Hard to be human
Recovering from a severe depression, Danish director Lars Von Trier is back at work and planning the final film in his American trilogy. Meanwhile, he illuminates his approach to life and art, and tells why he was disappointed to learn that his father wasn't Jewish.
It rained the whole way to the interview with Lars von Trier. Mid-August, and the sky is gray and heavy, as if here in Denmark winter has already begun. The weather reminded me of a previous taxi trip, four years ago in winter, returning from a night club. I don't know whether it was the overheated cab, the sharp turns it took through the streets of Copenhagen, which sparkled in the rain, or the half-bottle of vodka we had smuggled into the club and downed quickly, but I wanted to throw up.
"Hold on!" the girl who was with me in the taxi whispered, "Keep it in." "I'm not sure I can," I responded. "You have to," she said emphatically, while the driver sent back worried glances, "There's a 500-kroner fine if you vomit in a taxicab." How odd, I remember thinking, through my alcoholic haze, that here in Denmark they have laws for these things, and that she knows the amount. I held it in.
"Tell me," I asked the taxi driver when we reached the gates of Von Trier's film city, "Is there a fixed fine if someone throws up in your cab?" "Sure," he said, "500 kroner during the week, 1,000 kroner on Friday because it ruins business for the entire weekend. Everyone knows that." Welcome to Denmark, a country where you need to know and obey the law, even if you're completely smashed.
That is the soil on which Lars von Trier grew, as well as, perhaps, his obsession with laws. In "Dogville," the first part of his American trilogy, they are the laws of the town, which slowly push Grace, its heroine, into slavery and rape. In "Manderlay," the second part, they are the "mam's laws," the rules of voluntary slavery that continue to bind the group of blacks living in the small Southern town. And then there are the laws that Von Trier himself invented in his cinematic manifesto, "Dogme95," which prohibit the use of artificial lighting or a separate soundtrack, as well as the laws broken by the young people pretending to be mentally retarded in "The Idiots." Perhaps it's no wonder, because for Von Trier, laws are a reflection of society, and the Danish director is as much social critic as one of the most brilliant directors working today.
A black flag, resembling the Jolly Roger of pirate ships, waves above the campus that serves as Von Trier's base, with the name of this city of films, Filmbyen, written on it in white. Every morning the flag is raised by young interns to the sounds of a flute and a military drumbeat. Von Trier and his partner, produce Peter Aaelbaek Jensen, built the complex - half commune, half commercial company - in a distant suburb of Copenhagen about a decade ago, and it soon became the center of the Danish film industry. A string of production, cinematography and editing companies are concentrated within the campus' one-story wooden buildings. Many films, from hardcore porn to Oscar contenders, have been created here. Armored vehicles in camouflage colors are parked between the buildings, and golf carts, also military, zip between them. In the summer, everyone goes to the swimming pool, where Von Trier and Jensen walk around naked. But it was raining when I was there, and everyone was holed up inside.
The headquarters of their company, Zentropa Productions, stands out from the one-story buildings around it because of its size. Inside, along a back wall, are the many awards and certificates of excellence that the films of Von Trier and his partners have won at festivals throughout the world. It was noon, and employees had laid sliced pineapple and watermelon on the huge wooden tables and were preparing a buffet. They gently woke up a colleague who was sleeping on a large couch. Katja, Von Trier's German assistant, led me out of the building and to the small wooden hut on the edge of the complex, right on the border of the forest, where he works. "He's in a good mood," she said. That was encouraging news.
Bergman didn't answer
Last winter Von Trier went into a deep depression. It wasn't the first time the Danish director has had mental-health issues, but this time it was different, more serious. He checked into a psychiatric hospital, stopped working and did not go to Filmbyen. A few months later, in an interview with the Danish daily Politiken, he said he might never direct again. He said he felt "like a blank sheet of paper" and was unable to focus on work. Von Trier has returned to himself since then, and when we entered his workspace, after climbing the wooden stairs of his cabin, he seemed hard at work on his latest movie, "Antichrist."
"It's a horror movie with only two characters," he said, "and deals with the cruelty between the sexes. Perhaps," he adds, "it will be scarier because it's pretty realistic."
The windows in the cabin face the green forest. Von Trier, who is short and wears glasses, pads around the wooden floor in black socks, going from his desk to the sitting area. Lamps in the corners of the room shed a soft light. He is 51 and a graying beard covers his face. He was wearing a black knit shirt tucked into black pants. From his belt dangles a cell phone in a case, which he uses to maintain contact with company headquarters. His desk is filled with copies of the script of "Antichrist," and on top of them is a giant plastic container of the salty licorice that is a favorite of the Danes. Among the books on the desk is one of articles on Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director who died about a month ago, and who was a major influence on Von Trier.
