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Lars von Trier’s library of pleasurable things

Interview — Lars von Trier feels like he’s ready to give up filmmaking. It’s a feeling he’s never had, but in spite of his anxiety, his bouts of depression and the pain that sometimes comes with just breathing there are still things that make him happy: elegant passages from Tolstoy, a sophisticated way of terrorising people, the corner of a room in Sweden that reminds him of something

1.
Blood money

It’s been six days since Lars von Trier dragged his little frame up to the rostrum of the University of Copenhagen’s Ceremonial Hall and waved a white flag.

He was there because he had just been awarded the Sonning Prize, Denmark’s most prestigious cultural award, in recognition of his contributions to European culture, while at the same time ensconcing him in a league of giants that includes the likes of Simone de Beauvoir, Günther Grass and Hannah Arendt. And, from his own field, Bergman, Kieślowski and Haneke.

Yet, there he was, waving a white flag, telling everyone he was giving up.

»I had worked myself into hysterics over that speech,« he says as he slowly eases into a flea-market sofa in an editing room at Zentropa, the film company he helped start back in 1992.

Von Trier loathes giving speeches. During his appearance in Copenhagen, he started with a sort of rundown of the mental illnesses he’s been diagnosed with – OCD, claustrophobia, social phobia –  and then he let the audience know how standing up in front of them was going to affect him over the course of the next few minutes. First, he’d have trouble breathing, then he’d be feeling like he was being choked. Tightness of the chest would follow. After that, nausea. Then butterflies, dizziness, derealisation, fear of losing control and, finally, fear of dying. He brought the white flag »in case he had a complete breakdown.«

The audience laughed. In fact, they laughed several times during his speech, which was funny and irreverent, but also at times felt forced, reflecting the speaker’s unwillingness to give it.

»That was a tough one, and, Christ, all I was doing was saying thank you,« he says, and pauses for a second. »Even though the prize money does come from property speculation. If you go back and look, you’ll see that, in 1968, there was a huge backlash against the Sonning Prize. The audience had to sneak out the back door.«

Sure enough, in 1968 Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet alleged that CJ Sonning, the man after whom the award is named, earned some of his money through fishy property speculation. When students got wind of it they turned up in front of the main building to demonstrate.

University Post: But you accepted the award?

Lars von Trier: »Yes, on the argument that … You know, wasn’t it Asger Jorn who said that he wouldn’t accept an award from the Guggenheim Foundation because he didn’t want to take their blood money. But my opinion is if you think like that, then all money is blood money in one way or another. Each and every krone

In fact, Jorn, who was selected for a Guggenheim award in 1964, didn’t use the term ‘blood money’. Instead he began the telegram he sent by telling Harry Guggenheim to »GO TO HELL WITH YOUR MONEY BASTARD«. Von Trier wasn’t angered about being given an award. Just the opposite, really.

– It seemed to me like you were moved …

»Well, you know, it’s like …«

He pulls at his beard.

»You know, you get o-o-older. You get emotional about the damndest things: TV for example. I guess I was, though. Moved, that is.«

Von Trier just turned 62.

– You said during your speech that you were proud to have been given the award because it was in recognition of an entire body of work …

»And for a life’s work.«

– And for a life’s work, and that was actually what I wanted to talk to you about.

He looks up.

»You haven’t seen my latest film, then?«

– No.

»Good,« he says. »Then we won’t have to talk about that.«

2.
»Making films is bothersome to me«

The new film, a thriller about a serial killer, is titled The House that Jack Built and stars Matt Dillion. The same day that von Trier accepted the Sonning Prize, it was announced that The House That Jack Built would have its premiere during the Cannes film festival. It’s not on the official programme, but the fact that it is being shown at all is a sign that the festival, which banned von Trier in 2011 after he made bizarre comments about Nazis, considers him to be rehabilitated. (Von Trier, for his part, maintains that he didn’t get to finish what he was saying and consequently was misunderstood.)

During the weeks leading up to the premiere, von Trier can expect a barrage of questions about Nazism, his new film, his views on women and whatever other controversy seems to be following him around at the time.

Not today, though. The Sonning Prize celebrates European culture, and our discussion is to be about von Trier’s film and the elements of European culture they make reference to.

– What excites you about making film? If it excites you, that is.

