Lars von Trier in Conversation with Mehdi Belhaj Kacem & Raphaëlle Milone
We land in Copenhagen after only an hour’s sleep the previous night. We travel a long way by subway to a residential area on the edge of the city: large houses with gardens and woodland, almost no one around. We finally find the address we’ve been given. We approach the house through the garden, and we’re immediately in a film by Lars von Trier: a black limousine, a small shack that might be an office with a computer and piles of paper. A narrow path leads to the front door. The door is open.
The figure becomes apparent of an old, unkempt samurai, barefoot, with stout legs in Bermuda shorts. It soon becomes obvious that the house is almost empty. The home of an ascetic without any luxury; just a few Flemish old masters and the limousine seen outside. A terrace gives out onto a wonderful view in subdued light, both sublime and depressing. A lucent burgeoning like in Melancholia.
Our interlocutor tells us he too hasn’t slept for more than an hour. He needs a long time for the kindly offered coffee.
RM: Thank you very much.
LVT puts the DVD of India Song by Marguerite Duras next to the cup of coffee.
LVT: Have you seen this film?
MBK: India Song? Of course!
RM: India Song!
LVT: Look at the river out there. It looks a bit like the river that wasn’t in India.
MBK: It’s a very strange film.
LVT: It’s a great film.
MBK: The best howl ever heard in the history of cinema.
RM: And the song is amazing. In French you call it a litanie (she whistles).
LVT: Yes, yes, it’s a beautiful song.
RM: We should rather sleep and listen to India Song.
RM: Maybe we would talk in our sleep, and it will make a better interview.
MBK: An interview with no censorship.
LVT: Don’t worry about that.
MBK: So, shall we start?
LVT: I’m all yours.
MBK: The first question is simple: what does the word “censorship” say to you?
LVT: Well, I don’t have an example of where censorship has been good. I understand why people try, but to my mind censorship is ridiculous. It’s just like … we have an expression in Danish: when you use a broom, you take the carpet down and you just sweep the dust under the carpet.
RM: You know Jonathan Swift? He wrote a text called A Meditation Upon a Broomstick, in which he says that human beings, while trying to clean up, just put dust where there was no dust before. That’s what censorship does. We’re supposing that “classic” censorship no longer exists, but self-censorship is ubiquitous.
LVT: Self-censorship is the worst. But censorship exists. We’ve had so much trouble with my films in France, because they’re a Catholic, kind of theopathetic people. And it’s understandable in a way, because there was this Charlie Hebdo thing and you had to do something. But because you’re attacked from a religious side, it’s not a good idea to try to use their religion against the opposition.
RM: Do you really care about what people think in France?
LVT: It depends on who. I’m sure there’s a lot of people I wouldn’t care about. But the only thing it does is… I remember when there were films that used to be available—when I went to university, you know—and you find out that it’s banned or whatever, and you get even more keen to see it. It gives monumental status to the film.
MBK: Can you remember a time when you censored yourself in a movie?
LVT: Yeah. I did once.
LVT: It was in the film called Manderlay. We needed a donkey that would be cut up, a dead donkey.
RM: Cut off his head?!
LVT: No, he had to be dead at the start of the scene. And there was this black guy who said he was an expert in cutting up donkeys. Then we had the local butcher—it was in Sweden. We had Bryce Howard as the main lady, and then we had an actor whose name I can’t remember, but he was going to arrive the same day. So I went out fishing, and I caught a very big fish, the biggest fish I ever caught, a sea trout. And I said: “OK, let’s prepare this for him, so he feels welcome.” And he looked at the fish with contempt, and he said: “I don’t believe you should catch fish.” I said: “OK, why?” His children would have to wait to be eighteen before they knew what was inside a hamburger. He was very … Then he said: “Can we at least thank the fish?” I said: “Sure, sure.” “Thank you very much, fish, for being our meal.” And then Bryce, who was always laughing, said: “It’s good that nobody’s talking about the donkey.” And he said: “What donkey?” And we said: “No, no, it’s nothing.” And then—it wasn’t in his scene, but he said: “I won’t be in a film where they use real donkeys. They should be made of plastic.” I said: “Why don’t we use all the money we have to make a donkey that can be cut up?” And the donkey that we got was kind of a suicidal donkey.
