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The 10 Best Performances in a Lars von Trier Film

16 August 2016 | Features, Other Lists | by Juan Orellana


Unlike most people, director Lars von Trier truly understands Adolf Hitler. Not in a weird way; he doesn’t have an altar for the Führer in his house. He understands the man, the human being behind the monster, because von Trier is a deep guy who doesn’t judge a book by its cover. Although the title “genocidal maniac” should be enough for distrusting Mr. Hitler.

Given his understanding of people’s hidden personalities, von Trier is a master at writing believable characters for his actors. He’s also an expert in casting the right interpreters needed to carry his movies on their shoulders, due to stories about von Trier relying heavily in the protagonist’s dedication.

It’s not easy to act in von Trier’s tragedies. His movies are often very tough to film; the shooting environment tends to be uncomfortable for actors that aren’t used to working with him.

Stellan Skarsgård described it to Paul Bettany as a “party all the time,” in an attempt to convince him to play Tom Edison in “Dogville”. When Bettany found out that making the movie was the opposite of a party and a “hideous” overall experience, Skarsgård admitted that it was all a lie, he just wanted to get Bettany to join him.

All the following actors had to face huge obstacles to deliver an outstanding performance, and they all succeeded, though some more than others.

WARNING: This list is as spoiler filled as George R. R. Martin’s head, so proceed with caution.


10. Stellan Skarsgård in Breaking the Waves


I’ve never seen any other love story in which the actors playing the lovers had such chemistry as the central couple in “Breaking the Waves”. They both seem to love each other very much, and the interesting thing is that von Trier managed to portray this with little to no dialogue.

Their moments together are incredibly genuine; unlike other films in which couples constantly talk about how they couldn’t live without their partner, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson get along perfectly without having to constantly remark on that fact.

Skarsgård’s performance is the second best in the film, right behind Watson’s. He convincingly plays an oil driller named Jan that loves a mentally unbalanced woman. They’re forced to deal with a series of deeply unfortunate events that turn their relationship into a nightmare.

After a drilling accident, Jan becomes a paraplegic, and his personality suddenly changes along with the rise of his frustration. Skarsgård practically plays two characters: the easygoing and sweet husband before the accident, and the desperate cripple who has lost all hope for the future. It’s heartbreaking to see how he gets swollen in a pit of self-pity, but Skarsgård is great at portraying this suffering.

Best Scene in the Film: Men of his profession are forced to work in a platform in the middle of the ocean. They’re absent from their homes for months at a time.

When Bess, Jan’s wife, realizes he has to leave, she runs to the docks and starts screaming hysterically as she hits a beam with a stick, making a loud metallic sound. Jan goes after her and tries to console his wife. He removes the stick from her hands and hits the beam a few times while laughing and holding Bess in his other arm. He’s not bothered by her eccentric actions, in fact, he seems to even be charmed by them.

This small gesture shows that Jan is the only one who really understands her and loves her. It’s apparent, later in the film, when Bess’s own family kicks her out.


9. David Morse in Dancer in the Dark

David Morse in Dancer in the Dark

Most modern films have divorced themselves from the idea of Good vs. Evil, which has dominated narrative mediums since the beginning of time. Nowadays, storytellers prefer to portray antagonists as selfish idiots, hungry for power or just doers of what they think is right. They tend to have understandable reasons that end up cracking their weak character, as opposed to just being mean for plot purposes.

This is the case of Morse’s character in “Dancer in the Dark”. He plays a cop named Bill, who inherited a large sum of money and lives a comfortable life along with his wife. They rent the trailer next door to a happy woman named Selma. She and Bill seem to trust one another with their secrets and worries, such as Selma going blind and Bill running out of money.

One day, Bill notices that his tenant saves a few thousand dollars in a poorly hidden can, and he doesn’t hesitate in stealing it. Selma then finds out and the drama of the film takes its course.

Morse portrays this desperate man perfectly as he cowardly puts himself above everybody, guided by his selfishness and egoism. The bitter tears shed by Morse are contrasted with his violent and criminal actions. The actor is capable of shifting easily between emotional states, from torn apart and insignificant to threatening and scary.