»Making films is bothersome to me. The last one we made was especially hard because it was filled with angst. But no matter how bad it got, I was always able to crawl out of whatever depression I was suffering from to tell the actors what to do.«

He speaks slowly and carefully. Stops for long pauses to think.

– Is there something about film that helps you up from the depression? Filmmaking, the story, the actors? Is there something that you can get enthused about, or that makes you happy?

»It does make me happy, but not until the whole thing is put together. That’s when I can see whether the theories I had in mind when I was writing the manuscript were valid, and whether an extra layer has formed over them.«

Filming itself can, for personal reasons, be hard for von Trier, which in turn, can make it difficult for those around him. We’ll get back to the precise reason why. Right now, he wants to talk about his work methods, and the uncertainty they create during filming.

»When I work,« he says, »I record a scene several different ways. I do all the things I was told not to do when I was at film school. That’s liberating, mostly for the actors, who can play a role happy as well as sad. And then can I edit the whole thing without any sort of psychological line. The same actor can’t go from happy to sad in the same shot, but, the way we do it, they can. The result is that the characters are more realistic.«

Von Trier says that, nowadays, there is no wrong in filmmaking. The audience has become accustomed to consuming media, and they can pick up on things in a split second. Mistakes aren’t something they try to pick out.

»Of course they are looking for a connection between things. That’s one thing there might be too much of in my films. I’m kind of ashamed about that. I’d like to free myself up a little more.«

– Is it fair to say that you practice making mistakes?

»Yes and no. I don’t really dare, because there are some basic elements, the basic story, that I want to get right in one way or another. I’m good at teasing out the story by doing just a couple of small things. The first time you hear about the story, you shouldn’t hear about the story at all. It has to be part of a particular line about something else entirely. That’s the cornerstone … It would be nice to be able to work the same way Klaus Rifbjerg wrote. He began with the first chapter and then kept on writing. And when he felt the book was done, it was done. I’ve got a lot of respect for people who can work like that. Quite a few filmmakers work that way.«

Von Trier isn’t one of them. Endings sicken him, too. But not because he finds them hard to come up with.

»It’s easy to shut it down. The ending is the most boring part. Beginnings are always great. You just show a picture and you’re rolling. The possibilities are endless. But, what I’m not that big a fan of is drawing a film together and having it all end up at a single point.«

– Why not?

»Björk and I talked about this one time. She’s the same. She’d rather die than make a song that ended in the same key as it started in. That’s how I feel too.«

– But, endings are inevitable.

»Yes, a film has to end at some point, but that’s why my plan now is to work on a series of études instead. So I can take it easy on myself. So I don’t have to go out of my way to not have an ending.«

Von Trier’s études are to be a series of 10-minute films, none of them related. Instead, they will be »random scenes from a random film«. He’s working with Danish and Swedish actors on the project. The films will be in black and white, and they will all be shot in the same place, with just a single stage set. There will be one camera in a fixed position. The handheld camera, a von Trier trademark, has been banned.

The project is a way for von Trier to work his way out of the aversion he has to endings and long, tedious days of filming. The other reason: von Trier likes coming up with rules.
»I have to come up with rules that determine how the études should look. But I was told by sweet Peter Schepelern that someone has determined that there are 36 different types of conflict. So, I guess that means I’ll be making 36 10-minute films.«

Schepelern is a University of Copenhagen lector emeritus. He taught von Trier’s film-history course when he studied here, and, ever since von Trier dropped out of the film-studies programme in 1979, he’s served as the go-to expert on his former student. The two men get along well, which those attending the Sonning award ceremony, might have noticed. Schepelern was given the task of making an introductory speech that ran down von Trier’s accomplishments. When it came for von Trier to speak, he replied with a friendly jab: »Sitting there listening to Peter, I was thinking that I’ve sat through a lot of his lectures, and this one was assuredly the most boring of them all. I fell into a trance – there were entire passages I didn’t hear at all.«

The 36 conflicts sweet Schepelern is referring to were identified more than a century ago by French author Georges Polti, and the list includes things like madness, revenge, murderous unfaithfulness, and fully three ways to become a martyr. Gefundenes fressen for someone like Lars von Trier.

– Do you make rules for each film you make?

»I have a set of rules inspired by the Dogme 95 manifesto that evolves with each film I make. Having rules is fun because it puts a limitation on you. To tell you the truth, I’m at my best, when something goes spectacularly wrong. When that happens, I’m ready to change things around entirely.«

Von Trier likes making mistakes. If there’s no room to shoot a scene in the studio, he takes it outside.