RM: Really? Why? He was depressed?
LVT: He was very old… We had to buy another donkey to stand the next to him, so he didn’t feel alone. And we had an animal doctor come and give him, you know, the needle. So it’s not as if he was butchered. It could be a kind of … After we showed the scene we had so many hate mails—five hundred hate mails—from people who … And normally I send the actor back. I said: “You can’t come in and change the script now, especially for scenes you’re not in. I’ll take care of the donkey, and you just take care of your part.” But he wouldn’t. So he went back to LA on a plane the very same day. But I must say after we showed the scene … This black guy, who had a machete, was a terrible butcher, you know. He didn’t look like a butcher. So after all those hate mails I must admit I was weak, and I took the scene out.
RM: It’s the only time something like this happened?
MBK: As a matter of fact, for example, I never understood what happened with censorship, or self-censorship, around Nymphomaniac. It’s like you didn’t recognize yourself in the movie.
LVT: No. There were some contractual problems, and I said: “Do whatever you want. I just want to make sure that it’s a version I did. It should be possible to identify that.” I don’t know why, but maybe it was the Catholic people …
MBK: So it was the producers …
LVT: Yeah. It was kind of a long film, about five hours. They thought it should be a little shorter, but I didn’t make it shorter. I said: “I don’t have anything to do with that version. That would be a censored version.”
RM: So maybe you censor yourself at the time of the movies. You’d make ten-hour-long movies if you could!
MBK: I remember a great screening in Paris around Idiots, a long time ago, with hours and hours and hours of rushes. And everything was as great as the official movie, so actually it was so much greater. The avant-garde was in painting, in literature, but not in cinema.
RM: You mean in terms of community?
MBK: Yes, Idiots was much more like a performance than a classical narrative movie. I said to my friends: “It’s the best situationist movie ever.” When I was a teenager, Dogma made me dream of that. It was like the last great avant-garde, and it was in Denmark. I wanted to be there. Did you think of Dogma like that? And did you think of the Dogma approach like a war-machine against taboos and censorship?
LVT: No, not consciously. I didn’t consider Dogma as avant-garde, but I understand what you mean. Dogma set up rules that everybody could use. It was kind of democratic.
RM: Everything is “kind of.”
LVT: “Democracy” is a dirty word these days. That’s actually a quotation in Nymphomaniac, where she says: “People are too stupid for democracy.” Well, it’s difficult to find something else. I don’t see any another way of handling society.
MBK: Your producer at the time of Dogma—I don’t remember his name—said this phrase that I like a lot: “Making Dogma works, I take the best elements of these two excellent systems, communism and capitalism, with just a zest of anarchy in it.” Did you ever think about restarting a collective experience like Dogma?
LVT: Yeah. I wrote to a lot of directors. But most of them didn’t answer. The only positive answer was from this Japanese guy … What’s his name?
LVT: Kurosawa, exactly. He was the only one who replied, saying that he wasn’t feeling very well, so it would take him a little time to make a film. And he died the day after. He had an excuse.
RM: You once said that a great work of art could never be democratic, but only made by one person. This contradicts what you said about Dogma, which was, if I understood you, a community.
LVT: I understand what you mean, but it was never … I don’t believe in collective filming. But Dogma was a set of rules that could have been used by anyone. It wasn’t a collaboration on the set with … Of course we collaborate, but I was the director, no doubt about that. But I learnt, slowly, how to use the actors. You have to give them some freedom. If you don’t do that you don’t get anything back from them.
MBK: What was your best experience with an actor? And to remain on our topic, the question of male but mostly female actors towards self-censorship. Is this an area you consciously explore? Because all your characters have very strong personalities, very brave, boldy crossing boundaries.
