A Hearse Heading Home

Over the years, Lars von Trier has brought home six Cannes awards. Now the director is back with his Palme d’Or contestant "Antichrist" about a grieving couple that retreats to their cabin “Eden” in the woods, hoping to repair their broken hearts and troubled marriage. Knud Romer, who appeared in von Trier’s "The Idiots" in 1998, talked with the director in early April, when he had just put the finishing touches on his Gothic horror tale.

Antichrist Charlotte Gainsbourg foto Christian Geisnaes

"Antichrist" photo: Christian Geisnæs

“You look like a priest,” von Trier tells me, as we shake hands outside the screening room on the Filmbyen lot where I’ll be viewing his latest work, "Antichrist". The film is shrouded in secrecy and so many security precautions that I feel like I’m attending a screening in the gold vault at the Treasury. “Well, that’s because I’m here to save your immortal soul,” I quip. Ninety minutes later I leave my seat, deeply shaken. Driving home, the fear and paranoia come rushing back when a hearse overtakes me on the highway.

"Those demons are my friends. Maybe that's the advantage of making films: that the demons, which are so painful when you meet them, get a different role. They become your friends when you put them in a film. They become your co-conspirators."

The prospect of interviewing von Trier is a bit unnerving. A master of irony and sarcasm, he can twist any conversation around and make it about you and your sorest spots. A few days later, I wait for him at Filmbyen, and they tell me he’s late. Above his office doors is written, in blood-dripping, red letters: “Chaos reigns”. An hour later, they tell me he wants to do the interview at his house, 20 kilometres north of there. I’m so nervous I’m afraidI’ll have an accident. Coming up the narrow road to his house overlooking a stream, I ram my car into a fence and some rocks on the parking lot and go to the wrong house before I finally hear a voice calling to me from an open door, “Knud, over here!”

Von Trier is graciousness personified. His wife, Bente, has made waffles and herbal tea – the two most comforting things on earth. I cling to both, when I realise we’ll be doing the interview downstairs, in the basement, on two beanbag chairs, with von Trier dressed only in black socks, loose-fitting black underwear and a black T-shirt. I’m suddenly unsure about what’s really going to happen – more so because I intend to discuss how, like so many other great filmmakers, he keeps making the same film over and over again in different, increasingly radical variations. And that, in his case, that film is about a passive, paranoid man, a megalomaniac, who is bedridden (as in "Breaking the Waves") or buried alive (as in "Antichrist"), while sexually abusing a sick or mentally ill woman to the point of death in order to produce images of sadomasochist desire and voyeuristically satisfy his sexuality. My paranoia is out of control – frankly, I’m afraid I’ll be next!

I wasn’t, of course. It wasn’t the Antichrist I met there in the basement but the filmmaker at his most sympathetic and open – to the point of nakedness, even – who lives life on the edge of an acute awareness of death in order to create the apocalyptic visual richness that makes "Antichrist" such a masterpiece. An hour and a half later I regret that I’m not a better interviewer. It’s my first time, actually, and I talk too much. On the way out, I do what isn’t done: I, very gingerly, hug von Trier to show my thanks. Back in the car, my nervousness and fear and paranoia drain away, and I overtake – it’s true, I swear – a hearse on the way home.

Lars von Trier: I’m excited to hear your first question. Remember, it should be a long one!

Knud Romer: You did a number of conceptual films where you “obstructed” yourself. Now von Trier, the maker of apocalyptic images, is back. Why did you do the first thing, and why are you back?

LvT: It’s all images to me – even if there are chalk lines on the floor. But I … (hesitates) I was feeling down, depressed – I really hit rock bottom – and I doubted that I would ever be able to make another film. But I went back to some of the material from my youth. I was really into Strindberg back then, especially Strindberg as a person. He was amazing. And so I tried to do a film – I never talked about this before, it’s hard to put into words – so I tried to do a film where I had to throw reason overboard a little bit.

