Lars Von Trier: Genius or Fraud?


“Lars Von Trier – genius or fraud?” – asks a May 2009 Guardian Arts Diary poll. Its subject is arguably world cinema’s most confrontational and polarizing figure, and the results: 60.3% genius, 39,7% fraud.

Trier takes risks no other filmmaker would conceive of (…) and willfully devastates audiences. Scandinavia’s foremost auteur since Ingmar Bergman, the Danish director is “the unabashed prince of the European avant-garde” (IndieWIRE).

Challenging conventional limitations and imposing his own rules (changing them with each film), he restlessly reinvents the language of cinema.

Personally he is as challenging as his films. After having written some of the most compelling heroines in recent cinema and elicited stunning, career-topping performances from Emily Watson, Björk, Nicole Kidman, and Charlotte Gainsbourg (photo), he is reputed to be a misogynist who bullies actresses and abuses his female characters in cinematic reinstatements of depleted sexist clichés.


Actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, who acted in Lars Von Trier’s films “Antichrist” and “Nymphomaniac”

He is notorious at Cannes for his provocations and insults, as in 1991, when he thanked “the midget” (Jury President Roman Polanski) for awarding his film Europa third, rather than first, prize. Some years later, at Cannes, in a scene worthy of Michael Moore, he called U.S. President George W. Bush an “idiot” and an “asshole”, lending vituperation to the already divisive Manderlay (2005), his film about an Alabama plantation practising slavery into the 1930s…

Coming from a small country infiltrated by America’s media-driven cultural imperialism, he has found it not merely his right or duty to make films about the United States but impossible to do otherwise. Despite that, Von Trier is known for his celebrated refusal or inability (he has a fear of flying) to set foot in the United States…

A similar effrontery had provided the catalyst for Dogme95, the Danish collective and global movement that took on Hollywood in the 1990s and continues to be well served by the punk impertinence of the Dogme logo: a large, staring eye that flickers from the rear end of a bulldog (or is it a pig?).

Dogme shows where the provocateur and auteur come together. Claiming a new democracy in which (in the manifesto’s words) “anybody can make films”, Trier and the Dogme “brothers” market out a space for independent filmmaking beyond the global mass entertainment industry. Although he rarely leaves Denmark, he has cultivated a European and uniquely global cinema. Making his first films in English, he quickly found a niche in the international festival circuit. He drew inspiration from a wide swath – from the genius of Andrei Tarkovsky to movements such as Italian neorealism and the international New Waves of the 1960s-1970s, to American auteurs Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch…

1867LARS CAIXA 3DTrier’s long-term affinity with German culture – from expressionism and New German cinema to the writings of Karl Marx, Franz Kafka, and Friedrich Nietzsche – extends to equal passions for Wagnerian opera and anti-Wagnerian (Brechtian) theater… In spite of his flaunted internationalism, Trier has become the standard-bearer for Nordic cinema. Like Bergman and Carl Th. Dreyer, whose visions transcended nationality, he has exploited Scandinavian “imaginary” – bleak landscapes, Lutheran austerity and self-denial, the explosive release of repressed emotions – to project it elsewhere. He has similarly appropriated the Northern European Kammerspiel (chamber play) that Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg had condensed into a charged medium. 

Reincarnating Dreyer’s martyrs (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928; Ordet, 1955) and the anguished female performances of Bergman’s films for the present era, he has invented a form of psycho-drama that traumatizes audiences while challenging them to respond to cinema in new ways.

His interest in theater goes back to his youth, and his films are theatrical in several senses: stylized, emotionally intense, and provocative. His features have invoked 20th century theatrical initiatives clustered under the heading of the performative: especially Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, Allen Kaprow’s “happenings”, and Guy Debord’s situationism, which reformulated Marxist-Brechtian aesthetics for the age of the “spectacle” in which power, concentrated in the media image, turns individuals into passive consumers.  In 1952, Debord called for an art that would “create situations rather than reproduce already existing ones” and through the performance of “lived experience” disrupt an expose the spectacle.

