Lars von Trier is used to being misunderstood.
The Danish auteur has built a prodigious career with work featuring provocative moral premises at their core. Breaking the Waves (1996) stars Emily Watson in an Oscar-nominated performance as a woman who submits to sexual degradation to achieve transcendent spiritual deliverance. Antichrist, which was loudly booed by many at its 2009 Cannes festival premiere, uses the repugnant techniques of torture porn cinema to explore the depths of depression and despair of a couple [played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg] following the death of their infant son. In Nymphomaniac Vol. I and II (2013), combines XXX imagery with screwball comedy to reflect on the place of sexuality in Western society.
Off-screen, von Trier’s public provocations have become the stuff of festival legend. When Europa won a technical prize in Cannes in 1991, the Danish director dismissed the decision, calling jury president Roman Polanski a midget. Later that night, for the benefit of a Danish TV crew, he symbolically set fire to his award on the beach. At the Cannes press conference for Melancholia (2011), von Trier called himself a Nazi and “jokingly” said he sympathized with Adolf Hitler, which got him banned from Cannes for seven years.
But that public bad-boy image has always been at odds with the shy, socially-anxious von Trier described by his actors and crew. The director is so terrified of airplanes and boats that he has never been to the U.S. and, when he has a film in Cannes, famously travels by camper van all the way from Copenhagen to the south of France.
It’s an image even harder to maintain now, after the 66-year-old von Trier has gone public with his diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease.
The diagnosis came while von Trier was finishing The Kingdom Exodus, the third, and final, season of his Danish hospital horror series, made 25 years after the second season wrapped in 1997. The series, which had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, will go out on arthouse streamer Mubi later this year.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter via video link from Denmark, von Trier showed clear symptoms of the neurodegenerative disorder, his body shaky and his speech slowed. But the director was in high spirits, discussing his diagnosis, The Kingdom Exodus and more.
How are you feeling? How has your Parkinson’s diagnosis impacted your ability to work?
I hope that as I work more, and adjust, I will be less impacted by the disease. The symptoms really began during the shooting [of The Kingdom: Exodus], and it was extremely unpleasant, particularly the shaking. But listen, this is a quite common disease. I think one in 80,000 Danes has it, so it’s very common. It’s not, as they say, deadly, but you have to live with it until you die. For me, it was a relief to have it out in the open. You could say that is very selfish of me, and I’d agree. But I have always seen the benefit in sharing things as they are.
Will this diagnosis stop you from making movies?
I’d consider myself hysterical if I said it would prevent me from making films. Of course, the question is how much the disease is brain damage, and just how much of my brain has been eaten up is an interesting one when I start to work. Maybe [my movies] will get even worse. We’ll have to see that next time when we meet again.
You are premiering the third, and final, season of your TV series The Kingdom Exodus, here in Venice. You made the first two seasons back in the 1990s. What made you want to return to revisit this story?
We always had something written down about how it should end, and I saw at a certain point, I think I had four or five projects that were planned as trilogies, that were missing one film. And I thought about The Kingdom. At that point, I really needed a project. I thought up the little trick of bringing it up to date and setting it in the present day. Then it was very easy to write.
I find the third season much funnier than the first two, and I’ve noticed that, especially since Melancholia, you’ve become much more open and direct with your humor in your work. Do you think you’re getting funnier as you get older?
You think it’d be the opposite. You’re not as old as me, but you probably know, there is nothing funny about getting old. Especially if you have a disease that manifests itself by the fact that you can’t do today what you could do yesterday. That’s a very unpleasant thing. So I wouldn’t say that my humor was more released. But everything I’ve done, even though it’s very serious and pretentious or whatever, has been based on humor. I believe humor is what drives me.
I remember when we wrote the script for Breaking the Waves (1996). We had the sketch for this story, about a young, more or less handicapped woman that fucks her way to heaven. We were laughing so much that we cried. You can base serious things on humor. All my creativity has to do with humor.
Do you think people misunderstand that in their reception of your work and in you as a person? I remember being in that infamous press conference in Cannes for Melancholia in 2011 where you compared yourself to Hitler, which didn’t go down well.
I felt a little let down by the moderator because I would have preferred that he had stopped me and said: what do you really mean? Instead, I ended up saying “I’m a Nazi,” which was not good. I’m not a Nazi and even though most of the people at the press conference knew me, and knew that saying a thing like that ends the discussion, it’s like in a fight with your wife saying: your mother was right!
It was a misunderstanding. But it actually came out of something that I’d forgotten about. I had a meeting with [Cannes president] Gilles Jacob the day before. He’d written a book about Cannes, and he showed me where he had two pictures of me in it: one in my leather jacket with a shaven head and one in a tuxedo. The text under the picture said: this is what happens to all rebels, Cannes makes them conform. Something like that. So I said to him: I better find something really provocative to say tomorrow. And he said: yes, please. But it seems that it was the wrong provocation and at very much the wrong place. In France, they don’t understand that humor. There are big feelings of guilt because of the Vichy government handing over all the Jews to the Nazis. I was naive.
There’s a law against trivializing the Holocaust in France, and the Danish police came to me and said [if convicted] I could get five years in jail. In Marseilles. I’ve always been a little afraid of Marseilles. Five minutes there is enough for me. It was all very stupid of me. But I think Melancholia is still a worthwhile film.
Do you still feel the desire to provoke? I remember when you came to Cannes that year, you had “F-U-C-K /Y-O-U” tattooed on your fingers…
[Von Trier holds up his hands, with the tattoos, to the video screen.]
Yes, I do, but it’s part of the technique. I believe in provocation, because provocation starts a debate, and debate is what makes democracy stronger. In Denmark, we don’t have any laws against being a Nazi. They have them in Germany and France. I don’t know about America. But in Germany and in France, you can’t wear a swastika. In Denmark, it’s not illegal. I think that’s a good thing. We have four people from the Danish Nationalist Party, the Nazi party, in parliament, and they just look and sound stupid. It’s very easy to disregard them, they are utterly insignificant. By putting it out there, and allowing people to talk about it, you show how ridiculous the ideology is.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.