When Lars von Trier arrived on stage at Berlin’s Babylon Kino Saturday night, by means of a stairway below the stage, he appeared as might a gopher from its hole – tentative, wary, uncertain. Popping up to applause from an adoring full-house (or, at least, a house willing to pay 12 Euros to hear him speak), he immediately popped back down again – perhaps playfully, perhaps not – before managing to get to his chair on stage. Aside from turbulence at 36,000 feet, nothing may scare the famously fearful flyer more than an adoring audience, particularly since his foot-in-mouth episode at Cannes earlier this year, in which he inexplicably called himself a Nazi and made excuses for Adolf Hitler. A man of great comfort and ease behind the camera, Von Trier is before the microphone anything but, a quasi nebbish with halting speech patterns suggesting, somewhat preposterously, a Danish Woody Allen.
“I knew I shouldn’t have come,” he said. “If any of you get an anxiety attack, tell me, and I’ll help you out.”Anxiety is at the heart of Melancholia, which stars Kirsten Dunst in a career-altering role as a newlywed going mad, and Charlotte Gainsbourg as her earnest sister trying to cope with, among other things, the possible end of the world. Deep into his rambling 90-minute Q&A, Von Trier shared a writing trick: He creates strong female roles, he admitted, by writing real characters first as men – and then switching the genders at the last minute, so that the strong roles become feminine and the trite, clichéd roles he actually writes for the women become male. (Poor Keifer Sutherland, the witty but decidedly third wheel here.)
Von Trier had attempted this sort of reversal on himself when a young man, he said, when he wanted more than anything to be homosexual. “It has something to do with the dick,” he noted. “I went to all these gay bars, but, you know, the dick didn’t want to go there.” The audience enjoyed this, especially the women.
Oft accused of misogyny, Von Trier took time to consider a question on his “spiritual relationship to women,” and finally stated, to more laughter and applause, “don’t tell anybody but I really like women. I think they’re much more interesting and I find it much more inspiring to work with actresses than actors. Maybe it is because I am a sadist. The clash between the sexes is fantastic. And now I’m making a film called The Nymphomaniac that is made out of my enormous respect for female sexuality. And I’m just saying this because you can’t see it in the film. You will hate it when you see the film.”
If Von Trier has a bit of a love-hate thing with women, it may be because of his mother, who is the model for Dunst and Gainsbourg’s screen parent, played by Charlotte Rampling as a beautiful nightmare, full of herself and bilious honesty. “I give her far too much credit, the bitch,” said Von Trier of his mother, to more laughter. “She is still kind of controling me from the grave.” He described mercilessly her deathbed scene, in which she revealed, “Lars…your father…is not…your father,” as “really bad lines” not worthy of the moment. And he buried her under his father’s name, which his feminist mother “would have hated like hell. It was really my revenge.”
But from his mother, perhaps, he gets his inclination to speak his mind, regardless of the consequence. “I’m a person who works very much against things.” When it was suggested that he has indeed turned provocation into a near art form, Von Trier replied: “A provocation is always good, it starts you thinking again. [My] provocations are also aimed at myself. People don’t believe that, but…I certainly want everyone – and also myself – to wake up.”
As for Dogville, his 2003 film set in the imaginary small American town, and which features photos of poor Americans, mostly black, over the end credits, a pensive and slightly embarrassed Von Trier said: “Yeah, its propaganda. I’m human and I make mistakes. So I poked at the U.S. You know, that’s how I grew up, protesting the Vietnam War and so on. Evil things come from America – except for Donald Duck! But when Barrack Obama says, ‘this is the greatest nation on earth,’ I just want to puke.”
The audience, all of whom come from great nations, applauded.
Von Trier isn’t beyond a little non-U.S. nation poking. In an aside about automobiles, he said, “I believe in German technology; better than French technology.” He also noted that he had told a group of German journalists that “the French were the true Nazis -- and they really loved that.” And when an audience member asked if he wasn’t appreciative of German hospitality – a clear reference to his comments at Cannes -- the director began to respond, “Yes, but in the 40s you weren’t so…” before thinking better of it. He went on to say that “history shows we are all Nazis somewhere maybe to a tiny degree and maybe these things we should investigate. And the way we do not investigate it is to make it taboo to talk about.”
The director said he was very proud of being called a ‘persona non-grata’ at Cannes. “The Palm [d’Or] is given out every year, I don’t remember the last time they gave out the Persona Non Grata.”
The audience cheered.
As for the future of film, and his films in particular, Von Trier said, “Two hours is fast food. In my old age I want to make cheap but extremely long films. I’m dreaming of doing a very very messy film with a lot of information you don’t want to know. I’m reading books right now and I’m getting so much information I really don’t want to know. And it’s such a pleasure because someone has sat down as a dictator. I’m reading Proust and he is taking me by the hand and taking me into this world. And that is really what I think a good film director or artist can do, is to take you by the hand and lead you somewhere you would not normally go. And this is where of course your life and your universe expands.”
At the end of Melancholia, as a rogue planet bears down on Earth, Dunst’s Justine becomes strangely calm, preternaturally prepared for the inevitable. Von Trier, with whom Justine shares many traits, says that he also expects to be calm at the end, when the world turns dark. Meanwhile, he said, “I hope a catastrophe is coming because everything is getting a little dull.”-
Here's TOH's Cannes flipcam interview with von Trier.