»Just like Bergman when he was making The Seventh Seal. He looked out the window, saw the sunset and told all the actors to get into costume so he could get that incredible shot where you see their silhouettes all holding hands at the top of a hill out by the SF-film’s studio.«

3.
Where images come from

Bergman’s image gets me to thinking about von Trier’s own films. Prior to the interview I watched Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, the entire delightful depression trilogy, and something struck me. There – amidst all the over-the-top imagery of sex and genital mutilation that has become von Trier’s trademarks – were, in fact, some of the most beautiful images I’d seen in a long time.

– Where do those images come from? Do they pop into your head before you start filming? Or is it something that arises from the moment and from the technology, once you take stock of the options that you have at hand?

»On one level, you need to have thought them before you can make them – because, you know, filming is friggin’ expensive. But I’ve also learned how to make the most of the technology we have. I remember that when we were making Antichrist, we shot pictures of the tableaus, but then we kept the camera still and took some shots at different light settings where you could see all the lamps in the frame. Then we took out the lamps on the computer but kept their light. The result was pretty good-looking effect if I may say so, a totally surreal image of a tree in a dark forest illuminated on three sides. Stuff like that is a lot of fun.«

– But otherwise the pictures are up in your head?

»Yes. And they are archetypical images. Pictures that just work. Bridges, for example. We had bridge in the most recent film. Bridges are wonderful if they are passable and they are just as wonderful if they are impassable. In reality, a picture is made up a lot of small puzzle pieces, that are very pure. But if you mix them all together you get something that isn’t straightforward. Another example from the new film is a waterfall. In front of the waterfall there is a sink. I can’t say that there is an element of genius to it.«

Coming up with good images isn’t a solo task for von Trier. As he puts it, he’s got “a great team”, singling out Peter Hjorth, who does digital special effects.

»I try to use the computer to do something you don’t normally use computers for. If you have 500,000 hobbits and want a million hobbits, all you need to do is press the button one more time. There are lots of myths surrounding Barry Lyndon, one of my favourite films – about how Stanley Kubrick always had to wait until the light was just right, for months even. Today, all we need to do is push a button and we can have the most blessed sunlight imaginable.”

In his acceptance speech, von Trier described tinkering with an old Bolex 16mm camera with a spring-wound clockwork power system while he was at uni.

– There was some kind of affection for technology in the way you mentioned that camera.

»Without a doubt. Right out here in the corridor we have an old clipping table that Dreyer used. And when I say technology, what I really mean is machinery. Technology today is all about computers. I have an idea of what can be done on a computer, but I don’t at all understand each piece of technology individually. But cranes and all the other hardware that we needed when we made film back in the old days, the mechanics, I’ve always found exciting. When I think about the pictures I took when I was 12, or my 8mm films, I remember creating all the classic effects, just in strange ways. Like doing a travelling shot by putting a camera on the back of a bike and stuff like that. I was also going to build a crane with a counterweight out of some old boards. It was too dangerous, and I never did it, but it was machinery and that was what I fell for.«

Out in the corridor, there is also an old 16mm clipping table that von Trier has fallen for. »It’s got two screens,« he says. »That means you can clip in parallel and have two images moving by at the same time. That was incredible. It was nothing less than a breakthrough, that table there.«

While it would be wrong to say that von Trier’s images are born out of old-fashioned film technology, it is fair to say that, when he comes up with an image, he’s thought about how it would have been made in the old days.

– Do you ever watch your old films?

»Seldom.«

When you do, do you scold yourself for the things that weren’t done right?

»No.«

– Or do you think, “Wow. That was fantastic.”

»Oh, I don’t know if I’m thinking that. You know what I think? That they are done. There’s no reason to worry anymore. Actually, there is one thing that annoys me. One thing I forgot. We make all our moves with hand-held cameras, but a lot of times we also need to take stills that can then be digitally manipulated. That happened to be the case with the scene in Antichrist where the clitoris was cut off. That picture – it lasted, what, all about a second? – it was the only one we forgot to do what we call ‘hand-holdifying’ on. You know, lively it up a little. That was irritating. Stupid. That was just what that shot needed. But, such is life.«

I come to think of an anecdote one of my friends told me one time. One about someone he knew who did special effects on Antichrist and who was asked by suspicious airport security to open his luggage. Inside was a collection of pretty natural looking vaginas.