LVT: I found out that I was born a hundred meters from here, in a house that’s just over there. And my mother, who was in love with architects, called it the architect house. And she wanted to buy it, but she couldn’t because … you know. So I have actually only performed the recipe she made for me. On her deathbed she told me that my father wasn’t my real father, and then she said that she went after some creativity in the DNA. And then I looked back to all the things I’d done, and I found out that she prepared them, more or less. All those strong women … She was a strong woman. She was head of the Danish Female Society for some years, and I just found out that she gave me some shame for being a man. So this last film … Did you already see my last film?
MBK: No. We were in Berlin when the invitation for the preview in Paris arrived.
LVT: OK. I tried to tell a story about a man who is really evil. And people are quite dissatisfied with that.
MBK: Yes, I saw the reactions. Incredibly violent reactions.
MBK: Raphaëlle, in a pretty feminist mood, said to me something like: “Men, it’s over. Women are so much stronger.” The question I want to ask you has to do with taming: in your movies, it seems to me, you can’t tame women, while men can be tamed. I don’t know how to put it … It’s like they aren’t free.
LVT: Perhaps now we have to make a men’s #MeToo. Like: “Have you ever been humiliated by a woman in your life?” In my case the answer is yes. (laughs).
MBK: And not by just one (laughs).
RM: Do you think that people react so negatively because they can’t stand to see evil?
RM: It’s a movie. But it’s as if people don’t get the idea of a movie as a piece of art that shows everything.
LVT: No. What people wrote about it after having seen it had nothing to do with the film, nothing to do with the acting, nothing to do with any quality that belongs to cinema as art. Normally if you describe something, you have to say: this is a film with a mood, which maybe you’ll never forget. But they all just talk about my intentions.
MBK: Yes, they psychologize and even psychiatrize a lot. But this is almost always the case with you. The only time you didn’t cause a scandal was with Melancholia.
MBK: Later you arranged one yourself notwithstanding, at that conference in Cannes. It was like: “Excuse me, I’m not scandalous this time, so I’m taking a remedial course.”
LVT: But the film was … I was a little disappointed with this film, because it was a little too neat, and a little too much a film. It was … it looked like a film.
RM: You know what Marguerite Duras said? “When I’m making a movie, I can’t help it: in the middle of the making, I have to kill it. I have to commit a murder against the movie.” It’s like: “I can’t stand it when it’s like a movie.”
LVT: No. I always plan the endings of the films, because every beginning is easy and fantastic. You do it right. And then at a certain point, when the story becomes more and more narrow, I start to prepare the film’s ending. I end it there.
I have a plan of what to do next: I want to make 36 ten-minute films. There’s a French guy who lived at the time of Goethe and Schiller. He found out that there were 36 possibilities of drama. So I’m going to try to make one of each. But I’ll definitely have no endings for them. That will be the first rule: no ending. Because I think either you don’t know why it’s like that and you don’t care—because the film was enormous in the middle, and then it’s so small—or you don’t know the whole time how it’s is gonna end, and that’s bad too. So it would be nice to take people into universes and leave them there. I’ll see what I can do, but I just saw that the idea of the ten-minute films was mainly to make it comfortable for me to shoot. Because with the last film I did here I had so much anxiety I was living on vodka and Valprox, which is valium.
RM: Yeah. I know the problem. Sorry, it’s a harsh question.
RM: Sometimes when I’m writing, I feel like I’m gonna die, because it’s too much. Have you ever felt like you were close to dying when writing or filming?
LVT: I always feel like I am gonna die. But in life, not in the creative process (laughs).
RM: No, I mean, when you’re working. Because it’s too intense, or because you think too much.
LVT: No, I’m happy when I’m working. Even the film I made with Björk—it was hell, but she was fantastic. Björk is the best actress I’ve ever worked with. But … she’s crazy.
MBK: And you aren’t?
LVT: Yes, so am I. But we were crazy in the same way, because of the work that we’ve done being completely under our control. She wanted the film completely different. We had so many meetings and so much crying, and so much … It was enormous. And then we shot a scene with a train with some dancers on it, and we had to stop a regular train. People were sitting in this train, and we were supposed to shoot, but then Björk disappeared in the woods. So I had to find her and convince her to come back.
