The films of Lars von Trier are…how to put this…extreme. His unyielding and frequently controversial depictions of sex and violence have made him a talking point for critics and audience members since he rose to prominence with this Golden Heart Trilogy, (Breaking The Waves, The Idiots, Dancer In The Dark) a set of films that were the product of the ‘Dogme 95’ cinematic manifesto that renewed interest in Danish film and inspired a number of filmmakers around the world. The manifest was intended to bring cinema back to its roots by embracing only a few simple and essential dramatic principles, and by implementing a set of stringent aesthetic and stylistic rules.
‘Dogma 95’ includes assertions that shooting must be done on location, that props and sets must not be brought in, and that the sound must never be produced apart from the image or vice-versa. Indeed, the rules go so deep that directors wanting to adhere to von Trier’s manifesto are forbidden from using superficial action, filters, and any camera that is not handheld. It’s this kind of meticulous and, arguably, obsessive approach to filmmaking that has allowed the director to produce some of the most intellectually stimulating and shocking works of the last 20 years, pieces that are so deeply interrogative that they often seem more like novels than they do films.
It’s unsurprising, then, that von Trier once cited the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy as both an important influence on his work and the author of one of his favourite novels. Tolstoy, like the Danish director himself, was committed to rendering his scenes in incredibly rich detail, working with the limitiations language to create some of the boldest and enduring depictions of 19th-century Russian society in all literature. As von Trier explained in a recent interview, it was Tolstoy’s gargantuan 1869 masterpiece that made the biggest impact: “I don’t know how Tolstoy worked,” he began, “but War and Peace is still one of the best novels I’ve read.”
Tolstoy, like his contemporary Dostoyevsky, refused to turn away from aspects of society that readers at the time may have found uncomfortable. Both writers confronted the superficiality, complexity and contradictions of Russian society, clearly intending to disturb the status quo on both a thematic and linguistic level. As von Trier explained in an interview in 2015, it was this idea of disturbance that he most resonated with when reading Tolstoy and other pioneering 19th and 20th-century writers: “On the way to making Nymphomaniac, I had been reading a lot,” he began. “I have read everything Dostoevsky wrote. Now I’m reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, whose War and Peace I liked tremendously. There’s a much longer tradition in book writing, and I had great pleasure reading Joyce and Proust. Lots of the things writers use in books are fantastic; I’m trying to see if I can translate them into films.”
What he’s trying to translate specifically, he has never clarified, but it’s clear that von Trier – like Joyce, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky – uses his art to confront society with the peculiarities, eccentricities and paradoxes that it would rather ignore. While these authors did so through language, Von Trier relies on the interrogative gaze of his camera, lifting up rocks to reveal the scores of shade-dwelling insects beneath.