This May, the BFI celebrates Danish director Lars Von Trier with a season of his outsider blockbusters Melancholia, Antichrist and Dogville alongside lesser-known films including his Europa trilogy, the Dogme 95 piece The Idiots, Breaking the Waves, and harrowing musical Dancer in the Dark featuring Bjork. So while his latest film with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Nymphomania, is still in the works, we're highly anticipating its release with just a few thoughts about what makes up modern film's ultimate provo:
1. His real name is Lars Trier - he added the 'von' on for effect at film school
Apparently in homage to director Josef von Sternberg, and his Teutonic obsession at film school, the aristocratic "von" is an addition. Funnily enough, many of the tutors at his Danish Film School thought he was an egotist without talent who would go nowhere.
2. Lars was raised a nudist and established the world's first mainstream studio that produced pornography for women
After summers spent at nudist camps with his parents as a child (presumably a less-than-unusual memory for a Danish child of the 1970s), he established a film company, Zentropa. Initially created to produce the films of Dogme 95 (The Iditos and Festen are all related-projects), it has largely been responsible for a series of hardcore pornographic films aimed at women. Before the crossover success All About Anna, there was Constance, Pink Prison and the fabulously named skin flick HotMen CoolBoyz
3. He is a hypochondriac and depressive.
He is often convinced he has cancer. A long sufferer of depression (in 2007 announced he would no longer direct films because of this, although he has of course since made many films, including the bi-polar-confronting Melancholia), he also claims to not be sane at all. His mental problems perhaps began when he was young: as a child he was under psychiatric supervision.
4. He has loads of issue with his mum
Von Trier's mother revealed on her deathbed that the man who he thought was his father was not, and that she had had a tryst with her former employer, an anti-Nazi German living in Copenhagen, the civil engineer Fritz Michael Hartmann (1909–2000). The director, often accused of hating women because he makes his female characters suffer so much in his films, put this delicately thus:
"Until that point I thought I had a Jewish background. But I'm really more of a Nazi. I believe that my biological father's German family went back two further generations. Before she died, my mother told me to be happy that I was the son of this other man. She said my foster father had had no goals and no strength. But he was a loving man. And I was very sad about this revelation. And you then feel manipulated when you really do turn out to be creative. If I'd known that my mother had this plan, I would have become something else. I would have shown her. The slut!"
5. He has loads of issues with Nazis
As well as setting his magnificent Europa in a post-fascist Berlin, first student films also had a strong Nazi theme; at 21, he made a film called 'The Orchid Gardener' where he played the lead as a misogynistic transvestite in a Nazi uniform, killing pigeons. More than 20 years later, at the press conference for Melacholia in Cannes, he famously said:
"What can I say? I understand Hitler. He did some wrong things, absolutely, but I can see him sitting there in his bunker at the end ... I sympathise with him, yes, a little bit."
He followed this with the instant, if super-awkard, retract "I am very much in favour of the jews".
6. He has an intense fear of flying
Dancer in the Dark is all about the American dream but was filmed in Denmark because of his phobia. He very rarely travels to America – it's one of the mooted reasons he famously turned down the opportunity to work with Spielburg. Stephen was one of many struck by the genius of Europa, playing at the BFI next week.
7. Horrifyingly, Dogville was one of the favourite films of Anders Breivik
On his Facebook page, Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik listed Dogville, which ends with one person shooting a town of people, as one of his favourite films. "What immediately came to mind," von Trier said to GQ "was that what he did on the island was a replica of the scene in the film, which of course was terrible." He points out that the film was not intended to endorse the final bloodbath as justified, but to ask questions about what kind of reactions are acceptable when one has suered harm. "Of course," he says, "if somebody told me that 76 people would be killed because of my film, I wouldn't have made it.
8. He is a knight
He was awarded with a Danish knighthood in January 1997: "Von Trier was made a Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog on 14 January 1997". He was also awarded UNICEF's 'Cinema for Peace Award' at the 2004 Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival). He got the award because almost all of his films deal with subjects like mercy and ethics.
9. His offices are in an abandoned army training camp. He drives around in golf buggy at his office
10. He has been producing really, really great films for well over three decades
Begining with Nocturne, a short film produced in his early 20s, his precocious talent was cemented when his 1982 student film Images of Liberation was the first ever to recieve a nationwide theatrical release in Denmark. Since then, he's made an indelable impact on modern cinema, and we encourage any London-based readers to soak up the back catalogue of film's ultimate provo at the BFI this month.
The retrospective is on at London’s BFI Southbank throughout May.