I Like America and America Likes Me: An Interview with Lars von Trier

By Mark Peranson

Cinema Scope: One of the biggest stories in Cannes this year is your physical return and the controversy that is associated with it, but, call me crazy, I want to talk about the film that you made, which is about a serial killer. Last time out, in Nymphomaniac (2013), you made a film about sex; The House That Jack Built is about violence, and, perhaps not coincidentally, is a sexless film. Why did you want to make a serial-killer film?

Lars von Trier: I saw the serial-killer thing more like a genre than anything else. I’ve always taken a genre and tried to make something collide with it. So for me it’s not a real serial-killer film, in a sense. I was not so afraid of the violence because I’ve seen worse, much worse in films. But maybe the audience who will see the films that I make don’t go and see the more violent films, I don’t know…But they said that a hundred people walked out of the premiere last night…

Scope: Lars, that’s not many!

Von Trier: They asked me, “How do you feel about a hundred leaving?” and I said, “It should have been two hundred.”

Scope: Even though for some reason the festival decided to print an “explicit violence” warning on the ticket—which I’ve never seen here before—the film is not really all that violent. Well, of course there are some scenes that will offend people, such as the treatment of women, but we’re not to take any of that seriously; and I’m sure there are more violent films playing this week in Cannes, and there are more violent things on television every day. But clearly Cannes was worried.

Von Trier: Yeah, yeah, I agree…but it’s a fact that when I wrote the thing, I suddenly said to myself, “All of these women are very stupid,” so it’s very good to have Verge there saying, “Why are they so stupid?” even though Jack really doesn’t give him an answer.

Scope: It is the first film you’ve had with a male lead character since Europa (1991).

Von Trier: That’s right, and I thought that I’d done my duty with women, so to say. I’ll go in and out, but I made really a lot of female leads already and it was time for a change.

Scope: Was it different writing for a man, or for Matt Dillon in particular? And directing him? I know you have a different way of dealing with your lead actors from film to film.

Von Trier: I thought it would be more difficult, but Matt and I had a good relationship. In the start it was a bit difficult working with Matt because he had to understand the technique that we were using—namely that through the film his character develops, which is good for the film. He had to understand that he didn’t have to hit a spot or anything, and that it was actually good if he did things completely different from take to take. First of all I told him that he had to swear to me that he would make mistakes, that he would fail. Because if you’re ready for that, then it’s much easier to get material to work with.

Scope: As in Nymphomaniac, you’ve decided on a structure of dealing with a long period of one’s life as seen through a number of episodes, instead of a more condensed period of time. Why have you decided to work in that vein in the last few films?

Von Trier: I wanted to have a dialogue, as compared to a monologue. It’s a cheap trick, but it can really help when you write. I don’t kill people, or I haven’t yet killed anyone personally, but there’s a lot of me in Jack in the sense that he wants to go all the way. But it’s difficult to say why I chose one thing or another…it’s just that I would be talking the film through with one of my co-workers, Jenle Hallund…

Scope: She did research for the film?

Von Trier: Yes, and she was also the reason that Hell came into the film, and I liked that idea very much, to have Hell come in in the old-fashioned way…and also to let the villain die, was unexpected. Normally I would have let him go out into the world again. But this felt nice, and it felt very Hitchcock-like to let him hang from his nails.

Scope: Where did your vision of Hell come from?

Von Trier: There are a few pictures of Hell from the earlier days…some time ago it was very popular among artists to portray Hell. So you’re relatively free. I just took little parts of all the views you have on Hell from different people and different religions.

Scope: Art is obviously a crucial aspect of the film, from Jack’s negative photography to his architecture to the general discussion he has with Verge about art. Most of the artistic allusions and representations are older works, Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa for example. But this leads me to ask about the role of provocation in your work, as art has had a provocative role throughout history, such as in the Gericault painting, or earlier with artists like Michelangelo and Caravaggio. It’s basically a constant, and for good reason. In the 20th century, beginning with Duchamp, it seems to have accelerated and become more commonplace, as a political reaction to society. This is a roundabout way of asking: Do you think it’s necessary to have provocative artists? Is it more important now that ever?

Von Trier: It’s not necessary for everybody, but I think that it’s good for our common health, our psychological health, that there are some provocations. Because then we start to think about what it is that we stand for. The best audience will leave the cinema and think, well, that was not a positive experience, but still they will think about it, and then the next day, after having given it some more thought, begin to accept it. So it’s good if a hundred people left, because first to dislike, and then to get up and leave, also takes a lot of thinking. That’s the process.

Scope: Do you see provocation as a moral stance?

Von Trier: Yes.

Scope: The House That Jack Built is another film that you’ve set in America, a country that I believe you still haven’t visited.

Von Trier: Poor, poor state of Washington. We filmed in Sweden, which is what I believe the state of Washington looks like. And poor America, because I get the good actors who are American, and I get the language—the reason that we do the films in English is that we get an audience that is spread around the world…

Scope: But there’s nothing specific about America in the film? For many it’s the land of the serial killer or mass murderer. Also because there are some specific American references, such as the Kitty Genovese incident that you re-enact in the fourth part, when Simple yells and nobody reacts, which is a famous crime from the ’60s that was also very important for social psychology.

Von Trier: OK, I don’t know about that…

Scope: Yes, she was raped and murdered in a large apartment block, and though they later discovered there were more than 60 witnesses, nobody reacted or called the police…but I expect there are incidents like that around the world.

Von Trier: Yeah, I must say when I was a young man I demonstrated against the Vietnam War. And the USA was bad.

