Lars von Trier on Breaking the Waves

On Film / Interviews — Apr 18, 2014

The following interview, conducted by Stig Björkman, originally appeared in Björkman’s 1999 book Trier on von Trier. It appears here courtesy of Björkman and Alfabeta Bokförlag AB, in a translation by Neil Smith.

Breaking the Waves took five years and forty-two million kroner to make. Where did the original idea for the film come from?

I prefer working with extreme ideas, and I wanted to make a film about “goodness.” When I was little, I had a children’s book called Guldhjerte [Goldheart], which I had very clear and happy memories of. It was a picture book about a little girl who goes into the forest with some slices of bread and other stuff in her pockets. But at the end of the book, when she’s gotten through the forest, she’s standing there naked and with nothing left. And the last line in the book was: “‘But at least I’m okay,’ said Goldheart.” It seemed to express the ultimate extremity of the martyr’s role. I read the book several times, in spite of the fact that my father thought it was absolute rubbish. The story of Breaking the Waves probably comes from that. Goldheart is Bess in the film. I also wanted to make a film with a religious theme, a film about miracles. And at the same time, I wanted to make a completely naturalistic film.

The story of the film changed a lot over the years. To begin with, I wanted to shoot the film on the west coast of Jutland, then in Norway, then Ostende in Belgium, then Ireland, and, in the end, Scotland. It’s probably no coincidence that a lot of the film is set on the Isle of Skye, where a lot of painters and writers went during the romantic period in Britain in the 1800s. I worked a lot on the script of Breaking the Waves over the years. I’ve been a bit like Dreyer, cutting bits out, condensing and refining it. But then, just before we started filming, I lost my enthusiasm for the piece. It had taken so long to get the film made that I was tired of it. I’d already moved on from it.

I can understand that. It can be difficult holding on to the same idea for so long. All the time you’re getting new ideas for films and other projects.

Yes, and there’s a risk of adding new material to the project to freshen it up, which isn’t always a good idea. You run the risk of losing what you originally had, forgetting what it was you wanted to depict to begin with. But it did take a long time to get financial support for the film.

That’s odd, because it feels as if Breaking the Waves ought to have been more commercially attractive than your earlier films.

Yes. There’s a funny story about that. We got financial support for the script from something that I think is called the European Script Fund. There were lecturers who read script proposals, and they were getting a lot of criticism. So to protect their position, they constructed a computer program out of about ten projects that had been suggested to them. The idea was that the computer could work out the artistic and commercial relevance of a project. And Breaking the Waves got top marks! That was fun. It must have had all the right ingredients: a sailor, a mermaid, a romantic landscape—all the stuff the computer loved!

Did you get the idea for the film’s very particular technique, with handheld camera and the CinemaScope format, at the same time as the idea for the story?

No, that came from my experiences on The Kingdom. In this film, there are some of the same clichéd elements as in The Kingdom, which is why I thought it was important to give the film as realistic a treatment as possible. A more documentary style. If I had made Breaking the Waves with conventional techniques, I think it would have been unbearable.

I think it’s important to decide upon a specific style for a story if the project is going to be at all practical. Normally, you choose a style for a film that’s going to emphasize the story. But we did the opposite. We chose a style that contradicts the story, giving it the least possible emphasis.

Yes, if you’d chosen to give Breaking the Waves the “Merchant Ivory treatment,” it would probably have been regarded as far too romantic or melodramatic.

The film would have been far too sickly. It would have been unbearable. What we did was take a style and lay it like a filter over the story. It’s like decoding a television signal when you pay to see a film. Here we encoded the film, and the audience has to decode it. The raw, documentary style that I imposed on the film, which actually dissolves and contradicts it, means that we can accept the story as it is. That’s my theory, at any rate. It’s all a bit theoretical. Then we manipulated the images electronically. We transferred the film to video and worked on the color, before transferring it back to film again.

Like Medea, which you shot on video then trans­ferred to film, before copying it to video again.