It’s hard to say whether the anecdote amuses von Trier, so I change the subject.

4.
Go wash your glass, little girl

It takes von Trier a moment to answer when I ask him which of his scenes he’s most satisfied with.

»It’s quite banal, but I’m pretty satisfied with the picture of Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia where she’s floating amongst the lily pads. The fact that they hadn’t bloomed yet was important. It was inspired by something out of Proust, where he described unbloomed water lilies floating from one side of the stream to the other. He spent several pages describing that, in fact.«

He laughs.

»Of course, it’s also ripped off a painting of Ophelia by some Pre-Raphaelite. The angle is different but otherwise it’s the same. So, yes, I’ve got some images from most of my films that I’m pretty happy with. Which ones they are escape me right now, though.«

Overall, the film he is most proud of is Dogville, he says.

– Why’s that?

»Because the lines on the floor made for some of the strictest rules we could imagine. And because it was highly theatrical, of course. And because it was a script that was written over 17 days, and didn’t get edited.«

– Until you filmed?

»Right, I didn’t read it over. Everyone involved with doing the filming had to, but I didn’t. As far as I knew, there was nothing wrong with it.«

In 2009, Quentin Tarantino called the Dogville script “maybe one of the greatest scripts ever written for film”. There was just one problem with the film, says von Trier today. It was based on a Berthold Brecht song titled ‘Pirate Jenny’, from the play The Threepenny Opera, in which it was sung in a brothel. It’s about a woman working crappy jobs in small town where she is stranded.

In the original German version, there is a line that translates to “Go wash your glass, little girl.”

»So, we put a glassworks in Dogville as a reference to that. And we had a couple who cut cheap glass to make it look expensive. And we got the wife to say: ‘Go wash your glass, little girl.’ The problem, of course, was that the there’s nothing about glassware in the English version. So, we had this huge part of the film that dealt with glass and took place in a glassworks, but it was pointless. That was kind of a hoot. In reality, it was probably more noteworthy than it would have been if the English version of the song mentioned glass.«

5.
A finished man

The House That Jack Built is von Trier’s 13th film. If you count his two TV productions, Medea and Riget (The Kingdom), then it’s the 15th. And, if Dogville was ‘von Trier does a play’, and Dancer in the Dark was ‘von Trier does a musical’, then The House That Jack Built is ‘von trier does a serial killer thriller’. That’s the way von Trier is.

The topic comes up when I ask him if it gets harder to come up with stories as he goes along, or if he has more ideas for stories than he has time to make.

»In reality, what I do is that I try to find a genre I haven’t touched upon before and then see what I can do with it,« he says. »The story is a matter of how you approach the genre.«

– What else then? A kids movie?

»You know, I’ve always wanted to make a film about a child’s dream. But, I’m not sure if I’m up to it. That’s why I’m taking a step back and doing those études.”

There are plenty of other genres you could explore. You haven’t done a war film?

»No, but I’ve always wanted to. When I was a kid, one of my friends was really into the Second World War. That was before everything was on the internet. You dialled a number and got sent a catalogue that was filled with used helmets, uniforms, bayonets. The whole nine yards. And everything was just perfectly aged. It’s so hard to make things look believably old. The way something ages is really its history, isn’t it? The way it was used. The way it was worn down … Like, what’s that mark over there in the corner? What does that mean?«

He’s pointing at a lonely speck of black paint on the otherwise white wall he’s facing.

»And that little cross there at the top,« he says, pointing to a bulletin board where someone has arranged some pushpins in the form of a cross. »What’s all that about?«

We think a little about the way things age. There is no shortage of genres. Ideas, either. But von Trier isn’t up to turning them into film.

– You said you were proud to have been awarded the Sonning Prize because it recognises an entire body of work. Do you think your work is complete, or is there more in you?

»No. I’m … I feel like I’m done.«

Sorry? You feel like you’re done?

»Yeah, I think so, but the second I get an idea, or the moment I sit myself down to come up with some ideas, like my études, then I still have it. My imagination is still there.

– Have you ever felt you were done before?