MBK: The legend around the movie says that she often disappeared.
LVT: Yeah, yeah, she did. But it was interesting how well she understood the film, even though she hated it.
LVT: Yes. She said this shirt that she had on was humiliation, and so on.
MBK: And is it false, this point of view of Björk? Wasn’t there a sadistic element in this movie? They are so many levels in each of your movies. In this one, for example, there’s the first-degree melodramatic movie, there’s the musical-comedy aspect, there’s the performance aspect, like in contemporary art or the Living Theatre. But there’s also the element of humiliation—as I thought when I saw it—and this was quite disturbing. Some sado-masochistic relationship between you and Björk? Pardon my asking frankly.
LVT: Yes. What’s interesting is when she makes these very emotional scenes, like the one when she’s gonna be hanged. She was lying on the floor and crying after the first take. And I said: “Next time, could you take out lines two and seven.” She didn’t say anything, but she did it. And that comes, I think, from the musicality. She had a perfect knowledge of what she did, even though … she looked like … you know. She acted very well. She was fantastic.
MBK: There’s a question that comes to me as we talk: why did the great Scandinavian moviemakers, like Dreyer, Bergman, or you, have such relationships with their actresses. Why are they so powerful directors for women? I don’t see any equivalent intensities in other cinemas: Dreyer with Falconetti, Bergman with Liv Ulmann and Bibi Anderson in Persona, you with Björk or Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves. I’ve thought for a long time that there’s a Scandinavian thing about the relationship between the male moviemaker and the female actress, which has no equivalent in any other cinema.
RM: I wouldn’t say intense, but tragic and raw—unlike the Americans.
LVT: So, they’re more sadistic in the north? Bergman was terrible. And I’m sure that Dreyer was too, but in a different way. I just heard this story from Nicole Kidman about Kubrick. There was a guy who was supposed to perform for a week, and he had heard that Kubrick did so many takes. And then they had a long scene where they talk, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah, and Kubrick said: “Thank you! That’s it, we have it.” And he: “What?!” And he called his wife and said, “I’ll be back the day after tomorrow. This is gonna be different than I thought.” And then the next day they were shooting a scene going through a door, and he did that for three days, with different cameras. Every time he had a doubt, he shifted the camera. And then the guy said to Kubrick: “But don’t you think it’s enough?” And he was very surprised. “Don’t you want it right?” Yeah.
Because being a director is dictatorial place, I think. Also. But it’s like a river—the best thing you can do is go with it. And I’ve had more women trusting me in my films than men. With men it has always been difficult. But not Matt Dillon, in my last movie. Matt was very fine. But he did look nervous. And so … all actors should be like that. It’s part of the work. I don’t know why the Nordic directors are assholes with women.
MBK: For me Nordic directors are the best actress directors. So perhaps you have to be a little bit sadistic to obtain such results.
LVT: Yeah. Bergman married them all, you know. And in those interviews on television, when he was sitting with Erland Josephson, who is one of the actors … They were sitting there, complaining about the fact that they didn’t have fathers. They said they never saw them and they were only ever there for three minutes. And the lady who was interviewing said: “Are you aware of the fact that you both have ten children each, and they never see you?” “Oh yeah, that’s right,” he said.
MBK: I will only answer in the presence of my lawyer.
RM: Me too.
LVT: And me too.
MBK: So to come back to these violent reactions to your movies, and the systematic psychological trial they put you through. For me, really, it’s a question of censorship. Like Raphaëlle said, of evil, or more precisely of showing evil.
MBK: The purpose is to show things as they are. Like you said in an interview: “Reality is worse than anything you can make or show in a movie.”
LVT: Yeah. I think it’s dishonest not to show things. You can say that it’s hard for children to see, but if we’re talking about adult persons … I don’t know. I still believe, somehow, in a society without any rules, with no censorship at all. And then political correctness comes in—a terrible, terrible thing, which really makes you censor yourself.
