Naked miracles: Lars von Trier on Breaking the Waves

In our October 1996 issue, the Danish director discussed his Scotland-set tale of a marriage beset by tragedy.

Updated: 25 March 2024

By Stig Björkman

Breaking the Waves (1996)
Sight and Sound

Over a colour-enhanced panoramic view of a Skye bridge, David Bowie sings the opening lines of ‘Life on Mars’: “It’s a godawful small affair, to the girl with the mousy hair.” This moment, when director Lars von Trier is, in his own words, “striving for a grand gesture”, is one of several featuring 70s pop songs in Breaking the Waves, which many feel should have won this year’s Palme d’Or in Cannes. But such moments (designed to “expose a greater banality”) are pauses in an otherwise harrowing and realistic tale about a woman driven to self-destruction by her passion for her paralysed husband. Though this need to seek relief from extreme emotion was considered a flaw in his earlier work, now he has successfully worked it into a searing drama about the power of faith.

Von Trier first came to international prominence with an English-language film, The Element of Crime in 1984, a bewildering narrative about a detective trying to unravel a series of child murders. It was, says von Trier, a sort of “latter-day film noir”, haunted by cinema history, marked by startling images and pitched on an operatic scale, as were the other two films which complete the trilogy: Epidemic (1986, though not released in the UK) and Europa (1991). But all three were criticised for their obsession with technique, and lack of interest in characters. “I had an almost fetishistic attraction to film technology,” von Trier says. He was aware of the “limitless possibilities” that the equipment at film school offered. “It was fantastic just to be able to touch all these appliances.” He began experimenting, with his fellow students, cinematographer Tom Elling and editor Tomas Gislason, who would work with him on The Element of Crime.

The breakaway from this formalist style of film-making came with von Trier’s 1994 television hospital-drama series, the bizarre black comedy The Kingdom, with its mobile hand-held camera style and gleeful delight in the conventions of melodrama. This kind of film-making “is a lot more intuitive”, von Trier says, “it means I can work a lot faster. The rapidity and the more intensive contact with collaborators has given me back the desire to work.” But even The Kingdom could not have prepared anyone for the creative brinkmanship of Breaking the Waves.

Breaking the Waves (1996)

The film is set during the 70s, in a tiny Presbyterian community on the West Coast of Scotland. Bess (Emily Watson), a trembling imp of a local girl, marries Jan (Stellan Starsgård), a hearty oil-rig worker, courting the disapproval of the village elders. After the sexual ecstasy of their honeymoon, Bess can’t bear having Jan return to the rigs. She begs God to return Jan to her, saying she’d put up with any trial of her faith. An accident on the rig leaves Jan paralysed from the waist down. Bess is consumed by guilt. Under the influence of his medication, Jan tells Bess she must make love to others and describe her experiences to him. She comes to believe that prostituting herself is her penance, the only chance of a cure for Jan.

Stig Bjorkman: Breaking the Waves has taken five years and four million pounds to realise. Where did the original idea for the film come from?

Lars von Trier: I prefer to work with unassailable ideas. And I wanted to do a film about goodness. When I was little I had a children’s book called Golden Heart [a Danish fairytale] which I have a very strong and fond memory of. It was a picturebook about a little girl who went out into the woods with pieces of bread and other things in her pocket. But at the end of the book, after she’s passed through the woods, she stands naked and without anything. And the last sentence in the book was: “I’ll be fine anyway,’ said Golden Heart.” It expressed the role of the martyr in its most extreme form. I reread the book several times, even though my father regarded it as the worst trash you could imagine. The story for Breaking the Waves probably has its origin there. Golden Heart is the film’s Bess. I also wanted to do a film with a religious motif, a film about miracles. And at the same time I wanted to do a completely naturalistic film.

The story has changed through the years. I first thought of shooting it on the west coast of Jutland, later in Norway, then Ostend in Belgium, then Ireland, before it finally became Scotland. It is probably no coincidence that it largely takes place on the Isle of Skye, where many painters and writers moved during the English Romantic period of the nineteenth century. I have reworked the script a lot through the years, being somewhat Dreyer-like in cutting it down, confining and reducing. Then just before shooting began, I lost enthusiasm for it. So many years had passed getting the project realised, and I was tired of it, close to leaving it.

Breaking the Waves (1996)

I understand that. It can be difficult holding onto one and the same idea for so long. New ideas for new films and new projects tum up all the time.

Yes, the risk is that you furnish the project with new suggestions to try and freshen it up; it’s not always beneficial. You risk betraying the original intention with the story, forgetting what it is you really want to portray. But it took a long time to get the film financed.

That’s strange, because this is perhaps the film of yours with the biggest commercial possibilities.

Yes. I have quite a funny story with regard to that. We got financial support for the script from something which I think is called the European Script Fund. The readers there had been heavily criticised for their work. So to defend their activity they undertook a computer analysis of around ten of the projects they’d received. It was claimed that a computer would be able to ascertain a project’s artistic and commercial significance. And Breaking the Waves got top marks! That’s quite funny. The right ingredients were probably there: a sailor and a virgin and a romantic landscape – everything that the computer loved.

