“Everything is going to hell, but we should smile all the way.” – Lars von Trier
One of cinema’s most polarising and provocative filmmakers, Danish-born Lars von Trier 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.
Often deliberately contentious, von Trier is not a voice of vapid cinema. However, with every addition to his growing filmography, he is challenging the fabric of film itself with experimental innovation. This would materialise as the Dogme 95 movement he and fellow Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg founded in 1995, a filmmaking exploration revolving around emphasising traditional stories utilising conservative technical means.
Continuing to influence filmmakers to this day due to Dogme 95’s embrace of ‘total cinema’, despite von Trier’s polarising nature, few can deny his impact on contemporary cinema.
Let’s take a look at his growing filmography…
Lars von Trier’s best films ranked:
14. The Element of Crime (1984)
The first of von Trier’s Europa trilogy is a low budget neo-noir art film surrounding the story of a cop in a dystopian Europe investigating a murderous suspect using controversial methods.
An artistic accomplishment, The Element of Crime would provide early clues as to the future experimental nature of the Danish director, showcasing a surreal sepia nightmare that spirals off into something far more sinister.
13. Epidemic (1987)
This strange, meta-horror film exists in its own internalised reality, featuring Lars von Trier and co-screenwriter Niels Vørse both in front of, and behind the camera.
Featuring iconic cult actor Udo Kier, the film explores the process of filmmaking following von Trier and Vørse as they both attempt to construct the perfect horror film. This self-referential story is woven through scenes of the actual film they’re writing, in which a doctor tries to find a cure for a deadly epidemic, a story which in familiar von Trier form explores sinister and horrific obsessions.
12. Manderlay (2005)
A further experiment in von Trier’s sandbox filmography, Manderlay is an inferior, though certainly accomplished follow-up to 2003’s Dogville, in which the director adopts a distinctive minimal theatrical style.
The second film in his yet incomplete ‘Land of Opportunities’ trilogy, Manderlay follows a young woman in 1933’s Arkansas who together with her father, find a plantation where slavery is still in practice. It’s a spiky anti-patriotic film that exposes the arrogance of America particularly during this era and utilises strong performances to rise above its minimal set design.
11. The Five Obstructions (2003)
Perhaps von Trier’s most blatant cinematic experiment, The Five Obstructions explores the gleeful relationship between the director and fellow experimental filmmaker Jørgen Leth, when von Trier gives him a demanding filmic challenge.
This imaginative and surprisingly funny examination from von Trier demonstrates his own eclectic nature, challenging Leth to recreate his short film The Perfect Human using increasingly tightening technical constraints. In many ways, it encapsulates von Trier’s filmmaking mantra, self-imposing challenges on himself and those around him in order to excel at their own craft.
10. Europa (1991)
A feverish monochrome experiment that utilises several ingenious filmmaking techniques, von Trier’s final film in the Europa trilogy is a strange post-WWII drama that utilises classic conventions of noir cinema.
The wild plot 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. Encasing the plot in a strange futuristic version of the past, von Trier’s film is typically innovative, celebrated for its eclectic use of creative visual techniques elevated by Max von Sydow’s powerful narration.
9. The House That Jack Built (2018)
The latest in von Trier’s filmography is a furious, satanic trip into the mind of a serial killer and the nature of violence in a contemporary world.
Matt Dillon is the film’s true shining light, portraying the intelligent, sadistic serial killer over the course of 12 murderous years. It might be the director’s most hateful and cynical work, full of a truly evil streak that works to both help and hinders the story at play. With some fantastic imagery, and a reflective self-conscious core, The House That Jack Built is an explosive piece of arthouse cinema.
8. The Boss of It All (2006)
Office comedy and Lars von Trier don’t exactly go hand-in-hand, but his unusual 2006 outing The Boss of It All shows just how versatile the director truly is.