"I wrote him a few letters and he didn't answer even once," Von Trier relates. "How many letters I wrote him." On the white wall behind the desk are three red lines, with smaller lines across them to represent the narrative arc of his new film. "It will change many times over," he said, but at least the writing is already on the wall."
Von Trier takes a bottle of Sprite from the small refrigerator and lies down on the brown leather sofa, on his side. The whole length of his body fits into its small dimension. He props up his head with his right arm and starts talking.
"I was in a depression last winter. I have had a lot of different kinds of anxiety in the past, phobias about flying, but this was the first time I suffered a deep, ongoing depression. I found myself crying for days on end. I didn't know what to do. In contradiction to anxiety, with depression you're not afraid, you simply lack energy. I didn't have the strength to pull my socks on. It continued for three months. At some stage I told myself that I had to change the situation, otherwise who knows ... I went to a psychiatric hospital and told them, 'I need help.' Just to give you an idea of the welfare policy of Denmark, they said it would be five days before I could see a psychiatrist. I thought it was a waste of time so I went to a private doctor. It is difficult to categorize the depression I had, it was like a brain blackout."
So you announced that you might never direct again.
"Yes, when I said that I didn't have the patience or the energy for it. I have recovered in the meantime. I'm not sure that I'm completely back to normal but at least I am working, as you can see."
And you still plan on shooting the third part of the American trilogy?
"Yes, I am planning on it."
Mom didn't calm down
Lars Von Trier was born Lars Trier, in a poor suburb of Copenhagen that his parents moved to for ideological reasons. They were strict socialists, avowed nudists and raised their young son without any clear rules. For a sensitive child like Von Trier, it was a recipe for a life filled with psychological complexes. He often has blamed his childhood: "When I asked my mother, at bedtime, 'Mommy, will I die during the night?' she insisted on replying, 'It's unlikely, but as you know there is always a chance you will die.' She didn't really enable me to have a good childhood. It was always important to them to tell me the truth. In their order of priorities, ideals were always above their children. It's possible that my father was weaker than my mother about following that policy. He was softer."
Von Trier's father was Jewish, or so the director thought until a few days before his mother's death. "The truth is that I envy you for being Jewish," Von Trier says suddenly, "I, too, was raised Jewish, part of Denmark's secular Jewish community. My father's family came to Copenhagen centuries ago and that gave a sense of belonging to the community. We weren't religious, but I remember putting stones on the headstones of dead relatives. There were always Jewish jokes around the dinner table. You know the one about the Jewish mother and her son who go to the beach? A big wave carried the little boy out to sea and the mother, wringing her hands, looks up at the heavens and pleads, 'God, why did you take my boy? Please, return him to me,' and a huge wave deposits the child, perfectly healthy, back onto the beach. 'But God,' the mother says, 'he was wearing a hat.'"
Von Trier laughs to himself and continues. "I wore a skullcap. I was crazy about Judaism. I wanted to explore it more deeply, maybe not the religion itself, but all of the social rituals, all of that tradition. In Denmark it was pretty unusual to be Jewish. Maybe I liked being a little exotic. But a few days before my mother died, she told me that my father wasn't my real father. Even though I was an adult when it happened it affected me enormously. Had someone asked me before, 'How would you feel if you discovered something like that?' I would have dismissed it and said that what's important is the parent who raised you and not the one who fertilized your mother. But I was in total shock. It completely threw me. Adding to the crisis was the fact that I had never felt that there was a secret in the family. You know that moment when kids are sure that they're adopted? I never had that moment."
Did your father know?
"It still bothers me. He died when I was 18, so I can't ask him, and none of my relatives could give me real answers. If he knew, I think it proves that he was a more loving father than I had thought."
Von Trier's mother, as it turned out, had gotten pregnant by another man in order to "enhance" her child. She wanted a talented offspring, Von Trier related, and told him that the genes of his stepfather were too weak. "Slut" is how he has described her in an interview in the past. "The name of my biological father was Hartmann, and he was of German extraction," Von Trier said. "I felt as if in a single moment I was transformed from a Jew into a Nazi." After the discovery, he directed "Europa" (also known as "Zentropa"), the Nazi family in which was named Hartmann.
Did you ever meet your biological father?
"Yes, but it was terrible, a genuine disaster. I thought it would be like in the movies, where we run to each other in slow motion and embrace. But he didn't want to have anything to do with me. He preferred for me to speak to him through his attorney and asked to end all contact. After he died I actually established a good relationship with my stepbrother and stepsister. Of course, I still feel much closer to my father'sfamily."
Were you angry at your mother?
"Of course, I felt I'd been deceived. I've been to a lot of psychologists in my life. I thought it might have helped had my mother told me before about the big secret that was in the family all the time."
