Lars von Trier is one of the most divisive filmmakers of all time, simultaneously celebrated and despised around the world. And that was true before his thoughtless "I am a Nazi" comments at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
Controversy is nothing new for the director, who's been called a sadist (his film 'Dogville,' was actually inspired by the Marquis de Sade's 'Justine'), a pornographer, a misogynist and worse. He's caused actors to walk off the set and at least one nervous breakdown, but he's also inspired fierce, even slavish, devotion from actors who claim his extreme methods are worth the ordeal.
After working on 'Dogville,' Paul Bettany said of the Danish director, "It's like he simply can't stop himself from saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Lars ... isn't very good at expressing himself."
Read on for more about the man behind the outrageous remarks.
1. He has his fans
He's received countless awards for bold works like 'Breaking the Waves,' and 'Dancer in the Dark.' Martin Scorsese, who recently agreed to collaborate with von Trier, ranked 'Breaking the Waves' among the top 10 films of the 90s. Paul Thomas Anderson said he would "carry Lars von Trier's luggage anywhere," and Johnny Depp once told a Danish film magazine: "Tell von Trier I'm waiting for an offer."
"My God, I hope I get to work with this man,''' Kidman told EW after seeing 'Breaking the Waves.' ''I crawled out of the theater, literally just went home and got into bed for two days.... I know it was seen as misogynistic, but I really didn't see it that way.'' She quickly signed onto 'Dogville,' then declined to reprise her role in the film's sequel, 'Manderlay.'
2. He's been called a sadist by more than one actor
Bettany dubbed him ''Woody Allen mixed with a dominatrix." John C. Reilly walked off the set of 'Manderlay,' when the director asked him to help slaughter a live donkey on camera. Most dramatically, singer Björk, who'd never acted before, suffered a traumatic breakdown on the set of 'Dancer in the Dark.' She reportedly ate her costume and swore to never act again.
3. And he's been called a misogynist
It's not just his onscreen treatment of his female characters -- who are subjected to rape, prostitution and mutilation -- that's been questioned. After her experience with von Trier, Björk denounced him as sexist and soul-less. Before he launched into his infamous Nazi rant at this year's Cannes Film fest, von Trier was already making inappropriate jokes, including that he was shooting a hard-core porn film with Kirsten Dunst, with "very, very unpleasant sex." The mortified Dunst -- who does her first full-frontal nude scene in 'Melancholia' -- was sitting next to him at the time. Bettany admitted in a making-of book on 'Dogville,' "He's completely useless with women."
4. Some actors actually work with him more than once.
Stellan Skarsgard (of 'Thor' and 'Mamma Mia' fame) has made several films with von Trier, including his latest, 'Melancholia." Charlotte Gainsbourg, who simulated masturbation and genital mutilation for him in 'Antichrist,' is also in 'Melancholia.' "All actors have the ambition of being extreme. ... I wanted to go a bit too far," she told Digital Spy in 2010, saying that filming 'Antichrist' was "cathartic." Despite his own complaints, Bettany said he'd work with him again "because you learn so much in the process."
6. His actors often win awards for going to extremes
Both Gainsbourg and Björk won the festival's Best Actress Award the year their films were at Cannes, as did Kirsten Dunst for 'Melancholia.' Newcomer Emily Watson was nominated for an Oscar for her harrowing role in 'Breaking the Waves.'
7. He loves controversy
"Lars is very eager to know that the public understands what he's saying. But if they don't like what he says, he doesn't care," Vibeke Windeløv, a producing partner, told EW in 2004. "That he probably thrives on.'' In reaction to his banishment from Cannes, von Trier said he was "proud" of his new status as persona non grata and invited reporters to hit him, adding that he "might enjoy it."
8. He formed the strict Dogme 95 group, then broke his own rules
He helped form a collective with friend Thomas Vinterberg ('The Celebration'), vowing to make films using only certain restrictions, such as handheld cameras and natural lighting. Directors signed a "vow of chastity" to stick to these rules, and were judged by a board to see if their film qualified as a Dogme 95 work. Von Trier soon was disregarding the Dogme 95 dictates and the group dissolved in 2005.
9. He added the "von" to his name while in film school
While attending the Danish Film School, his fellow students (probably not kindly) dubbed him "von" Trier, and he officially adopted the name in a nod to director Josef von Sternberg.
10. His real life is just as dramatic as his films
In 1995, he learned from his dying mother that his real father was an artist she'd had an affair with in order to "have a child blessed with creative genes." Von Trier tracked down his biological father but their resulting meetings were reportedly so hostile, the man refused to speak to him again. The following year, von Trier left his pregnant wife for their much younger babysitter. He also converted from Judaism to Catholicism and radically changed his filmmaking style, from the very formal, beautifully shot approach of his early films like 'Zentropa' and 'Element of Crime,' to the stripped-down, grainy Dogme 95 approach.
11. He really is a pornographer
Von Trier shocked audiences with the explicitness of the sex scenes in 1998's 'The Idiots.' That same year, his legitimate film company Zentropa began to produce hardcore pornography. In 2009, the pressure of his business partners forced him to abandon the X-rated sideline.
12. He's always been odd
''Nobody in the state of Denmark wanted to have anything to do with Lars,'' Peter Aalbak Jensen, co-owner of Zentropa, told EW. ''He was arrogant, crazy. He dressed up in black leather, looked like a skinhead, and insulted everyone around him."
He's also got more phobias than film credits. Among his fears: crowds, fires, hospitals, shellfish, and modern transportation. "Basically, I'm afraid of everything in life, except filmmaking," von Trier has said.
Joergen Leth, a fellow Danish director and close friend, dismissed the ban from Cannes as a "ridiculous" overreaction to essentially harmless eccentricity. "We're used to Lars von Trier going nuts in one way or another," he said.