“Perhaps the only difference between me and other people is that I’ve always demanded more from the sunset. More spectacular colours when the sun hit the horizon.” – Lars von Trier
Often deliberately contentious, Lars von Trier is not a voice of vapid cinema, innovating with every addition to his growing filmography. Challenging the fabric of film itself with experimental technique, the Danish-born director is known for his technically innovative feature films that confront dark, sadistic and deeply human subjects.
Exploring existential concepts of sexual desire and innate violence in films like Nymphomaniac and The House That Jack Built, he is both cinema’s boldest and most controversial mainstream voice. Such a daring voice has attracted the likes of cinematographers Manuel Alberto Claro, Robby Müller and Anthony Dod Mantle to help bring his spectacular visions to life, depicting stories dealing with apocalyptic scenarios and dark human crises.
Despite von Trier’s polarising nature, few can deny his impact on contemporary cinema, from his embrace of cinema’s most simplistic elements in his Dogme 95 experiment to the grand spectacle of Melancholia.
Showcasing the subtle beauty of the human condition to the awe-inspiring landscapes of the natural world, let’s take a look into the very best shots of Lars von Trier’s filmography:
10 Greatest shots of Lars Von Trier:
10. Breaking the Waves (1996, Cinematography: Robby Müller)
Described by Martin Scorsese as “a genuinely spiritual movie that asks ‘what is love and what is compassion?” Breaking the Waves may be Lars von Trier’s very best film, facilitating the director’s outbreak into industry fame.
Captured by the iconic cinematographer Robby Müller, a man responsible for the aesthetic beauty of Paris, Texas and Dead Man, Müller’s work on von Trier’s religious parable is breathtaking.
Catching the harsh coastline of north-west Scotland in spectacular glory, he is also able to quieten the scene with subtle moments of joy seen in the shot below as protagonists Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) and Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgård).
9. Europa (1991, Cinematography: Henning Bendtsen)
Lars von Trier’s lesser-known post-WWII drama, Europa, is a feverish monochrome experiment that utilises several filmmaking techniques to reflect the aesthetics of noir cinema.
The late Danish cinematographer Henning Bendtsen captures the wild narrative of love and violence with an ethereal beauty that recalls the classic noir genre whilst injecting its modern influence.
Europa is a head-spinner of muddled timelines and lost time. With the image below, captured by Bendtsen, he perfectly captures the mood and sentiment of the film itself.
8. Melancholia (2011, Cinematography: Manuel Alberto Claro)
The nightmarish vision of existential crisis, Melancholia is a deeply upsetting story of depression contextualised in the backdrop of an apocalyptic crisis.
Strange and deeply powerful, von Trier’s film intelligently deconstructs the life of an individual suffering from a mentally debilitating illness, revealing an uncomfortable truth at the same time. It’s all introduced by an ethereal opening sequence that uses special effects to create a truly disturbing, detaching vision of genuine desperate fear.
7. Dancer in the Dark (2000, Cinematography: Robby Müller)
Winner of the 2000 Palme d’Or, Dancer in the Dark is an utterly devastating musical drama, starring Cannes winning actress and singer Björk in the leading role.
Perhaps the director’s first and only musical project, von Trier’s film follows an eastern European girl who travels to the USA in search of true happiness. Descending into sadness, as the director’s films often do, Dancer in the Dark’s exhilarating musical sequences elevate the film into a realm of magical realism, making the slow descent that much more impactful. Robbie Robby Müller’s work helps to stage Bjork’s Selma Jezkova as the lead performer in her own fictional game of life.
6. Antichrist (2009, Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle)
A sinister poem to the brutal horrors of nature, along with the ancient ritual of religion, Antichrist is certainly von Trier’s most violent film, spiked with gory images.
The first of the director’s ‘Depression trilogy’, the film follows a grieving couple who retreat to a cabin in the woods to repair their troubled marriage, only for them to descend into the madness of mourning. Seriously intense yet powerfully composed, Anthony Dod Mantle adopts a similar style to 2011s Melancholia, using a highly over-produced style that brings the spectacle of the image to the forefront. The Eden in which they reside, for example, is captured as if a nightmare dream world where the two of them must pay for their sins.
5. The House That Jack Built (2018, Cinematography: Manuel Alberto Claro)
The latest film in von Trier’s filmography might be his most provocative yet, following a satanic serial killer attempting to justify his acts of violence by comparing them to the beauty of human mortality.
It might be the director’s most hateful and cynical work, full of a truly evil streak that works to both help and hinder the story at play, saved by Matt Dillon, who perfectly portrays the sadistic serial killer. With some fantastic imagery and a reflective self-conscious core, the true power of The House That Jack Built comes during the film’s climax as Jack journeys through the depths of hell across some truly breathtaking cinematic sequences.
The shot below recalls Eugène Delacroix’s painting ‘The Barque of Dante’ and depicts the tormented souls of hell.
4. Dogville (2003, Anthony Dod Mantle)
One of von Trier’s most ambitious projects, Dogville is staged as if a barebones theatrical play and a cynical assessment of small-town America.
Starring Nicole Kidman in the leading role, Dogville follows a woman on the run from a mob who seeks asylum in a small Colorado community, who, in return for patronage, seek help from her. The provocative tale is ultimately one that illustrates human suffering as the town complicates and conspires against her, though the film’s real focus is on its ingenious production design and cinematography. Somehow, despite being minimally staged Anthony Dod Mantle manages to recreate the cold light of the dusk of winter and fill the set with an ominous mood.
3. Europa (1991, Cinematography: Henning Bendtsen)
The wild plot of von Trier’s 1991 war film Europa follows a naïve American man who takes a job at a railway in Germany and soon becomes entangled in an explosive plot involving a train and the woman he loves.
Deep down, it’s an ambitious, visually bold love story that tells of the horrors and torment of war, a concept that is wonderfully explored in Henning Bendtsen’s cinematography, particularly in the attributing shot. The final film of the iconic cinematographer, the work of Henning Bendtsen, will long be remembered in 1955s Escape from Terror and 1964s Gertrud.
2. Melancholia (2011, Cinematography: Manuel Alberto Claro)
There are few images in the history of cinema, let alone arthouse drama, that compare to the existential dread of the final sequence in Melancholia in which a planet that shares its name with the film’s title heads on a collision course with earth.
Haunting and ominous, the azure glow of the veiny ‘Melancholia’ casts a vast shadow over the peaceful figures of Justine (Kirsten Dunst), Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Leo (Cameron Spurr), who sit helpless in a teepee. Strange and deeply beautiful, the end of the world as captured by von Trier and Manuel Alberto Claro makes for unforgettable cinema.
1. Breaking the Waves (1996, Cinematography: Robby Müller)
This melodrama of philosophical dilemma follows the wife of an oilman who becomes paralysed in an accident and upon his return, asks her to sleep with another man.
A powerful exploration of religion and sacrifice where von Trier wrestles his eagerness for provocative filmmaking, to bring a balanced, morally tumultuous love story. Despite the cinematic spectacle of the beautiful Scottish coastline, it is the performance of the scintillating Emily Watson who lies at the centre of the film’s focus. Her tussle with religion and morality becomes the film’s centrepiece, and her desperate plea for answers in life’s complicated makeup forms a story of great beauty.