Lars von Trier has made a career out of pushing boundaries. A controversial figure who has aimed to produce work that intentionally confronts the viewer, even to the point of alienating portions of his audience, von Trier has managed to be prolific in his more than four decades of being active in the industry. It helps that he has consistently drawn critical acclaim. A mere namedrop of the filmmaker often produces polarizing reactions.
Born in Kongens Lyngby, Denmark, von Trier—the son of Fritz Michael Hartmann, the head of Denmark’s Ministry of Social Affairs—sought out a creative medium from a young age. Studying film theory at the University of Copenhagen and later film direction at the National Film School of Denmark, von Trier took his career path seriously. Not long after, von Trier would reach his breakthrough with 1984’s The Element of Crime, winning a dozen awards on the film festival circuit. The Element of Crime demonstrated von Trier’s penchant for innovation and experimentation with structure, preferring a nonlinear narrative with intense and visually arresting visuals. Von Trier viewed his projects uniquely, often grouping them into trilogies, wherein the similarities across such films were more in filmic intent and experimental technique rather than narrative continuity.
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By 1992, von Trier yearned for creative control and financial independence for both he and his projects, founding Zentropa Entertainment alongside producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen. This choice would greatly inform the increasingly controversial nature of his subsequent work and his stance as a bit of an outsider in the industry.
A milestone in both the modern history of avant-garde film and von Trier's career, the Dogme 95 manifesto was conceived of by von Trier and filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg as a set of rules advocating traditional values of story, acting, and theme, while excluding the increasing popularity of special effects and computer technology. Aimed to take back the director role as an artist first and foremost, the manifesto led to the Dogme 95 movement along with a series of applicable projects from different directors including von Trier himself. One such example was 1996’s Psychomobile 1: The World Clock, a documentary involving 53 different actors, which is quite the feat even today.
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Though many would think immediately of the films that comprise his “Depression Trilogy” when hearing his name, von Trier has, in fact, directed a diverse range of films that go beyond explicit sex, darkness, and violence. Still, his is a name that conjures provocation, a sincere disturbing feeling that takes confrontation to new heights (or new lows depending on the person).
The Lineup dug through von Trier’s filmography to see which of his films are most upsetting. We ranked them so that you don’t have to.
8. Breaking the Waves
A film produced using the rules set by the Dogme 95 manifesto, Breaking the Waves centers around Bess McNeill, a young beautiful Scottish woman equally pure and naïve. To the dismay of everyone she knows, she marries Jan Nyman, an oil rig worker. Bess is deeply religious and appears to have a one-on-one relationship with God, frequently praying and speaking to him at the Free Scottish Presbyterian Calvinist church. Jan is frequently away on work, which Bess finds to be difficult and hard on their marriage, even with their phone calls and frequent sexual fantasies.
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When Jan has an accident at the oil rig, Bess believes God is punishing her for those sexual fantasies. Jan is paralyzed and can no longer perform sexually, eventually encouraging Bess to find other men to have sex with. Eventually she does, under the pretense that she believes her sexual escapades might cure Jan of his paralysis. Breaking the Waves contains a lot of the intensity you’d expect from von Trier, along with managing to examine faith and religion alongside human loss and desire.
7. All About Anna
By the time von Trier had financial and creative independence via his Zentropia studio, he began really pushing boundaries. For instance, he and the studio managed to produce outwardly pornographic films while promoting the content as film, not base adult entertainment. All About Anna is one such film (alongside Constance and Pink Prison). Deemed a sex film for women, the upsetting nature of the film is akin to his later work.
All About Anna is, in a nutshell, about Anna, a single and independent woman seeking intimacy with others without any emotional attachment. From sex scene to unrelenting sex scene, von Trier produces an authentic portrayal of Anna’s sex life, no matter how uncomfortable it becomes for viewers who increasingly feel, with every passing frame, like voyeurs.
6. The Element of Crime
As mentioned earlier, The Element of Crime became Von Trier’s big breakout film—and with good reason. Imagine such a visually intense neo-noir of this caliber releasing in the mid-80s. Proof that von Trier can cause distress and alarm without resorting to sex and violence, the film manages to conjure up a strange, dreamy atmosphere that perhaps hadn’t been seen from von Trier, at least at this level, until Melancholia.
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Here we get to know a detective named Fisher who is subjected to hypnosis to remember his last case. His memories are imperfect and tell of a dystopian and dreamlike Europe where a serial killer dubbed the “Lotto Murderer” is mutilating young girls that sell lottery tickets. Fisher tries to track down the killer using odd methods drawn from a book called “The Element of Crime,” which involves contacting the killer mentally, thereby opening Fisher up to merging with the killer.
5. The Idiots
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This film focuses on the so-called idiots suggested in the title. They aim to seek out their “inner idiot” to release their inhibitions and to do so, they use a method called "spazzing" that consists of showing their private parts in public.
In many ways von Trier’s lone “traditional” horror film, Epidemic is exactly what you think… except with von Trier’s direction, expectations are upended and spun into provocative ways. For instance, the film pulls back a layer, preferring to begin with two filmmakers losing a script and starting over, writing the script for the film the audience is now watching.
Mesmer, a doctor, is on a journey to the countryside against his will to help cure people of a disease. Of course, what is fiction and what is reality quickly bleeds into each other. The script, like the film itself, begins to play itself out in real life, with both filmmakers showing signs of the disease. The most upsetting part of this film is how it refuses to be what the viewer wants it to be—perhaps von Trier’s explicit attempt to subjugate the viewer’s role in the film.
Nymphomaniac is in many ways a culmination of Lars von Trier’s ethos, developed across dozens of films and decades of experience. The fact that the two-part film garnered so much mainstream attention, much more than any of his other films (many of which are as visually provocative and sexually explicit), has a lot to do with the project’s reputation. When you toss in the crème of the crop of Hollywood actors like Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, and Christian Slater, who are not known to take on such roles, it’s going to get peoples’ attention.
That is not to say that Nymphomaniac isn’t upsetting. Far from it. As you watch the film, you can’t help but feel gross. The narrative is effectively simple, exploring Joe’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) self-diagnosed nymphomania and her various exploits to attempt to quell her urges over her life. It could also be due to how long and drawn out the sex scenes are; whatever it is, von Trier achieved everything he set out to do with the film and I’m sure there are audiences worldwide that treat the film as a benchmark for how much it takes for someone to look away.
2. The House That Jack Built
Lars von Trier takes on the serial killer narrative. That’s The House That Jack Built, and yet there is still so much else to talk about. The killer here goes by the name of Jack as he confesses his crimes via flashback to Virgil as he begins his descent into the nine circles of hell. Jack confesses five specific kills in gruesome detail. Of course, given that serial killing is the subject of the film, Jack’s fetishes and methods over the years are outwardly discussed, and the victims being showcased run the gamut from children to women, and everyone in between.
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The film ranks above Nymphomaniac if only because of what Von Trier willfully demonstrates to depict Jack’s depravity. If you thought American Psycho was over the top, you might want to skip this one.
When Antichrist debuted in theaters in 2009, the buzz across the entire industry involved a few infamous scenes and the overall grotesque nature of the film.
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The story of a couple grieving over the death of their child and retreating into the woods, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe command the screen as they become subjected to increasingly bizarre hallucinations and acts of sadomasochism, violence, and more. Von Trier had spoken about a depression episode being the impetus of the film, and it’s not difficult to see why. Whether you respect or detest the film, love or hate it, Antichrist accurately produces the darker side of depression. You just don’t get much more upsetting than that.