Working with the enigmatic Lars von Trier

Working with the enigmatic Lars von Trier
Danish director Lars von Trier poses during the photocall for "Nymphomaniac Volume I" at the 64th annual Berlin Film Festival in February 2014. (Joerg Carstensen / EPA)

NEW YORK — When actor Willem Dafoe arrived on the Swedish set of Lars von Trier's "Manderlay" a number of years back, the filmmaker asked if they might meet to discuss Dafoe's role.

It was far from a typical meeting.


Von Trier first asked if Dafoe was a morning person. Then he asked him if he liked to swim. When Dafoe answered yes to both, the director said good; he had a plan.

So at 7 a.m. the next morning on an icy late-winter day, Von Trier picked up Dafoe at his hotel and drove them to a frigid lake.

"We arrived, and it was really cold, but we both stripped down and jumped in," Dafoe recalled. "We stayed in for about two seconds. Then we got out, and he drove me back to where I was staying. As we pulled up he said, 'OK, see you on set.' We never talked about the role. He just wanted someone to bond and have an adventure with."

The incident illustrates the conscious strangeness of Von Trier — when it comes to actor get-togethers, most filmmakers prefer script dissections at breakfast to wordless reenactments of the polar bear club— but also unexpectedly endearing elements, like a desire for human connection.

The director, whose sex-addiction drama "Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2" arrived in theaters Friday on the heels of the first installment last month, took a vow of media silence in the aftermath of a Cannes Film Festival press conference in 2011 at which he sparked a global outcry by joking that he sympathized with Nazis.

But conversations with what might be called the Von Trier rep company — collectively it's a group that has made more than 12 movies with the director — complicate the popular portrait of a heartless black comedian who enjoys acts of antagonism for their own sake. Von Trier, they suggest, can be provocative, distant and needling but also introspective, sensitive and thoughtful.

At a time when many foreign directors are known only to a niche group and Hollywood helmers are increasingly corporate hired hands, Von Trier, 57, defies both types. The director of arty melodramas such as "Breaking the Waves," "Dancer in the Dark" and "Melancholia" — and pioneer of the controversial naturalist-cinema movement Dogme 95 — remains one of moviedom's most colorful figures and its most enigmatic.

Eating away inside

It's easy enough to see how the negative view of Von Trier developed; he's done plenty to create it himself.

The Dane has a long history of making provocative comments that make people uncomfortable and offer evidence of a lack of taste and maturity. Most infamously, at a press conference to promote "Melancholia" at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, the conversation veered far from the film, and Von Trier wound up saying controversial things including, "I understand Hitler, but I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely ... but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit."

The room — and the film world — was stunned. Twitter quickly bounced the comments around the world. An apology came the next day, but shortly after Cannes declared Von Trier persona non grata.

Long after the press has moved on from the latest Von Trier provocation, the director's own battles and guilt continue, say those who know him well.


Cannes-gate, they say, was a perfect example. The fracas even fueled "Nymphomaniac." The film — the combined director's cut is about 51/2 hours long, but the theatrical versions are only about two hours apiece — tells in flashback the coming-of-age tale of a sex addict named Joe (Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg play the character as younger and older woman, respectively) who is telling her story to the academic Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard).

In the first film we see mainly a younger Joe engaging in various forms of sexual nihilism. In the second film, Joe has become sexually desensitized and tries to regain feeling with such activities as sadomasochism sessions with a domineering Jamie Bell.

When Skarsgard read the script he found himself making quick mental notes. "That's Cannes," he said, miming the flipping of a page, "and that's Cannes," as he referred to an argument Seligman and Joe have over the need for political correctness that could read like a volley from and retort to his critics. It's these digressions that make watching a Von Trier movie fun — like a cinematic game of "Where's Lars?" — and also has fortified naysayers who argue the director can't make a movie about anything but his own state of mind.

In both parts of "Nymphomaniac," the debate between Seligman and Joe is key; though the former is repressed and the latter liberated, the attitudes they express are reversed — Seligman espouses a permissive liberal view while Joe posits a self-lacerating one.

