Image Credit: Lars Von Trier, The Idiots (1997)
Lars von Trier, a luminary of Danish cinema, has left an incredible and arguably controversial mark on global cinema. First known for his Europa trilogy—The Element of Crime, Epidemic, and Europa—in which characters roam through a dreamlike Europe full of longing and darkness, von Trier has expanded his work far beyond Europe. For American audiences, his resonant works include Dancer in the Dark, his 2000 film featuring Icelandic musician Bjork, and his haunting 2011 drama Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg in a visually bravura depiction of the end of the world.
Among an impressive collection of movies, each a tour de force of dark imagination and narrative invention, von Trier is bound up in a complex tapestry of controversy. In Denmark, von Trier is both ridiculed and cherished—at best he is terminally misunderstood and at worst a national laughing stock. Yet the Danish director meets his most critical audience within the very film festivals that have showcased his work. In 1991, Cannes awarded him their Prix du Jury for Europa while other cinephiles turned their thumbs down. The storm intensified in 2011 when, in a moment of let’s say “Danishness,” von Trier declared that he was a “Nazi” who felt sympathy for Adolf Hitler. This led to an expulsion from the Cannes Film Festival and von Trier was declared to be a persona non grata. The subsequent allegations of sexual misconduct involving Bjork and Nicole Kidman cast shadows that further blur the lines of von Trier’s public persona.
Against the poignant backdrop of 2023, with the Danish director announcing to Instagram his search for a girlfriend and muse amidst his battle with Parkinson’s, Mubi, a global streaming platform, secured exclusive North American streaming rights for 11 of his films in new uncut restorations. To mark the occasion, Metrograph screened von Trier’s 1997 controversial (and internationally banned) classic, The Idiots, in 4k print.
While Metrograph takes pride in embracing the unconventional, The Idiots stood out awkwardly among the other French New Wave and arthouse films on offer. Undaunted, New Yorkers gathered at 7 Ludlow Street in sweltering heat to sip on house cocktails and watch as von Trier showed bored upper-class Danes disturbing a Copenhagen suburb.
The film follows a group of young anti-establishment people infiltrating bourgeois spaces, particularly traditional taverns in the wealthy suburbs of Copenhagen. Their mission, to disrupt Danish elites by pretending to be, as von Trier seems to see it, “idiots.” In reality it’s a group of upper-class Danes doing offensive impressions of neurodivergent people as a bored act of defiance.
The narrative begins with an encounter at a tavern where Karen, a middle-aged woman, becomes entangled with a group led by Stoffer. At first she is pulled into their act. She engages with Stoffer at the tavern thinking he is with his caregiver. As she is pulled into the car by him, and later into their large communal house, Karen discerns that the people in this group aren’t what they seem.
Like many of von Trier’s films, The Idiots deliberately pushes limits. But even if provocation is at the core of his work, this film implies a misguided connection between madness and the liberated “people of the future” who are free from social constraints. The group’s caricatures of idiocy are more about provoking the elite than etching closer to any form of social freedom. Sequences are strung together without a discernible narrative thread, leaving viewers without a clear understanding of character motivations and central conflicts. The film refuses to answer the simple question of what it’s about. Only with hindsight do two narrative threads emerge.
The first focuses on Stoffer. It’s evident that he’s the leader of the rebel band, and that he feels angry at the Danish welfare system. But this is as far as his anger goes. In one sequence we get vague remarks about the idiot as the man of the future, which could indicate a connection with the anti-psychiatric movements of the 1970s. The same goes for the philosophy of “the inner idiot in every man,” a loose allusion to a Nietzschean conception of the idiot. Two hollow justifications that take little shape throughout Stoffer’s narrative arc—he has the ammunition but doesn’t shoot.
The second narrative thread involves Karen, who it turns out has run away from her home after the death of her baby. It is, however, again very difficult to understand her story. Only at the closing of the film are we told that Karen had lost her newborn child and left home the day before the funeral.
In the course of the film, Stoffer’s prankish project unravels, while Karen embarks on a transformative journey, seriously grappling with the anguish and grief that is driving her mad. Taking the form of a cruel joke, von Trier starts with a performance and ends with the brute simplicity and tragedy of Karen’s life.
Grounded in his Dogme 95 manifesto advocating an anti-bourgeois cinema and traditional storytelling, The Idiots is perhaps von Trier’s most formally daring film. Von Trier’s game-playing is at its most mischievous here, with his anarchic, hand-held camerawork, talking-head interviews, and frequently visible sound equipment. Despite embracing the avant-garde, von Trier’s fixation on specific forms of humiliation is at the same time oddly traditional. The paradoxically priestly tone pervades his films, which often concern the endless suffering of female martyrs with good souls. Karen is one amongst many saintly women that suffer at the hands of von Trier, their pain often a lesson in redemption. But the very extremity of the suffering he shows us risks alienating the viewer. Much like Karen’s suffering, the group’s over-the-top antics, which include holding a tea party for people with Down’s syndrome and birthday “gang bangs,” the film distances us more than it fosters understanding and change.
The film lays out conflicting perspectives. In her interactions with Stoffer, Karen seeks to unravel the complexities within herself, emphasizing humanity’s potential for change on an individual level. Her approach contrasts sharply with Stoffer’s, who aims to push the boundaries without embracing vulnerability. Karen’s reconciliation with the fact of the death of her child and emancipation from the restraints of her family life bring her closer to becoming the true successor of Stoffer’s project.
Meanwhile, a viewer, knowing what she now knows about von Trier, has to wonder what the filmmaker thinks about these conflicting narratives. The narrative dissonance prompts us to wonder whether von Trier fully aligns with Karen’s introspective journey.
In a short book on The Idiots, the American critic John Rockwell suggests that von Trier wants to offer viewers a cathartic experience: beyond the dark comedy lie emotional depths, as the film climaxes with impassioned scenes of extreme vulnerability.
I’m not convinced. The puerile conceits of Stoffer’s group of posh anti-bourgeois Danes, pretending to be mad when they’re not, linger in a viewer’s imagination long after his images of Karen’s torment and transfiguration have faded. Rockwell’s optimistic reading hinges on the effectiveness of the film’s provocations. While perhaps perceived as a strategic narrative choice leading to emotional depth, I see them as a hindrance. The lasting impact of Stoffer’s provocations, including the glib portrayal of idiocy, raise questions about the film’s ability to deliver the intended catharsis, leaving me unconvinced of it’s artistic power—perhaps because von Trier himself is more of a provocateur than a genuine artist.
Emma Slack-Jørgensen is an MA Candidate at The New School for Social Research.