In 1996, Trier similarly explained his view of cinema-as-provocation: “A provocation’s purpose is to get people to think. If you subject people to a provocation, you allow them the possibility of their own interpretation.” (Tranceformer) (…) The films bear witness, make proclamations, issue commands, pose questions, provoke responses… Thus his films have had an impact on their surrounding contexts, affecting audiences, producing controversies, and changing the aesthetic, cultural, and political climate of the late 1990s and the 2000s.” 

By Linda Badley.

“Making The Waves: Cinema As Performance”.

University of Illinois Press. 2010.


DOWNLOAD  “Nymphomaniac I & II” (3.6 GB / 3.1 GB) [torrent inside the ZIP]

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Thomas Vinterberg is the co-creator, together with Lars Von Trier, of Dogme 95. Linda Badley remembers that Dogme 95  “required abstinence from Hollywood-style high tech cosmetics, calling for an oppositional movement with its own doctrine and ten-rule “Vow of Chastity”. Coming up with the infamous rules was “easy”, claims Vinterberg: “We asked ourselves what we most hated about film today, and then we drew up a list banning it all. The idea was to put a mirror in front of the movie industry and say we can do it another way as well.”

Theather in Toronto: a review of Bertolt Brecht’s “Rifles” @ Next Stage Festival, January 2014, Factory Theathe


Synopsis: “In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, Senora Carrar refuses to pick sides: her husband died in combat and she’s determined to keep her two sons alive and out of the conflict. But as Franco’s army marches towards their village, her resolve is challenged.”

Based on Bertolt Brecht’s
Señora Carrar’s Rifles

Written by Nicolas Billon and directed by Michael Wheeler.
Cast: Kate Hennig, Ben Sanders, Cyrus Lane, Araya Mengesha and more.

Seen at The Next Stage Theatre Festival,January 18th,
at The Factory Theatre in Toronto.

Article by Eduardo Carli de Moraes:

Bertolt Brecht‘s work is almost unanimously considered one of the best in 20th century’s dramaturgy. In 1952, Hannah Arendt hailed Brecht as “beyond a doubt the greatest living German poet and possibly the greatest living European playwright”. She was not alone in praising him: an intelectual of the stature of Walter Benjamin also cherished Brecht’s oeuvre and these “independly-minded Marxists” met in the 1920s, becoming involved in a dialogue and correspondence that is really worthwhile to get acquainted it. Toronto’s 2014 Next Stage Theatre Festival has honoured Brecht accordingly with an intense and lively staging of his 1937 play “Señora Carrar’s Rifles”.

Orwell2Rifles is an one-act play with a minimalist setting: the whole action takes place inside a Spanish household during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Inside this house, wounded by a bullet and with a broken arm, lies in bed a British writer, Eric Blair, worldwidely known by his nom de plume George Orwell (1903-1950), who would publish Homage to Catalonia about his experience in war-drenched Spain. In Brecht’s play, while Orwell waits to be taken to a hospital, he spits words of rage: “I would fight the fascists with only one arm!”

In Carrar’s home, while the sound of bullets and battle are heard all around, a heated controversy arises. In an historical situation such as this, with Fascism gaining terrain in Europe (Hitler was in power since 1933 in Germany, and Mussolini since 1922 in Italy…), what would be the best decision for the common people: to take arms and join the militias that are resisting the fascists? Or to stay unarmed and neutral, just observing the events without actively engaging in them?

If Rifles was a movie, it could be shot in one single take, inside an apartment, similarly to Hitchcock’s Rope or Tommy Lee Jones’s The Sunset Limited. But, despite the fact that Brecht’s play focus his attention only at the Carrar’s home (this play could be called a “chamber piece”), it’s amazing how public matters flood in from all sides, attacking the Carrar’s house like a snowstorm, until it becomes impossible for the family to retreat into private life.

The drama is centered on the mother of the family, recently widowed by the civil war: her husband has been killed in combat by Franco’s soldiers, and now she’s determined to forbid their two sons of following the same path. Señora Carrar has had enough of emotional loss and is convinced that her family should completely withdraw from battle. Then enters the scene Señora’s Carrar brother, who has joined the anti-fascist militias: he comes to get the rifles that are hidden in a trunk of the Carrar’s household. Brother and sister then engage in a heated debate, until bloody events leads them to agree on the necessary course of action.

