LARS VON TRIER. All filmography ranked and rated

Lars von Trier divides the audience like no other director – some love him, others hate him. Whatever can be said about the Dane, it is impossible to deny his proficiency in the language of film...


25 June 2023

lars von trier gagged

For more than three decades of creativity, von Trier has created a varied output, which, however, invariably oscillates around a certain set of author’s obsessions. That is why, as fans of Lars’s films, we decided to review his work together and point out the motifs typical of the Dane dominant in a given picture – thus creating a subjective guide to his rich oeuvre.

Here is an overview of Lars von Trier’s filmography by two Dane’s fanboys:

Tomasz Raczkowski. Invariably intrigued by the perversity and fascinated by the uncompromising consistency of von Trier’s films. Lars has accompanied him since the beginning of his fascination with cinema and is one of his most important masters.

Rafal Oswiecinski. Aware of the manipulations that Lars makes on the viewer’s brain, which he is very happy about. Sometimes unconscious – then even more fun. When he’s not watching von Trier, he’s watching The Lord of the Rings.

The Element of Crime (1984)

The Element of Crime

Obsession: evil in people

Tomasz Raczkowski: A debut that clearly manifests the Dane’s spectacular staging skills and his penchant for formal bravado. In The Element of Crime, a criminal story à la noir is just a pretext to build a surreal mosaic, through which the director takes us on a disturbing journey through the dark recesses of the human soul. Above all, however, it seduces with its original visual layer, dark and dirty in a symbolic analogy with the ethical condition of people inhabiting this world.

Rafal Oswiecinski: Slightly gibberish, but at the same time an extremely interesting directorial debut. Misunderstanding, however, is one of the important features of The Element of Crime due to its intensely surreal atmosphere evoking the unknown works of David Lynch – so it is more a film to feel than to understand, although it is certainly not devoid of intellectual charge. The image, bathed in reds, browns and blacks, is a vivisection of the emotions of a man under the influence of hypnosis, possessed by madness. Interesting, original, not easy.

Epidemic (1987)


Obsession: the artist and his work

RO: The second film and a very clear creative manifesto to which Lars von Trier has been faithful since the beginning of his career. Each film, not just The Epidemic, is the result of creative work: the mood of the moment, the emotions of the creator, the sum of mistakes, accidents, good will, hopes and prejudices. Here we are dealing with a film about a film showing the context in which an artist works, who can do anything: manipulate the viewers, play with the absurd, genres, symbols and blur the boundaries between fiction and reality as he pleases. Sounds weird? Sure, Epidemic is a quasi-documentary experiment.

TR: Very soon von Trier began self-referential excursions, talking about the creative process of himself and his collaborator, Niels Vørsel, already in his second film. At first glance, a sequence of scenes from the life of moderately creative authors, which is not very imaginative, turns out to be a perverse reflection on the artist’s morality and a pamphlet on faith in the creative power of art. An unjustly forgotten film, in a few moments absolutely brilliant.

Medea (1988)


Obsession: female and femininity

TR: The first film in which von Trier focuses on a female character. Interestingly, the film was based on an unrealized screenplay by the master of Danish metaphysical cinema, Carl Theodor Dreyer, with whom von Trier enters into dialogue in Medea. Once again, the film is characterized by a sophisticated set design, emphasizing the condition of the characters; the most important here, however, is an unexpectedly insightful reflection on the situation of a woman in the tradition of European culture, which proves the author’s intellectual approach to cinema.

RO: Von Trier admits that this is an important film for him for a simple reason: it is an adaptation of the screenplay of his own master, Carl Theodor Dreyer, who had (and still has) an overwhelming influence on Lars. However, it is difficult to say that it is a homage, because Medea is heavily filtered by von Trier’s sensitivity, as if he wanted to get away as far as possible from the style and values associated with Dreyer. This results in a rather pretentious film, focused heavily on form (cold beaches in ominous fog) and less on content (referring to Euripides’ drama).

Europa (1991)


Obsession: nazism and European culture

RO: A visually stunning reference to his debut, Element of Crime. Again, we have a monochrome image, black and white, only briefly broken with color. Again, the surreal atmosphere is strongly felt, this time with an admixture of invisible horror that lurks outside the window of a train speeding through Europe. And this moral and criminal intrigue, also conducted in the poetics of a dream, in which it is difficult to connect some things and characters with each other. Nevertheless – the film effectively hypnotizes, it is devoid of the intellectual emptiness characteristic of the first films.

