The Danish devil talks about murder, movies and his sensational new film The House That Jack Built.
I could chart the latter portion of my life in line with the release of the films of Danish director and serial provocateur, Lars von Trier. Seeing Breaking the Waves in 1996 was, to my knowledge, the first time I’d been excited to see a film due to its maker rather than the content of the film itself. In the intervening years, my mind has swayed – wildly so – as to whether von Trier is a cynical carnival barker-like character who strains too hard to force a reaction from his audience, or whether there is a sublime and subtle artistry to his madcap project, an artistry which lurks beneath the hysteria.
His 2000 Dancer in the Dark is a film which connected with me at a time of when I was emotionally impressionable and weak, and in my mind I almost hate it for making me feel so upset for so long. But then he made Dogville, and its greatness made me second-guess my hasty scepticism – how could the maker of a radical masterpiece like this also be behind a film whose machinations and tone verge on the ecstatically abusive?
Von Trier is that rare case of a modern auteur who doesn’t really have a reliable base of critical support. Some who claimed Dogville to be a modern masterpiece are now poo-pooing his new one, The House That Jack Built, sight unseen. Admittedly, I was expecting the worst from this predictably divisive film, having not cared much at all for his two previous features, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac.
The former was the cause of a peculiar experience in which I bailed from a press screening after about 30 minutes due to feeling a little queasy, but then later realising that I was so upset at the prospect of seeing through a von Trier film which looked like it was going to be very bad. (I caught the whole thing the following week and my suspicions were, sadly, correct.)
The House that Jack Built is a film which explores the process of filmmaking and the creation of art through the eyes of a demure and finicky serial killer as brilliantly played by Matt Dillon. It is separated into various “incidents” which, taken as a whole, produce a grand theory of cinema which processes the cinematic staples of acting, editing, filming and writing through the execution of a some strange, murderous deeds.
I travelled to Zentropa studios on the outskirts of Copenhagen to speak to von Trier about this triumphant new work. I was expecting to come face-to-face with the mischief maker I’d followed for so long from the sidelines, the irrepressible rebel who wore a ‘persona non grata’ t-shirt on the red carpet in Berlin in reference to his disastrous press conference for Melancholia in which he compared himself to Hitler. Yet he appeared much frailer than expected, his hands shaking and the answers to his questions sometimes functionally curt. Seeing him in this way made the achievement of the new film seem all the more extraordinary.
LWLies: Do you still hunt?
Von Trier: No. But, as it’s said in the film, there are different methods of hunting. Deer hunting is the less brutal form. But I have shot a couple of deers. And I’m feeling bad about hunting. The whole thing that Jack is saying about hunting is coming from me.
From your personal experience?
Yes. Because when you get older you think that it’s so much more fun to look at an alive Bambi than it is a dead Bambi.
When did you stop hunting?
It was a gradual phase out. I’ve had a hunting licence since I was 16. There are things that I would like to do, such as fly fishing, but I hate to do something that I’m not good at. You know? If I had been fly fishing all my life, it would come naturally to me. Like playing tennis – I will never be good at it, so I don’t do it.
That’s surprising to hear from someone who makes films which, formally, are very different from one another. Maybe you didn’t know you would be good at making a film on a soundstage, for instance?
I’m quite proud of the film on the soundstage.
In Dogville, you have the character of Tom played by Paul Bettany who does these illustrations of his moral philosophy. With this new film and Nymphomaniac it feels like you too are doing that.
The characters in that film, and especially Tom, are a sarcastic parody of myself.
More so than Jack?
Jack… is a part of me. But I’m not a psychopath. I’m pretty sure. I’ve been diagnosed since I was six. So I think I’m safe to be with.
I was also reminded of your film The Five Obstructions, in which you challenge the filmmaker Jørgen Leth to remake a short in a variety of different ways. Jack’s murders are all variations on a theme. Is this an essay film?
I’d feel fine with that description.
What is its link to literature?
From my point of view, you’re very free in literature. The best books are the ones where you’re being strictly led through by the author. And that’s what I’m trying to do with the essay elements of this film. Maybe call them digressions.
It seems that there have been very few Danish serial killers. Do you find that surprising?
Not really. We don’t have a very big population. There has been a couple of really nasty killers.
Serial killing is really an American thing.
But it’s a Russian thing also. They have one of the worst cases, historically speaking. The Iceman, he was American. He killed about 200 people. At first, it was his hobby to kill people, then he was hired by the Mafia as a hitman. That was a good job for him.
Did you spend a lot of time looking into the lives of real serial killers?
I wouldn’t say a lot of time, but I have looked into them. What you see is, normally, the audience to a trial would be a lot of women. There is something about women and serial killers. My wives have all had the same interest in serial killers. It’s really strange.
So this is a film for women?
Yes. But they will probably get upset about things that happen in it. So it’s actually a film for nobody.
There are very few female serial killers.
There have been some, but not that many. In Denmark we’ve had one. It’s normally nurses who go berserk and put something in the drugs of the old people.
Serial killers seem to get that name by doing other things rather than murder. Why does Jack not have any other violent predilections?