»No, not like this. The new film actually has images from my previous films. For whatever reason. That’s pretty rare.«

In The House That Jack Built, according to the producers, “we follow the highly intelligent Jack over a span of 12 years and are introduced to the murders that define Jack’s development as a serial killer. We experience the story from Jack’s point of view, while he postulates each murder is an artwork in itself. As the inevitable police intervention is drawing nearer, he is taking greater and greater risks in his attempt to create the ultimate artwork.”

You’d have be a pretty crappy high-school teacher not to be able to draw a parallel between this plot and von Trier’s own career.

»I guess you can say that,« he says. »The House That Jack Built has a sort of concluding structure. Maybe a little too concluding, but …«

He tries not to sell out, he says later. But, in this case he might not have succeeded.

»Somebody has to hate the movie. That’s important.«

6.
The world’s ugliest film

Like Dogville and Manderlay, The House that Jack Built takes a critical look at America. Ironically, von Trier’s fear of flying has kept him from ever visiting the US himself.

– There were a lot of American film critics who didn’t appreciate Antichrist and Nymphomaniac, yet they thought Melancholia, which didn’t show anyone’s genitals, was a work of art. What’s the big problem with showing a penis or a vagina? How can it be that artists can still use them for their shock value?

»I couldn’t tell you. But, when it comes to nudity, you need to remember that, when I was a kid, my family went to nudist camps. We spent the summers at nudist camps. When we there, if we were at our place, and it was cold, you put a sweater on. But, if someone came to visit, you took it off again right away. So, I’m pretty open to nudity. I’m against censorship of any kind. My opinion is that if you can think it, you should be able to show it.«

– So, you don’t use sex or nudity to provoke your audience?

»No. Nymphomaniac was five hours, wasn’t it? That’s an awfully long-wound provocation. I’ve always been accused of provoking for the sake of provoking, but I guess it was good enough for the Sonning committee.«

– Americans might be a little more prudish.

»Yup.«

– What do you like most in American and European culture? Do both cultures inspire you, or are you mostly European?

»I’m much more deeply rooted in European culture. But a lot of my favourite films are American. Orson Welles’s films for example. And Scorsese’s, especially his early ones. And Coppola. And … not so much Spielberg, his films just don’t do it for me. But someone told me yesterday, and I don’t know if it’s true, but when I made Breaking the Waves it was really popular with the jury in Cannes. Except Coppola, who was foreman. He called it “the world’s ugliest movie”. And that was why he didn’t want it to get an award. Funny. In that situation you’d think he’d have been more foresighted because he has always done drastic things.«

He smiles.

– Did that please you?

»It pleases me that he took enough interest to call it the world’s ugliest movie.«

7.
Lars von Trier’s library of pleasurable things

We’ve been talking for 40 minutes. About Kubrick and Coppola. And Brecht, Proust, Bergman, Rifbjerg and the Pre-Raphaelites. When you watch one of von Trier’s films and when you speak with him, it’s like he’s a walking library of European culture. Something he says he isn’t.

»Not at all. At one point I was into the classics. Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, Dostoevsky and all the rest. I think that by now I’ve read everything Thomas Mann wrote, too. I like them. War and Peace was a great novel. It describes … no, that was the other one, Anna Karenina … its description of the wealthy landowner who goes out and takes part in the harvest with the peasants. His depiction of the harvest has always inspired me.«

– But when your films make a reference to someone else’s work, is it something that comes out of your research?

»No. One thing I’ve gotten better at is making films that draw only on references I like. Things I like. Machinery, for example. I’ve started referring to things in my own library of pleasurable things. That’s not the same as saying things need to be positive or light-hearted or anything else. It’s just nice to be able to talk about things you know something about.«

– What sorts of things do you keep in your library of pleasurable things?

»What I call plot digressions. That’s where I try to turn things into a novel, right? At one point in Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann writes that there will now be a big change in the story, but that he won’t describe it yet. Then there’s this long tangent, and the change comes when he thinks it’s time. I like the idea of a storyteller who has the audience’s permission to lead it all over the place, even if there is a chance of perhaps getting lost.«

– These digressions you have in your library of pleasurable things, and which you are affording more space to now, are they organised?

»No. There shouldn’t be any system. In the new film, they are talking about a siren that’s mounted on a Stuka, a German warplane (a dive-bomber to be precise, ed). I always thought that was fantastic invention. It was really sadistic, because once the planes turned on their sirens, you couldn’t escape the feeling that the bombs were headed right at you. Normally, when a bomb falls, it doesn’t make any noise. Just an explosion when it hits. But when a Stuka attacked it was accompanied by this terrorising noise. In The House That Jack Built they talk about how the sound is made. Even though that’s morbid and politically incorrect, we still included it.«

Von Trier pauses, as if he’s become aware that he’s about to start talking about something that might get him into trouble.

