Lars von Trier: The dogmatic great Dane

Lars von Trier's films have been called an offence against the human condition - and works of genius. Fiona Morrow meets the provocative director
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The Independent Culture

Lars von Trier's Dogville - a film about a small town that turns on an incomer seeking refuge - ends with a real kick: David Bowie's "Young Americans" blasting out over images of an impoverished United States. The stills are Dorothea Lange's depression-era photographs juxtaposed with more recent glimpses of life on the flip side of the American Dream.

The jolt this montage provides is as visceral as it is provocative. Following on the heels of three hours of audaciously austere film-making, the up-tempo musical coda serves as something of a release from the Danish director's self-imposed cinematic confines. Yet there's no getting away from those images: Bowie's beat also drives home the sense of outrage and injustice of lives lived on the margins.

Some people, of course, have been provoked to outrage of a different kind: appalled by Von Trier's allusion to the Land of the Free, the Variety writer Todd McCarthy launched a furious riposte: "There is no escaping the fact that the entire point of Dogville is that Von Trier has judged America, found it wanting and therefore deserving of immediate annihilation. This is, in short, his 'J'accuse!' directed toward an entire nation."

"I wouldn't dream of pointing anything at an entire nation," counters Von Trier, barely suppressing a snigger.

The director's penchant for mischievous retorts only entrenches his detractors further into their apoplexy. He is, they surmise, a fraud, his undeniable technical achievements simply emperor's new clothes. And the more they foam at the mouth or sit booing themselves dizzy at his Cannes premieres, the more he laps it up.

Von Trier hardly had an upbringing designed to create a conformist. His mother Inger was a communist with radical notions of how to raise children and thus, from a very young age, Lars was expected to make decisions for himself. There were no rules. And if the idea of being able to choose whether or not to go to the dentist, or school, or anywhere else, might be every child's fantasy, in reality it left Von Trier deeply anxious. He remains plagued by anxiety and phobias - he won't fly, he obsesses about cancer - and takes Prozac to get him through the day.

His mother had a final trauma to inflict. Dying, she revealed to her son that she had been lying to him: Lars's father wasn't his biological father - she had chosen someone from a more artistic family to impregnate her. His life went into freefall: he was no longer who he thought he was, his marriage fell apart, he had a breakdown.

His simultaneous professional breakdown was more positive. His work up to that point had been technically perfect but emotionally empty. His E trilogy - Element of Crime, Epidemic and Europa - was lauded for its breathtaking cinematic achievements, but lacked anything approaching a heart.

Stellan Skarsgard (now a regular collaborator) recalls his first impression of Von Trier's work: "I saw Element of Crime in a film festival and I remember thinking, 'This is an interesting man. I'd like to work with this director when he gets interested in people.'"

Von Trier's personal crisis led him to throw away the cinematic rule-book. First, he made The Kingdom, a hospital drama for Dutch television, which was an anarchic and disturbing blend of horror and absurdism. Then he turned to melodrama in Breaking the Waves.

"It was an interesting time for Lars," says the film's star, Emily Watson. "Europa had been planned down to the last detail - he used to tell people he'd give them a bottle of whisky if they could spot anything in the film that wasn't on the storyboard.

"But when I met Lars, I told him I had just seen it and he said, 'It's a very boring movie - boring for me, boring for the actors. I'm changing everything.' And it wasn't just about saying there's no continuity, the camera can move anywhere and you can do what you like - which is what happened - but it was also about Lars."

Though Von Trier had made the decision to relinquish control, he did so only after having constructed another set of rules for himself - the manifesto known as Dogme 95. Created with a fellow Dane, Thomas Vinterberg, Dogme was a set of principles designed to pare cinema back to its essentials - hand-held cameras, natural lighting, no added music - and thus produce something fresh and provocative.

Breaking the Waves, though made the following year, had been in production well before Dogme was devised, but still Von Trier adhered to many of the new principles.