No, that was a much more basic process, where we filmed direct from the television monitor. In The Kingdom, the transfer process was a bit more advanced. And here it was even more refined. It’s interesting to transfer Panavision to video and then back to film again. Maybe it makes it a bit too attractive . . . In between, there are some completely digitally produced panoramic shots that introduce the different sections in the film.

They’re also a bit reminiscent of a classic English novel, with chapter titles and headings that indicate the chapters’ content.

I collaborated on these images with a Danish artist, Per Kirkeby, who has developed a form based on romantic painting. He’s an expert in his field, and the results are very interesting. There are so many ways of expressing romantic painting. There are the pictures that people hang on their walls, then there’s the more genuine article in galleries. Our pictures might have become a bit more abstract than I planned at the start.

In 1995, you published a manifesto, Dogme 95, with the aim of “countering certain tendencies in the cinema today.” The manifesto attacked illusory cinema and promoted naturalistic cinema with a series of rules, like filming everything on location, using handheld cameras without any special lighting and with directly recorded sound. The last rule is that the director mustn’t be credited. Apart from the film’s large budget, Breaking the Waves largely follows the manifesto.

Yes, which was fortunate, really . . . But the manifesto goes a step further, which was important to me personally when I planned to make a film according to the rules. As you can see, Breaking the Waves doesn’t follow the rules exactly. I wasn’t able to resist tinkering with the film’s color and technical appearance. Maybe I shouldn’t have, if I was going to be faithful to my own theory. But I felt a need to restrict myself, and that was the spirit in which the manifesto was created.

You also break the rule about the film being uncredited. Breaking the Waves is undoubtedly “a film by Lars von Trier.” A French author, Paul Valéry, said that “the decline of art begins with a signature.” In other words, a work will be judged in relation to its creator. Do you see this as positive or negative?

I see it as positive. I haven’t got any problems with that. When I was younger, I was fascinated by David Bowie, for instance. He’d managed to construct a complete mythology around himself. It was as important as his music. If Bowie had composed music that didn’t need his signature, maybe he could have learned to do something else. I don’t really think it’s important not to acknowledge a work’s originator within the relationship between an artist and his audience. The important thing here is the process in which the work is created.

The manifesto is purely theoretical. But, at the same time, the theory is more important than the individual. That’s what I wanted to express. Somehow or other, the identity of the director will always get out. It will be obvious who has directed each Dogme film.

Of course, I think that most serious filmmakers will be recognizable whether or not their signature is there in black and white.

Yes, I’ve always thought it was important that you can tell just by looking at a film whether or not I made it.

What do you think is unique about your signature? What is it in a film that means that we can see it’s one of yours?

This will probably sound pretentious, but somehow I hope people will be able to see that every image contains a thought. It probably sounds arrogant, and it might not be true. But I think that every image and every edit is thought through. There’s no coincidence at all.

Breaking the Waves has a strong religious background. What made you include that in the film?

Probably because I’m religious myself. I’m Catholic, but I don’t pray to Catholicism for Catholicism’s sake. I’ve felt a need for a sense of belonging to a community of faith, because my parents were committed atheists. I flirted with religion a lot as a young man. In your youth, you’re probably attracted to more extreme religions. Either you disappear to Tibet or you seek out the strictest faith available, with total abstinence and so on.

I think I’ve developed a more Dreyer-esque view of it all now. Dreyer’s view of religion was primarily humanist. He also tackles religion in all his films. Religion is attacked, but not God. That’s what happens in Breaking the Waves.

In the film, religion is described as a power structure. The mechanics of power and its problematics are something you’ve tackled in several of your previous films.

My intention was never to criticize any particular faith, like the one in this Scottish setting. That doesn’t interest me at all. It’s too easy, and it’s not something I want to get involved in. Cultivating a point of view that’s easily accessible and generalized, it’s like fishing in shallow water. In many ways, I can understand people who are obsessed by spiritual issues, often in a very extreme way. It’s just that, if you’re going to create a melodrama, you have to include certain obstacles. And religion struck me as being a suitable obstacle.

