Trollhättan, Sweden — This is the worst possible time to interview Lars von Trier. His new film, Dogville, in which Nicole Kidman plays a mysterious fugitive who is first welcomed then serially raped and abused by the residents of a small town in the Rocky Mountains, was released in Europe months ago. Only now, however, is it showing up in the States — just as he’s about to start shooting the sequel, Manderlay.
The second film in a projected “USA — Land of Opportunity” trilogy, Manderlay is about the horrors of life on an Alabama slave plantation in the, ahem, 1930s. In Trollhättan, where the film is being shot, it’s front-page news that Danny Glover will be flying into town in a couple of days. Most of the actors and crew have already assembled, and it’s a surprise, deep in the Swedish provinces, to see so many black faces in one luxurious hotel.
No doubt Trier would like hearing that, since upsetting expectations, particularly American ones, is something he enjoys. His fear of flying may have kept him from ever visiting this country, but it certainly doesn’t keep him from trying to piss us off. When Dogville was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, where it caused an uproar, Trier wanted to have Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played as he strolled up the red carpet with Nicole Kidman (his request was denied). At the press conference afterward he called for a “Free America” campaign in response to the “Free Iraq” campaign of George W. Bush. “That’s just how I feel,” he explained, looking red-faced and defiant as the cameras flashed. “I see a lot of shit in America.”
In the lobby of Trier’s hotel, I run into actor (and Jim Jarmusch staple) Isaach de Bankolé, a Manhattanite by way of the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Paris, and Javone Prince, a black stage actor from Britain. They’re sitting on a couch, trying to decide what to do with their free Saturday afternoon. Not much goes on in Trollhättan, a.k.a. Trollywood, though I’m told that last night some crew members put on “quite a show” for the locals at a disco in the basement of a pizzeria. There’s still snow on the ground, many of the sidewalks are frozen, and the windows of travel agencies are radiant with brightly colored ads of nubile Swedes hugging and kissing on tropical shores. As far as I can tell, there are no trolls in Trollhättan, though my hotel is swarming with kids — tiny Teutons running up and down the corridors in ski caps and wielding plastic hockey sticks.
The night before meeting Trier, I have dinner with Dogville’s producer, Vibeke Windelov. She tells me that Trier is an avid gardener and extremely intelligent. (Everyone emphasizes his intelligence.) He is also a family man, with a wife and four children. Whenever she has a practical problem — plumbing, computer — she calls Lars for advice on how to fix it. What kind of movies does he like to watch when he just wants to relax? I ask. Things like The Matrix, she answers. Definitely not Bergman, not the heavy stuff.
In other words, nothing like Dogville. Shot on a nearly bare sound stage, with chalk marks on the floor to indicate streets and houses, and actors miming the opening and closing of nonexistent doors, the film is a Brechtian mix of theater and cinema unlikely to pack ’em in at the multiplexes. “Eighty percent of what enters my skull is American in origin,” Trier once said, and Dogville is his attempt to construct an imaginary version of the country out of all that clutter. Like many of his films, it’s a kind of fairy tale — he hails from the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, after all — and technically, it’s a tour de force of fluid camerawork and minimalist imagination. The film co-stars Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Chloë Sevigny, Ben Gazzara and Philip Baker Hall, among others. It’s a near-A-list Hollywood cast for a film that Hollywood wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot, Teflon-coated pole.
At first, Grace (Kidman), who is on the lam from Depression-era gangsters, is sheltered by Dogville’s simple townsfolk, at the instigation of its resident intellectual and moralist, Thomas Edison Jr. (Bettany), who promptly falls in love with her. Before long, however, Grace discovers that there’s something rotten in the town of Dogville, and that it’s a prison, too. It’s perfectly possible, perhaps even advisable, to take Dogville as a universal story that happens to be set in the States, but not everyone is buying it.
“So you’re the anti-American?” growled Miramax titan Harvey Weinstein when he ran into Trier at Cannes. “I wrote a film starring me and Russell Crowe. It’s about Ping-Pong. The players are me and Russell Crowe, and you’re the ball!”
“I thought that was very funny,” Trier says, referring to Weinstein’s comment. He’s tucking into what is listed on the hotel menu as a “Von Trier Special” — steak and fries liberally smeared with mustard and (in this case) washed down with beer and schnapps. “Lauren Bacall said to me, ‘You are one of the prominent anti-Americans!’ Then she said something very good, which I would like you to quote if you can: ‘But if you get all the anti-Americans in America to see the film, you’ll be home free!’”
