Lars von Trier's Cinema Excess, Evil, and the Prophetic Voice
This book offers a bold and dynamic examination of Lars von Trier’s cinema by interweaving philosophy and theology with close attention to aesthetics through style and narrative. It explores the prophetic voice of von Trier's films, juxtaposing them with Ezekiel's prophecy and Ricoeur’s symbols of evil, myth, and hermeneutics of revelation.
The films of Lars von Trier are categorized as extreme cinema, inducing trauma and emotional rupture rarely paralleled, while challenging audiences to respond in new ways. This volume argues that the spiritual, biblical content of the films holds a key to understanding von Trier’s oeuvre of excess. Spiritual conflict is the mechanism that unpacks the films’ notorious excess with explosive, centrifugal force.
By confronting the spectator with spiritual conflict through evil, von Trier's films truthfully and prophetically expose the spectator’s complicity in personal and structural evil, forcing self-examination through theological themes, analogous to the prophetic voice of the transgressive Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, his prophecy, and its form of delivery. Placed in context with the prophetic voices of Dante, Milton, Dostoyevsky, O’Connor, and Tarkovsky, this volume offers a theoretical framework beyond von Trier. It will be of great interest to scholars in film studies, film and philosophy, film and theology.
1 Context: Prophets and Prophecy, Ezekiel, and the Spirit 2 The Artist as Prophet: Affinities in Dante, Milton, Dostoyevsky, O’Connor, and Tarkovsky 3 Aesthetics of Prophecy: Narrative Structures and Prophetic Themes 4 Aesthetics of Image, Sound, and Style: Embodying the Prophetic Voice 5 Antichrist: Paradise Lost: Our Capacity for Evil
"Lars von Trier has long been both praised and criticized as a provocateur and a jester, a genius and a charlatan, a visionary and a contrarian. Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran adds an original and compelling perspective to this critical debate: von Trier as modern prophet-artist whose films explore the theologically-inflected struggles of good and evil. Drawing on Ricoeur, phenomenology, Levinas, and the prophet Ezekiel, she argues persuasively that von Trier’s much vaunted style of cinematic excess serves as a means of expressing spiritual conflict and of exploring the reality of evil in a secular world. She brings a keen theological and aesthetic perspective to von Trier’s films and reveals layers of theological depth and spiritual meaning that have remained hitherto concealed or overlooked by many critics. In a stunning move, she shows how von Trier’s work can be understood as articulating a ‘prophetic voice’ – in the manner and tradition of Ezekiel – that not only examines evil as an expression of spiritual conflict but confronts the viewer with their own complicity in the evil permeating our contemporary world. Lars von Trier’s Cinema is an impressive and important achievement, introducing fascinating new ways of understanding the theological dimensions of von Trier’s provocative body of work." - Robert Sinnerbrink, Macquarie University
"Is it possible the shocking, harrowing, even repulsive moments in Von Trier’s oeuvre have a moral, even prophetic telos? Ver Straten-McSparran challenges skeptics to reckon with similarly appalling, even offensive sign-acts of the Biblical traditio. Then, as now, extreme times may require extreme prophetic voices. Von Trier’s methods will always stir controversy and debate, but Ver Straten-McSparran convincingly argues his central message abides throughout: evil itself is being trivialized, ignored, and, therefore, empowered. At his best, Von Trier drives us to honestly face evil in the world and in ourselves, and to urgently look for grace, even in the most unlikely places." - Joseph G. Kickasola, Professor of Film and Digital Media, Baylor University
"Whatever you think of Lars von Trier’s films—and I’ve both loved and loathed certain of them—they are always fodder for discussion and serious consideration, even spiritual contemplation. In this fascinating scholarly work, Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran makes a compelling case for von Trier as a prophetic filmmaker, in the biblical sense of the word. Daring, surprising, insightful, and passionate, this book is a great example of how theology and cinema can be natural conversation partners." - Brett McCracken, film critic and senior editor, The Gospel Coalition
"One cannot understand Lars von Trier as a filmmaker without also understanding him as a prophetic theologian. So argues Ver Straten-McSparran, finding insight from the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel. Here is must reading for anyone interested in unpacking the extreme cinema of this controversial Dane." - Robert K. Johnston, Senior Professor of Theology and Culture and Co-Director of the Reel Spirituality Institute, Fuller Seminary
"Ver Straten-McSparran’s groundbreaking book is a welcome addition to a subfield of study which too often plays it safe with the filmmakers and films they consider in-depth. […] This contribution to the canon of Religion and Film scholarship is an excellent example of multi-disciplinary fearlessness and offers a unique biblical, filmic, and theological approach to an important contemporary artist whose films force us to grapple with life’s big questions even if they make us uncomfortable by exposing modern hypocrisy, idolatry, and evil." - Jeanette Solano, Journal of Religion & Film