The ethical dilemma proposed by Brecht is one of the enduring virtues of this work-of-art, which still has so much to say to audiences nowadays. One of the greatest dialogues in the play opposes Señora’s Carrar brother and the priest of the village, Francisco. The warrior in the militias, defending the need for the people to rise in arms against General Franco’s killing machine, clashes against the pacifist of the clergy who praises resignation and unresistance. This debate is still alive today – for example, in Mexico, where the Zapatista uprising has resorted to armed struggle against neoliberalism, imperialism and ethnocide since January 1st, 1994: the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional), according to its leader Subcomandante Marcos, has decided that the only way they had to be heard was to get armed, an defends this choice by claiming this the path to empowerment that the powerless had to take in order to no longer by crushed by capitalism’s devastating powers.

Brecht’s message, in Rifles, seems to be that pacifism can’t be seen as an absolute ethical value, to be defended in all circumstances, with no possible exception. This play written in the 1930s seems to state that there are historical circumstances in which it’s almost impossible to discern between pacifism and complicity with a genocidal dictartoship. Those who do nothing are being simply “neutral”, or is neutrality a fallacy, a mask that cowardice hides behind?

todorov  In an excellent study about concentration camps and gulags, Tzvetan Todotov’s Facing The Extreme, the author asks the question: could the genocidal machinery of the III Reich be stopped by any other way than by the an armed struggle against it? What would have happened to Europe, and especially to its Jewish population, if France, England and U.S.A. had chosen the path of pacifism? Todorov’s impressive description of the up-rising in the Jewish ghettos of Warsaw, in 1943, leads the reader to a similiar state of mind than the one aroused by Brecht’s play: is it better to walk sheepishly to the slaghterhouse, or is it better to fight until death in the resistance?

In Brecht’s Rifles, Señora Carrara starts the play believing that the fascists “can be reasoned with” and that pacifism (or neutrality) is the best course of action. But when innocent and beloved blood gets spilled all over her face, once again, she experiences a sudden transformation, not unlikely the one that Lars Von Trier’s Grace (Nicole Kidman) goes through by the last acts of Dogville (2003) – perhaps the most Brechtian movie filmed in our century. After witnessing too many murderous acts by Franco’s genocidal regime, she finally decides that the rifles shouldn’t be left rusting inside the trunks. In an Orwellian twist of events, she goes outdoors to fight the fascists with her whole family. What will happen from this moment on, Brecht prefers not to reveal us: we’re left to wonder and debate about it after the curtains have dropt. 


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Utopia’s dangers and toils: some remarks on Hawthorne’s “The Blithedale Romance” (1852)

Brook Farm, experimental socialist commune in the 1840s in the U.S.

Brook Farm, a experimental socialist commune in the state of Massachusetts in the 1840s

In 1841, Hawthorne moved to Brook Farm, an experimental socialist community in Massachussets. This Utopian rural commune, connected with the Transcendentalism movement, drew inspiration from the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Fourier, among others. Hawthorne spent six months there, experiencing first-hand this attempt to build an alternative society. Ten years later, in 1851, after he had published The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of The Seven Gables (1851), Hawthorne finally put pen to paper and wrote The Blithedale Romance, a book born out of the Brook Farm experience. It’s not a celebration of triumph: “Brook Farm was no more”, explains Annette Kolodny in her introdution’s to the Penguin Classic’s edition. “Financial difficulties had plagued it from its inception and, after a devastating fire in 1846, the entire experiment was abandoned in the spring of 1847.”

animalfarmEven tough Hawthorne tries to reveal why the experiment failed, he writes about it with no bitter sarcasm nor diminishing its value. This is not a satire like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a viperish tale about Stalinism in the Soviet Union. The Blithedate Romance isn’t trying to critically demolish and ridicule the Brook Farm experiment. In the first pages of the book we can feel how the author affectionaly describes the heroism of those around him, who had turned their backs to a life of confort and indolence, and were now devoted to a collective experience which aimed at the renovation of human society. There’s more than a bunch of drops of Romanticism in his earlier descriptions of the Blithedale farm:

