Extracts from Lars von Trier’s diary of the filming of The Idiots, my translation. Published in Danish by Gyldendal in 1998.
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The following is a kind of diary which I recorded on a dictaphone from just before the start of production until well into the editing stage. In keeping with the spirit of Dogma, I have neither read nor corrected the text. However, Peter Øvig has been kind enough to read it and make corrections where they were necessary in order to make the spoken language readable—but without my intervention or censure.
Without otherwise disavowing the text, I will merely note that all statements are unprepared and thus spontaneous. Since both the factual and analytical information probably contain quite a few inaccuracies (not to say untruths), it is advisable to read the text as a kind of self-therapy on the part of the author, born out of the agitated emotional state that was the very technique of the film.
Lars von Trier, March 1998
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It’s the 29th of May and there’s a kind of calm before the storm as far as Dogma is concerned. I can’t really pull myself together to do anything. I’ve thought a bit about the music, about finding some simple, childlike piece of classical music that can be played on the Pianola—at last free from rights. And I’ve talked about the sound with Per Streit, who’s the sound engineer, and impressed on him the importance of each camera having a separate track, in accordance with the Dogma rules. Apart from that, we talked about the fact that it’s actually pretty inspiring to have to decide on location whether a scene is going to be silent, or what the sound in general will be like in the finished film. We talked about recording some sounds on location that you’d normally create later on—these rules give you a very pure way of thinking. On Monday I start working with the actors.
I went canoeing yesterday and was attacked by an angry swan that sort of dived down towards me and finally boarded the canoe by jumping into the back of it. It was almost as if it was trying to capsize it, and of course I tried to retaliate with aggression. This was clearly unwise, but at least I got out of it all right. Maybe it was something of a symbolic meeting: if you see the swan as the actors and me in my unstable little canoe with my ass in the water… well, we’ll see what happens. But I must admit I’ve got a lot of confidence in it at the moment. To stay in the symbolic realm, wasn’t there something about Zeus being a swan when he impregnated Leda, who incidentally was a goose at that point. Well, there’s something to think about.
Today is the 7th of June and we’ve just had a week with the actors, sometimes one at a time, sometimes more … People have more or less started to spazz, and it actually looks better than I thought it would, I must admit. The actors have been to a home or a workshop and are now being further briefed at various hospitals or whatever we can find.
I’ve reached for the dictaphone in a humble attempt to keep up the diary. I’ll say that I’m in a pretty good mood today and the weather’s wonderful and we’ve got the kids and yes, I’m pretty keen … What else can I say? We’ve discussed with great enthusiasm the necessity of including several erect members and various penetrations in the film. We’ve discussed several solutions, as a last resort getting some of Trine Michelsen’s friends from the harder part of the industry to supply the close-ups. Everyone seems to be taking this side of things with relatively good humour, which of course is fantastic. On the whole, I have to say everything is pretty merry at the moment.
We were at the villa for the first time the day before yesterday with Jens Albinus and Bodil and Anne Louise. Everyone was glad to see the place. The advantage of having a place like that is of course that it becomes a kind of home, and everyone was happy and thought ‘this is where we live’ and ‘oh look, here’s a little room, and here…’ It’s exactly like moving into a house you’re going to live in, and I think it’s very good for the communal idea to have a place like that. It … well, it makes me very happy.
I’ve more or less abstained from dissecting my shit. The only disheartening thing is that I’ve now started looking for tumours in my scrotum … I’ve sort of stopped now, but it’s been a pretty agonizing time. Now I’m running a bath for little Agnes. And Bente is getting enormous.
The 10th of June. We had the first actors’ day in the villa yesterday, and it was very good. Everyone got a chance to say what they knew about their character. It worked sort of theatrically and I sense a lot of enthusiasm … Bodil, who’s playing Karen, of course started crying when she was telling the whole group about her character. They’re all identifying with their characters to such an extent that it almost shines through stronger in the private sphere. It’s all exciting and invigorating and encouraging, so… yes, I’m looking forward to this with great pleasure. You can’t avoid feeling very closely connected to kindergarten teachers and the like.
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25th of June. Ecstatic film joy! Yes, that probably covers it … We started by shooting the taxi scene, where Karen drives from Søllerød Inn out to Rockwool, however absurd that sounds. We couldn’t shoot these first days in chronological order, though we’d hoped to do the whole movie that way—not that that’s a Dogma rule at all. But we started with that scene, and it surpassed all expectations. The very important moment when Henrik and Stoffer have to leave the spazzing mode and become normal people and Karen’s reaction to it I thought turned out well. Since there wasn’t room for the cameraman in the car, I drove it, and the actors filmed each other in some of the shots. It worked well and it was a fun idea for them to film each other.