No, no. But he became the character he is from the story, so I know it’s easy for me to say I had nothing to do with it, but I did of course. The thing I find interesting is, for how long do you follow him, and can you follow him through all these things that he’s doing? It’s such a strong thing – that he’s the main part. Everybody has a conflict. He does evil, terrible things, but he’s still the one we follow. The one we’re interested in. It’s a little bit like the Hitler films. There must be something good in this man – but I don’t know where. He has a bad record.
In the same way Hitler created an evil ideology and then essentially lived it out, it feels like Jack does the same thing. He’s living out a crooked theory. Can you justify anything if you’re creative?
I’m not trying to justify Jack. He is trying to justify himself. He must be.
When were you first introduced to the concept of Hell?
A girl I work with called Jenle Hallund said I should do something about Hell. And I thought that’s a good idea because it’s a long time since we’ve really visited Hell in films. Particularly the journey to Hell. We put it together from different conceptions, or whatever the word is, of Hell. The Elysian Fields is something from the Roman mythology. I’m quite sure that Hell doesn’t look like what we have made for this film. Deep down, I don’t believe in Hell. But somehow I felt a little Hitchcock-like at the end of the film, with Jack hanging there above the abject depths. Never let the bad guy hang on his nails, as the audience won’t care.
The strange thing about this film is that you do care.
Yes, a little bit. And I think this little bit is very interesting. Normally when people see the film they are quite upset when they leave. And then something else happens in a couple of days, maybe it’s some kind of internal discussion. I don’t know whether anybody loves the film, but I find this element quite satisfying.
Was there ever a discussion about depicting Satan?
Hmm. No. We tried to keep Satan out. That will be the next film. Satan, from Satan’s point of view. The good things in Satan.
That’s a nice challenge.
Yes, like doing the good things in Hitler.
Matt Dillon gives a very detailed and strangely empathetic performance as Jack. He encapsulates this perfect mix of the human and the symbolic.
Yes. First of all, I started to see Jack as a psychopath. As they really believe in themselves. It was fun to write the conversation during the second incident where Jack is trying to trick the woman into letting him into her house. He says he from the police, because he’s only thinking about when the police will come for him. Psychopaths act out of an irrational certainty that they won’t be caught. That’s why the ending is like it is. It would be typical for me to let him live. But then I thought about good old Hitchcock and decided that this calls for a classical ending.
People always die in your movies.
I’m pretty sure they do.
I’m joking. Yes, they die a lot.
What’s it like to orchestrate a death for the camera?
It’s based on realism. I always make some inquiries. I talk to a pathologist. So I know how to kill. When you’re hunting, you kill. And very often, you kill an animal that has been shot in the wrong way. You have to be ready to do that to an animal of this size. It’s like killing a dog. So you get another feeling about it.
You have to kill the humans right the first time?
Yes, I think so.
There’s a nasty strangling in this film, and also in Antichrist. You make them look very realistic.
Strangling is, according to the pathologist, a good way to go. It takes only 10 seconds before you faint. Then you hold on for a bit longer and then you’re dead. There’s only very little pressure you need to apply. Just stop the anterior arteries. You can do with two fingers. If you can make the victim stand still.
If they want it to happen to them, which you suggest with this film sometimes people do. Maybe unknowingly.
Yes, almost. But doing death on film isn’t that exciting for me. It’s lots of special effects. You have to do it right though. The small boy who is shot is all done on a computer.
You’re planning to do a film called Etudes where you look at different types of dramatic situations. You’ve said that you think it will be a happy process. Have you ever thought a film would be happy and then it ended up not being like that?
Dancer in the Dark. It was not so fun. I enjoyed making Dogville, very much. Even though there were 10 lions around me all the time. There was Ben Gazzara and Lauren Bacall. Everybody. As I said to Ben Gazzara, I can’t direct you because I’m a very big fan.
Quentin Tarantino is a big fan of yours, especially Dogville. He said it should have won the Pulitzer Prize. Have you seen any of his recent films?
He made films called The Hateful Eight and Django: Unchained which feel like they were inspired by Dogville and Manderlay.
Okay, good. No, but I have this principle where I’m trying not to see modern films. I have my little treasure chest filled with films that were made before I started to make films. That’s where I navigate from. If I see new films, and get excited by something, I follow it. Then I get excited by something else, and follow it in a different direction. A lot of people follow trends. I’m trying to make the films that are missing. Or that I feel are missing.
Is there any part of you that wishes you could forget the films you saw in your youth?
That would have been interesting, though a little strange. When I was at university we saw four films a day. Everybody hoped that when the equipment got so cheap and that you could film on your telephone, that there would be an explosion of creativity. But I don’t really know if it’s there. What would you say?
There are interesting things out there, but maybe nothing comparable to the Dogme films. You’re still out there on your own.
Haha. I was born to be alone.
The House that Jack Built is released on 14 December. Read the LWLies Recommends review.
Published 13 Dec 2018
Lars von Trier is up to his old tricks in this absurdly macabre and deeply self-conscious portrait of a serial killer.