Did the idea of the film’s very special technique – handheld camera, Cinemascope format – arrive at the same time as the idea for the story?

No, that comes from the experience of The Kingdom. The new film has some of the same cliché-like ingredients as in The Kingdom: that’s why I felt it important to give it as realistic a form as possible. A more documentary touch. If Breaking the Waves had been rendered with a conventional technique, I don’t think you could have tolerated the story. I think it is important that you furnish a story with a definite style, so that the project on the whole can be realised. One normally chooses a style for a film in order to highlight a story. We’ve done exactly the opposite. We’ve chosen a style that works against the story, which gives it the least opportunity to highlight itself.

Yes, if you’d chosen to do a sort of Merchant-Ivory Breaking the Waves, it would certainly be regarded as too romantic or too melodramatic.

It would have been far too suffocating. You would not have been able to stand it. What we’ve done is to take a style and put it over the story like a filter. Like encoding a television signal, when you pay in order to see a film: here we are encoding a signal for the film, which the viewer will later ensure they decode. The raw, documentary style which I’ve laid over the film and which actually annuls and contests it, means that we accept the story as it is. That is, at any rate, my theory. The whole thing is very theoretical. Later we manipulated the images electronically. We transferred the film to video, and worked on the colours there, before we transferred it back to film again.

As in Medea, which you shot on video and then transferred to film in order to recopy onto video?

No, there we worked much more crudely, and filmed the television monitor directly. In The Kingdom, the transfer process was somewhat more elaborate. And here the result is even more refined. It was interesting to transfer Panavision images to video and back to film again. It is perhaps even a little too beautiful… In between are also the completely digitally generated panoramic images that lead in to the various episodes of the film.

Breaking the Waves (1996)

They also remind one of the classic English novel, with chapter divisions and headings which herald events.

I collaborated on these images with a Danish artist, Per Kirkeby, who used Romantic painting as a base. He is an expert in the field and the result is very interesting. There are many different expressions for Romantic painting. Partly there are those paintings that you can see on walls in people’s homes and then there is the more genuine art reserved for museum visitors. Our images have perhaps become more abstract than I’d imagined from the beginning.

Just over a year ago you published Dogma 95, a manifesto with the goal of counteracting certain tendencies within contemporary film. This propagandised against illusory film, and for naturalistic film, through a number of rules – such as that filming should take place on location, with a hand-held camera, without lighting and with sync sound. A last directive was that the film should be unsigned. Big budget aside, Breaking the Waves largely follows this manifesto.

But actually the manifesto goes a few steps further, something which is important for me personally, when I am thinking of doing a film myself according to its directives. In fact, as you can see yourself, Breaking the Waves couldn’t follow the manifesto’s every comma or full stop. I haven’t kept myself from manipulating the film in post-production, both technically and in the colours. If I had been faithful to my own theory, I perhaps shouldn’t have done that. But I did feel a need to give myself parameters, and it is in that spirit that the manifesto came into being.

You naturally also betray the directive that the film should be unsigned. Breaking the Waves is undeniably “A film by Lars von Trier.” It’s been said that, “The decline of Art begins with the signature.” That is, a work will always be judged in relation to its creator. Do you see this as something positive or negative?

I see it as positive. I have no problem with that. When I was younger, I was fascinated by David Bowie, for example. He had created an entire myth around himself. It was as important as his music. If Bowie had composed music which he didn’t need to sign, he would perhaps have had the opportunity to learn something else. I don’t see this; I don’t see why one shouldn’t be credited for a work. It’s something important in the relationship between the artist and his public. The importance lies in the process through which the work of art comes into being. The manifesto is pure theory. But at the same time the theory is more important than the individual. It is this that I wanted to express. Who the author of a film is will still get out, one way or another. Zentropa [von Trier’s own company] will be producing five Dogma films, and you will surely see who has done what there.

Breaking the Waves (1996)

I think you can recognise the signature of most conscious film-makers, whether it is there in writing or not.

Yes, I’ve always placed great importance on one being able to see on a film that I’ve made that it’s been made by me.

So what for you is unique about your signature? What is it that enables one to see a film is made by you?

Perhaps it sounds pretentious, but in one way or another I hope that you can see that every image contains an idea. It certainly sounds presumptuous – and perhaps it’s also untruthful. But as I see it, every image and every cut is thought out. They are not there by chance.

Breaking the Waves has a deeply religious background. Why did you want to give the film that?

Probably because I’m religious myself. I’m a Catholic, but I don’t worship Catholicism for Catholicism’s own sake. I have felt the need to experience a sense of belonging with a religious community, because my parents were convinced atheists. I flirted with religion quite a bit as a youngster. You perhaps search for a more extreme religion as a youngster. You either go to Tibet or seek out the most rigorous of all faiths. With total abstinence and such like. I think I have a more Dreyer-like view of the whole thing. Because Dreyer’s religious view is in essence humanistic. He also accuses religion in all his films. Religion is accused, but not God. It’s like that as well in Breaking the Waves.

Breaking the Waves (1996)

You describe religion as a power-structure in the film. The mechanics and enigma of power are things that you have treated in several of your films.

