The controversial Danish director has consistently tried to channel the cult rocker’s cool and mystique in his films
Lars von Trier’s career has, like David Bowie’s, revolved around a diamond dog teaching itself new tricks. The manifesto of Dogme 95, the Brechtian staging of Dogville, and the “digressionism” of Nymphomaniac – all were intended as self-imposed makeovers. On a technical level, Dancer in the Dark employed more than 100 simultaneous digital cameras, The Boss of It All replaced the cinematographer with a computer algorithm, and Nymphomaniac’s CGI sex preceded the unfortunate birth of “deepfakes”. As von Trier’s documentary The Five Obstructions puts it: all artists should have “a good perversion to cultivate”.
The one constant in von Trier’s filmography, though, is his Bowie-mania. Whether it’s “Life on Mars?” in Breaking the Waves or “Young Americans” in Dogville, the glam rocker’s influence has echoed throughout the Danish auteur’s ch-ch-changes. Moreover, what got overlooked during the recent Cannes premiere of The House That Jack Built – a serial-killer thriller that prompted walkouts, and arrived shortly after Bjork’s allegations of sexual harassment – was the film’s devotion to the 1975 hit “Fame”. Granted, Bowie isn’t Merzbow – an album track off Hunky Dory could fit snugly on almost any movie, be it Mr Deeds or Frances Ha. But von Trier’s obsession goes further than the devil simply having the best tunes. The director admits it as much: he wanted, and still wants, to be the Bowie of filmmaking.
After all, why does von Trier, a taskmaster who outlawed non-diegetic music in Dogme 95, keep returning to Bowie? The clue, perhaps, is in the name. It was at film school that Lars Trier, as he was known then, added the “von” as an ironic joke. It created a new moniker – effectively his Ziggy Stardust persona – that still exists today. Fittingly, his 1980 student project, Nocturne, concluded with Bowie’s “Subterraneans” over the credits.
“When I was younger, I was fascinated by David Bowie,” von Trier explained in a 1996 interview. “He’d managed to construct a complete mythology around himself. It was as important as his music.” The journalist, however, only asked why Breaking the Waves, released a year after Dogme 95, dared to name a director in the credits – thus breaking one of the “Vows of Chastity”. It’s a pattern throughout von Trier’s press interactions: when interrogated on his films, he draws a parallel with the singer of “Space Oddity”. In this scenario, von Trier reasoned that the artist’s identity matters, and that the baggage is part of the art itself. Bowie, clearly, was his evidence.
Regardless, Breaking the Waves wouldn’t have qualified for a Dogme 95 certificate anyway. One hundred and forty three minutes into the draining drama, the action pauses for a verse and chorus of “Life on Mars?”, an incongruous, upbeat track that accompanies a fixed shot of a running river. There’s no relevance to the plot and no Emily Watson. It’s just von Trier asking you to pay attention to the lyrics. Listen closely, and they sum up what you’ve endured: “And she’s hooked to the silver screen / But the film is a saddening bore / For she’s lived it ten times or more.”
The song selection, however, is more than a wry joke. In Breaking the Waves, a pessimistic film about God’s silence, a blast of Bowie suggests there might be someone – a higher power, or even a Starman – gazing down upon us. A minister poses the question: “Can you think of anything of real value that the outsiders have brought with them?” Bess instantly replies, “Their music!” She smirks into the camera, breaks the fourth wall, and nods her head with approval.
That said, von Trier’s next two movies proved Bowie-less. 1998’s The Idiots obeyed Dogme 95’s soundtrack ban, and 2000’s Dancer in the Dark interspersed Bjork with Rodgers and Hammerstein. But when the latter film, a Washington-set melodrama, was deemed anti-American by a handful of critics, von Trier responded with Dogville, an all-out assault on US values. There was, of course, a Bowie track in his arsenal.
For three hours, Dogville unfolds across a black soundstage with chalk outlines instead of buildings. The barely populated town, located somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, is stumbled upon by Nicole Kidman’s Grace. The runaway is welcomed by Dogville’s residents. All she has to do is carry out chores and not offend their puritan sensibilities. But once the townspeople, including “Tom Edison Jr”, realise they have the upper hand, she’s raped, abused, and forced into literal slavery. The last thing you expect is a Bowie tune.