TR: Von Trier decided to touch on the extremely sensitive subject of World War II and responsibility for Nazism in a highly unconventional form. Europa is a breathtaking formal departure, in which, apart from the director’s bravado, there is a strong love for the historical trends of cinema, which the Dane is inspired by, creating one of the most interesting (and darkest) paeans in honor of the film creation.

The Kingdom (1994-2022)

The Kingdom

Obsession: hospital of horror and absurd

TR: I don’t think von Trier has ever expressed his interest in the dualism of spirit and matter as clearly before or since as in the three-part miniseries The Kingdom, the axis of which is the clash between civilization and the primeval world of supernatural apparitions. It is a brilliant work – the spiritist themes in the convention of horror cinema burst almost “dogmatic” realism and moral convention, becoming a pretext for an extraordinary theater of grotesque, absurdity and obscenity.

RO: The most digestible work of Lars von Trier, but at the same time very eccentric, unpredictable and filled with a lot of black humor. Imagine a Scrubs series, but on acid, in the style of what we would call today a typical von Trier romance with David Lynch. The hospital corridors are populated with a bizarre gallery of characters who do not follow logic, and in the background ghosts of dead girls and narrators with Down syndrome. And yet it all makes sense, and in this madness it’s really not hard to see an intriguing plot that deliberately leads the viewer astray. A great series, a one-of-a-kind experience.

Breaking the Waves (1996)

Breaking the Waves emily watson

Obsession: religious devotion

RO: When I watched it somewhere at the beginning of the 21st century it hit me the hardest in the gut. A film after which I sat genuinely speechless until the end of the credits and remained in a state of delight and shock for several days. And I experienced the same thing for the second time, about 2 years after the first screening. It’s just a movie, you say. Of course, Lars von Trier just made a so-called movie, but I can wish everyone that some so-called movie would do to their emotions what LvT did to me – a state of invaluable, cinematographic orgasm. And what is important, it was made deliberately by a director who consciously harassed the viewers’ feelings, knowing which chord to hit to make it hurt. The amount of religious meaning, social background, melodramatic plot, chapter-based production (Leonard Cohen has never sounded more beautiful) and the best performance ever (Emily Watson) – these and more continue to draw the dividing lines between Breaking the Waves and all the rest of the movies. Here’s my analysis where I marvel more.

TR: An outstanding work, probably the most harmonious combination of Von Trier’s subversion and deep ethical reflection of this director. At times beautiful, sometimes shocking and constantly eluding unambiguous recognition, Breaking the Waves is a vivisection of the relationship between the individual and the society that imposes its norms and expectations. Von Trier’s reflections on the essence, form and sources of morality do not offer easy and final answers – it is rather an invitation to common reflection.

The idiots (1998)

the idiots naked outside

Obsession: social masks

TR: Lars von Trier’s only film made according to the rules of Dogme 95, may at first reject the ascetic, seemingly sloppy form, as well as the characters of the main characters – pretending to be mentally disabled – joined by the secretive Karen. This concept is the starting point for an incredibly deep and moving humanist treatise on the search for freedom and the social masks that weigh us down. For me, this is von Trier’s most powerful film, piercing the consciousness in an unpleasant way and forcing a brutal reaction.

RO: A daring, bold and provocative work, it seems that – along with the Vinterberg Festen of the time – the first in full accordance with the Dogma 95 manifesto. At first glance, a not funny comedy about people who do stupid things (and it ends in an incomprehensible orgy) and at the second look – a brilliant look at social roles, a kind of sociological experiment related to the conscious rejection of norms, conventions, customs and rules. With a bitter punchline. A marvel, although it requires both patience and openness to how one can be and what one should do and say.

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Dancer in the Dark bjork

Obsession: imagination, morality, and evil

RO: What succeeded in Breaking the Waves – i.e. manipulation of the audience’s feelings – von Trier repeated in this extraordinary musical. Emotions are taken to the extreme: firstly, in the lead role, we see a defenseless, blind, poor Selma (perfect Björk!), who is a victim of a cruel world; secondly, her musical dreams are delightfully naive, bringing an element of joy to a bleak reality; thirdly, let’s bring down on this poor heroine and her fantasies all that is soulless, unjust. Effect? Trauma, shock, emotion and tears. Hear that Machiavellian laugh of Lars von Trier holding the viewer on a fork? Perfidious and wonderful.

TR: After a period of experimenting with cinematic minimalism and austerity in Dancer in the Dark von Trier returned to cinematic spectacularity, combining the texture of an ascetic drama with a grand musical. Each of these layers corresponds to the sphere of life of Selma, who is losing her eyesight – struggling with a cruel, poetryless world, from whose worries she escapes into the world of fantasy. From this combination, an unforgettable spectacle is born, which, however, in a typically Von Trierian tone, turns out not to be a melodrama, but a poignant tragedy.

