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LARS VON TRIER: A MAN WHO KNOWS HOW TO FLY HIGH WITHOUT BOARDING A PLANE

Some people, especially American people, hissed Lars Von Trier’s “Dogville” when it was shown at the recent Cannes Film Festival. But that probably didn’t shock the Danish director, since the same thing happened in 2000 when his "Dancer in the Dark” played the festival. In this article, which was published in Interview magazine later that year, he told me, among other surprising things, how he truly feels about being called an anti-American.


Like his fellow rebels in the Dogma 95 movement, Lars von Trier, director of the controversial Dancer in the Dark, prefers his movies raw. Handheld cameras. Natural light. Improvised dialogue. No studio sets, makeup, costumes, theme music, or special effects. This might be as boring as it sounds, were it not for the emotional and visual power Von Trier brings to his turbulent tales of innocents stumbling through an evil universe. He's like a purist of the silent screen risen from the dead to shoot porn--a Griffith gone gonzo.

In Breaking the Waves--the stunning drama that put the Danish writer-director on the international movie map in 1996--a woman (played by Emily Watson) achieves kinky sainthood by obeying the command of her macho but paralyzed husband to copulate with strangers and then confide to him the intimate details of her lewd encounters. Next, in 1998's The Idiots, Von Trier thrilled some and repulsed others with his depiction of a band of depraved pranksters who--when they aren't amusing themselves in restaurants and on street corners by pretending to be dribbling, dangerous retards--can be found back at their comfy commune, exploiting a woman whose son has recently died as a result of indulging in carefree gang bangs.

How can the forty-four-year-old maverick possibly top these shocks? The answer is to be found in Dancer in the Dark, the final entry in his trilogy dealing with sacrificial female victims. This hauntingly beautiful and brutal hybrid stars Icelandic pop singer Bjork as Selma, an immigrant factory worker who has come to America to earn the money for an operation that will save her son from blindness. Laced with cruelty, violence, and startling song-and-dance numbers (even Catherine Deneuve hits a few high notes), the movie saves its biggest shock for the final scene, set in a death chamber deep in redneck country. Some members of the audience at the Cannes Festival were so shaken they could scarcely pull themselves together when the lights came up; others, more surly than shaken, actually booed when the jury named Bjork Best Actress and awarded the Golden Palm to the film, which they considered an unsavory anti-American smorgasbord.

Scheduled to premiere soon in major cities around the world, the polarizing musical drama recently opened the New York Film Festival--an event skipped by the filmmaker because of his acute fear of flying. So he chatted with me by phone from Copenhagen, where he lives with his wife and four children.

GUY FLATLEY: Some people feel that Dancer in the Dark is anti-American because you show an innocent immigrant being first brutally mistreated by a police officer, and then falsely charged with murder, tried without a word of defense from her court-appointed lawyer, and eventually sentenced to die. How do you respond to that accusation?

LARS VON TRIER: Well, first of all, I'm quite sure my depiction of the American judicial system is very unfair. In a real lawsuit you would hear both sides, but we have cut out what was not important for the story. I have never been to America, so to describe America in a documentary way I would never dare. For me America is something that exists in the cinema--90 percent of the films that we see in Denmark are American. So my lack of knowledge about America is because I've seen the wrong films. You know, Casablanca wasn't about Casablanca. It's the same with Dancer in the Dark. The story is taking place in a fictional America.

GF: Couldn't you have set the story in another country?

LVT: As a young man I was very fond of musicals, and for me, musicals--especially film musicals--are connected with the United States. So it was an important part of the story that Selma, a young woman who loved musicals so much, would come to the mother-or-fatherland of musicals.

GF: In your movie, Selma is seen rehearsing for an amateur production of The Sound of Music. Did you discuss Rodgers and Hammerstein much with Bjork?

LVT: Yes. Bjork had seen The Sound of Music thirty times--not because she wanted to, but because it played every weekend in Iceland, and her parents took her to see it.

GF: Did she like it at all?

LVT: Well, if you saw The Sound of Music thirty times without wanting to...

GF: I'd jump off a mountain.

LVT: Yes. But it's very good music, and Bjork agrees that it's good.

GF: You also agreed that the music she composed for the film is good, but I've heard you didn't agree about much else. It's been reported that you were so outraged by her unprofessional conduct that you broke two television sets and that Bjork walked off the set, returning four days later with a lawyer who tried to break her contract. Do you think you'll ever work with her again?

