Photos by Christian Geisnaes
Whenever Lars von Trier debuts a major film, he does it at Cannes. He travels there in a specially outfitted trailer, because he hates to travel and rarely ventures far outside his native Denmark, where his status as national treasure is surpassed only by the number of people who think he’s an absolute weirdo.
He’s legendarily aggressive to journalists, he’s a bigger neurotic than everyone you know (combined), and his new movie, Antichrist, is an explicitly disturbing horror-ish flick, complete with full-on genital mutilation and talking animals. Lars von Trier explains his new work thusly: “I’ve entered my anal phase. Antichrist is just poop smeared all over everything. I’m no longer the quiet boy who sits in the back of the class.” And that’s coming from a guy who is partly famous for pushing Björk over the edge while making Dancer in the Dark with her. Not to get all Freudian-sexist on you, but we think some of his more extreme personality traits might have something to do with his mom. In order to get a son with good genes, she went and slept with a smart guy who wasn’t the dad Lars grew up with. She provided Lars with a “free upbringing,” to the extent where he basically had to wander out of her vagina on his own and was then left to roam the earth willy-nilly as he pleased. Later, on her deathbed, Lars’s mom finally confessed that the man he grew up with wasn’t his real dad. And now Lars is an eccentric genius and she got what she wanted after all. You just can’t win, can you?
Vice: So what should we talk about?
Lars von Trier: I don’t know, but thank you for the magazines. The Mental Illness Issue—very subtle.
You’re welcome. What about your own mental-illness issues? What are you afraid of?
Well, I’m a serial neurotic, a hypochondriac, and I’m frightened of everything I can’t control. I guess my mental filter is screwed up, it takes in way too much stuff and it overwhelms me. Some people are just born with crappy filters. So I take a shitload of pills and I see my therapist on a regular basis.
What kind of pills?
Listen, I have a very good psychiatrist and I’m not going to discuss my medication with you. The drug I take now is old school, from before the golden age of Prozac. It seems to be working a bit, so I’m reluctant to change it. I’m not afraid of pills. I’ve tried loads of different antidepressants and I don’t have any moral scruples about taking them either.
What about artistic scruples? Aren’t you afraid of losing your creative edge if you fix your crappy filter?
When I feel bad, I feel monumentally bad. So if a pill could make me feel better but rendered me a boring filmmaker, well, I couldn’t give less of a shit. But it’s not like I pop Valium and down a six-pack. I don’t get all numb.
Your latest film, Antichrist, stayed in preproduction for a long time, and when it finally got going everyone in Denmark was like, “Lars is back on top!” But back on top from what exactly?
Two years ago I had a full-on depression. I couldn’t get out of bed. I think my fears and phobias just became too much and my system needed to reset and recharge. It was like my body passed out to save me from my mind. I’m a compulsive control freak, but at a certain point you just have to give up, and doing that was actually not unpleasant for me.
So were you all better when you started filming Antichrist?
Not at all, but to get out of a depression you eventually need to see yourself through different eyes, force yourself out of the funk, and insert some rituals. When we made Antichrist, it was me rebelling against my mental state, but I was far from back on top. Antichrist was out of my hands, and I just went with it and tried to shun my usual control issues. It was a horrible experience.
Do you utilize your personal struggles as a director?
Of course. It has to be a battle, and not only with my personal demons. I often set up limitations like we did with Dogme. By removing some options in certain areas, you’re able to focus fully on other areas and rethink how you go about things. Tarkovsky made his best movies under Soviet censorship.
When did your mental issues become apparent to you?
Quite early. As a young boy I was horribly afraid of dying in my sleep, you know, not waking up. School was awful for me too, and I had a hard time. I felt the classroom was a very claustrophobic space. I was also terrified of going, because I would be bullied relentlessly. I wasn’t physically able to defend myself, but at the same time I was a bit snooty and I wouldn’t back down. That’s a shitty cocktail, so at some point I just stopped going to avoid the confrontations.
And you had these very liberal parents who didn’t think you should do anything against your will?
Yeah. School, dentist, or whatever, I was the boss of all that from an early age. Anyway, after ditching school for some time I got called up to see the school psychologist. I must have been 12. He told me the next time I did it, the cops would come to pick me up. I mean, that was the sum of his wisdom. I knew it was bullshit.