KR: ”Chaos reigns”.

LvT: Yes (laughs). I did a number of images that I tried to put together. Also, it was interesting for me to do a film with just two characters.

KR: Bergman’s "Scenes from a Marriage" …

LvT: Yes, "Scenes from a Marriage", but in a rather different form. I liked "Scenes from a Marriage" back in the day. I thought it was huge.

KR: But this marriage is more Strindbergian than Bergmanesque.

LvT: Yes, they push each other down staircases more in Strindberg.

KR: Also, your film’s view of women is probably reminiscent more of Strindberg than Bergman?

LvT: Yes, and I’ll probably be asked about that again, my view of women. I always had a romantic view of the battle of the sexes that Strindberg was writing about. We keep describing the relationship between the sexes. I don’t know if an unequivocal truth exists.

GENRE FILM – IN QUOTES

KR: Now, you do “genre films” – in very big quotes. You keep telling the same story, your story, in different variations, from different angles, like so many other authors and auteurs do. What is your relationship to genres? Breaking the Waves is melodrama and Dancer in the Dark is a musical. Antichrist is a suspense thriller or horror film. Would you say your relationship to genres was romantic or playful?

LvT: Genres are an inspiration. My story is practically the same every time. I’m well aware of that by now. But “genres” – I’ll probably never really hit any genre straight on, because I think you should add something to them. If I were a chef, this would be my version of a classic pork roast.

KR: You seem to be helping yourself to all the conventional expressions from the toy chest and putting them into play by turning them completely around.

LvT: I did Film Studies at university, after all, and I was quite fond of genre films. "The Asphalt Jungle"! Film noir, you know, it was all great.

KR: A lazy person who only watches your films will have seen every existing genre.

LvT: Yes, all in the same film (laughs). But I’m not particularly faithful to the different genres. I wouldn’t say that. I like it when things rub against each other a bit.

KR: Some would say that you – with increasingly transgressive zest – were approaching the most taboo genre of all, pornography.

LvT: Well, I’ve flirted with it a little bit, especially in "The Idiots". Somehow sexuality and the horror genre are closely related. But pornography? I don’t know. Is it pornography? Maybe. But pornography always bugged me. Porno films are made to be utilitarian. They tend to be pretty crude.

Antichrist William Dafoe framegrab 
William Dafoe in "Antichrist". Framegrab

EXTREME EXCITATION

KR: Horror films and porno films both put the viewer in a state of excitation. In horror, it’s fear. In porno, it’s lust. The two meet in extreme excitation, where it’s sometimes hard to decode what’s passive suffering and active lust.

LvT: That’s very nicely put. I could never phrase it that well.

KR: One thing is experienced positively, as desire, and the other is experienced negatively, as fear. Your films have a similar effect on the viewer. Is this something you consciously strive for or is it a personal emotional expression?

LvT: You ask some tough questions, you know. But sure, the point is interesting enough. I do try to make my films affect the audience’s emotions. But I do so by creating as expressive an image as I can for myself. So I’d claim – even if it’s a bit of a lie – that I don’t keep the audience in mind when I make my films. Mainly, I satisfy myself with the images I make. At the same time, I can’t deny that they’re made with the intention of having an effect.

KR: This film was extremely fear inducing to me. It’s hard for me to shake. It haunts me. If I had to create those images in my mind first and then face their extreme emotional expressions, I would suffer a nervous breakdown.

LvT: Okay. Well ... Film is a pale mirror image of reality. If you sit in the cinema weeping, it’s a pale imitation of a similar emotion you’ve had in real life. Film is a second-rate medium that way, because it will always be living on borrowed emotions from real life. If someone gets scared, probably it’s because they have some fear they can take out and use in the experience of watching a film. But, filmhas other qualities than evoking emotions. Take Munch’s The Scream, which my young son just copied in a drawing. The Scream is an ingenious expression of an emotion, but people don’t run screaming from the museum.

