With a back-story as singular as his films, Danish director Lars von Trier was one of the most exceptional filmmakers to burst onto the international film scene in the 1990s. Unapologetically confident in his artistry and an unabashed provocateur, von Trier could kick up a fuss about his behavior, but his stylistic brio, extreme narratives, and ability with actors prevented such films as Zentropa (1991), The Kingdom (1994), Breaking the Waves (1996), and Dancer in the Dark (2000) from being eclipsed by their creator. Even as he openly sought a larger audience by making films in English, von Trier's success helped resurrect Scandinavian cinema's international prominence; his intense fear of flying ensured he'd never "go Hollywood."
Born Lars Trier (he later added the aristocratic "von" to his name for aristocratic effect) and raised by his radical, nudist Communist parents in an unconventional environment where, as the director once put it, everything was permitted except "feelings, religion and enjoyment," the young man blossomed into a neurotic, left-wing, movie-loving youth. Given a Super-8 camera at age 11, von Trier spent his teens making movies and entered Copenhagen's film school in the early '80s. After winning prizes at the Munich Film Festival in 1981 and 1982 for his student films, the 1983 graduate managed to put together his low-budget debut feature, The Element of Crime (1984). A highly stylized neo-noir cop thriller set in a sepia-toned, water-logged future, The Element of Crime attracted favorable notice at the Cannes Film Festival, winning a prize for technical achievement. Von Trier continued his feature trilogy about Europe with the reflexive thriller Epidemic (1987). Starring the director as a director trying to raise money to make the movie-within-a-movie about a horrific virus unleashed on contemporary Germany, Epidemic was a controlled stab at postmodernism that underlined von Trier's restless creativity even though it was not as well regarded. After a version of Medea (1988) for Danish television, von Trier completed his European trio with Europa (1991). A darkly comic drama set in post-WWII Germany, Europa dazzled viewers with its ambitious use of superimposition, rear projection, and dramatic shifts between black-and-white and color, definitively establishing von Trier's mastery of ominous atmospherics. Retitled Zentropa for its American release, Europa earned von Trier his first substantial international recognition as well as film festival notoriety. Disappointed by Europa's third place Special Jury Prize at Cannes, von Trier accepted his award with thanks to "the midget," jury chair Roman Polanski.
Von Trier continued to experiment and stretch his cinematic vision, announcing plans to make a film called Dimension, to be shot in three-minute increments over 30 years. While the results of that project remain to be seen, what von Trier made in the ensuing eight years vaulted him from cult status to bona fide directorial stardom. Turning his terror of hospitals into superb entertainment, von Trier mounted the chilling miniseries The Kingdom (1994) for Danish TV. Shot on location in a Copenhagen hospital in 16 mm with available light, The Kingdom was an inspired blend of Twin Peaks freakiness with ER procedural kineticism in its story of a haunted hospital. A TV and film festival hit, The Kingdom also became a precursor to the new aesthetic and spiritual concerns of von Trier's subsequent 1990s feature films. Embroiled in personal turmoil mid-decade, including his mother's 1995 deathbed revelation of his actual biological father (who wanted nothing to do with von Trier after an initial meeting), von Trier definitively rebelled against his past. Along with converting to Catholicism, von Trier broke from the perfectionist style of his Europe trilogy, aiming to achieve the "honesty" he admired in Danish iconoclast Carl Theodore Dreyer's work with his own self-imposed artistic "chastity." Co-authoring the Dogme 95 manifesto with fellow Dane Thomas Vinterberg, von Trier declared that Dogme-ites should reject artifice by only telling contemporary stories and only shooting films on location, in natural light, with a handheld camera, and with location sound.
