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At 48, Trier looks far more at ease with himself than his reputation as a Prozac-gobbling neurotic might suggest. (Its amazing how good Valium is! he exults in the documentary Dogville Confessions while driving a car, no less.) His parents, middle-class communist academics, raised him in ultraliberal fashion, leaving him to navigate childhood almost entirely without the benefit of rules. Everything, from when he should go to bed to whether he needed to see a dentist, was supposed to be up to him. Not surprisingly, he blames his multiple phobias, anxieties and panic attacks on the trauma this caused him. It may also explain his penchant, as a filmmaker, for drawing up rules a tendency that comes to fruition in the forthcoming documentary The Five Obstructions, in which he instructs his fellow Dane, filmmaker Jørgen Leth, to remake Leths 12-minute movie The Perfect Human (1967) five different times, under five different sets of constraints.
Triers unorthodox upbringing didnt 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 Beginners and 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 Travoltas 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 wasnt getting any accolades for narrative coherence or drive. Nonetheless, the themes that would enrich his later work were already present. In Epidemic (1987), its 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., Dogvilles idealistic, liberal bore, leads to deadly, unintended consequences. And in Europa, set in 1945, its the Yankee do-gooder who comes to Germany immediately after the war who is ultimately fingered as the real criminal.
Europa did well at Cannes but failed to win the Palme dOr. 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 hed 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 Triers loyalty to him was shrewd as well as generous, because now Jensen is forever in his debt. Hes really good in thinking long term if he was running a commercial agency, he would be a billionaire. Hes 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 dont know what you were doing when you were 24, but I was a total idiot!
Triers 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 Kings 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; ERmeetsTwin Peaks was 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 Kingdoms 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 Copenhagens cozy confines.