God is a Gangster

Article published on Feb. 22, 2005
community published
Article published on Feb. 22, 2005

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In Lars Von Trier, Denmark has a filmmaker who can fascinate audiences with his depictions of obsession and passion

In ‘Europa' (1991), a train which would not look out of place in a Kafka novel travels through the night’s black and white landscape. This Europe of Lars Von Triers’ is, in reality, not Europe at all; it is Germany in 1945. But it is also not Germany, rather it is simply the tale of an American working on a gloomy train. This train is loaded with references: from the transportation to concentration camps to the banality of the ‘bad guys’, through to the overall aimlessness and futility of humanity. To accentuate these elements, Von Trier helped himself to elements of the German silent films of the 1920s, such as film noir, and shot ‘Europa’ in black and white, but enriched it with subtle sprinklings of colour and amazing multi-faceted screenshots. With ‘Europa’, Von Trier proved himself a virtuoso of every style of filmmaking, and his acquisition of such technical beauty and perfection was a calculated and pre-empted one. Later on, the Dane would emphasise his anti-Americanism, and yet the film itself certainly does not declare undying love for Europe either…

A story of suffering told with passion

Von Trier’ himself appears in ‘Europa’ in a short scene as a Jew who, in a bizarre ritual, indoctrinates a German man into becoming a Nazi. The choice of this role was no accident. Brought up as the son of a Jew, Von Trier learnt after his father’s death that this man was not in fact his father. Phobias and obsessions, such as an intense fear of flying, which resulted from his difficult adolescence, have influenced his films.

Equally from childhood experiences comes the theme of his Golden Hearts Trilogy: female martyrdom. Each portrayal of the feminine is highly different, as is each film. Next came ‘Breaking the Waves’ in 1997, his first international success in which the grandiose Emily Watson guides us to martyrdom’s final consequence; too far for some viewers, who had already put the central theme out of their minds before it came to an end. The bells ringing in Heaven; is the Catholic Von Trier actually serious? Or is he playing a calculating and research-driven game which the audience cannot help but be drawn into?

In 1998 came ‘Idiots’, which was filmed along the ‘Ten Commandments’ of the Danish film movement Dogme 95, of which Von Trier was a leading member. It is a highly entertaining, highly thought-provoking film experiment which gave a young generation of filmmakers a whole new way of thinking. Von Trier used a handheld camera to film ‘Idiots’, establishing a method of previously unknown intimacy with the actors. The results are astonishing, transcending boundaries and but also a little strange.

It is rather the same with ‘Dancers in the Dark’, the film crowned with the golden palm achievement as being an anti-musical. Von Trier pursues the martyr (Björk) with his camera lens. The most significant parts of the film are the musical interludes. Music arises from noise inside the head of reality-fleeing Selma, played by Björk; her environment becomes the setting for never before seen dance and music. These scenes gave the film its unique method of expression.

From Europe to America

Von Trier’s professional film career reached its most recent high point in 2003 with the creation of ‘Dogville’. Nicole Kidman is cast off by humanity (represented by the inhabitants of a dump of a town, which gives the film its title) in order to prove to her something which at the beginning neither the inhabitants nor indeed the audience have the slightest clue about. It’s a wonder how Lars Von Trier made this three-hour long film on such a meagre budget with genuine Hollywood stars who are supposed to look anything but. And this time the audience’s minds will not have wandered off before the end; what else can you expect, when God is a gangster?

This masterpiece is the first part of his American Trilogy, which will be followed up this year with ‘Manderlay’. Here, America is not portrayed as an actual, real country, but rather as a global idea, to which the world must conform, be it through acquisition or rejection. “I have heard more in my life about America than Denmark” says Von Trier, who has never been to the USA. “I am part of American life”.

He is no longer fond of European cinema, Von Trier stresses. The films just seem to American to him. Hollywood has long become a global principle, and Lars Von Trier sets himself firmly against it – by which he simultaneously squares up to the Hollywood big boys and integrates his own film mechanisms. His stars are an international mix, his plots universal and timeless, his filmic methods individual yet with clear European roots. His renunciation of unequivocal truth is a sign of his times – and something one will gladly put up with, so long as his films are remain artful, as only he can be.