Bess’s conversations with God have a directness and an intimacy that gives a human voice to the religious theme.

Bess is also an expression of that religion. Religion is her foundation, and she accepts its conditions without question. In the funeral scene at the beginning of the film, the priest condemns the deceased to eternal damnation in hell, which is something Bess finds completely natural. She has no scruples about that. But we, on the other hand, do. Bess is confronted with a lot of other power structures, like the power exerted by the hospital and the doctors. And she has to adopt a position using the inherent goodness that she possesses.

To a great extent, the film takes the actors as its starting point. Do you think your attitude toward actors changed and developed in Breaking the Waves?

You could probably say that it did. But I also used a different technique in Breaking the Waves, a technique based upon a relationship of trust between director and actors, a classic technique really. I probably got closer to the actors in this film. But it’s easy to suggest that I’ve finally learned that as well! In my earlier films, it was more a conscious matter of not getting too close to the actors.

How did you come to cast Emily Watson in the role of Bess? She gives a fantastic perform­ance, despite at the time being a novice when it came to film.

One of the problems of financing this production was that we didn’t have any big names in the leading roles. We realized that early on, when we couldn’t find any big names who wanted to be involved. They were scared of the character of the film.

Was that because of the sex scenes?

It was probably the story as a whole. It’s a strange mix of religion and sex and obsession. The well-known actors we approached didn’t want to lay their careers on the line, like Helena Bonham Carter, who pulled out of the project at the very last minute. So it felt important to find actors who really wanted to be involved. And I think it shows, that the actors we chose in the end are wholeheartedly committed to the film.

We auditioned several actresses for the role of Bess. Then I looked at the video of the auditions together with Bente [von Trier’s partner], and she thought it was obvious that Emily Watson ought to get the part. I was also very taken by Emily’s acting, but it was mainly her enthusiasm that convinced me. I remember that Emily was also the only one who came to the audition without any makeup and barefoot! There was something Jesus-like about her that attracted me.

Emily had no previous film experience, which meant that she was more reliant on me as director. Our work together was extremely relaxed. The funny thing is that, with Emily’s scenes, I chose to use the last take of each scene, fairly consistently. Whereas with Katrin Cartlidge, I almost always went for the first take. The difference was in their individual styles of acting. We improvised a lot, forgot all about continuity, and gave the actors more freedom in their performances. As far as Katrin, a more experienced actress, was concerned, the intensity of her performance diminished for every new take. In Emily’s case, I gave more exact instructions, which meant that she refined her performance in each take.

And the other actors, how did you choose them?

I was considering Gérard Depardieu as the male lead, as I had for Europa. I met him in Paris, but he was far too overwhelmed with work and not particularly interested in the role. The character was more like Depardieu when I began writing the script. But it developed in a different direction, and Depardieu would have been too old for the part.

Later on, Stellan Skarsgård was the natural choice. He also had the physique that was right for the part. And he was excellent. He’s also a very nice person. I shall probably always have him in mind if there’s a suitable part for him.

And Katrin Cartlidge? I know that the role of Dodo was originally intended for Barbara Sukowa.

That’s right. That was because we’d worked together on Europa. But for various reasons, it didn’t work on this occasion. Katrin was someone I originally auditioned for the role of Bess, but she wasn’t quite right for that—or rather the part didn’t suit her. She was an incredibly talented actress, and extremely intelligent. But I offered her the role of Dodo, and she wanted to do it. They were a fantastic trio, Emily, Stellan, and Katrin. And I think Jean-Marc [Barr] gives one of his best performances in Breaking the Waves.

The way you edited the film is fairly unorthodox and breaks all the rules. Did it take long to do?

No, the editing was very easy. We’d shot very long scenes, and none of them was like any other. The actors were allowed to move in the scene if they wanted to, and never had to follow any precise plan. When we edited the scenes, our only intention was to strengthen the intensity of the acting, without worrying about whether the picture was sharp or well composed or if we were riding roughshod over the invisible sight axis. That resulted in great jumps in time within the scenes, which might not be perceived as jumps in time. They almost give a feeling of compression. I basically developed the things I learned from working on The Kingdom.