Trier —who added the “von” to his name when he was still in film school — pours himself a glass of O.P. Anderson, a Swedish aquavit, and offers me one. “Peter Aalbaek’s father died with a stomach full of this,” he says, referring to his business partner at Zentropa Productions, Peter Aalbaek Jensen. “That’s why we drink it, in respect.”
Like most things Trier says, this is simultaneously sincere and sardonic. “Respect” isn’t a word one readily associates with the man described in the documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier as “an opponent of all forms of intellectual authority.” Dressed in a black T-shirt and loosely belted pants, a thin scarf wrapped around his throat, he might be a hip art-school teacher who shocks the locals with his radical politics and outrageous pronouncements. He has crooked teeth, pale skin, a pinched voice and — behind Brechtian wire frames — hooded blue eyes. He is known for his caustic wit. When Elton John thanked him for using his music in Breaking the Waves, Trier claimed to be so moved that “I almost took his wig off to wipe away my tears.”
“So what did you hope to gain by filming Dogville on a bare sound stage?” I ask.
“For the audience or for myself?”
“Well, first of all, this will not come as a surprise, but I do not care about the audience,” Trier says, folding his arms. “I am making a film that I would like to see. You know, it comes down to what is the right way to do it, and it’s difficult for me to analyze. What I hoped to gain was this feeling you have as a kid when you draw your house in the dirt and say, ‘I live in this fantastic house, and here is the extension and here is the kitchen . . .’ It was not to destroy anything, it was to do the opposite — to find this basic pleasure again. This is what I feel I would like to see.”
And how did a director known for putting his actresses through all nine circles of hell persuade Nicole Kidman to play the lead? (And for token pay, to boot.)
“First of all, she had expressed a will to be in a film of mine,” Trier answers. “This I took as very positive, because it’s so important that people who work together on a film want the same thing. I saw her in Eyes Wide Shut, and I thought she was very interesting, and that I would have liked to have seen the whole movie from her perspective rather than Tom Cruise’s. So I wrote a part for her, and then she said yes. And now we are making a film that she couldn’t do.”
Originally, Kidman was supposed to play the role of Grace in all three parts of the trilogy, but despite the promise she made to Trier at a Cannes press conference last year, their schedules didn’t mesh and both sides pulled out. Trier would have dearly loved to steal Hollywood’s biggest female star for three entire movies, but, in retrospect, he thinks it unlikely that Kidman’s handlers would have permitted it: Far too much money is at stake in her career to blow it on the Scandinavian avant-garde. Her replacement, Bryce Dallas Howard, is a virtual unknown, but in a way she too is Hollywood royalty, though Trier claims he didn’t know she was Ron Howard’s daughter when he signed her up.
“I wanted Nicole, basically,” he says, “but if we couldn’t get her, we should get something completely different. Bryce is very young, she’s 23, so that will be something different. The idea now — which is a very European idea, I think — is to have three different Graces, which will show the three different sides. Filmmaking is a lot of compromise, and I’m very good at being against the wall and then finding a way to benefit from a problem.”
Critics have referred to Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, Our Town, as an obvious precursor for Dogville, but Trier points instead to Bertolt Brecht’s Mahoganny (“O moon of Alabama . . .”). He also credits a minimalist British theatrical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, which he saw on Danish television in the 1970s, as an inspiration for the film. In fact, he seems much more taken with the stage than with the screen these days. “When I surf around with my television, I see where I stop,” he says. “I stop where there’s some theater, because everything else looks the same.”
At 48, Trier looks far more at ease with himself than his reputation as a Prozac-gobbling neurotic might suggest. (“It’s 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 Leth’s 12-minute movie The Perfect Human (1967) five different times, under five different sets of constraints.
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 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 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.
Europa did 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 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 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.
It was also around this time that Trier broke up with his first wife, married their children’s kindergarten teacher, converted to Catholicism, and, along with three other Danish directors, drew up the rules for Dogme 95, swearing to make films that reduced cinema to its raw, emotional essence: hand-held camera only, natural light and no overdubs, special effects or extraneous music. As a publicity stunt, drawing the world’s hitherto distracted attention to the fact that a group of Danish directors had decided not to make Hollywood-style movies, this was ingenious. Everyone made fun of Dogme, but it worked: Low-budget filmmaking was now equipped with a functioning ideology.
