Confrontational provocateur Lars von Trier has, over a prolific filmmaking career now bridging nearly four decades, amassed an admirable, distinct, powerful, and frequently polarizing body of work. The Danish born firebrand is recognized, even by his detractors, for his numerous technical innovations, his willingness to experiment, and his fondness for upending genre conventions.
Von Trier is also identified with his often adversarial approach to studying and scrutinizing themes of existentialism, sociopolitical issues, mental health intellection, as well as spirituality and faith traditions. Because of his often bold and spurring modus operandi, von Trier courts controversy with almost every new film he actualizes.
As an auteur-director, von Trier has inspired many of his peers via his financial independence and total creative control over his many projects, all made through his production company Zentropa Entertainment, which he founded in 1992 with producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen.
A key architect along with fellow Danish filmmakers Thomas Vinterberg––and to a lesser but still considerable extent Søren Kragh-Jacobsen and Kristian Levring––they concocted the cinematic movement called Dogme 95. This internationally acknowledged movement involved the “Dogme 95 Manifesto” and the “Vows of Chastity” were meant to emphasize traditional storytelling devices while eschewing elaborate special effects or technology, and is still practiced by filmmakers to this day, though von Trier himself has largely left it behind since the 90s.
Apart from his often brutal and burning approach to controversial subject matter, von Trier’s films consistently present strong female leads, and his female-centric films are often compared to other great European filmmakers like Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman for this very reason. “The male protagonists in my films are basically all idiots who don’t understand shit,” says von Trier, adding: “Whereas the women are much more human, and much more real. It’s the women I identify with in all my films.”
Among his many accolades, von Trier has received the Palme d’Or (for Dancer in the Dark), the Grand Prix (for Breaking the Waves), the Prix du Jury (for Europa), and the Technical Grand Prize (for The Element of Crime and Europa) at the Cannes Film Festival. And all of this from Cannes despite his being briefly banned and labelled “persona non grata” after a 2011 press conference promoting Melancholia got out of hand.
One final note before getting to the ranking of von Trier’s filmography is that the only notable omissions here are his 1988 telefilm Medea, and that of the Danish TV miniseries The Kingdom (1994) and The Kingdom II (1997), as they were never widely released cinematically, though it does slot in spectacularly as some of his most enjoyable and from out-of-left-field work. If you’re a fan of von Trier, Kingdom is essential viewing (but so is everything on this following list).
13. The Element of Crime (1984)
Von Trier’s pastiche-heavy neo-noir crime caper/art film, the first installment of his Europa trilogy, also runs as something akin to Alphaville-lite. But that said, it’s an artful, accomplished, and rather auspicious debut that concerns an ex-detective and expat named Fisher (Michael Elphick), down and out in Cairo when he reluctantly agree to take one last case involving a serial killer dubbed the “Lotto Murderer.”
After the at large killer keeps claiming the lives of several young girls, a frustrated Fisher enlists the help of a writer named Osbourne (Esmond Knight) and the pair explore some strange criminology methods to catch their man.
Of course, this being a von Trier film, things get stranger and more complex than this undernourished synopsis suggests and the only thing that really mars this production is that Element of the Crime was made on a small budget and some of that shows through. Still, the sepia-tones and surreal imagery make this first flight an interesting, and occasionally abstract, thriller.
12. Epidemic (1987)
Continuing the Europa trilogy with Epidemic, von Trier also takes a rare turn in front of the camera as well where he is joined by co-screenwriter and co-star Niels Vørse in this eerie meta-horror film. Portraying simulacrum versions of themselves, the film features a frustrated director (von Trier) and a struggling screenwriter (Vørse) as they spend 18 months trying to concoct a suitable and bankable horror movie.
Intercut with scenes and sequences from the movie they’re writing, wherein von Trier is a rather dissident Dr. Memer trying to manufacture a cure for the titular epidemic. As Epidemic progresses things get more and ore sinister, strange, and ultimately horrific––the capsheaf is particularly cruelly rewarding––and the film is also fascinating in that all of the director’s cinematic obsessions are proleptically displayed.
Epidemic is also of interest to von Trier’s fans as it represents the first of many collaborations with the iconic cult and character actor Udo Kier.