Morse’s hideous expression and his red-colored face as he plans his infamous robbery is how his character would be remembered.

Best Scene in the Film: Selma watches speechlessly as Bill becomes an entirely different person when she asks for the money he stole. The cowardly cop destroys her life as he tries to incriminate her for stealing his supposed savings, points his gun towards Selma, and even begs her to kill him in a final act of cowardice.


8. Jamie Bell in Nymphomaniac II

Jamie Bell in Nymphomaniac II

After playing Tintin, Jamie Bell was looking for new challenges in his career before ruining it by appearing in the last “Fantastic Four” film. I have to admit that it was a surprise to see him playing a sadomasochism expert so effectively. He’s the last actor I would’ve cast for that part, but somehow he was perfect for it.

As the protagonist searches for new ways to get sexually aroused, she comes across K’s (Jamie’s character) practice. He doesn’t charge money or request any other kind of compensation. K just wants to do his job; that is, make his clients physically suffer from various creative ways.

Jamie takes control of every scene he’s in. He maintains a frightening level of seriousness at all times, which is why his character is so hard to read. When asked what he gets out of what he does, he simply answers, “that’s my business and I don’t want you to mention it again,” with an absent look on his face.

The absolute coldness by which he acts and the mysterious aura around this character is what makes his performance so great. As an audience, we only see him for a few minutes, but he’s often mentioned and praised in various reviews of this controversial and critically bashed film.

Best Scene in the Film: After neglecting her family for a long time, the protagonist finally chooses her sexual needs over her son and husband by abandoning them on Christmas Eve for an appointment with K.

She tries to seduce him but quickly fails to do so. Jamie’s character decides to punish her with the Roman maximum of 40 lashes. After a long time of agonic suffering, accompanied by classical music, she finally gets the craved erotic stimulation she hadn’t felt in a long time.


7. Willem Dafoe in Antichrist

Willem Dafoe in Antichrist

In “Antichrist”, only two actors’ faces are shown and the rest are blurred. The man and woman in the central couple don’t have names, they’re simply referred to as “He” and “She”. Both interpreters had to make use of all of their acting talent to pull this movie together.

Willem Dafoe plays a psychiatrist who lost his son. He’s not as emotionally affected as his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg), so Dafoe’s character makes an effort to help her by forcing her to confront her grief and fear.
For unknown reasons, he had distanced himself from his wife and child, just before his son’s death. However, he deeply loves his wife, and will put her well being before his own many times throughout the film.

Dafoe’s acting is outstanding; the amount of intimacy he and Gainsbourg portray onscreen is enormous. In most von Trier films, men are passive and mostly secondary characters. This is also the case in “Antichrist”; Dafoe keeps caring for his wife after having many solid reasons to run away from her, but he’s simply too in love, or maybe too interested by her condition.

He sometimes seems desperate when trying to make his wife understand that she has been manipulated. His expressions are of maximum concern and love, but sadly, it is hardly ever corresponded.

Best Scene in the Film: After an intense session of tree sex, Dafoe tries to persuade Gainsbourg by delivering an interesting monologue about the nature of good and evil and the genocide she studied.

He doesn’t know the dreadful fate that awaits him; his gestures of impotence and frustration contrast with the absent look of his wife. He realizes he can’t get into her head, and his time for doing so will run out very soon, but his love is always consistent.


6. Nicole Kidman in Dogville

DogvillePhoto Credit: Rolf Konow

In 2003, von Trier proved once again that huge budgets and realistic set ups aren’t a necessary condition in order to tell a compelling story. “Dogville” was filmed on a soundstage with chalk marks and a few prop walls as houses. However, the plot doesn’t need any extra elements to be interesting.

Grace ends up in an unknown town by accident; she was escaping mobsters and had nowhere else to run but Dogville. The inhabitants decide to test if she is worthy of trust by allowing her to help them in their daily chores. Grace will soon find out the true face of each of the “friendly” folks in Dogville.