Skarsgard said the discussion is a clear metaphor for Von Trier himself. The director, he says, told him both characters are different aspects of his own personality, warring over how much to punish himself for his own compulsions.

"It was pretty comic," Skarsgard, who has made half a dozen films with the director, recalled. "You're playing the character that is part Lars and he's standing there telling you, 'I'm evil.' And I'd say, 'No, you're not evil.' He's struggling with that concept all the time."

Gainsbourg said she sees how things eat at Von Trier, though he expresses this in his own elliptical way.

Before they began shooting "Nymphomaniac," he invited her to his home to discuss the movie. When she turned up, he invited her in and immediately said he was going to take a nap, which she was invited to do as well.

"I'm very touched by the way he is, but he doesn't give you much information," said Gainsbourg, who has worked on his last three films. "I don't ask him questions anymore because I don't get answers." She added, "It's not that he's trying to be difficult. He's just exhausted from living with these movies, with everything."

Von Trier, who is famously afraid of flying, also had a bout of depression that perhaps influenced the darkness in two of his recent films, "Melancholia" and "Antichrist." But he has apparently bounced back with "Nymphomaniac," in which several actors say he did not seem as down. "The unusual thing about doing a movie with Lars," said Dafoe, " is that each movie is different because Lars is different on them."


Prone to ribbing

Of all his traits, ribbing is perhaps the one that comes up most often in discussions with collaborators. When Uma Thurman, who worked with Von Trier in "Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1," came to a soundstage to do some voice work, he said this to her: "'By the way, Uma, I'd like you to know you act so much' — you act, like it's a dirty word — 'you do more acting in this scene than all the actors who ever acted in all of my movies combined,'" Thurman recalled.

She laughed. "There are some people who would really start to get spinning on that. But I just gave it back to him and said, 'Who wrote it, drama queen?' Because he's just trying to see how you feel about sitting in a soundstage being told you overacted."

Yet for all his free-speaking ways, Von Trier tells actors little before and during shooting. Just before the infamous Cannes press conference, he proclaimed to a French media outlet that Gainsbourg, who was sitting next to him, would soon be acting in a porn movie he was to direct. It was the first she'd heard of it.

To be with Von Trier is to never be quite sure what he'll say next or how he'll say it. In an interview with this reporter after the Cannes incident — at a moment when most would just have read from the apology playbook — Von Trier sounded a note of what might be called half-contrition.

"[I] didn't want to hurt anyone at all," he said. "Sometimes I hurt people on purpose, when there's provocation that I want to get through that has a meaning. This doesn't have a meaning." He called it "an idiotic way to behave."

At the Berlin Film Festival premiere of "Nymphomaniac" he showed up for a photo call with a T-shirt that contained the message "Persona Non Grata" over the Cannes logo.

Yet moments like that can often not tell the whole story. Thurman, a jury member at Cannes the year of the press conference, believes that his lack of public contrition about Cannes (he belittled an apology shortly after he issued it) had little to do with how he felt. "Like all directors, Lars von Trier cannot tolerate being told what to do. It goes slightly against the job description."

But that doesn't mean he doesn't feel it. Thurman and many of the actors who work with him describe a vulnerability and sweetness. "I think Lars is a man who struggles against a lot of things," she noted. "Most of us just go on and forget the people we hurt. Lars doesn't."

That points to a key contradiction in his character: He's someone who uses shocking comments as a way of dealing with his own vulnerabilities, then feels genuine hurt when his critics gleefully skewer him.

His doubts can carry over in other ways. Gainsbourg says that during shooting he often "will say, 'It's not enough, it's not enough.' And it's very tough, because you don't know what he wants. But the thing is, he doesn't know either. He has great empathy. He's right there with you in the uncertainty."

She added, "He's very unpredictable. Sometimes I feel like I know who he is and sometimes I feel like I don't know him at all." It's not clear Von Trier knows yet either.