With a back-story as singular as his films, Danish director Lars von Trier was one of the most exceptional filmmakers to burst onto the international film scene in the 1990s. Unapologetically confident in his artistry and an unabashed provocateur, von Trier could kick up a fuss about his behavior, but his stylistic brio, extreme narratives, and ability with actors prevented such films as Zentropa (1991), The Kingdom (1994), Breaking the Waves (1996), and Dancer in the Dark (2000) from being eclipsed by their creator. Even as he openly sought a larger audience by making films in English, von Trier's success helped resurrect Scandinavian cinema's international prominence; his intense fear of flying ensured he'd never "go Hollywood."
Born Lars Trier (he later added the aristocratic "von" to his name for aristocratic effect) and raised by his radical, nudist Communist parents in an unconventional environment where, as the director once put it, everything was permitted except "feelings, religion and enjoyment," the young man blossomed into a neurotic, left-wing, movie-loving youth. Given a Super-8 camera at age 11, von Trier spent his teens making movies and entered Copenhagen's film school in the early '80s. After winning prizes at the Munich Film Festival in 1981 and 1982 for his student films, the 1983 graduate managed to put together his low-budget debut feature, The Element of Crime (1984). A highly stylized neo-noir cop thriller set in a sepia-toned, water-logged future, The Element of Crime attracted favorable notice at the Cannes Film Festival, winning a prize for technical achievement. Von Trier continued his feature trilogy about Europe with the reflexive thriller Epidemic (1987). Starring the director as a director trying to raise money to make the movie-within-a-movie about a horrific virus unleashed on contemporary Germany, Epidemic was a controlled stab at postmodernism that underlined von Trier's restless creativity even though it was not as well regarded. After a version of Medea (1988) for Danish television, von Trier completed his European trio with Europa (1991). A darkly comic drama set in post-WWII Germany, Europa dazzled viewers with its ambitious use of superimposition, rear projection, and dramatic shifts between black-and-white and color, definitively establishing von Trier's mastery of ominous atmospherics. Retitled Zentropa for its American release, Europa earned von Trier his first substantial international recognition as well as film festival notoriety. Disappointed by Europa's third place Special Jury Prize at Cannes, von Trier accepted his award with thanks to "the midget," jury chair Roman Polanski.