RM: There was a French writer, called Paul Valéry, who said that politeness is just the art of indifference, which is worse.
LVT: Yeah. I may be too polite.
RM: We’re all too polite.
LVT: I thought you were coming here to talk about evil. Please! I was brought up to believe that man was some kind of clay, and that it was society and parents who formed the clay, so that nobody was evil. It was only evil circumstances that made things. That was a characteristically communist ideology, and very simple. And I must say that I’m …
MBK: … an anarchist?
LVT: Yeah, maybe. I’m not religious, but I think that forgiveness is very human.
RM: Do you think it’s the best thing we can do?
LVT: Yeah, if it’s possible. Forgiveness. I have never lost a child, but if somebody killed my child in a car accident, I would of course get very mad at him. But the whole idea is that society should be milder than the individual. That’s the whole idea about having a society, right? Otherwise I could just go and kill this guy, and then it would go on forever.
Another rule that’s important for me is that the justice of the state should be milder than the individual. I had a cat, and I am actually writing a film about this cat, one of these ten minute films. Because when I had it, there was an animal doc that came and killed it, because it was old and very sick. And after I did that, I hated it. I hated the cat and the way it looked at me. You know, it blamed me all the time, only with the eyes. After I did that, which is now four months ago, I still see it. Everywhere, you know, you just see the tail and …
RM: The ghost cat ….
MBK: It reminds me of The Black Cat, by Edgar Allan Poe. Have you read this novel?
LVT: Yeah, I just did. I was a little bit disappointed. I’ve read a little of Poe, but not very much. But yeah, he was a poor fellow, and he died of delirium tremens. Which is when you drink too much. I try to avoid drinking too much. I’m not drinking right now. It’s difficult.
RM: You’re censoring alcohol.
LVT: It’s very strange, because alcohol …
MBK: You need to drink to not censor yourself?
LVT: Yeah, that’s it, more or less. It doesn’t really help much. It’s just like if you have a size like this, it takes it down immediately, which is quite good. It’s kind of … (he claps his hands). But then, when the alcohol is in your blood and weakening out, then a new anxiety comes, which could be worse. But still you want to drink. It’s a good invention. A lot of people use it.
RM: Yeah, it’s amazing. I practice, very deeply.
LVT: You drink too?
RM: Yeah, all the time. It’s the same as you. It kills anxiety so swiftly. You can drink a glass in half a minute and it’s already better.
RM: And as you said somewhere, you drink to forget that you drink. Like William Burroughs said—sorry, I’m quoting all the time …
MBK: Typically French …
RM: “Write drunk, edit sober.” What do you think about that?
LVT: I wrote a lot of my films on cocaine. Which is a very good drug to write on, because you never look back. You carry a lot of energy. So you lack problems, because you can just cross them. But I stopped doing that. It wasn’t an addiction, it was a tool of work. I wrote Dogville in ten days, without ever reading it. I never read what I’ve written. I don’t go back, and, you know …
RM: You don’t touch it?
RM: OK. Do you think that the first shot is always the best?
LVT: Of the script? Yeah.
RM: That’s s quite unconventional, because usually people rewrite and rewrite.
LVT: It’s terrible. And it’s as if there’s a dictator who says: “This is how the script is going to be.” And there’s a chance that I may be good. But if you have nine dictators with the will to influence the film, you can be sure it’s gonna be crap. It’s similar with the jury in film festivals. When you have a lot of people, no matter how many they are, who have to agree, that’s the reason why most of the time it’s the wrong film that gets the prize. But it was very touching for me to be in Cannes this year.
MBK: You were out of competition.
LVT: Yes, out of competition. I think it was the last punishment from Cannes, hopefully, unless I say something stupid. I’ve seen this press conference again and again. If I had done it in Germany, there wouldn’t have been a problem. It’s France, the South of France. It’s terrible. It has something to do with guilt.
