By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Trier’s unorthodox upbringing didn’t hamper his creativity. His first film, directed at the age of 12, included a ‰ long tracking shot (from a bicycle) and outdoor scenes taken with interior film (for an “acidic” look). In 1968, he also appeared in a Danish TV series. (Sample line: “My mother will go mad if I steal the marmalade.”) A decade later, says Lone Scherfig, the director of Italian for Beginnersand Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself, “Lars was absolutely the best of the students at the National Film School of Denmark.” He was also the only one who knew all of John Travolta’s dance moves from Saturday Night Fever. Not that they rubbed off on his films: Static early works like The Element of Crime (1984) and Europa(1991) seemed more interested in dripping water, arcane bureaucracy and hypnosis than in discos and working-class dating rituals. They also displayed an absolute mastery of film language that was noted by no less a critic than Pauline Kael, who said of Trier, “He can do anything.”
Except, perhaps, create forward momentum. “The story, what is the story?” someone asks impatiently near the beginning of Element, and at this point in his career, Trier wasn’t getting any accolades for narrative coherence or drive. Nonetheless, the themes that would enrich his later work were already present. In Epidemic(1987), it’s the doctor hero, played by Trier himself, who spreads a deadly plague while endeavoring to cure it, just as an initial act of kindness by Thomas Edison Jr., Dogville’s idealistic, liberal bore, leads to deadly, unintended consequences. And in Europa, set in 1945, it’s the Yankee do-gooder who comes to Germany immediately after the war who is ultimately fingered as the real criminal.
Europadid well at Cannes but failed to win the Palme d’Or. Legend has it that an enraged Trier called jury president Roman Polanski a dwarf and threw his consolation prize in the garbage. The film was successful enough to give Trier the pick of the top producers in Europe, but he stuck with Jensen, who was more or less broke. As a result, he then spent three years raising the money to make his first bona fide masterpiece, Breaking the Waves, when he could have had the funding instantly if he’d switched to a major producer.
“Most directors will kill everybody around them to get an easier career,” Zentropa partner Jensen tells me later, noting that Trier’s loyalty to him was shrewd as well as generous, because now Jensen is forever in his debt. “He’s really good in thinking long term — if he was running a commercial agency, he would be a billionaire. He’s a guy who, when he was 24, made the decision to make three films starting with the letter ‘E’ — The Element of Crime, Epidemic and Europa — and that after that he would change styles completely. Ten years later, he had done it. So he makes these kinds of master plans for himself. I don’t know what you were doing when you were 24, but I was a total idiot!”
Trier’s generosity paid off. While Jensen was raising the money for Waves, the director filmed the first episodes of The Kingdom, a phantasmagorical TV series about a crumbling hospital besieged by the spirit world. (Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital, currently showing on NBC, is the predictably disappointing American remake.) It was as if he had morphed into a completely different filmmaker. Self-consciously studied visual compositions in the vein of Tarkovsky were out; ER–meets–Twin Peakswas in. But the central figure in the drama, a loony Swedish brain surgeon who uses Haitian voodoo to turn a fellow doctor into a zombie, was no George Clooney. Nor was there any gloss: Shot with hand-held cameras in grainy lighting conditions, the film looked like it was printed on flypaper. A control freak letting go, Trier reveled in The Kingdom’s outrageous characters and madcap storytelling. Psychics, headless bodies, Masonic rites, randy med students, demonic pregnancies, Swedish-Danish rivalry and a Greek chorus of dishwashers with Down syndrome all featured heavily in the plot. In Denmark, the series made his reputation. Until then, says Kim Skötte, film critic for the Danish newspaper Politiken, he had been viewed as an outsider, someone who shaved his head and looked more like a soccer hooligan than a film director. Now he was “one of us” — an important concept in Copenhagen’s cozy confines.
Breaking the Waves came out in 1996, the first in a trilogy of films about “goodness,” starring Emily Watson as a mildly retarded newlywed who loves her husband with such all-consuming passion that, in deference to his perverse wishes, she prostitutes herself repeatedly after he’s crippled in a near-fatal accident on an oil rig. The film was made at a time when Trier’s own life was in turmoil. He had grown up thinking he was Jewish, but on her deathbed his mother revealed that he was actually the son of a high-ranking Catholic government minister. Not that it won him any influence: When Trier showed up at his biological father’s office, he was threatened with lawyers and disowned on the spot.