“If ever men might lawfully dream awake, and give utterance to their widest visions, without dread of laughter or scorn on the part of the audience – yes, and speak of earthly happiness, for themselves and mankind, as an object to be hopefully striven for, and probably attained – we, who made that little semi-circle round the blazing fire, were those very men. We had left the rusty iron frame-work of society behind us. We had broken through many hindrances that are powerful enough to keep most people on the weary tread-mill of the established system, even while they feel its irksomeness almost as intolerable as we did. We had stept down from the pulpit; we had flung aside the pen; we had shut up the ledger; we had thrown off that sweet, bewitching, enervating indolence, which is better, after all, than most of the enjoyments within mortal grasp. It was our purpose – a generous one, certainly, and absurd, no doubt, in full proportion with its generosity – to give up whatever we had heretofore attained, for the sake of showing manking the example of a life governed by other than the false and cruel principles, on which human society has all along been based.” (p. 19)

In Hawthorne’s book, Brook Farm appears as an isolated place, in more than one sense: it’s far away from the city and its polluted air, but it’s also disconnected from other similar communes. But, as Kolodny states, in this historical moment – the two decades preceding the Civil War – there was a “proliferation of experimental socialist communities and increasingly organized public activism directed at correcting a host of perceived social ills”:

“The great financial Panic of 1837 had shut banks, closed off credit, and caused many smaller farmers to lose their holdings. In the ensuing depression, which lasted into the 1840s, (…) newly dispossessed rural population moved into cities and factory towns, joining there with recently arrived European immigrants to form an underclass of urban poor. By the 1840s, the sight of small children begging on the streets of major urban centers was no longer unusual. At the same time, a rapidly developing industrialization made possible by a technology forged of steam and iron was changing the face of what had formerly been a self-consciously agrarian nation. While the bulk of the population remained on the land, by the 1840s there was a demonstrable centripetal movement toward the town, the city, and the factory. Although the image had largely been an ilussion, the nation’s image of itself as a land of independent yeoman farmers was quickly being eroded by the reality of a ruthless market economy and the exploitation of wage laborers in the cities and factory towns.

In response, Americans were gripped by a wave of anti-urbanism that lasted until the eve of the Civil War. The unprecedented accumulation of capital in the hands of a powerful few, the new technology, city tenements, overcrowded factory towns, and callous public institutions were all blamed as the causes of urban poverty, increased crime, and general moral decay. Private societies and philanthropic organizations sprang up to attempt the rehabilitation of criminals, the protection of prostitutes, and the care of orphans and paupers – though no group had resources adequate to the task. Those who despaired of such ameliorative measures took upon themselves more ambitious tasks for the reformation of society. All across the country, independent communities – generally organized around agriculture rather than manufacturing – were formed according to various idealistic blueprints for social and economic harmony. Brook Farm was only one such experiment.”  (XII)

Hawthorne doesn’t paint a sociological picture of his epoch in The Blithedale Romance. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, for instance, delves much more deeply into the context of the 1930’s Great Depression than Hawthorne does about the 1837 Panic, the crisis in the years preceding the outbreak of the Civil War. It may be said that Hawthorne writes magnificently about individuals, but only outsketches the traits of societies. He’s a master when delving into the inner secrets of the human heart, and when depicting human relations in all its complexities of feeling, but I couldn’t help but feel that Blithedale Romance could be a more impressive work-of-art if the author had focused a little bit more on sociological insight. Sometimes it seems he’s engaging in a debate with those 19th century doctrines, like that of Fourier, usually labeled Utopic Socialism – but the reader barely gets any information about the general characteristics of Fourier’s ideal society. Fourier seems much more like a punching-bag for Hawthorne to punch an “idealist” he seems to despise. This is also the case in the character of Hollingsworth, the philanthopist, who is described by the narrator, Miles Coverdale, in many portions of the book, with some scorn and scepticism. It reminded me a little bit of the ironic attitude of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville towards Thomas Edison Jr.