This is a film about repressed anger and superficiality. Every person in Dogville is frustrated by their unsatisfying rural life. Each of them is in denial; they appear to be happy, but it’s all a hoax. When they have the slightest control over Grace, Dogville’s population chooses to vent all their restrained emotions onto her.

Kidman plays the frail innocent foreigner who believes that human beings aren’t inherently evil and that everybody deserves forgiveness. She tries to hold on to her morals with stubbornness, but her suffering becomes too intense.

The actress is great at portraying how Grace slowly breaks down. Her gestures of disbelief every time she realizes that somebody, who she thought was nice and honest, is actually selfish and violent, are heartbreaking. Each time this happens, Kidman’s performance shows how her character weakens; her tone of voice gets low and hesitant as she still tries to convince herself that what has happened to her is just an isolated case.

Her eyes are also very expressive. It’s easy to see the sorrow in them when all of her theories are disproven and she has to accept that maybe human beings are not as honorable as she had always thought.

Best Scene in the Film: (heavy spoilers) As Grace is finally free from her captors and is given the power to pulverize the town, she walks through Dogville’s main street in order to decide what to do.

Grace still believes that the villagers deserve a second chance. Suddenly, moonlight swarms the landscape and, as the narrator says, she finally understands that she must judge everyone as she would judge her own actions. It becomes obvious to her at that point that the only thing the people of Dogville deserve is to die.

She gets into her father’s mobster car and says: “If there is any town this world would be better without, this is it.”



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  • Patrick Hill

    Another one that while being perfect was still unexpected would be Sir Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. With hindsight there’s no way it could have been anyone else, but at the time Hopkins was more into Shakespeare, period pieces and the likes. Most who hadn’t read the book weren’t expecting such a performance from him.

    • Speedbird_9

      One could say Jody Foster, same movie. Didn’t Jonathon Demme not want Foster for Clarice Starling but gave in to casting her in order to get Hopkins?

  • fantail31

    Matt Damon and Micheal Douglas – Behind The Candelabra

  • Mortimer

    Henry Fonda – Once Upon a Time in the West

  • Colombiarocks Nrules

    Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club / True Detective.

    • And in Killer Joe. Although his roles was absolutely fantastic.

  • Luka Mina

    Jeff Goldblum – The Fly

  • Levi

    Jack Nicholson in The Passenger

  • Unkle Amon

    Michael Keaton as Batman.

