Lars von Trier Talks About America and Cinema Style – Jennifer Merin interviews

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Lars von Trier’s gutsy films have always stirred passionate debate, and his set of Nymph()maniacs continue to attract a lot of pros and as many cons. Much of the controversy has to do with von Trier’s attitude towards and portrayal of women. However, discussion about von Trier’s work has not always focused on misogyny. Read on…

It’s interesting to know what the filmmaker has had to say for and about himself — and especially to compare past stances with comments currently quoted. This von Trier interview, conducted when Manderlay had its US theatrical release in 2006, opens the door to that comparison.

Manderlay, the second film in von Trier’s American trilogy, is set in a mythical southern plantation where Grace and her gangster father find themselves after their departure from Dogville, the trilogy’s first film.

As in Dogville, von Trier places his actors within what is essentially a blueprint of a locale. He lays out a map of buildings and other areas on the floor of a huge, undecorated studio. The furniture and props in the room are real, but there are no walls to obscure activities within each defined area. Consequently, the audience sees whatever is happening all over town, seeing everything in the direction in which the camera’s eye scans or focuses at a given moment.

When von Trier is filming, all actors are on the set at all times. In fact, even when they’re not directly in the shot, they’re required to be in character and engaged in their character’s daily life. At any time, von Trier may shift focus to film something an actor is doing coincidentally in a remote corner of the set.

While on location, von Trier, cast and crew live together in one hotel. Everyone dines together. Off set, the ensemble is as tight and complex as it is during the filming.

Von Trier’s unusual methods, his stark shooting style and his characters’ extremely difficult and subtle social and moral dilemmas make his work singularly intriguing. His reputation as an artistic genius and iconoclast creates an intense buzz of curiosity about him.

Many of the questions about him concern his attitude towards the United States. His portrayal of America in Dogville and Manderlay is harsh and problematical, yet he’s never stood on U.S. soil.

“I’d love to visit America, but I don’t think I’d survive several hours in a plane because I’m severely claustrophobic,” von Trier says.

JENNFER MERIN: Do you hate America?

lARS VON TRIER: Not at all. It would be stupid to hate part of the world. I’ve met some Americans that I like very much, and some I don’t. But that’s the same anywhere. In my part of the world—Denmark and Sweden—there’re people who treasure anything American. They think if it’s American, it’s good—they want American cars or whatever. I’m not like that. It’s difficult to describe my feelings, but I treasure America very much.

MERIN: What role does America play in Dogville and Manderlay?

VON TRIER: Not a big role, actually—as big a role as it did in Bertolt Brecht’s work, maybe. For Brecht, America symbolized capitalism in its worst form. But it doesn’t symbolize anything for me. Characters in my other films (not set in America) are as stupid and mean as they are in Dogville and Manderlay. For me, it’s more that America is a very exotic—like locations in the Rocky Mountains and the South. I’m a big Steinbeck fan—and, for me, America is more an atmosphere and feeling than an actual place. You could say Manderlay, deals with American problems. But that’s just the film’s surface. The problems aren’t only American.

MERIN: Who’s the film’s narrative voice?

VON TRIER: Probably me. Or what we call in film school “the all-knowing person.“ Here, it’s this sarcastic person who leads us though the story. It was important to me that it was not an American voice.

MERIN: Who’s the central character of Grace, symbolically?

VON TRIER: Grace’s the girl from Dogville. She’s Brecht’s Pirate Jenny—born into something she can’t help with her gangster boss father.

But he, for some strange reason, seems to represent common sense—especially if you compare him to her.

It’s funny, but when you write a script, you create characters—then you try to defend them. You put yourself in their place and when one of them says something, you think well, yes, now I have to answer that.

Writing Manderlay, I started with the end of Dogville. I’d had to make Grace change her mind at the end of Dogville, when she destroys the village. It’s interesting what arguments these characters come up with for themselves—that’s something that happens when you write.

MERIN: Do you start your writing process with a specific idea?

VON TRIER: These two films were inspired by literature—and I started with their endings.

MERIN: What literature?

VON TRIER: For Dogville, it was Pirate Jenny’s song about a girl working in a small hotel who imagines a ship that bombards the tow to rescue her from the poor life she has, and they ask her who’s going to die, and she says “everybody.”

For Manderlay, it’s The Story of O, about a masochistic girl who’s treated extremely badly and likes it. Masochism is this little vocation.

Then, it’s about a situation in the Caribbean where slaves were freed by law, but went back to their former master asking to be slaves again. He refused—because of the law—and they killed him. This story, I believe, has nothing to do with masochism, but with the fact that they’d nothing to eat, no way to survive and had been better off under the system of slavery. It’s ironic.

MERIN: You show Grace driving from Dogville to Manderlay, but different actress appear in the films. Is Grace the same character?

VON TRIER: Manderlay was written for Nicole (Kidman, star of Dogville), but we couldn’t wait a year and a half for her to be free to shoot it. So I changed the script to focus on another side of Grace. We purposely cast somebody younger and different (Bryce Dallas Howard) than Nicole. Grace is written as the same character, but it’s cartoonish in that she doesn’t have memory of her past

MERIN: Do you mean that when Grace kills Wilma in Manderlay, she has no memory of having killed Paul Bettany’s character in Dogville?

VON TRIER: Well, you always remember having killed Paul Bettany. But it’s a bit like TV—they forget they’ve just saved the world from evil and do it all over again in the next episode. They don’t seem to have much memory—or guilt.

MERIN: You’ve said you find locations like the Rockies and South very exciting and exotic. Why have you distilled their reality into a barebones set?

VON TRIER: After writing Dogville, I was looking for a fulfilling way to do the film. I thought it might not really be America—there’s even a David Bowie song called This is not America. It’s not America. I think that’s easy to see—since the set is a black floor.

It’s also that you, as a spectator, should work, too. I believe spectator co-work isn’t as difficult as we might think. When you’re a child you live in wonderful houses that don’t exist—under a chair is your wonderful house that you see and live in. I don’t think that’s difficult, but it’s something you benefit from.

I thought of Brecht’s work—which isn’t exactly the same as this, but requires stylized settings. My mother was crazy for Brecht and dragged me to the theater to see his plays. I’m always looking for ideas that I believe are good for film.

I believe it’s is time for something like the black floor—since we can now present any fantasy on computers. After seeing Lord of the Rings all summer, I thought there must be another way of doing this—because I truly believe a dragon is more frightening if you don’t see it. Which is why most horror films are made in darkness, right? In the first Alien, we were really scared because the monster was so small and you never see it. The more you see it, the less frightening it is. This is equivalent to that.

Also, I’m trying to zoom in on actors, on characters. I can’t explain exactly why I made the choice, but I’m happy with it.

MERIN: What happens to Grace in the third film?

VON TRIER: That’s a good question. It’s difficult for me to do things that look the same. I live for having stupid ideas about how things should look. I always change. So I have to find a way of ending this trilogy.

I must say I think Manderlay is a bit too concrete—the film concentrates on the story too much, and the story’s a bit too well told. That’s what I think now, but I’m never happy about films when I’ve just made them. So, better luck next time. But I haven’t figured it out yet.

(NOTE: This interview was first published in the New York Press. (c) Jennifer Merin. The article may not be reproduced without written consent.)

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