MBK: I agree completely. I always explain to people that Charlotte Gainsbourg was on your side, and was laughing and laughing. She wasn’t shocked by what you said. I think it was après-coup, afterwards. I don’t think the scandal was direct, synchronic. It’s simply that something emerges and says: “Hey, this is shocking! We don’t accept that!” and it gets out of proportion.
LVT: Yeah. But I’m also critical in another way about how things happened, because the moderator should listen to what people say. He shouldn’t leave or stop the press conference when I just said: “OK, I’m a Nazi”. Which is something you say after having discussed a long time, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. And you keep on saying: “I’m not a Nazi, I’m not a Nazi.” But at last comes a moment when you’re tired and you say: “OK, OK, I’m a Nazi. Can we move on to another thing?” And it was just … Twitter had just started at the time, and it was so easy to write: “von Trier is a Nazi. He admits.” And everybody gets afraid in a land like Denmark … but Sweden is twice as bad. Sweden is really …
MBK: … the champion of political correctness.
LVT: Yeah. But the reactions from the Danish, for example from the Danish Film Institute … They said: “We distance ourselves from Lars.” But they could also have said: “He says a lot of stupid things, but he’s not a Nazi.” We work together every day, for Christ sake! If I had any Nazi tendencies, they would have been aware of them. But they’re so afraid for their own positions that …
RM: Yes. People are so sneaky about that. It’s like: “Oh, you’re friends with Lars, so maybe you’re a Nazi too.”
LVT: You look at Europe, all those right-wing parties. And look at Trump, an absolute fascist idiot. They don’t say anything about that. It’s very strange, because when Trump started lying, and then you were so shocked by every lie … and now you don’t notice anymore that it’s all lies. Maybe that’s how it is in the business world, where he comes from. Now he really is a mean bastard.
RM: I saw an interview with Trump sometime in the 1980s. He was a business man at the time, and he said to the journalists: “You know, American people are so stupid that if I wanted to, I would be elected president.” He said it! And he did it.
LVT: He’s talking to the instincts of some people. And of course it’s a big problem with globalization that makes things worse. All those people rowing on rubber boats over the Mediterranean. It’s very strange, because I saw that liberalism, which is capitalism, has a rule that says: “The only way you can help yourself and the world, is going from a place to a better place.” The machinery behind capitalism is that if you starve or something, you take your family and you go to another place. You go, of course, to a place where you believe it will be better.
MBK: Did you always stay in Copenhagen? You never thought to move?
LVT: No, I never moved. I hate to travel. I’m such a bomb.
MBK: I hate to travel too. Today was awful.
LVT: How did you come here?
RM: First by plane, then metro, bus …
LVT: The plane is a horror to me. I never take the plane.
MBK: Yes, I heard about that.
RM: About censorship again: do you feel it more in life or in art?
LVT: As soon as two people come together, they begin to lie. And if you have a family, it’s much bigger, of course. I have four children, and… no, I think there’s so much more censorship in life. I don’t accept it in films. Of course, I can be forced to do it if we can’t find enough money, or …
RM: Only that? Only the money, technical reasons? You never had an idea that shocked you, for example?
MBK: Are there things that shock Lars von Trier?
LVT: In Nymphomaniac we had a scene with two underage girls. It should look like they were masturbating on the bathroom floor. The problem with the laws of these things is that no one will tell you beforehand if it’s legal. And that’s very strange, because it’s like going onto a motorway and nobody will tell you what the maximum is, right? Then you have to go really quick and then get a fine, and then you know. We tried to have the script clear in terms of international law, but then the ministry of culture … nobody would say anything. So there’s some international censorship.
LVT: Yeah, taboos.
RM: Like pedophilia? You can’t make a movie about pedophilia. Why can you do a film about a serial killer, but not about pedophilia?
LVT: Like I said, I was very surprised that my last movie was considered to be so violent, because violence … There are so many American films—I saw hundreds that are much more violent. I guess it’s because they think too much about the director. I should be … it should be intellectual and not violent. I don’t know.
RM: It’s quite surprising, because I never thought about the fact that there are certain forms of violence, extreme violence, that we’re used to …
RM: … and other forms that are as extreme as those, but you can’t represent them.