"Breaking the Waves was the most free way I had ever worked on a film," says Skarsgard. "He had a big sign on the set that said 'Make Mistakes', and that's lovely for an actor - that makes you brave."

Brave was certainly a term that could be attributed to Von Trier's next project - and his first Dogme film proper - The Idiots. It followed a group of middle-class drop-outs who question society's attitudes by pretending to be mentally disabled.

The Idiots is shocking, discomfiting and unexpectedly moving. It was banned in Ireland for fear of inspiring depravity and corruption. The late Evening Standard film critic Alexander Walker called it "a grotesque offence against the human condition".

Von Trier was back in the headlines with Dancer in the Dark, a musical about capital punishment set in the US, starring the singer Björk. If the subject matter wasn't enough to incense American critics, the gossip columns were in ecstasies over the increasingly incendiary relationship between the director and his star. Not a professional actress, Björk struggled to cope with Von Trier's methods.

But if he is compared with Hitchcock and Kubrick in his disregard for his actresses' feelings, Von Trier has no trouble casting his female roles. "Maybe it is that they are masochists, women," he suggests. "I actually think I am very nice as a director. I don't put things on top of the actors; I try to get things out of them. It's almost like therapy: it can be a little tough, but it's good for the patient."

After Dogville's premiere in Cannes last year, the film's star, Nicole Kidman, was open about her bumpy relationship with von Trier. "I arrived in Sweden and the first week was tricky," she said. "Then we had a walk in the forest and a heart-to-heart. It was a difficult four hours - a warts-and-all tears and screaming walk in the woods. We came out with a very pure commitment to each other."

As Grace, Kidman plays completely against her Hollywood persona. She is the lead, but she's also humiliated, enslaved, betrayed and repeatedly raped. "But Nic wanted to do this film very much," Von Trier insists, grinning. "At least I assume she did - she didn't get paid very much, you know."

It doesn't take more than a couple of minutes in Von Trier's company to succumb to his charm. Everything he says has an ambiguous edge, but he's quick witted, naturally subversive and something of a flirt.

"Lars is a fascinating man," saysDogville's co-star Chloe Sevigny. "He's just perverse enough, and his sense of humour is amazing. And he will not compromise."

His charms played rather differently with the film's lead man, Paul Bettany. "Lars would tell you he's a charlatan, but he thinks he's a genius. And he is. This is what is annoying about him. He's very cruel to work for, but cruelest to himself, so it's OK."

Von Trier's methods of unnerving Bettany were nothing short of bizarre. "Lars insisted we all stayed in the same hotel, and he put me in the room next to his," Bettany says. "Very weird stuff happened. There would be a knock at the door at three in the morning , and Lars would be there wearing nothing but a mobile phone and he'd say, 'Paul, can you lend me a pair of underpants?'"

Dogville is a step away from Dogme, but no less rigorous. Set in a small town in the Rocky Mountains during the Depression, the film follows the town's attempt and failure to provide a safe haven for Grace, who is trying to escape the mob. At first, the townspeople ask only that she prove herself worthy of their acceptance by taking on small jobs, but gradually she is exploited and then abused, as their fear turns into cruelty and prejudice. The central debate is whether evil actions are the consequences of evil people, or a result of the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Setting his morality play in the US is, of course, a deliberate provocation - particularly as he has never set foot in the country. But, he argues, the degree to which America has colonised all our cultures makes it a valid reference point for anyone: we are, in a sense, all Americans. And he shrugs off the anti-American tag. "I told very nasty stories of things going on in Europe before and no one had anything to say about that," he smiles. "I have used America only as the setting for a story and I feel that this story is in some way part of an American tradition in its sarcasm, its narration... People will probably be very hurt at me saying that."

He pauses, serious for a moment, then the grin is back. "But, I must admit," he says, leaning forward as if to deliver a great confidence, "when I was young, I was a member of the Communist Party."

'Dogville' is released on 13 February