Scope: It’s not bad now?

Von Trier: It’s getting far, far worse! You know there’s a line in one of my other films that says people are too stupid for democracy. If Trump can get elected, which is ridiculous, it’s a farce, and thank God there’s no nuclear war yet, but…

Scope: Melancholia of course ends with a rogue planet hitting the Earth and destroying civilization. Do you sense the end is coming, not just because of what’s happening in America, but because as a species—and we get this from your films—that, well, we’re kind of stupid?

Von Trier: Yeah, yeah. I believe that we have lived the golden age of democracy, without knowing it. But now globalization really has changed things…if you’re living in a place where you don’t have enough food, then you go to a place where you can get more food. That’s in our nature. So of course that will happen. And with the internet, now it’s easy to find a picture of a place that looks like it has better hunting ground than where you are…I’m kind of pessimistic also because there’s a great right turn in most of Europe, in Denmark too. We have a party called Left, but it isn’t Left, but now it’s good compared to the right-wing parties. But the government is very dependent on the right-wing parties.

Scope: But do you see the film as a social critique, or just a moral critique? Because the American setting more than just language and actors…

Von Trier: America is, for me, a film land. That’s where most of my favourite films take place.

Scope: Let’s talk about music, firstly David Bowie, as you often use “Fame” as a music cue in the film, another song from the Young Americans album following the use of “Young Americans” in Dogville and Manderlay. But Jack’s predilection to turn his murders into art also brings to mind the 1995 Bowie album Outside, which is a concept album about murder as art…

Von Trier: Really? I didn’t know that. So nothing is new.

Scope: But as to why you keep repeating “Fame,” is the use literal or ironic for you? Though we see Jack send in his pictures to the newspapers as “Mister Sophistication,” it doesn’t appear that fame is the driving force for what he is doing, or, rather, that you’re kind of satirizing the connection between fame and the serial killer.

Von Trier: But Jack has a weak point for fame also, and so do I. I’m not proud of it.

Scope: But you like the Young Americans album.

Von Trier: Very much so. And now Bowie died, which was kind of a wake-up call that David Bowie could die, very strange.

Scope: For me your film is one where you’re expressing a consciousness of your own mortality, especially when we get to the montage of your own films.

Von Trier: Yes, it has a tendency to be a testament somehow…

Scope: It feels like a last film, in a way.

Von Trier: Yeah, but I hope it isn’t!

Scope: Why did you include that montage?

Von Trier: We needed some stuff to be under the voiceover at that point, and we tried to get some clips from some really good films and it was extremely expensive!

Scope: What films?

Von Trier: Some Kubrick, and Tarkovsky, of course…It was not possible at all. And then I said, what the fuck, we have the rights to all these films that cost nothing. But, yes, I understand that this montage makes it feel more like a testament.

Scope: I also wanted to ask about Bob Dylan, because you have Jack at times re-enacting the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video.

Von Trier: I thought it was a genius video, then somehow because it’s something that doesn’t happen in the story, it’s a way of making some signs…Yeah, actually, these last films I made are like eating at a restaurant that you really enjoy, that has different dishes, all things that you know and that you like, I put them in… I’ve been guided by my lust, so to say, to do it.

Scope: Can you elaborate on the idea of Jack’s art taking the form of negative photography?

Von Trier: As a kid I made photographs, and there was something magical about the old-fashioned way of doing it, with chemicals, so I liked this technique for Jack. But I always thought that it was really strange that something that is so white becomes something that is so black. And anything I could put in that showed Jack as a thinking man would be good.

Scope: That’s why you made him an architect, and the purpose of these artistic digressions, then, is to round out the character?

Von Trier: Yes. Also because the moral is—if there is any moral to the film—that I’m sure that all of us could be serial killers, you have to of course go over some limits and thank God we have these limits and systems that are trying to prevent these things from happening.

Scope: In the first episode Jack begs his eventual victim to go away, but she persists. You never specify if this is his first murder, but it seems to me that’s plausible. Are you also trying to say that if Uma Thurman’s character left him alone, he wouldn’t have killed her, maybe he wouldn’t have killed at all?

Von Trier: Well, no, I think he would have killed someone soon enough. But yes, that was the idea, that it was his first murder, though it’s never specifically clear…In the film, and in real life, Uma can be extremely irritating.

Scope: You’re coming across as very pessimistic, but is there anything at all that gives you hope?

Von Trier: Not America right now, that’s for sure. Um…Yeah, I have all of my children who are now in their 20s and they are beginning to be interested in very different things than I was interested in at their age. They are very much into not wasting food, which is good and important, but I, as a politically brought-up person, would hope that they would get along and get a political view. But, well, it’s up to them. I think I’ve done what I could. So now I can lay down and die.

Scope: But you have another film already planned, isn’t that right?

Von Trier: Yes, I’ve planned a series of little ten-minute études, that will be quite interesting, with actors in all different kinds of languages. I think we can attract a lot of very good actors to this because they only have to stay in Denmark for two days. And it could be fun, and there are quite a lot of people who, believe it or not, really want to work with me.

Scope: It sounds like it could be a step back to Dogme.

Von Trier: Yeah, it will be, but more kind of like a Japanese Dogme, very graphic, black and white. I’ll have fun. I don’t know if the audience will have fun, but I will have fun. The films will have nothing to do with each other, but of course if I’m going to do 36 of them…because there is a film professor who has written down 36 different conflicts for films, that’s what exists, 50 or so years ago.

Scope: So you’re going to make a film about film theory?

Von Trier: That’s correct.