Afterwards we went to the forest and shot a fantastic scene, which turned out totally Fellinian. I broke with the Dogma rule about not having any aesthetics and sprinted over to that part of my childhood’s forest… it’s a strange part, because I’ve used almost all the forests and streams and God knows what out here, but precisely this part of the forest, which I think of as the most poetic and almost Japanese part, I’ve never used. I naturally steered towards it, as I’d do on any ordinary walk, and it’s a tiny little pine wood with green grass on the ground, and we were blessed with a windy day. The scene was originally meant to be shot in sunshine, with Nana lying down sunning herself, so it only gets funnier when she asks for suntan lotion on a shitty grey day—it gets even more absurd to rub mayonnaise all over yourself and so on.
Apart from that, afterwards we got some great poetry out of moving the conversation that didn’t work the other night from inside, where it didn’t belong, to out here, with this fantastically high ceiling. It was inspiring somehow, and all those loonies walking around, it was actually—this just occurs to me—it was actually Truffaut’s Fahrenheit something-or-other, where they walk around in the forest memorizing books, and it’s beautiful as hell, of course. So the loons were walking around each in his or her own way, while Karen and Stoffer talked, and it really got very very poetic, for example the line where he says ‘in the Stone Age all the idiots died, but it doesn’t have to be like that anymore’. It was very poetic when the shot simultaneously panned out over all the idiots, especially Ped, who was in the wheelchair, it was just very beautiful and fantastically naive and sentimental and everything all at once. You might say those are the kinds of gifts you get along the way. Things you wouldn’t have written in a manuscript because it would be over the top, you suddenly get as a gift, and that’s allowed. That’s actually what all the Dogma rules are about—that you can allow yourself a lot of things precisely because of the rules. And it turned out fucking great, that scene.
Then we tried to work a bit creatively with the sound for the first time, that’s to say we stuck the microphone in the treetops and got the wind in the treetops over lots of shots of the spazzes just walking around, so we don’t hear their real sound, just the treetops. And it’s so so so over the top, an over-the-top cinematic cliché, which I’ve otherwise shied away from, but which suddenly, because we had to make the decision on the spot, became real and worked fucking brilliantly. Well, that’s what I think now, anyway, without having seen it. I was almost moved when Josephine and Jeppe touch each other while they’re spazzing. The funny thing about this film is that it only takes a milligram of love in some little corner, and you’re… and you break down in convulsive sobs. Maybe it’s just my brain that’s totally hyperactive, but that’s how I feel…
It’s a film that’s a lot less calculating than Breaking the Waves, and yet far far far far more calculating. Well, that might be hard to understand, not more calculating, but much more… I don’t know… allowing yourself to go on an effect-picnic with many many nods to Widerberg and Truffaut and Tarkovsky and blah blah blah. But it was fucking beautiful, and… when I was filming there I cried and on the way home I cried too, the soft little man in his stupid giant mobile home listening to the Spice Girls. And then I get—I can hardly bring myself to say this, but I guess a diary demands some sort of honesty—then I get so maudlin and suddenly afraid for… my talent. Well, this really isn’t easy to listen to, I’m totally aware of that, but when you’ve done a scene like that—and that’s why I’m talking about the ecstatic—you get scared that there’s some big big hubris that’ll drop down from the sky like a giant fist and squash you like one of those mosquitoes from the forest. I thought, ‘surely I’ll get cancer now, surely I’ll get cancer now’. There’s no way out once you get to that point. And it may be that we’ve achieved nothing today, but still the feeling is intact. I’m thinking, ‘for Chrissake, I’m brilliant, I’m brilliant, I’m brilliant’. I’m brilliant, and it’ll be interesting to see this in print when the film comes out and it gets the finger. But I still think that for the sake of the cause I have to say it as it is—that on the way home I thought ‘Jesus, this is awesome… Jesus, you can really do this shit, you can really set these things free’.