RM: Nobody deals with it. So because nobody deals with it, it becomes kind of illegal.
LVT: Yeah. I used to say that I do the films that I’m missing. You know, if you have the table full of films, and then there’s a hole: a pedophilia film … I’m not contesting that ... but if I did, then …
RM: Sorry! What have I done!
LVT: … then it would be one of the missing films, right?
RM: Can you imagine a movie that even Lars von Trier wouldn’t be crazy enough to realize?
LVT: Pedophilia is something I would never touch. It’s too tabooish. But I believe strongly that all kinds of films should be able to be made. Also films that show us the opposite of what we want to see. And I would say that propaganda films—propaganda for something that we don’t want to know—could be works of art, as our own films, right?
RM: Everything that makes something appear. It’s about trying to show something that nobody shows. Is it a reaction towards … the mainstream, let’s say? Is it to kind of force the mainstream into … I don’t know how to explain …
LVT: Of course, by using the system to put what we’re missing into films, you’re actually putting yourself under censorship. You’re not completely free, but nobody is completely free.
RM: That doesn’t exist, of course.
LVT: No. As long as there’s two people.
RM: Censorship begins when another comes? It doesn’t exist when you’re alone in your head?
LVT: No. Even in this film, The House That Jack Built, Jack is a psychopath. But that’s the diagnosis, an illness. The psychopath, who is a very evil man … the film is seen from his perspective. For example, when the police come, you think: “No, no, not the police!” The police come to take this evil man away, but the viewers are on the side of the evil man, because they have been forced to take his point of view.
RM: I told Mehdi, when we were re-watching Idiots and Dancer in the Dark together last week, that your characters were very aware of evil, living with a deep consciousness of it. And Mehdi said to me that he didn’t think this was true. He quoted the discussion between Truffaut and Hitchcock, when Truffaut asks Hitchcock about guilt, and Hitchcock answers: “What are you talking about? All my movies speak about an innocent man in a guilty world.” Do you think your psychopath is innocent in some way, that he’s sick, that he’s a victim before being an executioner?
LVT: If there’s a kind of an individual in my mind, then it should be possible to film it. If you want to move it from one medium—him—to another—film. I can’t see that there’s any reason for censorship, because … For example, we know that Nazis were bad guys. So I was so relieved to see that Hitler film with Bruno Ganz. It was really a surprising kind of unexpected discovery. But I think it’s about time that we forgive a little bit.
MBK: There was this debate in France between Claude Lanzmann and Jean-Luc Godard—I don’t know if you’re interested in it. Godard brought up this question that now you can show everything. “No, you can’t!” was Lanzmann’s position. “Yes, you can, if you can,” was Godard’s. Did you hear about this debate?
LVT: No. We need films like L’âge d’or and …
MBK: Salo, perhaps?
LVT: Of course we also need Salo. But the problem is still: the fascists were the bad guys. But all of these people were guided by big systems, and they were humans too, you know. They were fascists, but they were humans.
MBK: Of course. Because fascism is human. There’s no fascism of dogs, or fascists ants. It’s typically human.
LVT: Yeah. But I believe very much in the biological explanation. That if there were a very sick lion, then the other lion comes and kills it, right? Stuff like that. Yes, it’s a wrong …
RM: There’s a famous French producer, Marin Karmitz. I was once discussing with him, and he said to me: “Now the fascists are the good guys.” He meant the American superheroes, for example. These are the fascists nowadays. And he told me that Hollywood moviemakers called the White House several times a day. The big producers, like Warner, etc., are in constant contact with the government. What do you think of that?
LVT: I just believe that there should be a confrontation between the film and the people who see it. Otherwise how can we ever change the system if we can’t attack it because it’s censored? And I think that if Trump got arrested …
RM: … or killed. Sorry.
LVT: Or both. First arrested. Or the opposite. No, I’m not saying he should be killed, but if …
RM: There’s something about money that we didn’t talk about. Movies are made that people want to see, and people pay for things they already know. It’s very bourgeois, the whole way people pay for simple advertising. They even forgot what’s the essence of a movie. You must feel very lonely in that system.