KR: Your films are “screams”?

LvT: Hmm ... Antichrist is the one that comes closest to a scream. It came at a time in my life when I was feeling really bad. Inspiration is found in your own fear, your own emotions. That’s where things come from, but then they become something else. It’s not like there’s telepathy going on from the director to the audience, as in, ‘Here you go, this is the key that will put you in the state I was in.’ It’s not like that. The reason why the horror genre – and I’m not even sure that’s what this is – is interesting to me is that I get to do so many different things.

PASSIVE PARANOIA

KR: For me, it’s a relief to see you return to a hundred percent romantic, symbolic universe with some Catholic reminiscences, the whole shebang – it’s almost preromantic, gothic in a lot of ways, Count Dracula.

LvT: Yes, it is. I can’t analyse it, but visually we’re definitely in the romantic genre.

KR: You say that film isn’t a clear mirror image of a slice of life. The reality of a horror film indicates a passive viewer. It’s like fear of darkness: a passive, paranoid experience of reality, that of megalomania where everything is about you. We see that over and over again in your films, with the protagonist completely paralysed, bedridden, buried alive!

LvT: (Laughs) Yes, let’s not forget Edgar Allan. He was a romantic figure himself.

KR: It’s a beautiful thing that your films express fear of darkness, considering that they’re made to be seen in a dark cinema where the viewer is completely vulnerable.

LvT: I thought of doing theatre once, because it struck me that you could get so much more scared in a theatre than in a cinema. I was planning to do a stage version of "The Exorcist". I feel ill at ease in a cinema, but I feel even more ill at ease in a theatre, because it’s live. Going to a play is a horror scenario for me. Now that we’re discussing audiences, it seems to me that only such an infinitely small part even gets through. But I am very happy about this film and the images in it. They come out of an inspiration that’s real to me. I’ve shown honesty in this project. I think I did that in The Idiots and my other films, too. But this is an afterglow of certain images from much earlier in my life.

KR: You seem to be operating with the “primal scene”, the child’s first encounter with, and inability to, understand its parents’ sexuality, which is mysterious to it. The child doesn’t know what’s going on, but it can tell that you’re transported to a very powerful state of both fear and desire. To play Freud, this is the mother of all primal scenes, the fear to end all fears.

LvT: I’m listening …

KR: Okay, bad question … The film is therapeutic to some extent. But the therapist in the film is not very therapist-like. He is practically a sadist, right?

LvT: I’ve had some experience myself with cognitive therapy, which seems mainly to be about how, if you’re afraid of falling off a cliff, they push you over it, and that’s the end of that fear. Apparently, it’s a very successful form of therapy. Of course, it depends on how high the cliff is. They’re really successful with the little slopes.

Ahh, I like to poke fun and tease and that kind of thing. And my male protagonists are basically idiots, who don’t understand shit. In "Antichrist", too. So, of course things get fucked up! As for fear being one thing and reality another, that’s debatable. Can fear change the world? I think it can – it does.

EXORCISM

KR: The characters in this film are completely paralysed. Trapped in a cabin, their possibilities for intervening and changing reality are limited. All they have is a wrench and a few incantations to pit against an extremely terrifying reality. How did Catholicism get into the picture, anyway? Old horror flicks have crucifixes and garlic – and so does Catholicism. There seems to be a lot of Catholic baggage in this film.

LvT: Well, I can’t answer that, because I’m a very bad Catholic. In fact, I’m not religious in any way. I’m becoming more and more of an atheist.

KR: Still, Catholicism is the favourite religion of nonbelievers, because it has so many expressions: rituals, ornaments and so on. That almost takes us back to the toy chest of expressions we mentioned with genre films. Catholicism, too, has a big toy chest of expressions to use.

LvT: Yes, they can fascinate and attract us – at least, I was. I see a lot of freedom in that toy chest. To me, Protestantism was always the big beast. But religion in general is shit. I know that much.

