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UCPH awards Sonning Prize to Lars von Trier – Biographer: “Brilliant” decision

Award-winning — Lars von Trier will receive Denmark’s most prestigious cultural award, the Sonning Prize. Von Trier biographer and retired University of Copenhagen professor calls the decision to give the award to a former student who neither handed in assignments nor showed up for exams a “brilliant” idea

The University of Copenhagen has named Lars von Trier as the next recipient of Denmark’s most prestigious cultural award. The internationally acclaimed director will be presented with the Sonning Prize during a 19 April ceremony.

The Sonning Prize is normally awarded every other year to an individual who the university finds has done “commendable work for the benefit of European culture”.

Von Trier will be just the third Dane to receive the award (putting him in company with Nobel-prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr and Sydney Opera House architect Jørn Utzon). The accolade, according to Peter Schepelern, a retired University of Copenhagen associate professor, is well deserved and a “brilliant” decision.


Denmark’s most prestigious cultural award, the 1 million kroner Sonning Prize, was established by author and editor CJ Sonning (1879-1937). It is awarded every other year to an individual who is “found to have done commendable work for the benefit of European culture”.

Previous winners include: Winston Churchill, Albert Schweizer, Karl Popper, Laurence Olivier, Dario Fo, Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Jürgen Habermas, Günther Grass and Václav Havel.

The winner is selected by a committee organised by the University of Copenhagen and led by rector Henrik C Wegener.

“The Sonning Prize has generally gone to authors, philosophers and other great minds. This marks the fourth time over the past 20 years or so that a European director has received it. Ingmar Bergman was the first, then Krzysztof Kieślowski and, in 2014, it went to Michael Haneke. That is esteemed company, and von Trier certainly belongs there. He has the same gravity, importance and originality. So, in that sense, von Trier is a brilliant choice for the award. It is a recognition of his importance. He is, without a doubt, the most important figure in Danish film since Dreyer.”

Proud to have been his teacher

According to Schepelern, Carl Dreyer, a director active from the 1920s to the 1960s, played a key role in von Trier’s role as a director.

“He started off as a huge admirer of Dreyer – the great, maligned, isolated director whose dark and strange way of looking at things ran counter to the approach his contemporaries took. That was something young Lars associated with.”

Schepelern was one of von Trier’s professors while he studied film at the University of Copenhagen in the 1970s.

“I’d use the term ‘studied’ in its loosest possible sense,” Schepelern says. “He didn’t do any of his assignments or sit his exams, but I remember that he did attend lectures and that he fell in with others who were interested in film. He met some other people his age who helped him make his first ambitious film. In that respect, I’m glad, as one of his teachers, that he was selected for the award. He was a unique young man who was always very much himself, and who had some ideas that got the chance to reveal somewhat for us.”

Still experimenting

Schepelern recalls one particular experimental short film von Trier made during his time at the university, Orchidégartneren (The Orchid Gardener), which he reckons was likely the film that got him into film school.

Orchidégartneren was a very perplexing story about a young, suffering artist and his relationship to a woman, who possibly was two women. It was a perverse film that dealt with his anxiety about women. You were left with the impression that this might be the start of an outlandish career.”

He didn’t do any of his assignments or sit his exams, but I remember that he did attend lectures and that he fell in with others who were interested in film
Peter Schepelern, retired University of Copenhagen associate professor, about von Triers' years as a film student at the University of Copenhagen

Perhaps the most outlandish thing about von Trier’s career as a director is that he continues to experiment as a director.

“Normally what you see is that young, wannabe artists start off doing weird things, then they settle in and end gradually drift towards the mainstream. Von Trier, on the other hand, has stayed on the cutting-edge and kept experimenting. He makes big-budget films now, but they are still films about his strange visions. He hasn’t gone through that settling-in process that the hindsight of middle-age brings. No, Lars is still searching for something, still pushing new boundaries with his art.”

Hugely important to Trier

In a written statement to the Ritzau news bureau about being chosen for the award, von Trier said: “It is with pride and gratitude that I learned that the Sonning Committee has selected me as the award’s 2018 recipient. To have been found to have produced “commendable work” is particularly gratifying, since that, in all humility, has been what I have been trying to accomplish all these years.”

Schepelern believes the statement can be taken at face value.

“It’s tempting to think that, given von Trier’s sarcastic and unconventional view of society, he would be arrogant about being recognised, but I don’t get the impression he is. Did it matter to him that he won the Palme d’Or in Cannes 18 years ago for Dancer in the Dark? It did. It was hugely important to him. And I’m sure that the Sonning Prize is too. Is the biggest culture award we have in Denmark, not just in terms of prestige but also financially.”

The Sonning Prize carries with it a payment of 1 million kroner.

VIDEO: Lars von Trier speaks with Peter Schepelern during a 77-minute interview in 2015 at a University of Copenhagen event.

If you don’t have time to sit through the video above, the highlights are available in an article we published at the time.