The perverse workplace comedy follows an IT company that hires an actor to serve as the company’s president in order to help sell the business. It’s a bizarre concept that serves to well host this sharp dry comedy, led by the hilarious Jens Albinus. Though in typical von Trier fashion, the real intrigue is going on behind the camera, where the director shot the film without a camera operator, allowing the shots to be controlled by a computer-automated programme instead. Such creates a truly idiosyncratic piece of cinema, often overlooked in favour of the directors louder, ostentatious films.
7. Antichrist (2009)
Notorious across the world of arthouse filmmaking, Antichrist is a sinister poem to the brutal horrors of nature, spiked with gory, shocking imagery.
The first in von Trier’s Depression trilogy, the film follows a grieving couple who retreat to a cabin in the woods to repair their troubled marriage, only for the power of nature to take hold. Winning best actress at Cannes Film Festival 2009, Charlotte Gainsbourg is monumental in the leading role, perfectly capturing her harrowing descent into a feral rage. Seriously intense, yet powerfully composed, it’s not a film for the faint of heart.
6. Nymphomaniac (2013)
An enormous ensemble cast completes Nymphomaniac parts one and two, a titillating, indulgent film that explores the sexual addictions of a central protagonist, recalling her tumultuous past.
With Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Uma Thurman and Willem Dafoe among many others, Nymphomaniac is an enjoyable four-hour character-led drama, erotic, poetic and provocative in its presentation. A fantastic climactic scene twists the whole drama into a far more sadistic force, in perhaps von Trier’s biggest middle finger to the audience, and to the optimism of life itself.
5. Dogville (2003)
Staged as if a barebones theatrical play, this cynical assessment of small-town America is an intense journey pickled with a moralistic dilemma and dense subject matter.
Starring Nicole Kidman in the leading role, Doville 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. It all leads to an intense final climax, capping off one of the directors most impressive films that extracts the essence of his film movement Dogme 95.
4. The Idiots (1998)
Of the 35 films made under the Dogme 95 guidelines, it’s only really The Celebration and The Idiots, the first and second films of the movement, that are highly regarded. The latter of which, Lars von Trier’s The Idiots is a deliberately provocative work of art that ranks among the directors very best.
Surrounding a community of people in a Copenhagen suburb who liberate themselves from social limitations to reveal their “inner idiot”, this is a DIY film infamous for its abhorrent attitude. Though in this explicit, comedy-drama there is much ingenious to extract, namely the pitch-black comedic streak that runs through its spine. Confronting the very constructs of social norms and ‘normal behaviour’, The Idiots is an interesting, brazen conversation that only von Trier could conjure.
3. Dancer in the Dark (2000)
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.
One of cinema’s few arthouse musicals, von Trier’s film is an imaginative if excruciating, delight following an Eastern European girl who travels to the USA with her son, expecting the country to be like a Hollywood film. 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. It’s a courageous piece of cinema.
2. Melancholia (2011)
Toying with existential nightmares, Melancholia is a deeply unsettling apocalyptic drama that playfully juggles genre conventions whilst framing a rich contextual story of depression.
Strange and deeply beautiful, the plot revolves around two sisters whose relationship is challenged by the threat of a mysterious new planet on a collision course with earth. Melancholia’s finest achievement is its startling insight into the life of an individual suffering from depression, exposing a rich uncomfortable truth revealed by the excellent lead performance of Kirsten Dunst. It all culminates in a nightmarish final sequence radiating both beauty and helplessness with thanks to some unforgettable cinematography.
1. Breaking the Waves (1996)
Breaking the director into an international renowned territory, Breaking the Waves is an iconic piece of cinema that announced his bold, provocative filmmaking style to the arthouse world.
In part, a melodrama, a philosophical dilemma and a religious parable, Breaking the Waves follows the wife of an oilman who becomes paralysed in an accident and upon his return asks her to sleep with another man. Set on the harsh coastline of North-West Scotland in the 1970s, the film is a breathtakingly powerful exploration of religion and sacrifice where von Trier wrestles his eagerness for provocative filmmaking, to bring a balanced, morally tumultuous love story.
Described by Martin Scorsese as “a genuinely spiritual movie that asks ‘what is love and what is compassion?” in his continuingly wild filmography, Breaking the Waves may just be his very best.