have any noticeable effect on the critical acclaim his films have enjoyed. Ludicrous, objectionable statements which would destroy most people seem to have no consequence if one is sufficiently celebrated as a counter-cultural genius.

Those who watch his films may ask why von Trier has been so acclaimed and given carte blanche for his actions, however outlandish they are. His films are undoubtedly well-made and visually striking — but their view of humanity is desolate. 

His 1996 film Breaking the Waves brought von Trier to a wider public. For those who have not seen it, its plot — a twisted inversion of Christian martyrdom — tells you all you need to know about his vision.  The movie is set in a remote Scottish Highland village in the 1970s. Emily Watson plays Bess, an 18-year-old virgin brought up in the ultra-protestant Free Presbyterian Church. At the start of the film she marries the irreligious Jan, who works on the Scottish oil rigs. Sex comes as a huge revelation to Bess — and when Jan has to go back to the oil rigs Bess constantly prays for his return. This happens sooner than expected but only because Jan is badly injured in an industrial accident, leaving him paralysed from the waist down and — more importantly for the purposes of von Trier’s imagination — impotent.

At this stage Jan conjures up the notion that the only thing which will cure him is if Bess has sexual encounters with other men and then describes these to him. Bess thus starts off on her destructive path — initially by masturbating a random stranger on a public bus. The description of this is not enough for Jan, who urges her on to ever more sordid rendezvous. Bess is disowned by her church and community, but she is convinced that the path she is on reflects God’s will. A rusty trawler arrives in the local harbour on which even the local prostitutes will not venture. Bess has herself rowed over to the ship and here (thankfully off-camera) she is gang-raped and murdered. Only this ultimate act of self-sacrifice cures Jan of his paralysis — the film ends with Jan fully recovered and burying Bess at sea. In short, Breaking the Waves is sordid, demeaning piffle — but this has not stopped it being celebrated as a work of artistic genius by bien pensant opinion.

Breaking the Waves is typical of von Trier’s oeuvre — some adhere to self-imposed restrictions on what technologies and techniques can be used in their making, others insist that all sex depicted is real — but all deal with sexual degradation. Subsequent films have featured group sex between healthy adults pretending to be mentally disabled (The Idiots), a woman engaging in auto-genital mutilation with a pair of rusty scissors (Antichrist), and a five-and-a-half-hour two-part exploration of the erotic life of a woman, played by von Trier’s regular muse Charlotte Gainsbourg, from the age of three to 50 (Nymphomaniac).

Von Trier’s nihilistic output has next to nothing to say which is of any relevance to most people’s lives — and in the case of Breaking the Waves which can conceivably be of relevance to anyone. For all its pretensions it is as pointlessly outré as his preposterous pseudo-political posturings.