The Five Obstructions (2003)

The Five Obstructions

Obsession: a film within a film

TR: When Lars von Trier pays homage to someone, you can be sure that it will not be an ordinary card. This was the case with The Five Obstructions, a film made together with Lars’ outstanding documentary filmmaker and teacher, Jørgen Leth. The tribute is unusual in that it consists in recreating The Perfect Man movie according to von Trier’s requirements. The result is an intriguing and perverse film, inscribing artistic creativity into the system of rivalry between the master and the apprentice, where all tricks are allowed, including manipulation, deception and provocation.

RO: It’s fun to play cinema. A film within a film, or rather five films in one film, because it’s about a different look at the same subject (successive screenings of the experimental film by the poet and filmmaker, Jørgen Leth). Lars von Trier slips easily into the director’s role of another director, resulting in a sublime play with many dirty fouls, trips and annoyances for both. An interesting look at the process of making a movie, any movie.

Dogville (2003)

dogville nicole kidman stellan skarsgaard

Obsession: sources of violence

RO:  If you were ever looking for the most innovative films in the history of cinema, Dogville should certainly be somewhere in the lead. Very cinematic times of prohibition, the Great Depression and gangsters shown in a very non-film form, closer to the theater, devoid of scenery, closed in a conventional, ascetic space that belongs to the viewers’ imagination. However, one can easily enter this world in which it is not difficult to see the moral decay, duplicity, jealousy that build the identity of the characters and … spectators. The ethical kick at the end is strongly felt. By the way, great respect for Nicole Kidman, who was not afraid of this type of experiment at the peak of her career.

TR:  Von Trier’s most radical approach to the film form – in the case of the author of Idiots and Europa, this statement is impressive. However, Dogville not only plays with the conventionality of the screen performance and the function of the scenography, but also, and perhaps above all, offers another deep study of the relationship between the individual and the group, pointing to pathological forms of dependence and sources of violence. This is a difficult film to watch, but worth the effort.

Manderlay (2005)


Obsession: slavery in Yankee souls

TR:  In the case of Manderlay, we are dealing with the only (so far) intended sequel in the Dane’s filmography. Unfortunately, the Dogville sequel doesn’t live up to its predecessor. The intriguing staging concept seems to be exhausted, and Nicole Kidman in the lead role is also missing. It is a pity, especially since the issues of enslavement and liberation written for the black slave community in the USA had great potential. Not deprived of merits, but an unfulfilled film without vitality, which killed the probably planned third part.

RO:  What a mockery of von Trier. Similar in form to Dogville, yet fresh in terms of content. Again, we have chalk drawn edges of houses, again the conventionality of stage design and sounds is striking, and again a treatise on human morality in contact with slavery. You think white people are usually bad and black people are usually good? That everything is quite simple, unambiguous as in 12 Years a Slave, Birth of a Nation or Roots? That you will feel good about revenge for the open injustice and brutality against black slaves? Never mind, Manderlay goes his own way full of ethical bumps and brutal nudges to feel good.

The Boss of It All (2006)

The Boss of It All

Obsession: a cruel everyday artist

RO: The first comedy in the director’s oeuvre, although mainly those who are familiar with black humour, absurdity and embarrassing moments will laugh. Let’s say a crueler and fancier version of The Office (more of the English one), which is filled with biscuits, situational humor and provocative plays. Not funny? It won’t surprise me at all. Did you burst out laughing? It doesn’t surprise me either.

TR: If someone asked me to name the weakest film in von Trier’s filmography, I would choose The Boss of It All. Although the story of an actor hired to play a non-existent president of a company works well even as a comedy-drama, at the same time the director’s fatigue can be seen in this picture, forcibly involving the viewer and the characters in sophisticated games regarding artistry and creation, which makes The Boss ... a rather tiring and ultimately not very interesting show. And the director’s sense of humor works better away from comedy per se.

Antichrist (2009)


Obsession: a man in metaphysical disintegration

TR: After a kind of creative crisis in the previous two films, with Antichrist von Trier returned to high form. Provocative, visually thrilling and ambiguous, the film is a brutal marriage of humanistic metaphysics and shocking horror. Even after a few screenings, it’s hard to tell how much of Antichrist is real reflections of the Dane, how much irony, and how much perverse psychologism. This is a film that seduces with superficiality, but at the same time encourages you to reject it and discover the intriguing ambiguity that is its greatest strength.