KR: But, that whole system of expressions is at play, both in "Breaking the Wavesv and "Antichrist".

LvT: I’ve kept Nietzsche’s "Antichrist" on my bedside table since I was 12 (laughs). It’s his big showdown with Christianity.

KR: Funny you should mention your idea of turning "The Exorcist" into a play, because exorcism is such a Catholic thing. Are you exorcising your own demons or are you exorcising real-life demons? Isn’t psychoanalysis a form of exorcism, too?

LvT: But, those demons are my friends. Maybe that’s the advantage of making films: that the demons, which are so painful when you meet them, get a different role. They become your friends when you put them in a film. They become your playmates, co-conspirators. Maybe Munch felt really good about The Scream.

Munch at one point came to Denmark to be cured by one Dr Jacobsen, who treated two great artists, Strindberg and Munch. Both emerged completely changed. Munch definitely for the worse. Munch was a lot more interesting before he came to Denmark and went through that whole thing.

Well, I don’t know, but at least it’s interesting, if what they say is true: When the madness recedes, the quality of the works goes down, too. Could be …

KR: Is it worth the price?

LvT: It’s never worth the price! I don’t mean to repeat myself, but I’ve been feeling really bad!

KR: Let me return to paranoia. The opposite of feeling persecuted and afraid is being on top of things and taking control. Instead of being persecuted by others that you fear, you put yourself in the dominant position and control the others. Is that why you’re calm and content when you’re filming?

LvT: I usually am, but I wasn’t this time. I have no fear of making movies, I’m not afraid of making a statement and being judged afterwards. But this time I was afraid just to be there. There’s a certain claustrophobia involved in mounting a big thing like this and being the centre – and I was a considerably poorer centre in this film than in my other films. I really felt I lacked joy. Right now, now that we’ve mixed the film, I feel a lot of joy. It’s been really nice. But otherwise there’s been no ecstasy. Some of my other films were a bit like a game where the director gets to decide what to play.

KR: Could it be that, with even more at stake now on all accounts, you made a masterpiece in return? The power and transgression of the film’s images are like a blaze of light!

LvT: Phew! ... The difference is that I went back to some youthful material and there’s some substance there, including things I previously tried to eliminate because they were too embarrassing. It’s just that I’m in a phase now where I’m not very happy.

KR: Does getting older have anything to do with it?

LvT: I damn well think so.

KR: How old are you?

LvT: I’ll be 53, fuck it.

Antichrist optagelse foto Christian Geisnaes

On the set Photo: Christian Geisnæs

ACTORS AND AUDIENCE

KR: I’d like to talk about your actors. What were they like to work with? You make extreme demands of them, after all.

LvT: I worked with Willem before, in Manderlay. He’s a really nice guy. He asked me if I had work for him. So I wrote him that I had this thing, but my wife didn’t think he’d be up for it. I think that provoked him. But he obviously has no compunction about showing his body, nor do I think he should.

We were in touch with a few actresses who didn’t really have the nerve. Charlotte was game right away and she had read the script. There was no doubt in her mind. That’s the best: two actors who are really interested in doing the film. And a lot was demanded of them, so they had to be. They did an amazing job! I’ve never seen anyone work as intensely as Charlotte. Her script is scribbled with notes that, thankfully, she didn’t want to show anyone. Very, very hardworking.

KR: How do you feel about the reaction you might get in Cannes?

LvT: The audience in Cannes is usually pretty open ... What isn’t done? Fucking?

KR: There is a certain modesty about genitals.

LvT: I would think I still have an audience who appreciate things being shown.

KR: Do you think the cruelties in this film, the extreme expression, will have any effect on who will go to see it – that is, get in the way of it getting out there?

LvT: I wouldn’t imagine. I want people to see the film, of course. A career is like a series of questions to a certain group. If they go along for the whole ride, they’re “my” people. But above all, I want the film to find its own audience.