If you had to choose a single image from Breaking the Waves that you think represents the film, which would you pick—and why?

Well, you know very well, as a director, that one of the reasons you make films is that one image isn’t enough. At the Cannes Film Festival, we had a completely black poster because we couldn’t decide on a single image to represent the whole film. We had a poster with a plain black background. It had just the title and a few names. It looked a bit like a concert poster and was printed on some sort of velvety material, and I liked it a lot. So without wanting to be negative, I have to say that I can’t pick any image that I think represents the whole film.

One image from the film that’s often used, which you must have picked out from the hundreds that were taken, is a close-up of Emily Watson looking directly into the camera, and thereby out into the audience. Why did you choose that one?

This business of stills is often pretty haphazard. There isn’t always a still photographer around, and the stills don’t always match the scene in the completed film. That close-up of Emily is where she first comes into direct contact with the audience. But I’m not that keen on the picture. If there’s a point in the film where I think there’s a certain artifice in Emily’s acting, it’s there. I remember the moment we shot that very well, and we had to try a whole load of different ways of getting that shot. Maybe because it’s not a scene with any interplay of acting, it’s more of a planned scene, which is subordinate to an idea.

Seeing Emily in the film always makes me glad, but that picture really isn’t a favorite of mine.

But if you had to pick another picture of Emily . . .

That I liked? Then I’d probably pick the confrontation between Bess and the young doctor, Dr. Richardson [Adrian Rawlins], at the end of the film. It was a scene we shot very early on, and it’s a very emotionally rewarding, but very difficult, scene. That’s somewhere I feel that Emily exhibits an almost sublime presence.

If I had to pick separate shots of Emily that I was particularly fond of, I’d probably pick shots from the short montage sequence, accompanied by music by T. Rex, where she’s dancing about. They’re playful scenes, a bit “New Wave,” and I like them a lot.

Breaking the Waves is full of dramatic events, and it expresses strong feelings and thoughts—love, passion, faith, betrayal—but it also pays a lot of attention to detail. The interior of Bess’s home, for instance, with the pictures of the dogs and cats on the wall, or the hospital, where, during one dramatic scene, you can see a woman in the background sitting beside a hospital bed in the corridor consoling her husband. Can you say something about how that was done?

Breaking the Waves is a film where a lot of things happened by accident. The art director, Karl Júlíusson, who I think did an excellent job, had decided how the different locations should look. But what we ended up seeing in the shot was a complete coincidence—which happens, of course, when you work with a handheld camera. There were loads of details in the decor that we never see in the film, and others that appear more clearly. But we did have a lot of fun with those dog pictures in Bess’s home. They’re pure kitsch, and we did wonder if it was a bit too much. But on the other hand, they suit the situation. They strengthen the sense of authenticity.

As far as the scene in the hospital is concerned, and others like it, we were trying to create a credible location, most of which was later edited out. The things that all the extras are doing around the actual scene were mostly there to create a convincing atmosphere for the actors. The fact that the couple by the hospital bed ended up in the shot was a complete coincidence, and not particularly important. The important thing was what was happening with the actors in the scene. In my earlier films, I spent more time worrying about that sort of detail and less on the actors. That’s all changed now. I think it’s nice to get glimpses of details like that in the edge of the picture, because it gives a sense of there being a wider world outside the reality that we’re concentrating on.

How did you choose the pictures for the chapter illustrations? Can you say something about some of these pictures and their background? One that has stuck with me in particular is the one illustrating the film’s epilogue, the bridge over the stream.