11. Manderlay (2005)
A not entirely successful, but still rather accomplished avant-garde experiment, this follow-up to 2003’s superior dissection Dogville, is the second film in von Trier’s thus far incomplete USA – Land of Opportunities trilogy.
Manderlay stars Bryce Dallas Howard, who replaces Nicole Kidman in the role of Grace Mulligan, a young woman in the Dust Bowl era of Arkansas in 1933. Grace and her father (Willem DaFoe) discover the eponymous plantation where it seems that slavery is still in practice.
Feeling compelled to help the people living in Manderlay Grace opts to stay and liberate these people and see them through their first harvest. Grace’s father, a gangster, leaves her with a quartet of his gunmen and his lawyer, Joseph (Teddy Kempner), all to ensure that the ex-slaves transition as swiftly and easily as possible.
Allegorical, provocative, and spiked with anti-American sentiment, Manderlay is nevertheless a moving, and emotional R and D of race relations, arrogance, and the articles of faith. As with Dogville, this film is shot in the same distinctive style––inspired by televised theater circa 1970s––on a bare soundstage with minimal sets (buildings are denoted by lines on the floor, with nominal to no set decoration).
The results will grate on some viewers who will only see pretension in these designs, but for the rest of us, buoyed by strong performances and devilish plot twists, this is a solid film and one whose ambition and basis is both sincere and enticing.
10. Europa (1991)
The very presence of actor Eddie Constantine in Europa invokes his iconic role of Lemmy Caution from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 sci-fi classic Alphaville, and it’s no coincidence. But Alphaville, in von Trier’s imaginings here, sits alongside Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), and they make for oddly in sync bedfellows.
Concluding his punchy and pastiche-addled Europa trilogy, this Franz Kafka-excited closer––whose very name is an homage to Kafka’s posthumously published 1946 tome “Amerika”––is a cajoling fever dream of sound and image.
Filmed in a very experimental style with no less than three skilled cinematographers at von Trier’s beck and call (Henning Bendtsen, Edward Klosinski, and Jean-Paul Meurisse, respectively), each doing their best of imitate film noir convention in a mostly monochrome world of black-and-white with startling splashes of color imagery, rear-projection, as well as animated use of surreal layered imagery and double-exposures, all of which largely enhanced by Max von Sydow’s succinct narration.
Europa is set in 1945 US-occupied Germany, and concerns itself with a young and rather naive peacenik American named Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), who is soon entwined in an intentionally maudlin plot to blow up a train belonging to Zentropa railways, all for the woman he loves, the fiery femme fatale Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa).
Spellbinding, and strange, Europa imagines a strangely futuristic past with no shortage of odd-lot slapstick and endless pop culture posturing. To miss Europa wouldn’t be wise.
9. The Boss of It All (2006)
While even von Trier’s most dirge-like films offer moments of comical interlude, 2006’s The Boss of It All is the only film thus far in his canon that’s an across-the-board comedy, though of course of the pitch dark and satiric variety.
Perverse, droll, and especially serrated, this sharp workplace-set comedy involves Ravn (Peter Gantzler), company director for a successful IT firm who has spent years convincing his competent and good-humored staff that the real “boss of it all” is an absentee overseer named Svend who lives in America.
When the opportunity to sell the business presents itself via one wealthy prospective purchaser named Finnur (Fridrik Thór Fridriksson), Ravn realizes he has no choice but to hire an actor named Kristoffer (Jens Albinus) to play the fictional boss so that the deal can occur. Hilarity ensues, of course.
Fond of throwing in a gimmick or a technical challenge with many of his films, The Boss of It All is no exception, and for this project von Trier surrenders a significant part of his control as auteur but shooting the entire film WITHOUT A CAMERA OPERATOR. I didn’t mean to shout there, but this risky gambol on von Trier’s part deserved some sort of emphasis as it’s a rather ridiculous hindrance that here seems to work impeccably.
Essentially, this operator-free exercise worked like this: after blocking the scene with the cast von Trier would chose the best possible fixed camera position for coverage––as any director would do––and then a computer running the camera would choose when to tilt, pan or zoom at random.
