Political Cinema After Politics

Angelos Koutsourakis, Politics as Form in Lars von Trier: A Post-Brechtian Reading

Bloomsbury, 264pp, £86.00, ISBN 9781623563455

reviewed by Andrew Marzoni

‘What can I say? I understand Hitler,’ said Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, at a press conference during the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where his film Melancholia was screened for competition. As he stutters on, describing how he can ‘see Hitler in his bunker’ despite his having done ‘some wrong things,’ identifying himself as a Nazi while insisting that he is ‘not against Jews,’ Melancholia’s star, Kirsten Dunst, shifts uncomfortably in her chair, rolling her eyes, laughing nervously. ‘Oh my god,’ she audibly mutters, ‘this is terrible.’ Later, she grimaces in angry embarrassment. Dunst’s reaction to this episode anticipates that of the press: she seems offended not by von Trier’s words themselves, but by his utterance of them in such a high-profile, mediated setting, knowing that they would be misunderstood, taken out of context, and vilified without nuance. And they were: von Trier was ejected from the festival, persona non grata, while Dunst went on to win the award for Best Actress.

The Cannes incident is not inconsistent with von Trier’s career as a filmmaker, nor is it a ‘gaffe’ (as was widely reported) if we are to believe Angelos Koutsourakis’s analysis of von Trier’s filmography in Politics as Form in Lars von Trier: A Post-Brechtian Reading. Though Koutsourakis does not comment on this episode directly, his compelling description of von Trier as a ‘post-Brechtian’ filmmaker makes it difficult not to see von Trier’s statements at Cannes as yet another of the director’s experiments with the Verfremdungseffekt which German playwright and director Bertolt Brecht championed in his writings. Paraphrasing the director himself, Koutsourakis argues that von Trier’s films are political in that ‘he shows things in an extreme way and lets the audience deal with them.’ That these politics should exceed the boundaries of his films should not be surprising in the case of von Trier, who has the word ‘fuck’ tattooed on the knuckles of his right hand but has never travelled to America because he is afraid of flying. Like the man himself, von Trier’s films are abrasive, contradictory, puzzling, and unsettling. Or, as a good Marxist like Koutsourakis would have it, they are rigorously dialectical.

Verfremdungseffekt, translated as ‘alienation effect’ or ‘distancing effect,’ is a technique that Brecht used, according to Koutsourakis, ‘to demonstrate the individual’s dependence on processes that defy his or her self-determination.’ This attempt at making the familiar strange is exemplified by a number of techniques employed in Brecht’s plays, such as the breaking of the fourth wall and anti-representational, ‘gestic’ acting. The overall goal of Verfremdungseffekt in Brecht’s theatre was to blur the lines between life and art, the factual and the fictive—to implicate the audience in the theatrical production such that the spectator would be called to action. Brecht sought to replace catharsis with contemplation, with the specific ends of class consciousness and socialist revolution in mind. In employing the term ‘post-Brechtian,’ Koutsourakis theorises a dialectics (‘the production of formal abstractions that produce oppositions that liberate understanding from the limits of the “innate” and the “natural”’) that is decidedly post-Marxist, tracing cinematic appropriations of Brecht’s techniques which, according to film scholar Martin Brady (whose definition Koutsourakis uses as a model), ‘no longer adhere to the principles of ideology or leftist political modernism.’

Koutsourakis, a scholar of contemporary European cinema who teaches at the University of New South Wales, uses the writings of Brecht and the category of the post-Brechtian in order to show how von Trier’s mercurial body of work is in fact explicitly political in nature. In doing so, he spans von Trier’s entire career, from his student films in the 1970s to Melancholia, though he devotes most of his attention to the three trilogies comprising von Trier’s middle period: the Europa trilogy, including The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987), and Europa (1991); the Golden Heart trilogy, made up of Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998), and Dancer in the Dark (2000); and the two films which constitute the unfinished trilogy USA: Land of Opportunities, Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005). Each of these trilogies is cited to elucidate a different formal strategy of post-Brechtian cinema (a designation expanded by Koutsorakis into a school of contemporary European filmmakers, in which von Trier is joined by Austria’s Michael Haneke, Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos, and others): fragments of historical reality in Europa, metacinematic commentary in Golden Heart, and experimentation with cinematography and mise-en-scène in USA. Relying on a framework drawn from Marxist theorists such as Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Fredric Jameson, and the Frankfurt School, Koutsourakis convincingly details Brecht’s immense influence on von Trier’s oeuvre, ultimately arguing that in his films, ‘von Trier stages dialectical clashes and emphasizes the social component in the characters’ gestures and attitudes, but the depicted relations do not provide conclusive resolutions.’

Eager as he is to portray von Trier as a political filmmaker, Koutsourakis is ultimately unable to neatly fit his subject into the genealogy of Marxist filmmakers to whom von Trier is clearly indebted (Jean-Luc Godard and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, especially), as the notion of politics to which von Trier’s predecessors were committed is complicated by the historical moment in which his work appears. Koutsourakis shows some awareness of this, defending von Trier’s work against critics’ charges of nihilism, writing,

The establishment of late capitalism after the collapse of a socialist alternative forces us to reconsider politics and representation, and radical politics can be joined together with historical pessimism.

After the failures of the 1960s and the fall of the Iron Curtain, Koutsourakis argues (following philosopher Susan Buck-Morss) that the political left has lost its faith in progress, an ideal now more commonly associated with the right wing. Even as Koutsourakis’s readings of Dogville and Manderlay, for instance, illuminate a critique of liberal humanism much in line with the most prominent voices of the political left, von Trier cannot be made into the political filmmaker that Koutsourakis seems to want him to be: when told by the author in an interview, printed in the book’s Appendix (alongside von Trier’s various manifestoes, and an interview with his compatriot and sometime collaborator, filmmaker Jørgen Leth), ‘To my understanding you are a political filmmaker,’ the most assent von Trier is willing to provide is, ‘Interesting, people tend to think that political cinema is something like Ken Loach, which I do not think is right.’

Von Trier’s latest film – the two-part, five-hour Nymphomaniac – opened in Denmark on Christmas, and is set to receive its official premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February. The film’s reputation precedes it: rumors abound of unsimulated sex involving von Trier regulars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgård, as well as Disney-star-turned-bad-boy Shia LaBeouf. Per Juul Carlsen, of the Danish Film Institute, quotes von Trier as saying that his Director of Photography urged him ‘not to fall into the trap that so many aging directors fall into—that the women get younger and younger and nuder and nuder. That’s all I needed to hear. I most definitely intend for the women in my films to get younger and younger and nuder and nuder.’ If the personal is political, then von Trier’s statements here do not appear to be on the side of progress, whether that be the cause célèbre of the left or the right (von Trier’s supposedly ironic affinities for the latter side are never explored by Koutsourakis, though perhaps they should be). Politics as Form in Lars von Trier deftly and insightfully presents the filmmaker as an unabashed provocateur, but Koutsourakis’s materialist methodology does not allow for a politics as ambiguous and elusive as von Trier’s proves to be. And perhaps it is here that Marxist politics and the films of Lars von Trier share the most in common: that they are simultaneously most unsettling and most brilliant when they resist definitive answers, be they narrative, political, or otherwise.