The Idiots (1998), Trier’s first and so far only official Dogme film, was a documentary-style account of a group of Danish dropouts who create a cult of pretending to be retarded, with disturbing consequences. Dancer in the Dark (2000), in which Dogme naturalism alternates with cathartic song-and-dance numbers, ended with Björk being executed in an American prison in a scene that was so moving or overwrought — take your pick — that it divided critics almost as bitterly as Mel Gibson’s Christ movie. But then, like the other two films in the “goodness” trilogy, Dancer was obliquely a Christ movie as well.
“Yeah, I would love to be religious,” sighs the iconoclastic Catholic. “I pray to a god, but I don’t know who he is. We don’t talk, let’s put it that way.”
The next day the Danisk Bodil Awards (the Danish Golden Globes) are held in Trier’s hometown of Copenhagen, Denmark. Dogville wins for best film, and Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, mixed in with the dramatic features, wins for best American film. Any hope that Moore will show up to harangue the Danes about their hard-line immigration policies is dashed, however, when a white-haired man seated directly in front of me walks to the stage to accept a statuette on Moore’s behalf. “Do Americans ever come to the awards?” I ask the lovely Zentropa employee sitting next to me. “Oh no, I don’t think so,” she says modestly. “It’s just Denmark.”
And very charming it is too — downright cozy, in fact. The stage is garlanded with bouquets of flowers, the ushers are dressed as bridesmaids in long, flowing white gowns and veils, and the MC sings “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” When an award is announced, the audience claps in unison as the prizewinner walks to the podium. There are no tears, no endless list of thank-yous, and as far as I can tell, no political grandstanding. In a nice touch, the prize for best actor is presented by Bodil Jorgensen, who played a pseudo–mental defective in Trier’s The Idiots, while the award for best actress is handed out by Jesper Asholt, who played a real one in another Dogme film, Mifune. Longtime Trier associate Anthony Dod Mantle takes an award for Dogville’s cinematography, and Vibeke Windelov, wearing an elaborate pink dress, accepts the big prize. Trier, who is still in Sweden, rarely shows up for Danish award shows. A good thing, too, I’m told, because he usually ends up insulting everybody.
The Danisk Bodil awards are chosen by critics, and Dogville, judging by the restrained applause, is not the people’s favorite. That would be another Zentropa production, The Inheritance. During a pre-awards show get-together in the smoky bar of a nearby hotel, Zentropa producer Ib Tardini puffs on a big cigar, and Füsun Eriksen, Trier’s dark-haired, Turkish-born assistant, excitedly tells me about seeing Nicole Kidman at Cannes:
“I was thinking she was too beautiful, and how could a man ever touch her. She’s very tall, very fragile, like a doll. She doesn’t go out without an umbrella, because she’s white like milk. While they were making Dogville, she threw a party for the cast and crew in Trollhättan, and nobody dared to ask her to dance! So finally one of the assistant cooks asked her, and she said, ‘Yes!’”
Later I speak with Thomas Gammeltoft, producer of the critically acclaimed Danish heist movie Stealing Rembrandt (2003). Gammeltoft, who looks about 40, appears to be almost bursting out of his skin with a desire to make big-budget, story-driven movies, and laments the fact that the extreme stability of Danish life makes it difficult to generate riveting narratives. The Danes love and hate Trier, he tells me, because they don’t understand his work. They all know he’s something special. They just don’t know what to do with him exactly.
Did he like Dogville himself? “No. I don’t like his films,” he replies, “but I think he’s interesting. I like The Kingdom. I think that was beautiful. Trier said himself that it was done with the left hand, and many critics in Denmark said that he should have stayed with the left hand.”
The following morning, Harry, a 36-year-old Nigerian taxi driver, takes me to Filmbyen, or “Film Town,” where Zentropa Productions has its studios. Like other immigrant cab drivers in Copenhagen, he’s smartly dressed and speaks good English, and his silver Mercedes is squeaky clean. He says he is reasonably well-treated in Denmark but complains that there is no real incentive to succeed: If he were a doctor, he’d make only slightly more money than he does sitting behind the wheel. Everyone, more or less, is middle class; there is no up and no down. I can see, from his point of view, how there might be something slightly hellish about being implanted in this model society, treated politely by all, and yet never able to integrate with it, or make enough money to rise above it, since everyone is supposed to stay at approximately the same level.
