Lars Von Trier: ‘Art Is Difficult to Define’

February 23, 2019
The director of The House That Jack Built faced up to the press to discuss OCD, depression, serial killer loving women and the Nazi/Cannes controversy.

Denmark’s arch provocateur, Lars von Trier is has never been one to hold back. From Breaking The Waves and Dancer In The Dark to Antichrist and Nymphomaniac, the Dane’s confrontational brand of cinema has as many detractors as it does admirers.

After being made persona non grata in Cannes for ill-advised Nazi jokes at the press conference for Melancholia, he was finally permitted back to the festival last year.

With him came his latest movie, The House That Jack Built, an American-set story of a serial killer (played by Matt Dillon) spanning a dozen gruesome years. Below, the 62-year-old talks to FilmInk about tackling serial killers, his own anxieties and coming back to Cannes.

You originally planned The House That Jack Built as a TV show. What happened?

We had got fantastic financing, but the problem was I couldn’t live up to the time that they needed it [done by], so I had to hire some writers and some directors and I’ve never worked that way…I had to write this film extremely fast because [Von Trier’s production company] Zentropa was missing money, which is a permanent situation, I think!

Did you have a long-held fascination with serial killers?

No, the women that I’ve been with have all been very fascinated with serial killers for straight reasons. I think it’s something very feminine to be interested in mass murderers. If you got to the book store, there are so many titles about mass killing. I don’t know. It must be sexy in some way. I don’t understand.

So, what made you choose a serial killer as the subject?

I just took it as a subject. If you have a serial killer, then you can’t go wrong! Whatever he does might be suddenly something very dangerous or very stupid, especially since he’s a mass murderer and a psychopath, which not all of them are. The psychopath has the tendency to over-estimate his abilities. That’s why he [Jack] says completely stupid things to the police. But I understand this hidden thing that he really wants to get caught.

Is this why Jack never wears gloves during his crimes?

Yeah, but at that time [the late 1970s], it was before the DNA stuff. If they had his fingerprints, maybe they don’t know who he is. I agree…I made the police more naïve and the women more stupid!

Why are the women depicted as stupid?

You have to ask my shrink. It becomes more dramatic when it’s different sexes.

Jack has real OCD issues too. Why?

It’s really funny but it’s really painful. I suffer from OCD and it’s really painful. You can see how…it’s what we call the women who stand in the libraries, that’s their disease, because they want the books to stand in a certain way. And then I say, ‘But that’s not so bad.’ It’s bad if you come back five times in the evening, lock yourself in. Because if things aren’t in the right place…I had that very much as a child…the world would go under.

Jack uses his victims’ corpses to create a macabre work of art. What gave you that idea?

I thought it was obvious. Since he was a mass killer, what are they doing with the corpses? He kept them in this walk-in freezer, so he had the material. It made sense to me. That’s all I can say.

Is the film a comment on the nature of art?

It could be a film about an artist, not a very good artist, but it’s taken to the limit. I could agree that killing sixty-four people could be an artwork. Why not? Art is difficult to define. But I wouldn’t do it.

Is it also a reckoning with your own work? You feature some excerpts from your past movies…

That’s a little joke. We had to have some clips of films and we couldn’t pay! Then I said, ‘What the fuck!? We have the rights to twenty films here. Couldn’t we use those?’ So we did that.

How did you find the shoot?

Making films is the only thing that can make me relax. I recover now from a depression, so working is good. But the shooting was really hard this time. Matt was beautiful to work with, and Bruno [Ganz]…everybody performed really well.

Matt Dillon with the late, great Bruno Ganz

Was this a hard film to cast?

Yeah, it was difficult. Matt’s part was difficult to cast. Matt was free and he said, ‘I can do it.’ Which was great. That’s what you want to hear. Then I thought about who has cast him in the beginning, and found out that it’s the same guy [Fred Roos] that cast The Godfather. So, he must be the perfect guy!

The violence in the film, particularly against women…is it the ultimate provocation?

I can understand [the reactions] that Nymphomaniac provoked, but violence I’ve seen in so many films, and there are so many films that are much worse, where it’s blood all over. So, I really didn’t see it as provocation. Maybe it’s because it’s an audience that sees my films that wouldn’t normally go and see all the splatter films. I didn’t see it as very provocative.

Was it a comment on the #MeToo debate?

Unfortunately, the script was made before all that. I just thought it was again very funny. Before he was killing somebody, he has a monologue about why it’s men that are always the criminals. And he was certainly the criminal.

You brought the film back to Cannes last year, after being made persona non grata. So, is all forgiven?

My problem is that I don’t think there’s really anything to forgive. This whole thing, the press conference [for Melancholia] was a mess. I really was starting to tell the story about my mother, who on her deathbed told me my father was not my father. So, I had no link to the Jewish family that I treasured so much. So, it was the beginning of this story. And since I’m not Jewish at all, but German…and we in Denmark have a tendency, if you talk about some Germans, we call them ‘Nazis’, for fun, which they are of course not! I was at a big meeting in Germany, in Berlin, and I said, ‘When you leave this room, you will feel your shoulders raise, because the pressure of guilt from the Second World War is gone.’ I made a mass thing…and they were like, ‘Ah, thank you! That is nice.’ We must just understand that human beings are capable of the worst of the worst. Everybody. Especially under the Nazi time, the systems were so cleverly made and the way of Hitler’s speeches and one thing that is remarkable is that they didn’t use religion. Normally, if you want to take over as a dictator, you use religion. But they didn’t. They had their own religion, and they put it together more or less like I put Hell together [in The House That Jack Built], from different sources – the Knights of the Round Table – which is completely fictional.

How did you feel about the walk-outs at the screening in Cannes?

It’s really difficult to see if they leave because you can only hear the door. When I showed Element of Crime, after ten minutes people started to leave and there were different seats that were going ‘boom!’ Every time a new murder came it was ‘boom-boom-boom-boom-boom!’

How do you feel about the current tide of political correctness?

I am very concerned about political correctness. I think it’s very dangerous. To take words out of the language, like ‘negro’, is a downfall for democracy. In Denmark for instance, it’s not against the law to be a Nazi, and that’s a fantastic thing. You can see that it’s five idiots running around… and I believe in freedom of speech.

The House That Jack Built opens in cinemas on 7 March

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