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"I am an American woman"

An interview with Lars von Trier about sexual fantasies, the Pope, America, slavery and his new film "Manderlay". By Katja Nicodemus

Lars von Trier. Photo: Jan BuusLars von Trier. Photo: Jan Buus
Die Zeit: Lars von Trier, who in your opinion has the power in an interview situation, the interviewer or the interviewee?

Lars von Trier: I could try to insist on a symbolic power. I could lay down the rule that during this talk you have to address me as King Lars. I could threaten to leave the room if you disobeyed. But that would do nothing to change the fact that in an interview, the same rules apply as in cinema. No matter what happens during the filming process, the power is in the hands of the editor. You have the scissors in your hands so you have absolute power.

You seem to be fascinated by power relationships. With the Dogma rules, you formulated an aesthetic manifesto and your last two films "Dogville" and "Manderlay" are based on strict formal principles. What so interests you about guidelines and rules?

I come from a family of communist nudists. I was allowed to do or not do what I liked. My parents were not interested in whether I went to school or got drunk on white wine. After a childhood like that, you search for restrictions in your own life.

But communists actually have very strict rules.

That's true, but that's where things start to get very complicated. All my life I've been interested in the discrepancy between philosophy and reality, between conviction and its implementation. The general assumption is that all people are able to differentiate more or less equally between good and evil. But if this is the case, why does the world look like it does? Why have all the good intentions of my parents come to nothing. And why do my own good intentions lead to nothing?

Photos: Astrid Wirth

Perhaps because you are more interested in throwing the old rules overboard by inventing new ones.

I look for boundaries which restrict my range of activity and aesthetic freedom. Then I can concentrate all my energy in this small space. It's very simple: when you're in a prison, you're in a better position to think about freedom.

In your new film "Manderlay" the young white idealist Grace attempts educate a group of slaves to freedom and so to democracy. She fails. Because she tries to assert her ideas using force?

The problem starts because she has very specific ideas about democracy. And because she's so determined that people should live in it. But she doesn't try to see this democracy from the perspective of the former slaves. It's about the political and moral education that these people lack. The parallels to Iraq are just begging to be drawn. I'm convinced that in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein there was morals of a sort. Of course these morals killed a lot of people or put them in prison. But you can't simply do away with the old rules, introduce new ones and believe that it's all going to work. Moral traditions have to develop from within society. And I still find it unbelievable that we think that the way we organise our societies is the only right way.

Imagine your really were King Lars ...

It's very easy to imagine.

... and that you had the opportunity to lay down the laws which all people should live by.

There's that wonderful guiding principle: always leave the toilette as you found it. Or: do unto others as you would have them do to you. Kant was right. It's just that his imperative is a bit unspecific. But it is nevertheless one of the best guidelines for how people should live together. Apart from that I believe a society should treat its weaker members well. And that is not something that happens over there in America.

In "Manderlay" you raise the question of whether slavery is still in place in the USA, years after it was abolished.

That's why I was not remotely surprised by what happened in New Orleans. It was as if storm had to come along to open the Americans' eyes. To show them the conditions in which the black population lives.

In "Manderlay" Danny Glover plays an elderly slave. He says that even after slavery has been abolished it's more honest to carry on living in simulated slavery than in a freedom which is no such thing. Do you share this opinion?

As I was writing "Manderlay" I was thinking about getting rid of the word freedom from our vocabulary. After all it's impossible to define. If you're on a desert island then you are probably fairly free. But you have to eat and drink and that restricts your freedom again. But if you take away all the romanticism that surrounds the word, then it's just about finding the best and most pleasant way of living your life. And if you then call this slavery, it's also okay. Maybe a slave who is subordinate to a man with a whip has more dignity than a slave who is held in check by economic forces. In the world of economics, the assumption is that the clever, hard-working person will manage to feed his family and even go on to become really wealthy. In this world, it's your fault if you're black and poor, because you're free. Or at least what they call free. You could say that the scenario in "Manderlay" is crazy. But my films are my fantasy and my argument in one.

"Manderlay" was inspired by Pauline Réage's book "The Story of O". This novel portrays slavery as a masochistic sexual fantasy. And in your film too, the white heroine longs for erotic submission. Are you not mixing together two levels?

I don't believe it's possible really to separate the sexual and the political in the human consciousness.

But why does Grace, the heroine of Manderlay lust after a strong black man?

Why shouldn't she?

It's just a bit cheap.

Sexual fantasies generally are cheap.

Still, it's odd that in a film that's trying to question all clichees you use a hackneyed porn fantasy of all things.

You can take me a bit more seriously, you know. I'm not a teenage boy.

Here you are in a former hangar of a military barracks. You're wearing army clothes and there's a tank parked outside. You're just playing out your own male fantasy.

Perhaps I should insist that you call me King Lars. Alright then. If you're a slave who gets beaten every day by his "master", then it's pretty unlikely that you'll have sexual fantasies about being whipped. Dreams of submission and whipping are something only people who don't get whipped can afford. But the desire for dominance and submission is part of our system of drives. I don't believe you can ignore these drive structures if you are looking for a suitable way for people to live together. And you shouldn't forget the people in political power are sexual beings too, even if we tend to strictly separate these two levels.

Should we be thinking more about George W
. Bush's sexuality?