Most of those panoramic shots were described in the script, but several of them changed quite a lot. I traveled around Scotland for a long time together with the photographer, Robby Müller, and [producer] Vibeke Windeløv, and we took loads of pictures, and even some film footage, of the landscape. This was long before we started filming. At a later stage, we contacted the painter Per Kirkeby, who worked on them and retouched them on his computer. What I particularly wanted was for Per—who’s both an artist and a theorist—to find different ways of expressing the romantic landscape. I had the impression that this romanticism ought to betray a deeper banality, but Per’s first suggestions were a long way from that idea. The finished result could be described as a diplomatic mixture of his and my ideas. What he did to the pictures made them considerably more interesting and ambiguous. Perhaps I was aiming more toward the grandiose.

The picture of the bridge was actually the first chapter illustration we did, and it was created before Per got involved. The bridge was on the Isle of Skye, but it was in the middle of a village. So we took the bridge out of context and put a mountain behind it and had a waterfall rushing beneath it. Per did some more work on it later. He put his special sense of lighting into the picture. The idea was to collect more intense light under the arch of the bridge in the center of the picture. And there’s no naturalistic light illuminating the distant landscape.

I’m very fond of that picture. You can read as much symbolism into it as you like. You can see the bridge as a link between life and death. And the water representing eternity. And so on. But I haven’t really thought about it. Everyone can interpret any perceived symbolism as they like. But I think it’s an expressive picture. And I think it works well with David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.”

I like some of those chapter illustrations better than others, especially the one of the bridge. But I’m also very fond of the one of the silhouetted city and the rainbow.

What did the landscape of Skye mean to you?

I just know that a lot of painters and writers associated with British romanticism visited Skye. The landscape there is extremely romantic. It’s nothing like Danish romanticism. It’s a lot more grandiose. I was particularly struck by the contrasts in the landscape. In the midst of a range of bleak mountains, there would be crevasses with luscious vegetation.

When you visited us on location, we were filming on the hill above the place where we put the cemetery in the film. We actually wanted the cemetery higher up on the hill, but we couldn’t manage that. We’d measured a plot and started constructing the cemetery when people came and protested, and were almost prepared to start throwing stones at the team. So we had to move the cemetery down to a more sheltered position, nearer the water. We managed to find a wonderful spot with exactly the same dimensions we were planning higher up.

The cemetery is still there. The man who owned the land wanted to sell the gravestones and other props to the BBC, but he hasn’t managed to yet. So it’s become a tourist attraction; people go and look at it and have picnics. But they wanted to clear it away. Because it is, after all, a cemetery—and almost all the production team is buried there! We had to put names on the gravestones, so the team used their own names on them.

You’ve often mentioned Dreyer as a source of inspiration. Do you think that’s the case even on this film?

Yes, I can see that films like The Passion of Joan of Arc and Gertrud have probably been significant for Breaking the Waves. Dreyer’s films are naturally more academic, more cultivated. What’s new for me is having a woman at the center of the story. And, of course, all of Dreyer’s films had women as their main characters—women who are suffering as well. The film’s original title was actually going to be Amor omnie [Love Is in Everything], the epitaph that Gertrud wanted on her grave in Dreyer’s film. But when my producer heard the title, he exploded. He had trouble imagining that anyone would want to go and see a film called Amor omnie.

At the end of Breaking the Waves, in the scene where the wounded and expelled Bess comes into the church, she contradicts the church council’s rule that women must remain silent in the congregation and says: “You can’t love the Word. You can only love a person.” That’s a line that could be interpreted as both an homage and a response to Dreyer.

That might be taking it a bit far, but it’s actually one of the few lines that I rewrote on location. In the script, there was something far more wordy and generally unformed. The idea of her outburst was to pick up something that the members of the congregation said and stood for—and to contradict it. The priest talks about loving the Word and the Law. That was the only thing you had to obey. That’s what would make a person complete. But Bess twists the concepts and says that the only thing that can make a person complete is loving another person. This is really the formulation of the film’s moral.