The results? Well, many serendipitous instances resulted in what von Trier playfully referred to as “Automavision”, and the punchy and sharp editing from Molly Malene Stensgaard helps bring the whimsical wisecracking and vagary to the fore.
A funny experiment with plenty of pay off, The Boss of It All is probably von Trier’s most overlooked and underrated film and that’s a shame as it’s an absolute pleasure from start to finish.
8. The Idiots (1998)
Von Trier’s first film made in complete compliant with the Dogme 95 Manifesto, The Idiots isn’t an easy viewing experience and is the kind of polarizing project that his fans admire while his detractors utterly abhor. That said, for the adventurous viewer, wonders await in this challenging, explicit, and emotionally charged comedy-drama.
The comic aspects of The Idiots cannot be under emphasized, particularly considering how many of von Trier’s vocal detractors like to typify the Dane as a humorless cynic. The Idiots tells the harrowing tale of Karen (Bodil Jørgensen), a woman who recently lost her baby and the grief of her tragedy has eluded her as something she cannot quantify or confront––at least, not yet.
Dining alone at a bustling diner Karen meets a disruptive group of people who behave as if mentally challenged. Realizing that these people aren’t what they appear to be––are they performance artists performing some kind of guerilla theater?––she joins their ranks. Staying in a communal house and led by a poised and intellective man named Stoffer (Jens Albinus), this group of people practice “spaz” behaviour in public as a means of challenging and confronting bourgeois tenets.
Most of the controversy over The Idiots is centered around the graphic sexual content––there’s an orgy scene that might be too much for the uptight viewer––but it’s really the confrontational and blunt observations on voyeurism, upsetting social mores, and the full-on denial of emotional vulnerability that should set most viewers into a tizzy.
Von Trier, with this film, brazenly calls down thunderbolts as he forces the viewer to take some accountability with our own public personas. Brutally funny and full of affection and indignation, The Idiots radiates understanding and, pardon the play on words, real penetration.
7. Dogville (2003)
“For passion, originality, and sustained chutzpah,” wrote The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman in an overwhelmingly positive review, “this austere allegory of failed Christian charity and Old Testament payback is von Trier’s strongest movie–a masterpiece, in fact.”
A challenging experiment that stylishly utilizes a barren soundstage to manufacture the thinnest semblance of a spartan small-town mise en scène, the eponymously named Dogville and its citizens represent a succinct and cynical microcosm for America in the first picture of von Trier’s thus far unfinished USA – Land of Opportunities trilogy (with 2005’s Manderlay being the succeeding film, and as for a third film, well, don’t anyone hold their breath).
This problematic, provocative, and arguably very heroic picture concerns a mysterious fugitive woman named Grace Mulligan (Nicole Kidman) going underground, as it were, hiding from the gangsters who are after her.
The rather duplicitous people of Dogville agree to provide refuge for Grace, but in exchange for asylum she must work for various townspeople to gain patronage. As a helpless and desperate outsider Grace soon provokes some upsetting abuse and perverse derision as the film morphs into a potent morality tale and a spring-loaded parable of human suffering.
As paradoxically alienating and appealing as anything in von Trier’s oeuvre, Dogville is a risky venture that’s well served by a startling, strong, and rather savage climax. For all the film’s antithetical audience and critical reception Dogville nevertheless topped numerous 2004 top-ten lists. Rarely does a film garner such equally appalling and exuberant attention as it wrestles with such intense and dense subject matter, unless of course it comes from von Trier.
6. The Five Obstructions (2003)
Both a dazzling cinematic experiment and an entertaining examination of two talented and contrasting filmmakers, The Five Obstructions is part-documentary and part academic experiment, with a results that are never less than fascinating, frequently thrilling, and entirely, refreshingly original.
An occasionally combative and often changeable collaboration between von Trier and Jørgen Leth (a leading figure in experimental documentary filmmaking and fellow Dane), the premise for The Five Obstructions is thus: von Trier challenges Leth, his friend, mentor, and hero, to remake his 1967 experimental film The Perfect Human five times.