A scene of Lars Von Trier’s film “Dogville”: something in the Tomas Edison Jr. and Grace’s relationship resembles the dwellings of Hawthorne’s Zenobia and Holdsworth

Even though Coverdale finds a lot to admire and cherish in Hollingsworth, he’s also descibed as someone who was a victim of

“a stern and dreaful peculiarity, such as could not prove otherwise than pernicious to the happiness of those who should be drawn into too intimate a connection with him. (…) This is always true of those men who have surrendered themselves to an over-ruling purpose. It does not so much impel them from without, nor even operate as a motive power within, but grows incorporate with all that they think and feel, and finally converts them into little else save that one principle. When such begins to be the predicament, it is not cowardice, but wisdom, to avoid these victims. They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience. They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them, and cannot take the second, and the third, and every other step of their terribly straight path.” (pg. 70)

 Nietzsche used to describe fanaticism as some kind of psychic disease that causes its victim to transform one particular point-of-view (among thousands of possible perspectives) in an absolute. Hollingsworth seems like a fanatical figure, wholly devoted to his project of regenerating criminals, and bound to follow his straight path with stubborn inflexibility. Coverdale, the first-person narrator of The Blithedale Romance, kind of sees through the mask of the philanthropist and discovers in his inner core a monstruous egotism. When writing about people like Hollingsworth, he claims:

“They have an idol, to which they consecrate  themselves high-priest, and deem it holy work to offer sacrifices of whatever is most precious, and never once seem to suspect – so cunning has the Devil been with them – that this false deity, in whose iron features, immitigable to all the rest of mankind, they see only benignity and love, is but a spectrum of the very priest himself, projected upon the surrounding darkness. And the higher and purer the original object, and the more unselfishly it may have been taken up, the slighter is the probabily that they can be led to recognize the process, by which godlike benevolence has been debased into all-devouring egotism.” (pg. 71)

Two women – that it takes the reader some chapters to discover are sisters  – are also focused by Hawthorne’s ouevre: Zenobia and Priscilla. They are the daughters of Mr. Moody in different epochs of his life: Zenobia, a daughter of triumph and wealth; Priscilla, a daughter of decadence and poverty. These two sister reunite at Blithedale Farm: the fragile Priscilla seeking refuge and solace in the bosom of the queen-like powerfulness of Zenobia. Researches and scholars have pointed out that Hawthorne based Zenobia on a real-life figure, Margaret Fuller, a “women’s rights advocate associated with the American transcendentalism movement. She was the first full-time American female book reviewer in journalism. Her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century is considered the first major feminist work in the United States.” (Wikipedia) Hawthorne’s words in describing her are magnificent, full of poetry and admiration, and he suceeds in painting an almost Shakespearean portrait of this woman, part Cleopatra, part Ophelia.

“In fact, so great was her native power and influence, and such seemed the careless purity of her nature, that whatever Zenobia did was generally acknowledged as right for her to do. The world never criticised her so harshly as it does most women who transcend its rules. It almost yielded its assent, when it beheld her stepping out of the common path, and asserting the more extensive privileges of her sex, both theoretically and by her practise. The sphere of ordinary womanhood was felt to be narrower than her development required.” (p. 190)

Hawthorne has a great talent for creating unforgettable female characters, such as The Scarlet Letters’ Hester Prynne, and with Zenobia he does an amazing job also. Hawthorne’s women have some many dimensions, and their hearts are so maze-like and complex, that he seems to broaden the horizons of womanhood. Hawthorne’s is a writer with an unusual power to embrace the human condition. And he’s portrayal of Zenobia shows how much empathy has between the author and its creature. Zenobia is also a sign of the times: in the 1840s, North America was witnessing the rise of Feminism, as Annette Kolodny recalls:

“Adding to the feverish political pitch of the decades preceding the Civil War was the increasing agitation on behalf of the country’s two largest disenfranchised groups: blacks and women. The first women’s rights convention was held at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. And, in a last-ditch effort to placate southern secessionists, Congress passed the notorious Compromise of 1850, with its more severe fugitive slave act. Increasingly, antislavery activists and women’s rights advocates made common sense, demanding that the nation live up to its democratic pretensions.” (XII)