Let’s talk some more about your childhood. You had this 8-mm camera and your commie parents kept taking you to nudist camps…
[laughs] I see where you’re going with this, and the answer is “No.” I didn’t film it. To me as a kid, it was perfectly normal, because my parents weren’t shy or embarrassed about their bodies.
And in Antichrist you got to sample the hardships of a porn director. Can you tell me about Willem Dafoe’s dick double?
Oh yeah, Horst. He was this porn actor we were using for close-ups in the ejaculation scene. He got jacked off for 15 minutes and none of us could understand why he couldn’t cum. Turns out he was just waiting for us to cue him. My bad, I guess.
So how do you feel about nudism as an adult? Privately, I mean.
I’m all for it! I try to limit my swimming-trunk usage as much as possible. But it’s a funny thing, because when we have American actresses over, they’re all freaked out about naked women in the women’s locker room. I suppose it’s a cultural difference.
Yeah, speaking of that, are you reluctant to do Wasington and finish your American trilogy because you don’t want to piss off any more Americans?
I don’t want to piss them off as such, but I do think that the American film industry is extremely dominant, and a little resistance can only be a good thing.
In an interview some years back you described the presence of a black president in 24 as sickeningly politically correct. PWND!
Yeah, I didn’t see that one coming, but I think it’s a very nice development. As long as they don’t go and elect a woman.
I’m joking, of course.
Of course you are, but you do seem to like bullying women and you broke Björk. For God’s sake, man, what’s wrong with you?
Maybe it’s because I was never much good at talking to women, but when they work for me they have a contract and they have to listen to me and do what I say.
A revenge-of–the-nerd kind of thing?
Seriously, it’s true that I pushed Björk a lot, maybe too far, but I was also very happy with her performance. She gave everything she had. As a director you do what you can to get the performance you want, that’s your job, and sometimes you have tap into people’s past experiences and memories to bring that out. I usually have very good relationships with my actresses, but Björk and I didn’t get along.
And now she’ll never act again.
Yeah, and that’s not all, she even wrote Nicole Kidman a letter telling her not to do Dogville.
Really? What did she say?
She said I had destroyed her soul.
Jeez, that’s a bit abstract.
It must be an Icelandic thing. I certainly don’t set out to destroy people’s souls.
OK, so when you’re not destroying souls, what do you do for fun? I heard you’re kind of a gun nut.
“Gun nut” is a bit harsh. It’s more of a fascination with detail and fine mechanics. When I was a kid I read all the James Bond books and they described how he would switch from Beretta to Walther because the Walther would never jam. I liked stuff like that.
So it’s not a control thing?
Well, maybe, since I never believed I could win any physical battles, but I honestly haven’t fantasized about pointing a gun at a human being. Just the odd duck.
You go hunting, then?
Yes, but not as often as I would like. I’m not an accomplished hunter, but I do own a rifle.
How should I put this? You have a wife and kids. Aren’t you afraid that when it gets real messy in your head, that you might take your rifle and…
Execute my family?
Not really. I think when people do that, it’s often because they don’t have an outlet for their frustration and they box it up until it explodes. But if you want to kill someone, you don’t really need a rifle. I mean, a kitchen knife would do. But hold on, I don’t think people should kill each other, really.
That’s the quote we’re going with?
Yes, please. I also have less aggressive hobbies, like gardening.
Yeah, but come to think of it, it’s not a very good example. It comes off all idyllic, you know, the carefree gardener leaning against a shovel watching fluffy clouds float by. But gardening is essentially an ethnic genocide where you are God and you decide to nurture the cauliflower and get rid of everything else. At the end of the whole ordeal you butcher the cauliflowers and eat them. It’s a bloody mess.
It’s all about control for you?
That’s your idea of happiness, being in control?
Yes, being on a film set where everybody does what I tell them to.
Aw, come on, what really makes Lars von Trier happy?
All right, Lars von Trier wants to be submissive! To lose control for just a short, blissful moment. That would truly make me happy. Submission.
Von Trier’s new movie, Antichrist, will be in theaters October 23 and available on-demand October 21.