But the line was rewritten just before shooting. In the script, it said that Bess should say: “Dear God, thank you for the divine gift of love. Thank you for the love that makes a person a person. Dear God . . .” Emily Watson discussed the lines with me and said that she didn’t understand them. And I can appreciate that, because they were pretty poor. And according to the script, no one in church had said anything before that. No, the revised script was much better. It’s also better that she got into a debate with the priest. So what you could say about Bess is that she represents feminism against the extremely misogynist priesthood. And her sister-in-law, Dodo, does pretty much the same.

Yes, not least at the end, at Bess’s funeral.

Yes, where Dodo rebels against the establishment, the male hierarchy.

One concept, one element that links most of your previous films is a sense of irony. There’s not a lot of irony in Breaking the Waves.

When I was at film school, they said that all good films were characterized by some form of humor. All films, apart from Dreyer’s! A lot of his films are totally “vacuum-cleaned” of humor. In a sense, you could say that, when you imbue your film with humor, you’re establishing a certain distance from it. You create a distance. With this film, I didn’t want to distance myself from the emotions contained in the plot and the characters.

I think that this strong engagement with emotions was very important for me, because I grew up in a home—a culturally radical home—where strong emotions were forbidden. Those members of my family whom I’ve showed the film to have been very critical about it—both my brother and my uncle [Børge Høst, a Danish director and producer of short films and documentaries], who’s also involved in film. My brother thought the film was indifferent and dull, and my uncle saw it as a total mistake from beginning to end. But otherwise, with my earlier films, he’s been extremely supportive. Perhaps Breaking the Waves is my teenage rebellion . . .

Breaking the Waves was a success all over the world. It was awarded the Grand Prix du Jury at Cannes and garnered numerous awards at different festivals all over the world. The critics were overwhelmingly positive, and audiences flocked to it. After a while, though, there was a counterreaction, both in Denmark and in Sweden, where the film was criticized by feminist commentators. They reacted against the portrait of Bess sacrificing everything, even her life, for her husband. Breaking the Waves was accused of misogyny and of shameless manipulation.

I haven’t come into direct contact with those accusations. Everyone is entitled to formulate their own opinion of the film, of course. The only thing I would say is that I’m surprised that it took so long for this particular strand of criticism to appear. I’d expected it sooner. Even at the synopsis stage, when we were trying to get financial support for the film, and later on, when we were casting the film, we were confronted by this sort of criticism. Most of the women who read the story reacted in the same way, and just as strongly.

But later on, the film managed to create its own authority. What was pro­vocative in the script wasn’t as pro­vocative in the finished film. If you condense the film’s story into a few words, obviously it looks provocative. In Denmark, none of the film critics saw that as a problem. Even Information, which is a radical and academic daily paper, praised the film, which was remarkable given that they’ve always been extremely critical toward my work. But then they published the opinions of a group of fairly agitated feminists, a debate that I wasn’t interested in joining. I understand that quite a bit of this was reproduced in Swedish criticism of the film.

One idea of the film was to try out this extremely provocative and completely incredible plot, and I thought that if we got the audience to accept it, if we could make it palatable to an audience, then we would have succeeded. But without manipulating the audience, which I never wanted to do. I think that Breaking the Waves is a beautiful story, but the reaction to it hasn’t surprised me. And in that sense, the film has worked again. It ought to be manna from heaven for people involved in the debate. Feminists and other people ought to be delighted to find a work that can instigate this sort of debate and lends itself to their arguments so readily.

A female American professor of art history, who started the debate in Sweden, summarized her criticism with the younger Alexander Dumas’s advice to budding writers: “Make your heroine suffer!”

But, for God’s sake, most American films follow that advice . . . !

In one response to that, Maria Bergom-Larsson, who is both a radical feminist and a Christian, described the film as the story of a modern saint, and proposed the hymn of the Virgin, the Magnificat, as a motto for the film: “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.”

It’s a beautiful thought, one that I wholeheartedly agree with. Danish feminists, on the other hand, would hardly offer religious interpretations. A hymn is something that they would instantly attack. It’s just something that would make them even more angry. Mind you, Danish feminists have probably become better behaved over the years. A decade ago, they had more gumption. They’d probably have liked to see me castrated then.