LVT: I don't think I'm going to work with her again, but I am going to see her very soon. We're trying to do something--not a movie, but a behind-the-camera sort of thing. Let's see if it works. I think we can see each other now that we're not playing a power game anymore. This whole thing became so extremely emotional for both of us. She's used to working with no guidance, so she can do whatever she wants, follow any inspiration she gets. But on a film somebody has to keep her under control, in the sense that she has to follow the story and everything else that's going on. It was so painful for her because she literally became Selma--she was not acting. Bjork is definitely not an actor. She was a dying person, and I became more or less the hangman. In the end, I would say that I was probably an asshole. I just wanted the film to be finished and to survive.

GF: Survival doesn't come easily for the heroines of your Golden Heart Trilogy-- Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, and Dancer in the Dark. How did you come by this view of women as victims and martyrs?

LVT: I was raised non-religious, but I do know that Catholics say if you're a martyr, you have a say in what happens to you. It's your choice. And this makes martyrs not be victims, right? That also goes for the women I'm portraying in my films; they have a choice. That's what makes them strong. It's not because they are women or men--that doesn't matter so much. I think it would be extremely beautiful to give up your own life for somebody else, but I'm not sure I could do it. Let me put it another way: My whole life has been about control. To give up control to that degree would require great strength.

GF: Directors need to exercise control, of course. How difficult was it for you to get the actors in The Idiots to participate in the extraordinarily graphic orgy scene, and just how far did they actually go?

LVT: Not far enough. For the penetration shots we had to use extras, which is not really in the Dogma spirit.

GF: You hired extras to perform sexual intercourse?

LVT: Yes, but I am proud to say we do have some fully erect male actors in that scene.

GF: The actors allowed you to photograph them with erections?

LVT: Oh, yes. And I'm sure they wanted to participate more fully, but somehow.... I don't know how you feel about this yourself, but it's not so easy to have sex with the camera on.

GF: Still, it's remarkable they did what they did. I don't think too many American actors would be that brave.

LVT: Maybe that should be the test for actors who want to be in films.

GF: Naked or not, would you like to work with such Hollywood stars as Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson, Tom Hanks and Sean Penn?

LVT: They are all very good, but I think I should work with less-known actors. The most important thing for me is that the people I work with want to work with me. Like David Morse, the American actor in Dancer in the Dark. He has a fantastic attitude--with him, the film comes first. The film we agreed to do is more important than any of the characters, or any of the action, or the director himself. You don't usually get that attitude from big stars. I need cooperation. To be quite honest, I mostly need peace and quiet.

GF: When did you first experience the urge to make movies?

LVT: When I was eleven I was given an eight-millimeter camera, and I felt totally sure of myself right away. Maybe that's been my problem.

GF: Because of what's been written about Dogma 95, I would assume you'd despise the high-gloss look of Hollywood movies.

LVT: I'm fond of all kinds of films, so long as they are good films. The truth about Dogma 95 is that we made this little experiment to see if we could rediscover some cinematic qualities that might have been lost.

GF: Would you say you're the primary founder of Dogma 95?

LVT: It depends on the issue. If it's bad, I was not responsible. If it's good, then I was responsible.

GF: Are you about to rush into a new Dogmatic adventure?

LVT: Right now I am just taking a small vacation. I hope you cannot see it in the film, but I am exhausted. It has been very tough to do.

GF: Perhaps by the time your next film is shown in New York you'll have overcome your fear of flying and will be able to attend the premiere.

LVT: I would like very much to go to America. I don't know about New York, though. I'm sure I would feel very unsafe there. I'm afraid of big cities, but I'm sure the countryside of America is extremely beautiful. I would love to go there. I've heard there is a way, at a certain time of the year, that you can get there by way of Alaska, over the ice. But I won't go on a plane. I'm too fragile for that.

GF: Have you ever flown?

LVT: When I was younger, but I'm too nervous now.

GF: It's just a phobia, I guess.

LVT: Yeah, just a phobia. I do have them. But this one's kind of strong.

GF: Excuse my asking, but have you ever been in therapy?

LVI: Oh yes, I've been in therapy, but not for a long time now. My therapist said he wouldn't see me again unless I agreed to talk about my sex life, and I haven't seen him since.

GF: Is that because you simply will not discuss your sex life?

LVI: No. It was just the way that he put it: "I refuse to see you again until you blah, blah, blah...."

GF: He probably just wanted to be in one of your movies.

LVT: Right!

GF: I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk to me. And I wonder, is there anything you'd like to add before we close?

LVI: I am not anti-American. My movie is a fictional work, it's not a comment on America as it is today or as it ever has been.

GF: Well, we're going to get you here, even if it's by way of Alaska.

LVI: Great!