He's a sexual being too and his psyche is very important for us all. I think he's in love with Condoleezza Rice. And he's dreaming of being whipped by her.

What would be Condoleeza Rice's role in your Manderlay plantation?

She would be a "good" slave. One who works in the master's house.

In Cannes, American journalists were outraged that film shows black people collaborating with their oppressors.

Danny Glover plays a good black man whose pure humanity puts him in league the slave owners. But this is exactly how fascism works and how it was implemented in the concentration camps. If everyone was fighting for their own lives, the Nazis had a problem. But as soon as someone with good intentions entered the camp, they had a powerful instrument of manipulation. That's when the trading begins: "Okay you can kill these two old women, but not the children". Well-meaning people are dangerous.

Especially when you put them in a von Trier test laboratory.

Nazis, slaves and slave owners. These are all just extreme images which I use to examine the categories which have left their mark on me. My family had a very clear idea of good and evil, of kitsch and good art. In my work, I try throw all this into question. I don't just provoke others, I declare war on myself, on the way I was brought up, on my values the entire time. And I attack the good-people philosophy which prevailed in my family.

A personal question...

(jumps up and thumps his chest) Give it to me! I will answer it! I will be honest!

You grew up with a Jewish father. On her deathbed your mother told you that, in fact, your real father was a descendant of the Danish composer J.P.E Hartmann. And that this was her way of securing a "creative genetic make-up" for her child.

Until that point I thought I had a Jewish background. But I'm really more of a Nazi. I believe that my biological father's German family went back two further generations. Before she died, my mother told me to be happy that I was the son of this other man. She said my foster father had had notgoals and no strength. But he was a loving man. And I was very sad about this revelation.

Did the fact that you were more or less "bred" to be a creative son put you under pressure?

Oh yes. And you then feel manipulated when you really do turn out to be creative. If I'd known that my mother had this plan, I would have become something else. I would have shown her. The slut!

In both "Dogville" and "Manderlay" the daughter is constantly trying to prove to her father that she can survive on her own. Or that she can lead the people to freedom.

Everything repeats itself. Families become film families. But I liked the idea that the father, this hard-nosed gangster who's not particularly likeable, brings a sort of truth to the story. He has a healthy understanding of people. His daughter wants to be good to everyone and only causes damage. Just like me.

And your fondness for female martyrs? Does this have anything to do with your family background?

My family always held martyrs in contempt. And religious martyrs in particular were viewed as the worst sort of kitsch. And then I think it's very important to work with women in the main role. And contrary to what you might believe, I have a good relationship with my actresses. But despite all this I don't see my film characters as either male or female. It's just that they assume a female appearance. I also believe that women tend more towards martyrdom than men. And of course everything which determines these characters comes out of my head. They are part of me. But I'm not a woman. I'm not a woman! Let's make that very clear! Oh I don't know, maybe I am. I am an American woman. Or 65 percent of me is.

Mrs Von Trier, "Dogville" and "Manderlay" are as similar in their staginess, as they are different in their effect. In "Dogville", despite the empty stage, at some point you think you can see fields and the Rocky Mountains. In "Manderlay" though, the plantation images of the American South, the whole "Gone with the Wind" romanticism is thoroughly driven out of us.

In "Dogville" we were really working with the idea of landscape. The apple trees, the mountains, it was all pretty romantic. There were also sounds that came from outside, from the landscape. There is no landscape in "Manderlay". And at no point do you get the feeling that there is an outside. All the sounds come only from inside. I wanted to create a feeling of isolation, after all Manderlay is a prison.

The films are equally ascetic in form. How does that fit in with your conversion to Catholicism? It wasn't long ago that you felt attracted by the opulence of Catholic imagery.

I don't know if I'm all that Catholic really. I'm probably not. Denmark is a very Protestant country. Perhaps I only turned Catholic to piss off a few of my countrymen.

Do you pray?

Yes I do actually. But that's all.

And you revere the Pope?

No. I don't think the German Pope is better than the Polish one. Especially when it comes to sex and contraception. But fortunately he's old. And even Popes die. I heard that they only chose this old German one because they couldn't agree on anyone who should be Pope for longer.

You once said that the interview was a good means of communication. The head of the Bayreuth Wagner festival read in an interview that you were keen to direct his grandfather's Ring. And it was through an interview with Nicole Kidman that you found out that she wanted to work with you. What message would you like to send to the Pope?

Here's my message: I believe it is very difficult to die like the last Pope did. In the knowledge that he was responsible for the deaths of so many people. I know that people say that the Pope has got a good line to God. But I say to the Pope: it's not the will of God that millions of people around the world die from Aids because of some stupid Pope.

So you are a moralist then?

Yes maybe. Or better not.

In the run-up to the last Danish elections you bought advertising space in the papers where you called for a boycott of the racist radical right-wing party. This testifies to political engagement and morals.

But it probably didn't do anything to help. It probably only drew more attention to the radical right. Plenty of people thought that a party that this loony Lars von Trier was fighting against must have its qualities. Yes I am a moralist. But I don't want my films to be moralistic. I also don't want you to think I'm a moralist. I want you to think that I'm cruel, hard and manly.


The article originally appeared in Die Zeit on 10 November, 2005.

Translation: lp

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