10 Essential Lars Von Trier Films You Need To Watch
Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier is one of world cinema’s most daring and polarizing filmmaker working today. The self-proclaimed enfant terrible is a provocateur both behind the camera, as a writer and director who incites audiences and critics with his controversial brand of cinema – and in front of the camera, where his public persona stirs up journalists in his many interviews and press conferences.
Von Trier cites many cinematic greats as his mentors, including Carl Theodore Dryer, Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky as thematic and stylistic inspirations for his own films. Many of von Trier’s films explore dark and controversial themes; theology, sex, suffering, gender politics, death, nihilism, love and revenge, which has led him to be seen as one of the 21st century’s most divisive filmmakers.
The master of cynical endings, von Trier’s films must be watched with an open mind and a grain of nihilism. Von Trier has famously said that “film should be like a stone in your shoe” – it should make you uncomfortable and make you think. Love him or hate him, von Trier is an innovative and daring film auteur who challenges his audience emotionally, psychologically and artistically.
Of course, if you’re a serious aficionado of art films, you will probably already be familiar with von Trier and his work, but for all the uninformed who want to learn more, here are The 10 Essential Lars von Trier Films You Need To Watch.
10. Nymphomaniac (2013)
Nymphomaniac is the ambitious, latest two-part magnum opus from Lars von Trier. The film uses the physical, psychological and philosophical aspects of sex and sexuality as a framework to explore the larger meanings behind life and the quest for human fulfillment.
A middle-aged woman named Joe (Stacy Martin/Charlotte Gainsbourg) is discovered bloodied and unconscious in a dark alley by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). He takes her back to his house to recuperate and over the course of both films Joe recounts to him the many experiences of her self-proclaimed “sinful” life from early childhood to the present.
For Joe, sex and love are two completely separate entities. Joe is very animalistic in her need to quench her sexual appetite, without letting her emotions hinder her pursuit of pleasure. Amidst all her shame and guilt that society has placed upon her for her sexually deviant behaviors, she finds redemption as a woman, and is now determined to “stand up against all odds, muster all her stubbornness, strength and masculine aggression” to rid herself of her sexuality.
Von Trier is a master at tackling taboo subjects in his films. Despite the amount of nudity and on-screen (un-simulated) sex, the film never feels erotic or titillating; rather, it is very philosophical in its approach to love, sex and relationships. It deeply explores the interconnected role of human emotions and sexual desires.
9. The Boss of It All (2006)
Lars von Trier’s experimental black comedy The Boss of it All is the director’s only attempt at the comedic genre. The film follows Ravn (Peter Gantzler) the owner of a Danish IT firm who creates a fictional company president for his disgruntled employees to answer to. All seems to be going well until a prospective buyer for the firm demands to see the boss in person. In a crazily devised scheme, Ravn hires failed actor, Kristoffer (Jens Albinus), to impersonate the fictional boss leading to many embarrassing situations and misunderstandings.
The humor comes from watching ‘fish out of water’ Kristoffer attempting to interact with employees and attend to business mergers with no experience, while trying to maintain his cover. This film is a satire of multinational companies, power dichotomies and the relationships of bosses and employees and in a parallel directors and actors.
The Boss of it All uses a camera apparatus called ‘Automavision’ a computer-operated camera that selects shots at random designed to limit human influence over filmmaking. This often results in shots being ‘strangely framed’ but is refreshing to watch. In this rare case, von Trier submits control of his film to an automated camera while still commanding control over his actors; he is the ultimate boss of it all.
8. The Idiots (1998)
The Idiots follows a group of men and women who abandon their jobs and everyday lives to live together and act as mentally disabled people in public (or ‘idiots’ as the title suggests) in order to subvert existing social norms and shock the bourgeoisie. When protagonist Karen (Bodil Jørgensen) is confronted by their ‘spazzing’ behavior at a restaurant she is intrigued and decides to follow them. It is only at the end of the film we learn the dark and tragic truth about her painful situation that has led her to join their cause.
The Idiots is an eclectic film. It is emotionally raw, humorous, and even disturbing at times. The Idiots employs the rules of the ‘Dogma 95’ movement of filmmaking, devised by von Trier and fellow filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg. This manifesto aims to get back to ‘pure filmmaking’ by avoiding the use of artificial effects such as only using natural light sources, not using non-diegetic music, shooting scenes in order and using only hand-held cameras to capture a more realistic depiction of cinema. Shot on hand-held digital video, the film comes across as a perverse pseudo-documentary study into human psychology.
7. Europa (1991)
Europa [also known as Zentropa] is arguably von Trier’s most experimental film visually. In this post-war neo-noir, idealistic American Leo Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) heads to Germany just after WWII to work as a as a sleeping car conductor on the Zentropa railway line. Leo falls for the railway magnate’s daughter, Katherina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa), who unbeknownst to him, is secretly embroiled in a pro-Nazi terrorist conspiracy. Leo is put in the devastating position of saving himself and Katerina, or taking innocent lives.
The performances in Europa are amazing, but it is perhaps the visuals that are the most impressive. From the very beginning of the film the narrator’s stern voice (Max von Sydow) hypnotizes’ the audience into the strange foreign world of Europa. The film is very experimental in its visual style, combining both black and white and saturated color sequences, both separately and together. The use of rear-projection screens and layering of images over one another contributes to the film’s surreal and mesmerizing feel. With its classical film style, unique look and intriguing story, Europa is a must see for serious film buffs.
6. Epidemic (1987)
Epidemic is one of von Trier’s earliest and thus unknown films. In this very self-referential and ‘meta’ horror film, Lars von Trier and his co-writer Niels Vørsel play screenwriters trying frantically to finish a script for their producer on a tight deadline. After losing their original script, they change their idea to a short horror film called Epidemic, in which a deadly bubonic-like plague spreads across Europe. In a tragic and ironic twist of fate the fictional plague begins leaking out of the script and infected others in a deadly case of ‘life imitating art’.
Epidemic was shot on low grade 35mm film in black and white, employing the use of creepy shadow effects and claustrophobic framing to create an apocalyptic tone. With a grandiose, classical soundtrack comprised of Wagner and Bach, and coupled with otherworldly sound effects, Epidemic is a successful exercise in experimental low-budget filmmaking.
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