Though von Trier's next movie wasn't pure Dogme, it did reveal his altered perspective. Breaking the Waves (1996) became an international sensation. Broken up by vividly colored chapter "headings" created in collaboration with painter Pers Kirkeby, Breaking the Waves' disturbing story of female sacrifice and sexual martyrdom was lent dizzying immediacy by cinematographer Robby Müller's bravura, desaturated handheld camera work and film newcomer Emily Watson's intense performance as the simple-minded, devoted Bess. Breaking the Waves became an art house hit and earned von Trier another dissatisfying Cannes prize (the second place Grand Jury citation) and Watson an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Before his own entry in the Dogme canon, von Trier returned to his terrifying hospital for the miniseries sequel to The Kingdom. As popular as its predecessor, The Kingdom II (1997) was more outrageously (and comically) horrifying, reaching a grotesque peak with Udo Kier's performance as an enormous mutant spawn. Though von Trier intended to complete the yarn with The Kingdom III, lead actor Ernst-Hugo Jaregard's death in 1998 put the project in limbo.
Following Dogme 95's first international recognition with Vinterberg's The Celebration (1997), von Trier's own Dogme work The Idiots (1998) caused yet another stir. Though the roughly shot digital video depiction of a commune who "spaz" to disrupt bourgeois complacency and their effect on one female member raised eyebrows over its treatment of the mentally challenged, The Idiots also drew attention when von Trier refused to cut the orgy sequence's hardcore nudity, superimposing black bars over the offending body parts instead. Whatever its weaknesses, The Idiots helped to strengthen the Dogme 95 movement, which continued to expand with such films as Mifune (1999), Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), and Italian for Beginners (2001).
After executive-producing the popular Danish TV romance Morten Korch (1999), von Trier completed his "Golden Hearts" film trilogy about disturbed near-saintly women with perhaps his most divisive work to date, Dancer in the Dark (2000). Combining melodrama with the musical, another of his favorite genres, and shot in washed-out handheld video, save for the deliriously colorful, kaleidoscopic musical interludes, Dancer in the Dark upended musical conventions while inflicting an almost unbearable amount of suffering on doomed heroine Selma. Debuting at Cannes on the heels of well-publicized on-set strife between von Trier and star Bjork, Dancer in the Dark provoked as many boos as cheers on the way to winning the Best Actress prize and von Trier's longed-for Palme D'Or. While some critics slammed Dancer for its depiction of America (where plane-phobe von Trier has never been), its aesthetic ugliness, and emotional battery, others praised its daring style and visceral impact. Bjork's appearance at the Oscars in a swan dress to perform Dancer's nominated song "I've Seen It All" occasioned a similar love-it-or-hate-it response. Taking the uproar in stride as always, von Trier began shooting his next film, Dogville, in 2002. Eschewing digital video for HDTV and casting Nicole Kidman in the lead, von Trier all but guaranteed that Dogville would be another noteworthy endeavor.
Greater controversy was still to come, however. In 2003, von Trier paired up with legendary Danish documentarian Jørgen Leth for The Five Obstructions - an experimental documentary that found Von Trier "challenging" Leth to remake the classic short The Perfect Human with five Dogme-inspired technical and aesthetic handicaps. Then, after the 2005 Manderlay (a story about slavery set in the American South) and his 2006 The Boss of it All, von Trier reportedly succumbed to extreme emotional difficulties including a nervous breakdown. While recovering, he wrote what became the most controversial picture of his career - the 2009 Antichrist. The tale of a disintegrating marriage presented as a bloody horror show, it starred Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, and featured such extreme elements as talking forest animals, gruesome sexual self-mutilation, pornographic inserts and a climax of Biblical proporations where arms extend from the bowels of the Earth. Critical and audience reactions were immediate and extreme - both for and against the picture.
For his next opus, the 2011 Melancholia, von Trier tapped Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst to play sisters in an apocalyptic saga that finds the Earth being devoured by a larger planet. The presentation of this picture - much more restrained than that of Antichrist - engendered less controversy than its predecessor, though a good deal of tumult erupted off camera, where Von Trier - in a Cannes press conference, with a squirming Dunst beside him - made sympathetic remarks about Adolf Hitler and Albert Speer. Cannes officials then banned the director from the festival indefinitely, declaring him "persona non grata." Meanwhile, however, the film earned largely favorable notices.