Filmbyen is in a former army barracks in the city’s Hvidovre suburb. There’s a swimming pool, tennis courts, a dining room, Ping-Pong and pool tables, and a sauna, but the luxuries are kept to a minimum. The studio is organized on broadly socialist lines, and, sensibly, the money goes into films rather than Ferraris. Trier, along with his good friend Thomas Vinterberg, director of the international Danish Dogme hit Celebration, has an office in what is known as “the bullet room,” a small one-story building where ammunition was once stored. An American tank, kept in working order, stands nearby, and the interior of the editing facilities is painted the exact mint-green used in the States on Death Row. (It’s meant to calm you.) There are several sound stages, along with documentary, youth and pornography divisions, and even school rooms where children from the provinces are taught the rudiments of filmmaking. There’s also a large film set, called Pocahontas Square, a replica of a town center in New Mexico, used in Dear Wendy, a film written by Trier and directed by Vinterberg (it’s currently being edited) about “redneck American gun nuts.”
It is here, in Filmbyen’s sunlit HQ, that I meet Peter Aalbaek Jensen, who describes himself as the “muscle” to Trier’s “brain.” He’s the same age as Trier but looks older, with thinning hair, a salt-and-ginger beard and a modest paunch. We have a game of Ping-Pong before sitting down to talk. Though he is unapologetic about his youthful communist phase, and still jokingly refers to the U.S. as “enemy” territory (he’s made two very brief trips to the country, venturing no further into the interior than the west side of Manhattan), Jensen admits to being a little more mainstream these days. In the entrance of the editing complex there’s a lengthy quotation from Chairman Mao stenciled on the wall. Over it, however, someone has stuck a piece of paper with a purported quote from Margaret Thatcher: “A man who will not work . . . shall not eat!”
In Denmark itself, of course, that doesn’t quite apply. A man who will not work shall, in fact, not only eat but be granted government housing and two weeks’ annual vacation as well. In the “Free State of Christiania,” the 41-acre enclave of Copenhagen taken over by anarchists in 1971 and slated to be leveled in 2006, welfare rebels openly sell hashish (the different varieties are displayed like slabs of chocolate), and the air is glassy from the heat of spark-shooting fires set in rusted oil barrels. The buildings (like Filmbyen, Christiania is in a former army barracks) are drenched in elaborate graffiti, and huge, mangy dogs wander the streets with a curiously dignified air. Though some are kept on a leash, most appear to be free citizens of Christiania too — it’s another kind of Dogville, and very different from the city around it.
“It’s very hard to tell a story here, because nothing is happening, you know?” Jensen says, echoing the sentiments of almost everyone I speak to. “It’s not interesting that people meet and work and go home. So we have no stories. But we have a lot of films like Italian for Beginners where we explore the quiet lives around us. And it’s so weird that we can live in one of the richest countries in the world, where it’s so stable, and still we have one of the highest suicide rates here. And the same goes for Sweden. It’s well-organized, it’s civilized, everything’s so decent, so nice — and people are bored to death.”
In the States, I say, the right has always taken potshots at the “socialist paradise” of Scandinavia by saying that everyone commits suicide there.
“It’s not a lie,” Jensen replies equably. “If you are making a poll asking people about their lives here, everybody says they are happy. The only thing that doesn’t match with that is the suicide statistics. It’s a society where if you’re sitting next to somebody in a bus, you never talk to him. You isolate yourself a lot. That’s part of the mentality. And we are not good at talking about how we feel. Even though someone’s getting ready to hang himself, he will claim everything’s fine.”
Is this because of the character of the people, or a result of the government system?
“I don’t know what’s a consequence of what, but I’m sure that if it was not as stable a country, probably we would need to be a little bit outgoing, just to survive.”
Denmark is slightly less stable than it used to be, however, due in part to the immigration of Turks, Palestinians, Somalis, Iranians, Nigerians and others that started in the 1970s and has now become a politically volatile issue. Though it accepts fewer immigrants per capita than any nation in Europe (approximately 32,000 per year), and immigrants as a whole make up only 5 percent of the population, Denmark has the continent’s toughest anti-immigration laws. Requirements for asylum have been tightened, funding to ethnic minority groups withdrawn, the waiting period for permanent residency extended from three to seven years, residency permits for “foreign missionaries” (i.e., imams) restricted, and — incredibly — laws put in place making it illegal for a Dane under the age of 24 to marry a foreigner.
