Filmmaker Lars Von Trier (Breaking the Waves) bought a kayak. His friend and collaborator Ernst-Hugo Järegård was surprised and asked if he was afraid, with the water so cold. No, he replied, he would be too busy maintaining his balance to have any fear.
That story, from the new documentary about Von Trier called Tranceformer, is a fitting metaphor for his career. He is comfortable when he is working, when he is creating. He can stand on a table and direct a film crew, but when he is alone, when he is idle, — when he doesn’t have to work to keep his balance — his phobias take over.
Von Trier was raised without much discipline. His parents often made him set his own boundaries. He recalls feeling as though discipline was a form of love he didn’t receive. As a result of his upbringing, Von Trier now has a lot of demons, some of which are touched upon in the film. He talks rather casually about his intense self-loathing and his myriad encumbering phobias.
It is no wonder that so many of his films are dark and brooding, and that they often explore the nature of Evil. Zentropa (A.K.A. Europa) is shot in dark black and white with only occasional tints of pastel colors. Set six months after the end of WWII, it deals with the lingering violence and anger of fading Nazism.
In Breaking the Waves, the heroine was naive and neurotically dependent. The film watches her decay as she copes with God, spiraling guilt, and the rejection of her community following her husband’s paralysis.
The first films Von Trier ever made (when he was still a child) showed an understanding of film’s use and conventions. They also show an understanding of when to break those conventions. At film school he rebelled against the rules of filmmaking as set forth by his teachers — to the delight of his fans. Breaking the Waves, for example, was shot entirely using hand-held cameras.
Von Trier is reputed to be camera-shy; he apparently gives very few interviews. That reputation is supported by the fact that Tranceformer is less than an hour long, with as many film clips and interviews with friends as there are moments of Von Trier on-camera. That doesn’t detract from the documentary, however, because the friends say things that Von Trier might not confess, and the clips show how Von Trier’s personality is rendered on celluloid.
Nevertheless, Tranceformer seems incomplete by itself. Von Trier is a quirky, neurotic character, but he doesn’t come across as truly fascinating unless you know what he has created on film.
To be fully enjoyed, Tranceformer needs to be accompanied by some foreknowledge of the man and his work, or by an interest in renting some of his films.