Of course, the whole movie – a punishing, unambiguous critique of America – culminates with a sax-heavy punchline: “Young Americans” explodes over the credits, accompanied by images of homelessness, starving children, and victims of racial violence in the US. Two years later, Von Trier executed the exact same trick with Manderlay. It’s tempting to think he made both movies purely for the Bowie encore.
The common complaint from critics, though, was that von Trier, a European with a phobia of flying, had set films in a country he’d never visited. But what if the director was following the example of Bowie, a Brit whose art was frequently an outsider’s interpretation of America? Hunky Dory, an album with tracks titled after Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol, was recorded entirely in a London studio. And, obviously, Bowie had never set foot on Mars. So does it matter that Dogville was shot on a Swedish soundstage?
Tellingly, on the Manderlay press tour, when von Trier tired of explaining his “US Trilogy”, he copped out by namedropping a song title: “There’s even a Bowie song called ‘This Is Not America’. It’s not America.”
On the flipside, von Trier also admired one of Bowie’s most jarring artistic endeavours. (No, not the singer’s friendship with Ricky Gervais.) In the run-up to 1976’s Station to Station, Bowie conducted interviews and performances as The Thin White Duke, a right-wing, Aryan-loving alter ago. The musician praised Hitler as a “rock star… almost as good as Jagger” and then, in 1978, blamed it all on cocaine.
“I was very influenced by David Bowie at the time, and he used to go about in a Nazi uniform,” von Trier said in an interview in 2011. “I was trying to imitate him. It was all part of my rebellion against my mother.” At the film festival’s infamous press conference, von Trier repeated the same anecdote – but, instead of a Bowie allusion, he infamously said, “I understand Hitler.”
Months later, von Trier announced that he had “decided from this day forth to refrain from all public statements and interviews.” The catalyst, he added, was a subsequent police investigation into whether his Cannes comments had violated French laws. But what if the director had simply realised that his press shenanigans were overshadowing the films? After all, you remember “Young Americans” for Bowie’s lyrics and melody, not the controversial promo he did as The Thin White Duke.
It harkens back to an old conversation between von Trier and Paul Thomas Anderson. “If I didn't know you,” said Anderson, “I would have no idea where the hell this movie, or many of your movies, came from.” To which von Trier responded, “That, I think, is actually quite good, because that’s almost like David Bowie – we were sure he was from Mars, actually.”
After Melancholia, it reached a point where we knew too much about von Trier. The mystique was lost. Or so we thought. In 2014, von Trier broke his silence to reveal he was six months into Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Drugs and a daily bottle of vodka, he said, were responsible for his past creativity. He compared his process to mid-70s Bowie, and admitted that Dogville was penned during a 12-day cocaine binge. He feared for his sober future. “I don’t think that David Bowie was good after… I think Let’s Dance is crap,” he said. “It’s not what my romantic idol would do.”
(Bowie, in a conversation with Dogme 95 co-founder Thomas Vinterberg, compared his 1989 album Tin Machine with the movement’s back-to-basics aesthetics. “It came from the same motivation to strip it back down again and find a new set of rules,” Bowie explained. “I think Dogme does the same thing.” Of course, it’s still a record from the “crap” post-Let’s Dance era.)
Von Trier was unsurprisingly affected by Bowie’s passing in 2016. “And now Bowie died, which was kind of a wake-up call that David Bowie could die,” he reflected. The director’s response, however, was to keep the singer’s spirit alive. In a Facebook video, he announced his new project, The House That Jack Built, via the opening lines of “Diamond Dogs”: “This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll, this is genocide.” When the trailer emerged, it was soundtracked by “Fame”. According to Cannes reviews, the song appears so many times that it verges on overkill.
So we can conclude that von Trier enjoys a bit of Bowie. Who doesn’t? But more to the point, it’s evident that von Trier perceives himself as cinema’s Ziggy Stardust. The musician took avant-garde ideas and translated them for a wider audience. Likewise, the director dreams up punishing concepts, then convinces masses to suffer through them in darkened rooms. But sometimes, if a film becomes too much to stomach, then Bowie is the get-out-of-jail-free card. Take Dogville in this instance. Paul Bettany’s character, a wannabe novelist, refuses to refer to his hometown of Dogville in the text. “You’ve gotta make it universal,” he insists. “A lot of writers make that mistake.”