Each time Leth remakes his film he must deal with a new and varied “obstruction” as specified by von Trier. One example of this is that von Trier challenges Leth to remake his film in Cuba without a set and with no shot lasting longer than twelve frames, while another challenge has Leth remake his film as an animated “cartoon”––a format von Trier has much contempt for.
Part of the fun of The Five Obstructions comes in the mischievous glee that von Trier takes in tormenting his beloved mentor and then witnessing how the deeply resourceful Leth outfoxes his taskmaster again and again. An imaginative, infuriating, funny, and unique experience, this is another risky and rewarding verification of von Trier’s warped and luminous genius.
5. Antichrist (2009)
A showy and sinister flirtation with the horror genre, and indeed a subversion of it, Antichrist is also the first film in von Trier’s Depression Trilogy––followed by 2011’s Melancholia and 2013’s Nymphomaniac, both of which are further on down this list. This arthouse experimental fright film unspools with a visually poetic grace with the tragic stirrings of an opera as imagined perhaps by the Marquis de Sade.
Starring an outstanding Charlotte Gainsbourg as a grieving mother coping with the recent death of her infant child––Gainsbourg won Best Actress at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival for her astonishing efforts––the film soon devolves into her harrowing descent into madness as her increasingly violent and savage sexual behaviour and sadomasochism overwhelms her and her despondent husband (Willem Dafoe).
Filmed with an immensely meticulous and almost Hieronymus Bosch-like eye for detail and delicacy, with thanks largely due to cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire), several of the film’s graphic sex scenes have an intimate intensity that frequently unravels with a Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch-like temper.
Antichrist is a powerful, painful, frightening, uncompromising and startlingly sensual (to the point of obscene) psychodrama that most viewers are likely to crawl away from feeling shaken, excited, and undoubtedly very troubled.
4. Nymphomaniac (2013)
This dark, indulgent, frequently funny and unapologetically audacious two-part arthouse opus is the third and concluding installment in von Trier’s Depression Trilogy (preceded by Antichrist and Melancholia).
Originally intended as one complete viewing experience but owing to its daunting length––the definitive director’s cut runs 5½ hours––Nymphomaniac was broken down into two separate films but for simplicity’s sake as far as this list is concerned it will be included as one film. And oh what a film it is!
With an impressive international cast that includes Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Dafoe, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman, and Connie Nielsen, and as the immediately ire-inducing title suggests, Nymphomaniac is no walk in the park.
Ostensibly the biographical tragic tale of a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac named Joe (played by both Gainsbourg and Martin at different stages of her life), the film begins in Volume One as an erotic tale of adolescence and young-adulthood before journeying into Volume Two’s darker adult detour of self-discovery and dalliance with no less than extinction.
The bravura visual presentation, which is largely indebted to the lensing of DP Manuel Alberto Claro (who also worked with von Trier on 2011’s Melancholia) and the genius editing powers of Morten Højbjerg and Molly Marlene Stensgaard, also exhibits some of von Trier’s most startlingly diverse and grandiose formalism.
Arguably von Trier’s most visually ravishing production, Nymphomaniac is the sort of tumultuous upheaval of a film that it demands discussion and postmortem in order to properly penetrate it’s multitude of layers and movements. And while that statement may suggest a didactic tirade, much of Nymphomaniac moves with a fluid poetry, a lush eroticism, and an engagingly eccentric flourish.
Yes it’s bold, and brutal, and graphic and disturbing––if you’re a prude, stay away, and what are you doing reading this list anyway?––but it’s also something of a tour de force. Miss this film at your own peril, and watch it at your own peril, too.
3. Dancer in the Dark (2000)
A startlingly superb and artfully imaginative musical, Dancer in the Dark eschews conventionality at great risk and offers one of the most emotionally excruciating yet shrewdly beautiful films you’re likely to ever see.
Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk gives an absolutely fearless performance as Selma Ježková, a Czech immigrant and struggling single mother who works in a lifeless factory in rural America, 1964. Her solace and her salvation rests in her passion for music and she daydreams about the majesty and grandeur of Hollywood musicals of the Busby Berkeley all-singing, all-dancing variety (think 1933’s Footlight Parade or 1934’s Dames).