Given his politics, it’s therefore slightly ironic that Trier should choose precisely this moment in history to set his parable of social injustice, scapegoating and the harsh treatment of an outsider — albeit a fair-skinned, red-headed one — in the U.S., while following it up with what is likely to be an even more incendiary film about slavery. There has been some suggestion that Dogville is “really” about the plight of immigrants in Denmark, and certainly the sight of Kidman sweeping floors and emptying bed pans might encourage viewers to interpret it that way.
“As a Dane, you see it also very much as a comment on what is happening here,” says Politiken’s Skötte. “You invite people in and squeeze them like a lemon. Danes have been good about having open doors, but now we’ve slammed them shut in a very unfriendly way.” But, he adds, part of the problem is that the immigrants are largely Muslims who do not mingle, “and so we suddenly have two cultures instead of one.”
If the American government passed a law stating that no one under the age of 24 could marry a foreigner, I tell Jensen, there would be riots in the streets.
“But that’s why I say the Danes are more racial than the Americans,” he replies. “Especially because it’s under the headline that we are civilized here, and we accept anyone who’s different. That’s total hypocrisy. Jesus Christ! Dogville should also be Denmark — especially Denmark, in my personal opinion. I’m ashamed of my country, and Lars is also.”
A n austere and somber city, at least in the winter, Copenhagen seems to be populated almost exclusively by isolated self-communers out of an Anita Brookner novel. In Slotsholmen, the city’s historic center with its wide-open spaces, Gothic brick buildings and untraveled river, there is an Invasion of the Body Snatchers feel. Cars go by but no one ever honks a horn. Bicyclists sweep past, staring straight ahead like automatons. Only once, when a drunken troll, probably escaped from Christiania, starts brandishing a half-empty bottle of alcohol and hurling insults at passersby on the bridge spanning the Inderhavnen does anyone look up, smile and catch my eye. Otherwise people just gaze into the middle distance, as if no one else is there. You’d think the entire population had taken a pill called Do Not Disturb.
The same atmosphere prevails in the small but luxurious food store a block from my hotel in the much more lively and ethnically mixed district of Vesterbro where, late at night, Muslims huddle together in kebab houses. Amid the piles of gleaming fruit and colorful displays of soft drinks and yogurts, shampoos and magazines, well-dressed Danish women move slowly down the aisles like somnambulists. The characteristic facial expression is introspective and mildly depressed, and the store is almost completely silent. You bring your purchases to the register, they are rung up, and then you go home. Outside the store, someone has stuck a lost pet notice to a lamp post. Only this one says “Has anyone seen my giraffe?” I sense a certain desperation behind the humor.
Of course, once you actually talk to someone — stopping to ask for directions, for instance — no one is friendlier or more courteous than the average Dane, and almost everyone speaks astonishingly good English. But once the conversation is over, the screen comes down. If you jaywalk, you can cover the city twice as fast as the natives, who will stand and wait for a pedestrian light to turn green even if there isn’t a moving car in sight. It isn’t entirely surprising to hear, from Skötte, that when the Nazis invaded, the Danes kept their heads down and got through the war fairly easily.
Given all this, it’s striking that bold, eccentric, adventurous and creative spirits like Trier and Jensen could have reached adulthood dreaming about the “perfect society” of the Soviet Union. If any country could induce daydreams of capitalism red in tooth and claw, with all its dramatic extremes, you’d think it would be Denmark. But then, according to Jensen, both men were “trained in communist thinking,” meeting once a week to study Marx, Lenin and Engels. And the prickly relationship with the States is of long standing. Handing out pro-Soviet communist newspapers, they apparently longed for a much grimmer version of the socialist society they already had — Denmark minus the free speech, material comfort and pacifist foreign policy, and with a world-class history of mass murder thrown in for good measure. Jense claims that his own dalliance with communism was largely a matter of fashion, but that “Lars was more serious. He’s a guy who really means it.”
“I can’t understand it. It’s puzzling to me,” says The Five Obstructions’ Jørgen Leth, when asked about Trier’s politics. He points out that many of the photographs of American down-and-outs used for polemical effect during Dogville’s controversial closing credits were taken during the 1970s by the Danish photographer Jacob Holdt, whose grim view of the U.S. became a “religion,” he says, among Danish intellectuals. So much so that in 1981 Leth himself made a documentary, 66 Scenes From America, that was a deliberate rebuttal of the prevailing view set forth by Holdt. Inspired by the landscapes of Edward Hopper and Robert Frank, it included a celebrated scene in which Andy Warhol is filmed eating a hamburger from start to finish in a New York hotel.
