Lars von Trier's films are punishing — and some say his shooting style is too, so why do stars work with him?

By Josh Rottenberg
Updated April 04, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

Lars von Trier has said he likes “feel-bad movies,” which makes sense when you look at his work. Throughout his career, the 57-year-old Danish director has put his characters, particularly the women, through brutal tribulations involving sexual degradation, extreme violence, and emotional agony. His latest film, the not-rated four-hour sexapalooza Nymphomaniac — available on demand and theatrically released in two installments, the second of which arrives on April 18 — features all of the above to a degree that could make a dominatrix blush. Bleak, surrealistic, sometimes darkly funny, and always polarizing, von Trier’s films are as difficult to categorize as they can be to watch, but Nymphomaniac star Stellan Skarsgård, who’s worked with the director five other times, sees them as twisted fairy tales: “Lars is the Hans Christian Andersen for adults.”

If von Trier’s movies are fairy tales, many imagine the director himself as the malevolent troll underneath the bridge. He has long been a lightning rod for controversy, with a reputation for pushing his actors to their breaking points in service of his misanthropic vision. After starring in his 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, the singer Björk accused von Trier of being a misogynistic “soul robber” and announced she would never act again. Actor Paul Bettany, who costarred in 2004’s Dogville — in which Nicole Kidman plays a woman who is raped and abused — called making the film “a hideous experience…. You’re absolutely [von Trier’s] puppet.” On top of this, von Trier has a list of eccentricities a mile long (among others, he refuses to fly, hates physical contact, and has the word f— tattooed on his hand) and a penchant for saying things that land him in trouble — most notoriously in 2011, when he was banned from the Cannes Film Festival after expressing sympathy for Adolf Hitler in a ham-fisted attempt at humor. (Von Trier later apologized and has since taken a public “vow of silence.”) So why, you might well ask, are some of Hollywood’s finest actors willing to go halfway around the world to work with the man?

It’s certainly not for the payday — von Trier’s movies are modestly budgeted — and it’s unlikely to involve the expectation of an Academy Award. Aside from Emily Watson, who was nominated for Best Actress for 1996’s Breaking the Waves, no one has received an Oscar nod for a von Trier film, though three actresses — Björk, Charlotte Gainsbourg (2009’s Antichrist), and Kirsten Dunst (2011’s Melancholia) — have won the Best Actress prize at Cannes. But Stacy Martin, who plays the younger version of Nymphomaniac‘s sex-obsessed Joe, was drawn in by the prospect of working with a director she regards as “an amazing genius,” albeit a tortured one. Despite the frequent miseries inflicted upon von Trier’s female characters, Joe included, Martin sees the director as anything but antiwoman. “People think that if Lars puts people in these situations, then obviously he’s a difficult director and a misogynist,” she says. “It’s the complete opposite: He loves women and sees them as these strong human beings who, whatever happens to them, stay true to themselves and survive.”

And the fact is, with a few notable exceptions such as Björk, most actors who’ve starred in his films have only positive things to say about the experience. Though she declined to appear in the Dogville sequel, 2006’s Manderlay, Kidman called working with von Trier “deep, provocative, emotional, challenging, liberating, intoxicating, and bizarre.” Even Bettany has said he’d be willing to sign on with von Trier again “because you learn so much.” Skarsgård says that the director’s loose, freewheeling way of filming may prove frustrating for some but exhilarating for others: “If you’re the kind of actor who wants to be in control of your role, you’re f—ed,” he says. “You don’t sit down and talk about the role or the psychology of the scene. You’re encouraged to make mistakes, to see what happens. You investigate the scene while you’re shooting it. It’s like kids playing.”

Granted, you may not ordinarily associate things like existential dread and sadomasochism with child’s play. But if there’s one thing that everyone can agree on when it comes to von Trier, it’s that his work is anything but ordinary.