KR: That’s fetishism, isn’t it, having a cult? You also happen to be an image fetishist …

LvT: Aha!

KR: For example, you use a special camera that can shoot in extreme slow motion. Instead of wham bam thank you ma’am, you go in the opposite direction: static sorrow, static fear, static paranoia – underscored by images in such extreme slow motion they’re almost stills.

LvT: A long time ago I got the idea of doing a long scene just with opera music. And, dipping into the old toy chest, there’s slow motion. It’s become a relatively simple thing to do and it has its own peculiar beauty. At heart, I’m not so proud about reaching for old techniques. But I overlook it here, because this is kind of an “emergency” film, a lifeline. I just had to do something, or I would have just slunk back in bed and stared at the wall.

Many of the images in the film come from imaginary journeys I made in my life. I learned some techniques about shamanism and I found a lot of the images on those journeys. There’s this sound of a drum that puts you in a trancelike state, takes you into a parallel world. It’s really interesting and a load of fun. I never tried LSD, but this has to be like a kind of acid trip, only without the acid.

KR: It’s funny how we keep saying the same things in different ways. It’s always about a passive state of beautiful, static images, ecstatic images, passive paranoia, fear and voyeurism – all for satisfying a sadomasochistic desire.

LvT: (Giggles) Sure, labels help!

KR: Yup, they’re not to be sneezed at. A good helping of perverse inclinations is part of any fairly normal and healthy life.

LvT: Yes, we’ll hold on to that, the two of us, or we’d really be bad off ! My perversions, which are reflected in this film, aren’t new. Only the how of it is different. And because some of the material comes from my youth, it may be unreasonable, ecstatic. The emotions and the fears had to be pursued to the last drop of blood. This is a more childish film, I’d say.

KR: Some would call it infantile sexual research.

LvT: Really? Yes, that’s it! No doubt. That nails it!

KR: In fact, that takes us back where we started, with your romantic view of Strindberg.

WOMEN

KR: Nicole Kidman asked you at one point, ‘Why are you so evil to women?’ If anything, Strindberg was known for his misogyny. I know you don’t hate women. But aren’t you afraid of being charged with taking misogyny to an extreme? Female sexuality as evil. Like the serpent in Paradise, deserving of punishment. Is it all just a romantic game?

LvT: I just watched a documentary about witchhunts. Say what you want, but that’s a hell of a story. It’s great material. I don’t believe in witches. I don’t think women or their sexuality is evil, but it is frightening. It’s important to set yourself free when you’re making a film. Who the hell cares what I think? Certain images and certain concepts are interesting to combine in different ways. They show pieces of the human soul and human actions. That’s interesting.

I provoke myself, too, you know. My mother was a dyed-in-the-wool women’s libber. I’m pretty open about gender equality. I just don’t think it’ll ever really happen. The sexes are hugely different, or it wouldn’t be fun. I don’t think women should be subjugated. Of course I’m against that.

Witch-hunts were obviously horrible. But the image of witches has so many points of fascination that – because I let this film flow to me instead of thinking it up – the highlights that end up on the reel tend to be pretty cartoonish. It’s like hanging a strip of flypaper: Passing thoughts and images are sucked in and get stuck on the film.

Antichrist Gainsbourg og Trier foto Christian GeisnaesCharlotte Gainbourg and Lars von Trier Photo: Christian Geisnæs

Facts

Knud Romer

Born 1960. Appeared in Lars von Trier’s "The Idiots" and co-wrote Christoffer Boe’s film "Offscreen". Romer studied Comparative Literature at Copenhagen University and spent several years in advertising. His autobiographical novel, "Den som blinker er bange for døden" ("He Who Blinks Is Afraid of Death", 2006), was a bestseller in Denmark and has been sold to 12 countries. The book won a French booksellers’ prize, Prix Initiales Automne 2007, and the Spanish Premio Cálamo prize for literature. An English translation is due out next year from Serpent’s Tail.

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