I thought of Per Streit, who almost got animated. He’s really as uptight as they come, but even he could see that he had to do Dogma too. Although he’s the best sound man in Denmark and teaches at the Film School and all that, even he could still see that it’s fun to have to go out and mix your sound on the spot, to put in the music and take leaves in the wind and lay it over people who are walking around and talking, and decide on the spot whether an image should be silent or not. To make those decisions out there on location is surely fucking fantastic. Who the hell else does that now? Nobody!… Yes, this is an atrocious diary entry, but… sorry, but I needed to… I ‘feel’ it has to be said… feel should be read in quotes…
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The 29th of June. I’ve taken the weekend off and haven’t slept very much. Just bloody amazing how I only sleep three hours at a time and then wake up and it’s not even because things are going particularly badly…
I had a chat with Jens about the dick shot and I think I’ll give a little speech tomorrow about solidarity and things like that, because although it’s going well it’s of course important that everyone’s clear about the aim. In that connection I’ll also say why both the stiff dick and the penetration—which I hope to get with the help of some stand-ins—are important to me and not just childish, as they might seem to be. They’re important to me both because they give the film a roughness which it needs, and maybe a sense of danger too, which it also needs because it’s so lightweight in some scenes. And because we had a consultant working on this who works at Ebberødgård, and he said the retarded people were very well portrayed but that their sexuality was kind of missing. Of course I’m perfectly aware that sexuality is a big part of many of the characters, or should be, and especially the exaggerated uninhibited sexuality is an important part. That’s why it’s important to me to include that aspect of it too, because to make a film about the retarded without including that fact, that’s like… well, yes, pietistic writings about sex. I mean, you’ve got to get the whole picture, otherwise it’s worthless. The kind of retarded people we’ve chosen in this film don’t go around constantly jerking off on the street, but that aspect of the characters and this life and that way of being has to be included too! On that point I have to say once again I think it was fantastic of Jens to get that dick up. Not a lot of people would have spent three hours and a beautiful, though somewhat drizzly Thursday afternoon on it…
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11th of July … The day started well, I had Bodil, or Karen in the film, and Anne Louise, or Susanne in the film, alone in order to pick up on the much-discussed staircase scene, which has now been moved and takes place on a window sill where they’re sitting together, and where there are actually only three or two lines. Karen is crying and says: ‘I shouldn’t be crying.’ ‘Why shouldn’t you be crying?’ ‘No, I don’t have the right. I don’t have the right to be this happy’, and then Susanne says: ‘You should be happy’, and then she cries, and it’s after she’s seen them spazzing at some point. You’d think this was a very simple scene, and it’s now the third or fourth day we’ve tried to get it right. My main criticism of the performances has been that I didn’t think Susanne was credible. Bodil’s shown great sensitivity several times in this scene, I think, and there have also been tears in the right way, but she doesn’t control them as precisely as I thought she might, and that’s probably fine. But this time we recorded it over several hours, just talking and feeling our way into it, and I definitely think Bodil’s done some good things and has covered the things I wanted throughout the whole sequence. But throughout I’ve felt that Susanne should have been able to do better, or that Anne Louise should have been able to do better. In this very intimate situation—and of course especially because it’s been made problematic by the fact that we’ve done it so many times—she sometimes starts listening to herself… whereas I normally think she delivers her lines wonderfully when she doesn’t think about them, naturally and very very very very precisely. It’s a paradox that she wasn’t able to do it here, or that I didn’t think it quite measured up to my concept of authenticity. It may be that no one else in the world can hear or see it or that I’m completely wrong, but in any case that’s the feeling I got, so we started the sequence with a long long long conversation, which I filmed myself. We set up a microphone and then sat and filmed on our own, and the idea was for Susanne to talk about the parallels between Karen’s and Susanne’s problems, because Susanne is the one who’s always taking care of other people in this film and never gets thanked for it, and it’s a bit like we imagine Karen’s situation to have been from earlier on in the story, with the child and the family at home and so on. In a way it had to do with a mirror effect, which I’ve talked about before. The idea was that Anne Louise should be allowed to talk about her problems, and by all means her grief and her longing and so on, so that some sort of understanding would arise between these two women each telling their own story. But it was hard. She had a hard time getting into it, and then I said: ‘Just talk as Anne Louise instead then’. And then she talked about her childhood for a long time, and all kinds of things, and then the little therapist in me awoke, because all the talks we have are always on the verge of the therapeutic, and I’ve also picked up a thing or two in my many years of experience with therapy, though only seen from one of the two chairs. I think it’s really fucking interesting, and I naturally encouraged her to open up and talk about it as best she could. And to some extent she did, and at one point she says: ‘It was hard to get enough space at home as a child, by the way’. And right when she said that little thing about space, right at the word space, she got a little tic, which was very small, but which I noticed. I thought, this must be what therapists do—before you’re conscious of what you’re doing, they observe, they listen and piece things together and then they see what kinds of things are being said without being said and in reality are unconscious. So I kept going and asked what she meant by not having enough space, and she answered evasively a few times, three or four times actually, and I thought the technique must be to stick to it again and again. And when I asked her for the fourth time, she suddenly broke down completely and sobbed like a madwoman and afterwards talked for a long time about her childhood and about the feeling of not being able to live up to demands, and the lack of space and understanding. It was very very moving and lovely and liberating for all of us. But to cut out the sentimental bits, it resolved the scene, because when we did it afterwards, Bodil turned out fine—but it’s clear she gets a bit flooded or swamped by Anne Louise’s story…
It’s the 13th of July and it’s a Sunday… I wake up three or four times a night these days, and it’s been mostly positive, all this energy, as opposed to waking up with the fear of cancer… When I woke up I felt I had so much to say to this little tape recorder, but now I’m having trouble remembering it. One thing’s for certain: the production and the work with the actors and the whole situation is so pleasurable at the moment that it affects me privately too. I’ve never been able to see the beauty in… the bodily aspects of pregnancy, but I have to admit that when I come home from work, sweet sweet Bente beams at me almost… excuse the expression, almost provocatively, and that’s… well, that’s kind of interesting in regard to all the emotions associated with this production.