RO: This is von Trier’s most divisive film. The most shocking (scene with the clitoris), most often pelted with not very fussy epithets (that “meaningless” is most often), also mocked (the talking fox), cruel to the viewer. However, I put forward a thesis about the frequent misunderstanding of von Trier’s intentions – the Antichrist is directly related to the creator’s deep depression. These absurd scenes are an allegory of anxiety, an emanation of mental disorders, and on top of all this the author’s specific view on death, sacrifice and eroticism is superimposed. This is his vision of the nightmare of depression – a screen adaptation of what plays in the soul of a man who is internally destroyed, intellectually abused by the imagination. Awareness of this fact may somehow defend Lars von Trier, especially since it is not an over-interpretation, but a description consistent with what the author admits to the disease says and shows, creating in accordance with its nightmarish rhythm.

Melancholia (2011)

Melancholia kirsten dunst i wedding dress

Obsession: the end of the meaninglessness of existence

RO: If Antichrist was a screen adaptation of depressive states with all the attributes that the director was endowed with, Melancholia is a symbolic image of overcoming depression. This results in a very mature, low-key drama that does not go to extremes, in which there is room for both a poignant family drama and beautiful “moving pictures” that are a carrier of metaphors and further questions posed by the viewers. Melancholia can be interpreted in many different ways, von Trier left many clues (which was perfectly explored by Filip Jalowski in his analysis) and nothing is left to chance here. A complete work, considered by many to be the Dane’s peak achievement.

TR: My personal favorite in Lars von Trier’s filmography is a complete work, combining full-blooded psychological drama with stylized metaphysics. Melancholia is both a sophisticated psychological study of two extremely different sisters and a daring story about the disintegration of the human world. This time von Trier mutes both the formal extravagance and the provocativeness of his work, creating a muted, intimate yet complex masterpiece that balances artistic impressions and narrative concreteness.

Nymphomaniac Part 1 & 2 (2013)

Nymphomaniac Charlotte Gainsbourg

Obsession: the sexuality of ladies and gentlemen

TR: Again, after Antichrist, together with Charlotte Gainsbourg, the director proposes a provocative, subversive study of femininity and sexuality in general. This time, however, by moving towards a more conventional dramatic narrative, he achieved less effect. In its main layer, Nymphomaniac is an interesting and successful socio-psychological drama that brings out the tragic ambivalence of being a woman from the life of the title character, but loses out on overstretching the narrative. The artistic success of the whole is determined by the interweaving of small flavors and unforced episodes-pearls, which prove the creator’s unflagging skill.

RO: About sex in a way that is not as controversial as announced by the loud and visible advertising campaign. Different stages of discovering corporeality are not an artistic impulse to analyze sexuality or – as the title suggests – nymphomania, but only a look at man as a slave of more or less healthy drives. And that’s it. All in all, 4 hours of banalities bathed in irony, as if von Trier deliberately laughed at his exorbitant expectations, as if he was just waiting for psychoanalytical conclusions with which the Nymphomaniac is de facto not related (unless unintentionally). Successful, but no big deal.

The House That Jack Built (2018)

The House That Jack Built att Dillon

Obsession: murder and beauty

RO: Bold in form, filled with pitch-black humor and an extremely intellectually provocative look at the darkest side of human nature. In many ways similar to the excellent film Man Bites Dog. A serial killer without scruples, without any remorse (especially for sins), without justifying himself for brutal acts and without a mission to save the world, to remove evil (with evil). He kills because he likes it. He murders because it brings aesthetic fulfillment. He annihilates – and that’s his yin right next to the yang of being a non-murderer. It’s fascinating for several reasons. First, he’s honest and straightforward, unlike the deadly erudite Hannibal Lecter. Secondly, he shows many different emotions, so it’s easy to see in him – in his reactions, in his behavior – himself, a similar kind of sensitivity, however strange it may sound. Thirdly, Jack is played by Matt Dillon, who, rising to the heights of perfidy and calculation, remains very human at the same time – an outstanding role! And a very good movie.

TR: A self-referential masterpiece that can serve as a summary of von Trier’s entire filmography – with all his social obsessions, provocative digressions, artistic erudition and pitch black sense of humor. The House That Jack Built is many films rolled into one – an ironic drama, a black comedy, a classicist tragedy and a reference kaleidoscope. The Dane’s captivating vision deals a strong blow to conventions, the buffoonery of the art world and… his own egotism. This is not only an excellent film, but also a daring declaration of independence and fidelity to its concept of cinema, for which Lars can be loved or hated – and he will probably be satisfied with both variants.



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