My intention has not been to criticise a particular religious community, such as the one that exists in this Scottish environment. That doesn’t interest me. That is far too simplistic. And it’s nothing I want to concern myself with. To adopt a viewpoint that is easily accessible and universally applicable. That’s like fishing in shallow water. In many ways I also have an understanding for – or rather, that people are engaged by spiritual questions and that they are so in an extreme manner. It is just that, if you want to create a melodrama, you have to furnish it with certain obstacles. And religion provided me with a suitable obstacle.

Bess’ conversation with God has a directness and intensity which gives the religious motif a human voice.

Bess is also an expression of the same religion. Religion is her foundation and she accepts its conditions completely. In the burial scene at the beginning, for instance, the priest condemns the deceased to eternal damnation in hell, something that Bess also finds quite natural. She has no scruples with regard to that. It is we that have them. Bess is confronted with many different power-structures, including the power that the hospital and the doctors exercise. And she’s forced to adopt a position with the purity of heart that she possesses.

To a great degree the film has its basis in the performances. Do you think that your relationship to actors has changed and developed in Breaking the Waves?

You could say that. But I also made use of a different technique in Breaking the Waves. And that technique is based upon a relationship of trust between the director and cast, a classic technique. I have probably also come closer to the actors in this film. But this is very easy to state: that now von Trier has learned this technique also! In the earlier films it was a conscious decision not to be too close to the actors.

How come you chose Emily Watson for Bess? It was a fantastic performance by an actress untried in a film context. Was it pure luck that it happened to be her?

One problem with financing this expensive production was that we could not have any big name actors in the leading roles. We realised this at an early stage, because we couldn’t find any big names who wanted to participate in the film. They were afraid of the nature of the film.

Breaking the Waves (1996)

Because of the erotic scenes?

Probably because of the whole story. It is a curious mixture of religion and eroticism and possession. The well-known actors we turned to didn’t dare put their careers on the line — for example Helena Bonham Carter pulled out of the production at the very last minute. That’s why it felt important to find some actors who really had the enthusiasm to participate. And I think it feels as if the heart is in it among those we finally chose. We screen-tested quite a number of actresses for the role of Bess . Later I watched the video together with Bente [von Trier’s partner], and she saw it as quite obvious that Emily Watson should get the role. I was also engaged by Emily’s performance, but it was Bente’s enthusiasm above all which convinced me. I also remember that Emily was the only one who came to the casting barefoot and with no make-up at all! There was something Jesus-like about her which attracted me. She had had no earlier film experience. Which means that she was, to a great extent, forced to trust me as a director. The collaboration was also extremely easy. The funny thing is that where Emily is concerned I consistently used the last take of every scene. With Katrin Cartlidge, on the other hand, I consistently chose the first. What is decisive is their different performance techniques. We worked in a very improvised fashion, ignoring continuity and giving the actors a lot of freedom in their performance. With Katrin, who is a more experienced actress, the intensity in her performance diminished with every new take. In Emily’s case I furnished more exact instructions, which resulted in her fine-tuning her performance progressively for each new take.

The film has a very audacious editing style, going against all rules and codes. Was it time-consuming?

No, it was very easy. We had shot very long scenes and no scene was like the other. The actors were allowed to move within the scene as they pleased and they never needed to follow any determined action. When we later cut down the scenes, our only thought was to increase the intensity in the performance, without regard as to whether the image is in focus, well composed or as to whether we cross the line. This has resulted in sudden jumps in time within the scenes that you perhaps don’t comprehend as jumps in time. Rather, they give an impression of compression. I have worked further from the experiences The Kingdom gave me.

You have several times named Dreyer as a source of inspiration. Has he been that even here?

Yes, probably films like La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and Gertrud have had their relevance in connection to Breaking the Waves. His films are naturally more academic, more refined. What is new for me is that a woman is at the centre of the story. All of Dreyer’s films have a woman as the central character. And a suffering woman besides. The original title was actually to be Amor Omnie (i.e., ‘Love is Omnipresent’), the motto Gertrud wanted on her gravestone in Dreyer’s film. But when my producer heard that title, he almost hit the roof. He found it difficult to imagine that anyone would want to see a film called Amor Omnie.

Something that unites most of your earlier films is irony. But you don’t feel an ironical stance here.

When I was in film school, it was said that all good films were characterised by some form of humour. All films except Dreyer’s! Many of his films are thoroughly vacuum-cleaned of humour. You could say that when you introduce humour to your work, you also step back a little from it. You create a distance. Here I didn’t want to distance myself from the strong emotions that the story and its characters contain:

I think that this strong emotional engagement was very important for me. Because I grew up in a home, a culturally radical home, where strong emotions were forbidden. The members of my family that I’ve shown the film to have also been severely critical toward it. My brother thought the film was indifferent and tedious and my uncle [Børge Høst, Danish director and producer of short films and documentaries] saw the whole thing as an abject failure from beginning to end. But with my earlier films, he supported me in all possible ways. So perhaps Breaking the Waves is my adolescent revolt.

  • Translated by Alexander Keiller.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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Originally published: 3 August 2023

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