This year, fresh off two comedic scripts (one of which he directed), Lars von Trier announced that he was suffering from depression and had lost his urge to make films. The director has always challenged the typical and the 'normal,' so it's a bit fitting that his ailment would come after the comedy, and not after the heavy, dramatic films like Dogville and Manderlay. Perhaps he became troubled when he tapped into his youth; Lars von Trier is also Erik Nietzsche -- the man who wrote Jacob Thuesen's new comedy Erik Nietzsche -- The Early Years.
The comedy focuses on a young man named Erik Nietzsche, and is based on von Trier's memories of film school. As the film starts, Erik is a nice, gentle young man trying to find his path in life. Unfortunately, his efforts aren't leading to success, and he gets rejected from every school he applies to. Then, however, he submits a leaf-loving short film to the Danish National Film School. Before he can get rejected yet again, lascivious chance slips his application into the accepted pile and Erik becomes a film student amongst a motley collection of wannabe filmmakers -- from the feminist to the ego-maniacal control freak. As time passes, Erik barely holds onto his spot as he struggles for his alternative, cinematic eye to be accepted by his stubborn school. He shocks his principal and professors with forays into The Decameron and a daring screenplay adaptation of some Marquis de Sade.
The last von Trier script that made its way to TIFF was Dear Wendy, and Thomas Vinterberg skillfully took the simplistic, Dogville-like script, lathered it with youth and a soundtrack by The Zombies, which made it a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging film. With Nietzsche, it's funny, but it's just not absorbing. This is partially because von Trier does not have a specific message, other than the importance of being tough and ruthless. You can't really connect with the characters, and it feels more like a stylized peephole into a world you can't understand, rather than an accessible film. That being said, I'm sure that it's probably much more engaging for Danish audiences and those into Danish film history -- there's lots of cameos.
Still, Jonatan Spang gives a great performance as Erik. One of the most interesting parts of the film is watching him morph from this soft, young dreamer, into a man who is on his way to becoming the infamous von Trier. Bit by bit, you see more of the director. The hair gets slicked back, and Spang slowly starts to look like Lars. It's also interesting to watch the process from passive dreamer to assertive filmmaker, and to see some of Lars' early work. (Intermingled throughout the movie are brief scenes from von Trier's early films.)
But the best scene comes at the end, after everything is said and done, and the credits are rolling. Thuesen came up with this extra little bit, and it wraps the film up in one of my favorite endings of the fest thus far. Some in the audience gazed, bewildered, at the screen, and some like me just smiled and said: yes! I also realize that I haven't said much about Theusen, but the fact of the matter is -- he gets lost in the enormity of Lars von Trier, who embodies every inch of the film, since he wrote it, fictionalized himself into it, and narrates it. All in all, Erik Nietzsche: The Early Years is a moderately fun film for the regular film buff, and probably something a little more special to those who share Erik's lusty eye for film equipment.