In Hawthorne’s America, slavery and the condition of womanhood were still thorns in the so-called American Dream, which this alternative-life communes were struggling to re-build in other basis, more respectful of the dignity of all human beings, and aiming to revert institutions based on opression, forced labor, and misogyny. Zenobia, the hero of The Blithedale Romance, is described as a generous heart, bursting with life. She has the gift of entrancing listeners when she goes on to the stage, like an Shakespearean actress, and enthralls the audience with marvelous tales (such as The Veiled Lady story). Zenobia, tough she seems independent and never acts with servility, falls in the Hollingsworth’s magnetic field. The philanthropist and Zenobia are seem walking hand in hand, whispering to themselves words that the narrator can’t hear, and they even plan to build a nest where to live together. In this relationship seems to lie a seed of catastrophe that, even tough is there right from the start, takes a while to blossom. What starts as romance ends in tragedy. Zenobia is described as someone who had nurtured high hopes, but saw them crumbling down. She aimed really high, and then couln’t stand to discover herself so low. When the clouds of her passion for Hollingsworth are blown away, she attacks him:

“Are you a man? No; but a monster! A cold, heartless, self-beginning and self-ending piece of mechanism! (…) It is all self… nothing but self, self, self! (…) I see it now! I am awake, disenchanted, disenthralled! You have embodied yourself in a project. You are a better masquerader than the witches and gipsies yonder; for your disguise is self-deception.” (p. 218)

After this break-up between Zenobia and Hollingsworth, it seems very unlikely that Blithedale Farm will live on. Hawthorne takes his characters in a journey from hope to despair, from idealistic dreams to rude sorrowful awakening. By the end of the book, Zenobia is

“weary of this place, and sick to death of playing at philanthropy and progress. Of all varieties of mock-life, we have surely blundered into the very emptiest mockery, in our effort to establish the one true system. I have done with it; and Blithedale must find another woman to superintend the laundry… It was, indeed, a foolish dream! Yet it gave us some pleasant summer days, and bright hopes, while they lasted. It can do no more; nor it will avail us to shed tears over a broken bubble.” (p. 227)


The difficulties are tremendous on the path of those who try to build a better society, and high hopes may sometime lead to terrible despair. I wouldn’t say Hawthorne’s book throws buckets of freezing water in the burning hearts of revolutionaries and other people devoted to social change; it just tell a story, magnificently told, which makes it clear how complex and intricate is the effort to bring an Utopia to life. It never seems to be built in reality with all the perfections it had when it was but a dream, a project in the Mind’s phantom-land. Is this a reason to abandon all utopian dreams and just accomodate to what is? That’s not the case, according to great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano: he says that each step forward we take, Utopia takes ten steps back, as if it’s running away from us. No matter how many steps in her direction we take, Utopia is always retreating and we can’t fully grasp it. We can’t make it real. Does it mean it’s useless? No, Galeano says: this bettered-world in our horizon has one very important aim, which is exactly providing a motive for our steps. As if it’s pulling us from distant horizons, or as tough we are being propelled to meet it at some Future day that gets constantly postponed. 

* * * * *Nathaniel Hawthorne

“…standing by Zenobia’s grave, I have never since beheld it, but make no question that the grass grew all the better, on that little parallelogram of pasture-land, for the decay of the beautiful woman who slept beneath. How much Nature seems to love us! And how readily, nevertheless, without a sigh or a complaint, she converts us to a meaner purpose, when her highest one – that of conscious, intellectual life, and sensibility – has been untimely baulked! While Zenobia lived, Nature was proud of her, and directed all eyes upon that radiant presence, as her fairest handiwork. Zenobia perished. Will not Nature shed a tear? Ah, no! She adopts the calamity at once into her system, and is just as well pleased, for aught we can see, with the tuft of ranker vegetation that grew out of Zenobia’s heart, as with all the beauty which has bequeathed us no earthly representative, except in this crop of weeds. It is because the spirit is inestimable, that the lifeless body is so little valued.” 

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE, The Blithedale Romance