A rock in the shoe: my love-hate relationship with Lars Von Trier, Pt. 2

In 2003 Lars Von Trier decided to become the rock in some else’s shoe. That lucky someone was fellow Dane and film maker, Jorgen Leth. Leth had, in 1967, created a short film called The Perfect Man, of which Von Trier is a huge fan. He invites Leth out of retirement to take part in a little experiment, asking him to remake his ’67 short with a series of obstructions devised by Von Trier himself. The resulting film, The Five Obstructions, is a fascinating documentary on the nature of art and the artist, but it also offers a few insights into Von Trier that have stuck with me ever since. Chief among them is his perception that not only must the creator of the art suffer, but the audience as well.

Von Trier’s first obstruction is an interesting one. He requires Leth to shoot the film in Cuba, creating an instant cultural influence The Perfect Human didn’t have before, and that he use no shot longer than twelve frames, which is approximately half a second of film time. Anyone who has ever created anything knows that limitations (or obstructions) breed creativity, and while Leth initially views Von Trier’s as “totally destructive,” he eventually admits that those twelve frames were a “gift.”

But Von Trier was just getting warmed up.

One of the second obstructions required Leth to shoot in “the worst place in the world,” but refrain from showing the location in the film. Leth chooses to shoot in the red light district in Bombay, hiding the location behind a translucent screen. Von Trier is not satisfied. He punishes Leth by demanding that he either return to Bombay and shoot it again, or comply with whatever Von Trier chooses to replace it. He chooses the latter.

Leth is an absolute angel about all of it, actually, but Von Trier is curiously aggressive with his idol. Shooting in Bombay had little effect on the film and serious effect on Leth. Art is suffering. Suffering is art. I personally find Von Trier’s sadism off-putting, to say the least.

Still, villains are fascinating, aren’t they? And with the release of Antichrist (2009), I once again found myself unable to resist viewing a Lars Von Trier film. It had me with its trailer, filled with haunting imagery and the promise of a legitimate, Lars Von Trier horror film. As it stands, I cannot say that I enjoyed the film, exactly, but I can say that it hasn’t left me.

Enjoy. It only gets worse from here.

Its leads have no names. They are simply called “He” (Willem Defoe) and “She” (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The film begins with the two making passionate love as their infant son tumbles from their apartment window to his death. The scene is so beautifully shot—filmed elegantly in black and white, with haunting slow motion—that you almost forget the horror of it. Almost. Being a therapist, He decides to treat his wife himself, taking her to a cabin in a place called “Eden” (Make of that what you will) where he attacks her grief with relentless reason. The trouble is, Eden is no place for reason. The ground burns She’s feet, the animals talk and, on occasion, acorns rain from the sky. I’ll bet that there’s nothing about that in the AAA guide.

We learn that She has been to Eden before, researching a thesis that may have led her to believe that women are inherently evil. It doesn’t matter if it’s true so long as She believes it. We are given evidence. He eventually learns that She had been intentionally putting their son’s shoes on the wrong feet, causing lasting damage. Perhaps causing him to trip and fall out of an apartment window? It was once believed that women with backwards feet were witches.

The final bit of evidence comes in the form of a flashback. Or is it? Could we be seeing a physical manifestation of She’s madness? Or did she actually watch her son crawl up onto that desk and, with his little feet contorted in his misplaced shoes, fall from the window? It doesn’t matter if it’s true so long as she believes it.

Antichrist concludes in the only manner it can; madness. It is, towards its finale, difficult to watch. I may have grown timid in my ripe old age, but I believe that the film could have made its points without the clitoral dismemberment and bloody masturbation scenes (Yeah, those things happen). Von Trier wants to upset you. He wants catharsis. For me, it hurts the end product, which could have been a brilliant film and instead must settle for being an interesting study. I suppose that’s a pretty decent silver medal.

And now it’s 2011 and Lars Von Trier is sitting at a table with Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst intending to promote his latest film, Melancholia*, but rambling incoherently about being a Nazi instead. I recently learned that, on her deathbed, his mother had confessed to him that the man he had thought was his father, a Jew, was not.

I lived most of my life as a Jew. I wore a skullcap when I had to and laid stones on tombstones in cemeteries. My mother wasn’t Jewish, but my father, or the man I thought was my father, was. But then I found out that my father wasn’t my father and my real father was German. And instead of saying I was actually German at the news conference on Wednesday, in my characteristic haste and because I couldn’t stand the man who turned out to be my biological father, despite my mother’s telling me he was charming, I said with a kind of typical Danish humor that most people don’t understand that I was a Nazi. But I’m not.

He then added:

It was a stupid joke. But that’s the kind of humor I use when I talk to my friends, who know me and know I’m not a Nazi. I apologize profoundly for offending people. It was not my intention. I’ve also offended Germans.

I have watched the clip many times over now and no, I don’t believe that Von Trier is a Nazi. No, I don’t even believe that he said it to shock people. I believe that Lars Von Trier is simply a socially awkward human being. Perhaps we can add people to his list of fears?

* I will be viewing Melancholia, as I am a glutton for both amazing filmmaking and punishment.

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