Unwilling to share a sad secret with her friends and peers, Selma is losing her eyesight and she fears that a similar fate will befall her son Gene (Vladica Kostic), unless she can save away enough money for an operation. Her true tragedy starts to manifest after her prick of a neighbor (David Morse) falsely accuses her of theft and, no spoilers here, events escalate into dark and devious tragedy.
The musical sequences of Dancer in the Dark is where the film really and truly dazzles and a magical realism––stunningly captured via over 100 digital cameras––that boost the film into the upper echelons of cinema.
While it will arguably be near impossible for any musical to ever again capture the flat out effervescence, exhilaration, and wonder of those aforementioned Berkeley musical masterpieces, with this film von Trier comes remarkably close and deserves rapturous applause for even attempting to attain such heights.
Is there a modern musical as affecting, courageous, and distressing as Dancer in the Dark? The answer is no.
2. Melancholia (2011)
There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about von Trier’s hypnagogic and deeply pensive apocalyptic powerplay Melancholia that cinches it as one of the director’s very finest motion pictures. For one, it’s so rare a thing that a film capture with such startling insight and due diligence the emotional state that depression casts upon the individual, and for anyone who’s wrestled with that black dog they can easily see the naked truth in Kirsten Dunst’s chef-d’oeuvre central performance as Justine.
Von Trier, with Melancholia, playfully and profoundly upends sci-fi convention in a tense and dangerous spring-loaded narrative that pivots around newlyweds Justine and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). These ill-fated lovers tie the proverbial knot just as the world at large learns of the presence of a rogue planet, “Melancholia”, which is believed to be on a near-collision course with Earth and will most certainly be an extinction level cataclysm.
And while that synopsis sounds like another dirge from the oft-gloomy von Trier, a fair share of gallows humor inhabits the film––look no further than Udo Kier as the wedding planner of the apocalypse and try not to chuckle at the drollery of it all.
Led my Dunst’s luminous performance, ably backed by Charlotte Gainsbourg as her sister, Claire, both hanging on the speculations and suspicious that the End of Days might not be so dour for everyone. The film also presents a formal elegance––perhaps best displayed by the slo-mo grand-scale eradication gracefully captured by the Phantom HD Gold cameras––resulting in a lushly unforgettable bookend of astonishing and shocking visuals. An absolutely unforgettable showpiece.
1. Breaking the Waves (1996)
Martin Scorsese cut to the quick when he said: “Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves is a genuinely spiritual movie that asks ‘what is love and what is compassion?’”
While fans of von Trier’s may debate over which of his films deserves the coveted top spot in ranking his filmography, what cannot be argued is that 1996’s Breaking the Waves was his career-defining breakthrough, and the one that announced him to the world as a provocateur and practitioner of auteur-theory (though he’d most likely balk at that term).
Before any more ink is spilled here it must be said that much of Breaking the Waves’ staying power comes from the towering performance of Emily Watson who is absolutely unforgettable as the best upon protagonist Bess McNeill.
Set in remote North-West Scotland’s Outer Hebrides during the 1970s, this heart-rending romance is a saga-like work of histrionic artifice. Breaking the Waves is also a melodrama and an epic of faith, love, martyrdom, and atonement. Gaining momentum and a staggering power by the progressively ruthless, and shatteringly vicious events of the film’s final hour –– which includes Bess being almost supernaturally summoned out to sea by a cruel and sadistic sailor played by a menacing Udo Kier.
Drawing inspiration equally from Carl Theodor Dreyer –– his film Gertrud (1964) is in many ways this film’s template, but the cinematic portraiture and saintly suffering of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and the raw essentials of Ordet (1955) deserve mentioning as well –– and the Marquis de Sade’s 1791 novel, Justine. Von Trier chooses his influences well, and while moved by them, he also transcends them in many respects.
Breaking the Waves was the first installment of von Trier’s “Golden Hearted Trilogy,” which is consumed and concerned with exploring the nature of love and sacrifice from a fearless female perspective( the other films in this thematic trey are The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark, for those who may have lost track).
Righteously troubling, morally unpleasant, and yet unshakably dazzling and deliriously full of grace, Breaking the Waves is an overwhelming and ecstatic experience and the capsheaf of a brilliant filmmaker. Essential viewing.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.