LVT: Yeah. Because when you get older, the problem gets bigger. You become more and more afraid of conflict, right? When I watch TV, I zap all the time, because it can be a funny show where there’s an awkward situation, and, ooh! I zap away. So you really … With age, you lose your teeth, right? And you buy it, you know … and I’m trying not to go in that direction.
RM: You’re doing quite well.
LVT: Some journalist wrote that three hundred people left the movie. I think that’s very good, and it wasn’t Cannes. During the film. That’s not bad. I also have a rule that says: a movie must only make enough money so that it’s possible to do the next one. It mustn’t make a profit. Because otherwise what happens is that you buy a house that’s too expensive, and you start doing a lot of crap to pay for it, and …
RM: Mehdi does it a little like you. He doesn’t even start to put the finger in the machine, because he’s afraid of having the whole body engulfed in it. He never went to university, for example, because he knew he would have to deal with a lot of crap.
LVT: At film school I didn’t use the teachers at all. Because those teachers were only at film school because they couldn’t make films themselves, right? So how could they teach me what I needed?
RM: Is there something, for example for the last movie, The House That Jack Built, that you were waiting to hear from critics and journalists, something that you never heard and that you probably will never hear? More precisely, something you think about when you make a movie, and you hope that somebody will see it and note, but in the end nobody says anything?
LVT: Probably, but …
RM: You think about details?
RM: Or about one of your old films? Something you would like to hear, and you’re quite sure you will never hear?
MBK: You’re on tape …
RM: Yes, you can say: “Keep it secret!”
LVT: I don’t think I can really answer that. But the problem, as I see it, is that the dramaturgy thing—not in the last film, but all the others—pressed into this form we talked about. Then there’s something we learn from the very first film we see on television. I call it Donald Duck, because we had a magazine called Donald Duck, you know. And every story you find in it has the same way of telling it. Kind of polluting the minds of the young, I think. It would be fantastic to find a Kaspar Hauser who had never seen a film and ask him to do a film. That would be an interesting experiment.
RM: That’s the whole subject of our interview: how to unlearn. Forget everything you have learnt, in order to untame yourself. Forget what you have learnt, how to do things.
LVT: Yeah. On the set of The House That Jack Built we had a little sign on all the monitors saying: Remember to be sloppy. Stand out of the picture, you know. Be a little sloppy. I think that’s important. Because to do a film following the normal dramaturgy is easy. And I still use some methods I’m not proud of.
MBK: For example?
LVT: For example preparing things. Because if you have one point, and another, the brain would like to see the third point. And if it gets it, it feels good, of course. And then you can use the others the way I said. But the fundamental thing of tying things together—if you are looking for deer out there, you can’t see the deer but you can see the reeds. And then you see a bird, maybe, or a fox, or whatever, and you say: “Oh, it’s a sick deer.” You imagine it, because you want to make stories that make sense.
RM: You don’t like logic.
LVT: I don’t like logic. I made one film, The Boss of It All, where we used a computer to decide how the frames should be made. So I put up the camera where it would normally be, then I pushed the button, and then out comes how high the camera should be, what angles, what lenses should be used, blah-blah-blah. And we did the same for the sound.
RM: How did that feel?
LVT: It felt good, but it was too little. It should be much more … visible. It was a good system. The only thing that was difficult was when we were filming an elephant in the zoo. We had to put the camera in the right position every time, up, down, and so on. And then the animal had moved. So these rules shouldn’t be applied to nature films. It’s a little too difficult.
It’s interesting too see how iconic situations become. For example when the Twin Towers were attacked. This pan by somebody who was making a film about the fire, the gate, up to the plane, and the explosion, was completely unconscious. That’s why I’d say it’s one of the best camera movements. Because it doesn’t come out of practicing “normal” cinema.
RM: You can’t create an event with logic. It just happens by accident.
The conversation took place on July 17, 2018