I remember Bergman says somewhere that the greatest pleasure of his career was a time he shot a scene with twenty or thirty policemen and talked to them through a megaphone, telling them how to behave. It was the most satisfying thing he’d ever done, naturally because of his fear of the authorities, and I experienced something similar in Poland with the Red Army, which at that time was still the Red Army: I could arrange them at will and ask them to do various things. In a sense you could say that this production, precisely because it’s Danish, and with… yeah, a bunch of friends like these, somehow compensates for childish or youthful defeats in relation to other people. I feel that strongly, and that’s definitely deeply satisfying. I don’t know if it’s having power over people that’s satisfying—in any case it’s satisfying that it’s my game we’re playing. And of course it’s deeply frustrating when any of them question my ownership of the game. Incidentally, Troels called the other day with a guilty conscience, which I thought was a beautiful and endearing trait. And then you think about how primitive your perception of other people really is, deep down.
But maybe it’s also precisely my happiest moment because it’s a Danish film, and that somehow gives me extreme satisfaction. And that it’s basically… well, that I basically have a freedom that maybe I’ve never allowed myself before. It’s wonderful that the Dogma rules have chucked aesthetics out the window. And still a scene like the one we did at the window with those two women has all kinds of traces of Persona and God knows what, and it’s fine because it’s born out of the situation itself and not manufactured in any way.
And I’m not really sure what the fucking date is… it’s the 15th of July and it’s half past two in the morning, no, twenty to three, and as usual I can’t sleep. I came home from shooting, went to bed at twelve, dead tired, and now of course I can’t sleep. I’ve drunk vodka and taken sleeping pills, and I… oh fuck off. It’s too fucking stupid!
We did some shooting with Michael Moritzen today, the Man from the Council, and it was a huge job. We’ve covered it quite well, I think. We need to do a little reworking tomorrow. The most sensational thing today was actually the spazzing with real caviar, and our dear spazzes spit out six thousand kroner worth of Iranian caviar, which somehow affected them all, including me. To spit it out again was, at least the first time they did it, possibly the most provocative thing you could do in this film. But interesting! They attacked the incredibly good wines and the good food so ferociously that Anne-Grethe had to go out and be sick afterwards. Otherwise it’s gone well and now I’m lying here tossing and turning and I shouldn’t be. I don’t know…. it’s all whirling around in my head and after the weekend I was actually a lot calmer after Anne Louise, but now…. now it’s really fucking spinning around, and I don’t want to be…. now it’s uncomfortable. I don’t want her to be nice to me or nasty to me or anything at all. I just want everything to be over with this film so I don’t have to see her. And it’s totally stupid, because she’s just going about her…. well, she’s not doing anything at all. I’m the one who’s getting myself totally worked up. But now it’s just got to a point where it’s agonizing and stupid, and I’m lying here alone because Bente’s in Tisville, and she shouldn’t be. She should be here with me! It’s completely ridiculous: who the hell does she think she is!? She should be lying here, so you could sort of snuggle up…. I don’t know… It’s spinning around way too much in my head. I don’t know what to think about anymore to calm myself down. As soon as I start thinking about the film I start editing it and…. I guess it’s some sort of Edgar Allan Poe thing about the mind being too sensitive. And yeah, I know how that sounds, but he did have a good short story about it, I remember. I can picture him dying in his delirium tremens, triggered by the too too too sensitive mind that whirled around in his skull all the time. No, I just have to survive these last couple of weeks. No matter what thought I try to focus on in my head it’s like it becomes a burden. But you could say it’s a good thing there isn’t room for the anxieties on top of that, because then it would all be truly impossible—then you’d probably go insane.