It's all petty commerce
It was only after enrolling at the National Film School of Denmark, at the age of 22, that he added the "von" to his name in a kind of effort to make his very Danish name stand out. He directed a few shorts that won prizes in Germany and Denmark, and after completing his studies in 1983, began filming the trilogy that put him on the map of the continent's most important directors: "Europa." The first film was "Forbrydelsens element" ["The Element of Crime], which won a technical grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Von Trier threw the prize into the trash, as a gesture. It was followed by "Epidemic" and then by the eponymous "Europa," which won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1991. Von Trier, who was already considered eccentric, did not go to Cannes. He was afraid to fly. Afterward, he directed "Riget" ("The Kingdom"), the masterful television series that is part fantasy, part horror film, about a hospital in northern Copenhagen. "I am now using the experience I gained from doing 'Riget' for my new horror movie," Von Trier explained. "Riget" was followed by "Breaking the Waves," one of his most important films.
In 1995 Von Trier, together with the Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, promulgated the cinematic manifesto Dogme95, one of the most important developments in film of the 1990s and the catalyst for the flourishing of filmmaking in his native country. The manifesto, which sought to restore authenticity and humility to cinema, stipulated that the director of the film not be credited and prohibited the use of artificial illumination or even of tripods: The camera must be handheld. Leaving aside humility, the new manifesto spread Von Trier's name all over the world and in Denmark.
"It's only when artificial restrictions are instituted that creativity can burst out," he explained. "There's no place like prison for thinking about freedom."
Von Trier himself has made only one movie in accordance with the principles he himself laid down: "The Idiots," which many consider his finest film. Afterward he began shooting his American trilogy, with "Dogville" followed by "Manderlay." The third part, "Wasington" (the misspelling, he explained, is in homage to the beginning of Franz Kafka's "Amerika," in which the Czech writer described the Statue of Liberty as depicting a woman brandishing a sword), has been shelved for now.
In addition to his repeated engagement with rules, Von Trier continues to focus on the balance of power between the sexes, on sacrifice and on ideals. The female leads in his films are almost always women who are charged with ideology, which eventually leads to death, either theirs or others'. "There is nothing true in the world," Von Trier said, "there are no legitimate ideals, everything's a game." But the postmodern, uber-cool image implied by these remarks are very far from Von Trier's conflicted soul. The uber-cools don't check themselves into psychiatric hospitals, and postmoderns don't convert to Catholicism, as he himself did over a decade ago.
The rain rapped on the picture windows of the cabin. Von Trier, still on the couch, turned over and supported his head with his left arm. "The obsession with power and ideals is definitely rooted in my childhood, but I can't say exactly how. Look, I believe there is always a power struggle between people. I believe that everything we do is part of a selfish commerce. I give you an interview, you give me publicity. It's a characteristic of every human interaction. Everything, in effect, is petty commerce."
Even love between parents and children?
"That's a little different, but essentially it's the same. Your children are more like a product you're selling."
And between siblings?
"Especially that. You know those old brothers and sisters who hold onto conflicts to the grave? I remember, at my mother's funeral, they played a song by a Danish musician she loved. Her brother couldn't resist. He said, 'she didn't even know him. I knew him.' He didn't give her a moment's mercy, not even at her funeral. Now, I know that's a very cynical way of looking at the world. I'm very aware that I'm very cynical."
And how do you reconcile that cynicism with faith? You became a Catholic a few years ago.
"I'm a really poor Catholic. I tried to be religious and I'm pretty close to being a failure. It's just that it's so obvious that all those texts came from human beings. It doesn't seem logical to me that God, who is so powerful, would ask people to kneel down before him. Only a weak regime would normally ask you to humiliate yourself. I'm still working on faith, but I've almost given up.
"It's so hard to be a human being," he said, sighing, "It's cruel to be human. You have a little sense of morality, which causes you to realize that every time you walk or eat or breathe you are killing something - an ant, a starving person, a plant. In addition, you also have the clear knowledge that you are going to die, which makes all of life ridiculous. Why go on living and killing other life? I would very much like to say that I am religious, but I have to say that I'm not."
The time set aside for the interview is nearly over, and in the five remaining minutes I suggested a game of associations. I explained the rules - I say a word, he responds with a sentence - and his eyes lit up. Von Trier loves games. When I ask another question about one of his responses he becomes indignant: "But what about the rules?!"
"Totally dead. He was so afraid of death that now that it's happened he's as dead as can be."
[Thinking hard] "He had to sacrifice himself in some way, right? Look at me, a Catholic with nothing good to say about Jesus."
The Danish royal family?
"Complete foolishness. It was supposed to be the elite, but they're simply poor quality people. I gave back the knighthood I was awarded."
"A wonderful actress."
"Like vitamins, critical to the regular functioning of the human."
"That was my childhood."
"How much I loved playing in the woods."
"It's a great product but doesn't work for me anymore. I've taken more than 50 different pills by now."
Lars Von Trier?
"Asshole, asshole, asshole. Not even Jewish, suffers from depression, can't be a proper Catholic. Just a big asshole." The rain outside stops and Von Trier smiles. W