  • V.C. Privitera

    Heath Ledger:
    Just to get this out of my way…I grew up with Tim Burton’s Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson 1989 “Batman.”
    I still enjoy Tim Burton’s first couple “Batman” flicks, they are fun and entertaining, and forget about it: Michelle Pfieffer in that damn Leather gave light to this young boy’s mind/body…shit, even spirit;)
    Anyways, I remember clearly when it was announced that Heath Ledger had garnered this treasure of a role…a role that I felt should NEVER be filled again, since Nicholson in my opinion really had dominated such an iconic role and character….whether “YOU,” yourself didn’t respond the same way to Nicholson in “Batman,” remember, I said I was a kid…..5 years old to be exact!
    The only thing Ledger had done up this point was “10 Things I Hate About You,” which I can think of “11” to counter that title:)
    Ledger managed to be featured, along with Matt Damon in a Terry Gilliam film…but sadly, the “Brothers Grimm” just didn’t work or play out like audiences, including myself, had hoped for…and believe me, I really tried to give the film a fair amount of chances.
    “Brokeback Mountain” sparked a surprising talent with Ledger being able to carry a film, but also transition himself into a growing talent amongst his peers within the Acting realm. Even Jake Gyllenhaal, whom I couldn’t quite appreciate yet, at the time….not for nothing, I just didn’t think either Heath or Jake had the chops to fill whatever roles they portrayed within a film that while is simple-structured, the characters themselves are very complex and that’s what’s compelling about the film, the characters, and the very actors themselves.
    That being said, I was working at Borders Books at the time I found out Ledger had been announced as the “Joker” for the sequel to Nolan’s “Batman” or “Dark Knight” series….I really enjoyed “Batman Begins,” unlike a lot of haters of the film, I found the entire transition to be something of a revitalization of a far-gone franchise and Nolan really delivered a solid entertaining film that could’ve been a complete demise for himself and his career as a filmmaker, but unlike the two awful overindulged “Batman” flicks before “Batman Begins,” we have everything from great cast, decent story (even though, it’s relatively known…even by non-comic book fans like myself), I also loved that Nolan includes a character that as a child I had always thought would be perfect for a live-action feature film: “The Scarecrow”
    Sure, he’s no “Joker,” and while Carrey attempted and sadly misfired with his take on “The Riddler,” I always felt the “Scarecrow” to be just as menacing and just a full-out maniacal madman that can bring the fun of the Joker and the menacing attributes of a real villain worth watching….
    I loved Cillian Murphy’s take on the character and furthermore, the whole incorporation of using a potent rare Psychedelic as a weapon……HAHHAHAA…..I’m a modern-day Psychedelic-Ryder myself, so this was just too good to be true, especially for a “Batman” PG-13 flick!
    “Ledger? Ledger? What the fuck are they thinking?”
    “Ledger can’t do this!? Nicholson is the fuckin’ Joker. Period!”
    “I don’t care what they make, count my ass out from even wanting to watch this garbage…”
    ….Of course this was all hogwash I spit before even a snippet or frame of Ledger or the film itself hit the market….I just couldn’t grasp the idea of utilizing such an Iconic Character as the “The Joker” and of all people to fill the clown shoes, it’s fuckin’ Heath Ledger! I was pissed, like somebody had just kneed myself in the kidney’s. HAHAHA!
    I took offense to something that didn’t even really matter, but like I said, I grew up religiously watching Tim Burton’s “Batman” on clockwork and it’s just one of those nostalgia things that you can’t let go of, you know?
    “Dark Knight” premieres, and sure as shit, I’m apparently NOT a man of my own word, cause I was in attendance, but I remember stating all this same rhetoric while standing in line to get in to everyone around me……
    “Guys, this movie is gonna be a bust….it’s a sure-fire bet”

    Well, that was my ignorance that didn’t know jack squat, cause by time the opening scene starts and they rob the bank….I was completely hooked!

    Really, it’s still a sad thing to think of how early Ledger had passed….the fact that he really owned Cinema, I mean “REAL & RAW” Cinema, even for Film-Snobs, we all took notice that here is somebody that will dominate roles for however long he feels like…..shit, he could go on to make 17 shit movies that nobody cares for, but we’d all still be hyping like schoolgirls with what Ledger brought to audiences with his portrayal of “The Joker.”
    So, that’s it…I got it outta my system…I can stop spewing this shit and just refer to this site’s page for reference:)
    RIP Heath Ledger!