But now we’re finally nearing the end. I just want to say that the lead-up to this film was among the easiest I’ve had, apart from writing the manuscript, which was a bit agonizing—not the four days themselves but what preceded them, because I didn’t think I had anything apart from a good idea, which I couldn’t pin anything on because it was so abstract. It was agonizing to go around mulling it over without getting anything out of it, and now I feel I’ve had so much more than my fill of all these people. Some stupid film crush, it’s too childish. I’m not even in love! It’s not even real, just something I’m making up in my skull, for Christ’s sake. Apparently it’s because in this situation and in this life you’re lit up by some spark that makes it all whirl around your brain, round and round and round and round. You could say sensitivity is a tool, but it’s fucking well not a tool that’s very pleasant or easy to use. It’s easy to understand why Bille August had to go out and screw every woman he saw—or whatever it is he’s done. Somehow or other it’s got to be…. the same thing that can be so pleasurable is also agonizing. For fuck’s sake …. Bente, come home and lie here with me, goddammit!
Here comes the newspaper, it’s three o’clock and I can’t sleep, and I’ll have to consider jerking off for the fifth time to fall asleep… My poor, poor, poor dick. For fuck’s sake!
19th of July … Regarding my fascination with some of the girls, Jens said quite clearly that… well, that Anne Louise would naturally think you’re wonderful, or would want to appear to think you’re wonderful, also because… well, think about her situation, her private situation, and that she’s an actress, so of course she’d say that at any given moment. It was good having a bucket of cold water dumped on you like that, I’ve taken it to heart and of course it’s completely justified. Who could demand anything else, it’s obvious. Basically we haven’t achieved a fucking thing in terms of intimacy or understanding. And that’s fine, it’s all on a fictional plane after all and maybe the only one who really really believes in it—or believed there was anything real in it—is me. And that’s fair enough, that’s how it is. We’re entertainers, for God’s sake, all of us. Fine, fine. It’s just, how to put it, the school of hard knocks, that I have to relearn it every time. But maybe you could say the technique is to believe in it. Clearly, when I direct I have to believe it’s real. At any rate my starting point has to be that this is real, otherwise I can’t judge it in any way, and that’s why it’s so goddamn difficult, and I become like a tiny tiny little child, and I understand that this isn’t reality after all. It’s acting, and it’s a bunch of stilted crap and some theoretical and dramaturgical constructs. However much we want the dramaturgy to stay out of it, it’s always there. And it’s some kind of game that little Lars has staged in some primary school, and it’ll never be real because in a basic basic basic sense deep deep deep down you’re onehundredandninetythousand percent lonely in your own tiny tiny little stupid, ridiculous, humiliating world.
Bente on the other hand is wonderful and generous and buxom, and yes, that’s… that’s got to be a mirage. Today’s PS must be that, as everyone knows, it’s all about being loved and getting power, emotionally as well as physically. And when a day like yesterday could be completely destroyed because for some childish reason I feel unloved or unable to get hold of the love I’m pining for in some completely trivial form, then it has to be said things start to get howlingly unprofessional. When I move around in my little workspace using my emotions as a tool, like Jørgen Leth [filmmaker] does with his curiosity, I can’t help not giving a shit about film and not giving a shit about artwork and not giving a shit about a higher aim, as soon as the tiniest tiniest tiniest tiniest little thing goes wrong with some… some fucking power shit, as Katrine would say.
The similarity between me and the Stoffer character is getting more and more howlingly grotesque, apart from the fact that the childishness in him is nothing compared to me or mine. The lie between the actors and me or people in general is also portrayed too too kindly in this film, as in the others. It’s all howlingly banal in any case, and deeply two-faced. How could I even dream of getting an honest answer to anything at all from a group of career-hungry young actors, of either a professional or personal nature?
Somehow it takes me right back to my youth, where I’m sitting in the corner of a party, raging at not being able to step into any kind of communal feeling and not getting any kind of girls and not getting any of my frustrations relieved at all. Because who the hell can see me for what I am and what I want? I won’t even answer that. And it wouldn’t make it any less laughable if I were to express an observation about my sensitivity being a kind of jester’s tool, about the agonizing … I’m constantly trying to find another word than ‘honesty’, which is a bit too Bergmanesque, but I’m having trouble thinking of one while the tape’s running, so let’s just call it an agonizing honesty, with all the reservations you can think up. The conclusion I wanted to reach—now I can’t even remember the beginning of my sentence—naturally had to do with the fact that nobody’s interested in it, and that’s the plain truth. And in a gigantic scream for contact and love you shovel out adolescent honesty, which only makes everything worse, and you’re left even more lonely than before… yeah, sorry, the sarcasm’s missing today…