Von Trier’s work can be identified by the combination and juxtaposition of two genres within a single piece; The Element of Crime (1984) for example combines film noir with German expressionism whilst its follow-up Epidemic (1987) uses both science fiction and an almost documentary like depiction of two film makers creating the film. Though these multi-genre films have been criticized by some as being confusing the way in which von Trier brings such contrasting narratives together is thought of by many as one of his most impressive talents.
In the early 1990’s von Trier, along with producer friend and partner of the production company Zentropa Entertainment Peter Aalbæk Jensen, made two seasons of a hospital based mini-series The Kingdom which von Trier used to build financial independence. This independence would be vital in the following years when, alongside fellow Dane Thomas Vinterberg, von Trier produced a manifesto for a new avant-garde style of film making.
This idea, known to von Trier and Vinterberg as “Dogme 95” was first presented in 1995, though it took some time for a completed film to be released that would meet the parameters of the manifesto. Dogme 95 would become an established genre in 1996 with the release of the first part of von Trier’s “Golden Heart” trilogy, Breaking the Waves, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes the following year.
The genre relies on the principles of traditional film making; adhering to the use of traditional values of story, acting, and theme, simultaneously excluding the use of elaborate special effects or technology. Vinterberg and von Trier’s manifesto was often cited as “the Vow of Chastity” and has since appealed to many film makers across the globe as it heralds the idea that films need not be tied to big financiers or showy CGI.
The final part of von Trier’s Golden Heart trilogy, Dancer in the Dark (2000), gained world wide recognition when it was nominated for an Oscar; the film’s darkly tragic narrative is used perfectly in conjunction with frequent dance and musical numbers turning what is a traditionally upbeat and romantic genre into a delicate and extraordinarily sad picture. The film was awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Continuing to use his signature combination of multiple genres von Trier’s more recent work has also been highly controversial; when in 2004 American actor John. C Reilly walked off set upon learning that the next scene would involve the death of an animal many people began protesting von Trier’s work. This particular film, the second in his “U.S Trilogy”, Manderlay, had already gained notoriety for its choice of theme, namely slavery. This film followed in the footsteps of Dogville, the first in von Trier’s U.S Trilogy that also addressed controversial aspects of American society and would go on to be followed by Dear Wendy (2005) which dealt with issues of gun worship and violence. Prior to this there had been much polarization of the explicit, adult and pornographic films made by von Trier’s production company Zentropa Entertainment; which only lasted a few years has produced some of the most famous female based pornography of the last two decades.
Such dark themes, explicit imagery and controversial narratives have continued to appear in von Trier’s work as his career has continued. One of his most recent film’s 2011’s Melancholia centres around two sisters whose lives have been troubled by depression and mental illness who attempt to celebrate one of their weddings on the eve of the end of the world. Von Trier, who has suffered from depressive episodes himself, said the film was inspired by a realization that those with depression remain calmer in stressful situations.
Melancholia was itself shrouded in controversy when, the day before the festival was due to begin the board of directors at Cannes 2011 declared von Trier a persona non-grata following pro-Nazi comments he made to the British press. American actress Kirsten Dunst nonetheless received the award for Best Actress at the festival. Von Trier later retracted his comments.
Von Trier’s most recent work Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 & 2 continue his explicit and often taboo themes with the confessions and life story of a self diagnosed nymphomaniac played by von Trier regular Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Some may find the following video distressing.
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