Leth is full of praise for Dogville, which he sees as Trier’s attempt to renew the art of storytelling. “The only thing I don’t really like in the film is the ending, the stills from Holdt and so on,” he says. “It disturbs me, and it disturbs for me the final reading of the film. I was discussing this with Lars early on, and I suggested, quite firmly and as a friend, to change that ending. It’s too common for me. This anti-Americanism is so automatic in Europe. I hate it in a way.”
In Trollhättan, I suggest to Trier that, what with everything going on in Europe these days — the rise of the far right, the almost bafflingly sudden emergence of Islam as a social force — maybe he’s picked the wrong time to embark on a trilogy of films set in America. If Dogville is about the insertion of an outsider into a community, isn’t the Old World where the action is right now?
“Listen,” says Trier. “I don’t think it has anything to do with what country. At a certain point you need labor. In the ’70s, the Danes wouldn’t do the dirty jobs, so we imported some people, and when we didn’t need them, we wanted to get rid of them. I know that America has been open, but it is also because it was an enormous country that needed labor. So people were encouraged to come from Sweden or wherever.”
“But what I’m getting at,” I say, “is that this story is really happening in Europe, and perhaps Denmark in particular from what I read, and yet you’re projecting it into this big American narrative from a European point of view.”
“I agree,” says Trier, “that the situation is terrible in Denmark. But I’m not looking at the world to see where it’s worst. I could probably find these tendencies much stronger somewhere else. But that doesn’t make me want to make a film about Cameroon. I don’t know Cameroon.”
When Trier completes the USA trilogy, whose final installment is provisionally titled Washington, he will have directed four films set in the States — Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Manderlay and Washington — and written a fifth, Dear Wendy. All of which suggests the working-out of a major obsession. And though the films themselves may be far too complex and interesting to be reduced to their political parts (“I don’t do propaganda,” he says), the issues underlying them read like a laundry list of generic European grievances with America. Dancer takes on the death penalty, Dogville economic exploitation, Manderlay racism, Wendy guns and crime, and Washington — well, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Perhaps one day Trier will turn his gaze homeward and make a film about, say, well-fed Danish communists who proselytize for the Soviet Union while the Soviet Union starves — he could set it in his favorite decade, the 1930s, after all — but don’t hold your breath. He’s having way too much fun exploring and deconstructing the history and mythology of the world’s only superpower. “The higher up a monkey climbs,” goes an old Danish proverb, “the more you see of its bottom.” Right now, the monkey is us.
Still, Trier claims there’s plenty of love in his love-hate relationship with the U.S. “I’ve been reading John Steinbeck, Mark Twain,” he says. “I’ve actually done my best to give Dogville an American feeling, or rather my American feeling. And that is why I think you should be very happy that you have my reflection of America, even though it might be untrue or whatever — because it’s mine! I’m crazy about this project. If you ask me, it should be seen by every American. To me, it’s heroic. It changes the world a little bit.”
As for Dogville’s closing credits, whose photo montage unrolls to the tune of David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” Trier describes them as “teasing.” “I have the one side that is my ideology and my politics, and the other is my feelings, and they’re struggling. My feelings have to do with filmmaking and poetry, and that made me set the film in America. And my other side made it a little crazy in the end with the closing credits. It’s very easy to argue against, because it’s just me. I’m not running for president.”
“You’re not Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
“Not even that. I met him in Cannes, you know, which was fantastic. He said — Trier puts on a big manly voice — “ ‘HOW DO YOU FEEL TODAY?’ And I said, ‘Terrible. I’m so afraid that everything is going to go very bad.’ ‘AH! I’M QUITE THE OPPOSITE. I ALWAYS EXPECT EVERYTHING TO GO VERY, VERY WELL!’ ” Trier laughs heartily. “But that was very interesting — very American, actually. He had a big, big cigar, a kind of cliché of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was very funny to talk to. Charisma!”
At this point, we are interrupted by Füsun Eriksen, Trier’s assistant, who signals the end of our session.
“Füsun is one of these people we want to throw out of our country,” Trier remarks. “Turks out!”
“They pay us money to go home,” says Füsun.
“Can I pay you money to go home?” Trier retorts.
I ask if I can take some photographs.
“You can have maximum 10 minutes,” Füsun says.
“And how many minutes do you have to pack up your stuff and get out of Denmark?” Trier asks her teasingly.
“But I can’t go back to Turkey! I’m stuck in your country!”
“No, no, that’s what they all say!”