»You can talk about the idea without being a Nazi. And you can be fascinated by Speer’s architecture without being a Nazi. In a dictatorship, a few people sometimes get these huge artistic opportunities. Speer and Riefenstahl, for example, had a limitless supply of funds, and that meant they could do some incredible things. But there were a lot of people who couldn’t work. That was too bad, and maybe even greater things might have happened if they could have, but how things are on the surface partly determines the direction of art history. They aren’t just new periods that follow one another. It happens because of political and historic realities.”

– So, when you talk about the Stukas in The House That Jack Built it’s because you find them fascinating?

»It was something from my library of pleasurable things, oddly enough. It’s a little creepy to say that, but it was just because … well, because the thought is so refined in its unpleasantness.«

8.
Youthful courage and energy

So there you have it.

Lars von Trier has a library of pleasurable things. On its shelves, you find Proust’s water-lily buds, German terror bombers, film machinery, nicely aged combat gear, Tolstoy’s harvest, a line from a song by Brecht sung in a brothel. And, maybe it’s the sort of library that will keep him making films, even after he says he’s finished.

We talk about his time at uni. He studied film studies, because he couldn’t get into theatre school or journalism school or film school. At night he played around with the school’s cameras and clipping equipment. During the day, he stocked the shelves of his library of pleasurable things.

»I saw a lot of films,« he says. »Sometimes three a day. Who hasn’t slept through Birth of a Nation?«

»The first time I saw Barry Lyndon, I fell sound asleep. It was a midnight showing. It was very soothing. It was a great film. It’s not a bad sign if you fall asleep the first time you see a film. You need to be bored the first time you see it. That’s when a work starts to have its way with you.«

– So you need to be careful not to make something that is too entertaining, then?

»Yes, you do. And I’m not sure I have been. Typically, directors start getting repetitive as they get older. They start abusing their trademarks. I hate Fanny & Alexander. I’ve seen everything Bergman made. And I’m telling you he made a lot, also advertising films. I liked many of them, but all he did in Fanny & Alexander was to throw his highlights together to tell a story in a really primitive way. It was primitive and made for a mass audience, and it was something he ought to have been ashamed of. But later, he made Saraband, which was really good.«

Von Trier has repeatedly described his career as a director as if he were a scout, a soldier who parachutes down to the centre of an island and has to find his way to the coast. There’s no time to lose if he’s to complete his mission. In von Trier’s case, there’s no time to watch other directors’ latest films. Just to make his own.

In that analogy, uni must have been his boot camp. It was here he filled his head and the shelves in his library of pleasurable things with the classics of film history before he embarked on his artistic mission.

– Your scout analogy, right? Isn’t it kind of a lie that you don’t watch other people’s films. You said that the TV series Homicide was your inspiration for The Kingdom.

»I wasn’t the one who watched Homicide. I only saw half of a single episode. Honestly, I’ve really tried to avoid watching new films. Of course, I’ve seen one thing or another over the course of the years, but I don’t care for it. I need to stick to working on the specimen I started with,« he says, pointing at his own head, »all of the films that I’d first watched on my own.«

– Do you watch old films more than once?

»Yes, there’s something to be gained from doing that.«

Like what?

»Oh, it can be just a detail, or something like a tracking shot, that I fall for. I’m in love with Mean Streets. And Taxi Driver, even though there are a few things about it I don’t like. The use of Bernard Herrmann’s music is arguably great. And De Niro is incredible. Some of the political stuff goes a little too far, but the taxi and the murders and all of that stuff works great. You can really feel the courage of their youth and their energy. That image of the taxi passing through steam coming up from the subway as Bernard Hermann’s music plays. That, to my mind, is iconic.

– You talk about youthful courage and energy. Your own films aren’t getting any more sedate with age.

»No, but that’s something I’m conscious of. Let’s see, though. I’m not sure how crazy you can get making 36 10-minute films on the same set.«

– Maybe it’s the form itself that’s the wild part?