  • V.C. Privitera

    Johnny Depp – “Black Mass”
    I’m glad this is included in this list….if you don’t like the film or even Johnny’s portrayal or whatever your problem is with the film… yourself a favor and rewatch the damn thing!
    Like most, I remember getting goosebumps when the first previews hit the airwaves and Depp is completely transformed into Whitey Bulger….a figure I’d known for all my years growing up and being Italian-American, I fucking detested the guy like a disease….but the fact the story of Whitey’s reign of South Boston for all those years shockingly plays itself out as a shining work of fiction, when in reality, it’s pure REALITY!
    When the FEDs finally caught Whitey, in real-life, for myself…it was the same feeling I got when they announced Bin Laden had been killed…but, I’d known about Whitey long before I ever knew anything about Bin Laden, so there’s a sense of overwhelming shock and relief that absorbs your senses, like you’re in some surreal dream…..”What! They caught Whitey in Santa fuckin’ Barbara….of all the fuckin’ places this cocksucker could’ve hid himself; Santa fuckin’ Barbara!!!!?”
    Anyways, of course following the trial brought back those early years in New York when I was a kid and Gotti ruled the streets like the King he had been….only Whitey is a completely different story and one that deserves a whole series of films….shit, they made one while he was on the lam with “The Departed.”
    I’m sick of the Johnny Depp HATERS!
    People seem to forget that for a few years, Depp really wasn’t making major box-office hit films, he was just doing his own thing….at least til a little film “Pirates of the Caribbean” dominated screens…and Depp’s stardom grew from 90s Pop-Star to Millennium’s Godsend!
    Now, I’m more than sure that there are plenty of film-buffs on here that think the first “Pirates…” flick was an awful attempt and contribution to Cinema…blah fuckin blah!
    Fuck Off!!!
    That 1st “Pirates…” film was and still is a fun entertaining ride for both adults and kids alike.
    The Sequels didn’t measure up to the original, but what are you gonna do….one thing I can see for why Depp continues to play “Captain Jack Sparrow,” is not directly for the $$$$…but the Money does mean a lot….it’s not even for the Fans, whom are mostly kids anyways… is in my humble opinion, he plays that character as a sort of “Fuck You” to the whole system, because he’s playing a completely rum-drunken pirate that really is only in the schemes for himself and for any actor: That is pure fuckin’ fun to have as a paying opportunity, especially considering he’s playing a Rum-Drunkard, Thieving, Whore-Loving Pirate in a DISNEY fuckin FILM!!!! DISNEY!!!!
    That’s the hysterical Irony and why those that don’t get why he does what he does are all ignorant buffoons.
    Sure, playing “Tonto” didn’t revive or reestablish what we all had hoped for from Depp and company, but that’s not Depp’s fault, that’s the Studio’s/Filmmakers fault. They sold “Lone Ranger” as a film driven solely by Depp, just ignoring everything else, like the “Lone Ranger” himself.
    Anyways, back to “Black Mass”
    Like I said, just from the Previews, my expectations and my excitement were at a potent peak that seemed to alter my own preconceived notions before I even sat down to watch the film.
    There were things in the film I really enjoyed, mainly from those supporting Actor’s, especially those that played Whitey’s crew.
    I think the main issue with people is always, always, always, going to be this bullshit thing we all do to ourselves, specifically when it comes to Gangster Genre films;
    We expect “Goodfellas” or “The Godfather”
    If we get neither, then the Film gets pissed on like it’s worthless and not worth anymore of your time or anybody’s for that matter.
    I had mixed emotions after my 1st viewing….I allowed the film to grow on myself in the coming months and when the film came out on Blu-Ray, I gave the film a rightful shot to get a proper viewing, now that I know what to expect and I gotta tell you, it’s one of those rare films that grows and grows and continues to do so even up to this point.
    I cut out all the Gangster flick aesthetics and viewed the story as it’s own original feature film……not easy thing to do, considering Gangster films flood my Personal Top Ten like nobody else’s, but not for nothing, do yourself a favor and give this film a viewing, especially if you disliked your 1st round.
    Get the fact it’s even Johnny Depp outta your skull, cause I think people are too caught up in how this is “supposed” to be Depp’s shinning moment in the last handful of years……….fuck that shit!
    Depp is a great actor and I look forward to his future projects always…it’s better to have him continue to act, then to actually full-on quit and retire.
    It’s like the same dickheads that knock on DeNiro for making all these movies he’s made in recent years….”cause, geez….where’s Taxi Driver…..where’s Jimmy Conway?”
    You ever get your head outta your ass to realize that as an actor gets older, roles becomes harder to find, even if they are specifically written for the actor/actress themselves.
    I look at DeNiro as still the crown-jewel of his glory days, he’s just doing what he loves to do and that is to “ACT”
    People need to stop bitching and hating on Actors that have proven themselves, whether it’s once or a handful of times, just appreciate what we’ve been able to witness and experience….and that’s my piece: PEACE!

  • Allister Cooper

    There are a few, but the top two that come to mind are Heather Matarazzo in Hostel 2, and Richard Lynch in Halloween 2007. I was stunned to see Heather in a slasher film, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that Richard was still alive!

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