»Right, and that’s something I’ve learned. If you say that the story is one of the layers, and psychology another, and imagery a third and so on, then it’s okay if you do something totally revolutionary with one of those layers. But, if you do it with all the layers, you lose contact with your audience. I compare it with an unfamiliar forest that you are afraid of going into alone. If you are with a friend who knows the forest, then you’re not afraid to go in.«

9.
The pain of breathing

We talk politics, even though it doesn’t really interest him that much. There are things that happen that he doesn’t like – internet trolling, for example – but he doesn’t pay that much attention to the news. When Tøger Sidenfaden, a former editor of Politiken, the paper of record in Denmark, was still alive, he would call him up if there was something political or historical he didn’t understand. Sidenfaden was always able to explain it to him in four words.

I ask whether he has a cultural go-to guy. He says Peter Schepelern, his former teacher, is someone he asks a lot of questions. He was also the one who got him hooked on Mann.

He’s got an anecdote that Nicole Kidman told him about Stanley Kubrick from the filming of Eyes Wide Shut. Sydney Pollack, who played the doctor, apparently flew to London to film a scene. It was his first long dialogue scene and he nailed it. First take. Pollack was stunned because Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist. He wrote to his wife to tell her he’d be home soon. All they needed to do the next day was film Pollack walking through a door.

»And I tell you, they did it over and over and over all day long. At one point, Kubrick began using different cameras. The ones he was using to start with were apparently all wrong for filming that particular door. At one point, Pollack asked: ‘Is it really necessary to shoot the door being opened so many times?’ Kubrick – who was surprised – replied: ‘But don’t you want the shot to come out right?’«

Kubrick had full artistic liberty. Just like von Trier has always had. No-one tries to stop him when he gets an idea.

At the end of the conversation, we return to the dark forest.

– I found an old interview where you are quoted as saying: “Basically, I’m afraid of everything in life except filmmaking.” Is that still true?

»No. I’m being medicated for my phobias. I’m less afraid than I’ve been, but I’m still afraid of some really basic things, like travelling. Which I detest.

– Are there new things you develop a fear of?

He laughs, but doesn’t answer.

– But it’s like your films are getting harder and harder to make. You say the process of making them is more difficult.

»No, my problem is that I need to be there, physically. That’s a big problem. It’s like having to give that speech. If I need to stand there for an hour and a half, I’ll stand there for an hour and a half. I took the white flag with me so I could stop if I needed to. Maybe I should have it with me when we are filming, so people can see when I’m not doing well.«

– Is it being around other people that’s the problem, or simply being present?

»It’s really just having to be present in your life. I don’t know which religion talks about the pain of breathing, but that’s my biggest problem, and if you don’t breathe you can’t live. My salvation has always been that I can run off to the forest and hide. That’s why I like forests.«

There are indeed lots of forests in von Trier’s films.

»Another of my big phobias is hospitals and all the things they do there. When I was a kid, I had plan for what I would do if I got sick. I’d hide in the forest so I could die in peace.«

– There’s something diabolical about suffering from depression and having a fear of hospitals and having to be treated there.

»Yes. But … I can attest to being present up to this point.«

– You’ve been present?

»Right. There are directors who get so crazy that they lock themselves inside their caravan and follow along on a monitor and talk into a walkie-talkie. ‘Start over. Terrible! Terrible! Start over’.

Who?

»I think Coppola did. He tried to make two films at once.«

He tells a story about a time when Coppola convinced Wim Wenders to come to the US, so the two of them could work sitting next to each other, each looking at his own film on his own screen as they were shot. Coppola kept giving his advice to Wenders, »which must have been incredibly irritating,« von Trier says.

»But, it’s also … When we were up in Sweden making The House That Jack Built and I had a 40-degree celsius fever and I’d had an anxiety attack, and the room I was staying in was so draughty that when the wind blew outside my curtains billowed. That was an incredibly depressing place, even though it probably was beautiful during the summer. Now, why did I bring that up?«

Von Trier thinks.

»Oh, that’s right. If you stood in just the right spot in the restaurant, and looked from just the right angle, one of the corners looked exactly like a set from The Godfather. So I sat myself down. And, it was just like being at home. I’ve seen The Godfather a hundred times. I was actually thinking about writing to Scorsese to tell him that he’d made the most beautiful film in the world.«

– You mean Coppola?

»Yes, sorry. Coppola. Now that he’s called my film the ugliest.«

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