Epidemic: Experimenting Meta

by Erix Antoine

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Von Trier’s second feature was not particularly well-received. Certainly not in his native Denmark and not even in Cannes (where it did not play in competition and was regarded more than anything as an interesting curio). Watching it now, twenty-six years later, it’s easy to see why.

It’s actually a very good, extremely clever film. But it must have struck audiences as just a little bit naive (or, worse, arrogant) of Von Trier to expect people to actively care about who he was and the intricacies of his creative process. Because there hadn’t been too many movies that were actually about filmmaking or the process of creating a work. Oh, you could certainly list some classic and popular films, such as Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (a classic comedy), or Mel Brooks’ The Producers (another comedy – and not about filmmaking at all… but a satire of the creative process, so let’s list it). There was also Vittorio De Sica’s After the Fox (an obscure Peter Sellers comedy that is really about a heist operation masquerading as a film) and Richard Rush’s cult classic The Stunt Man.

All the films I’ve listed are comedies; and I don’t know if that’s a coincidence because I seldom believe in coincidences. But the point I want to make is those films are all fictional works that use show business as a backdrop for fanciful tales. What Von Trier does with Epidemic is more akin to what Fellini did with 8 & 1/2; or Woody Allen’s homage – Stardust Memories – making a movie about the filmmaking process to serve as an intimate exploration of the artist behind the work. But both Fellini and Allen did this when they were well-established, universally known commodities. (And they were still chastised in some circles. Fellini for self-indulgence and Allen for trying to latch on to that self-indulgence rather than come up with his own ideas.)

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Lars Von Trier had the gall to make a film like this very early in his career, when few who viewed it would really be able to grasp what it all meant. And it is only when watching it now, in retrospect and in the context of all his subsequent work, that Epidemic can truly be appreciated, its brilliance understood – revealing just how ahead of the curve Von Trier may have been with regards to meta fiction: A film sub genre that became very popular during the oughts… In particular with films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (both written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze).

Epidemic actually has very much in common with Adaptation. In that film, Nicolas Cage played screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (as well as his invented twin brother Donald) and the plot dealt with his struggle to adapt Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief into a film. It’s a film that serves as both a deep, funny observation about the creative process, while also serving as a valid adaptation of The Orchid Thief.

In Epidemic, Lars Von Trier plays “Lars”; and his writing partner Niels Vørsel plays “Niels”. The storyline deals with what happens when the screenplay they’re working on is completely erased (no explanation is given, apart from an apparently faulty floppy disk – a gag that may have seemed somewhat amusing in 1987, becomes uproarious today). They now only have five days to deliver a finished screenplay to The Danish Film Institute. Unable to remember the particulars of the film they were working on, they decide instead to write an apocalyptic thriller about an outbreak of the bubonic plague in modern day Europe.

Lars and Niels... Hard at work.

Lars and Niels… Hard at work.

Von Trier makes no bones about any of this. He is extremely self-aware. The screenplay the pair were working on is called “The Inspector and the Whore,” which – right there – informs in what spirit this enterprise is meant to be taken. The fact is, Von Trier and Vørsel were working on a screenplay at the time and it was lost (though not in quite as cartoonish a fashion), but this is still a very conscious nod to the previous entry in this trilogy, a trilogy that was only decided upon during the post production of this film.

In any case, Von Trier does not expect the audience to take any of these things seriously. As far as he’s concerned, this is all very funny – an entertainment. His original concept for the poster was to do it in the tradition of Danish comedies, with his and Vørsel’s giant cartoon heads popping out of a Volkswagen.

Cheekiness aside, the brilliance of the film lies in how Von Trier is able to make it function legitimately as a thriller, while also having fun deconstructing the creative process. The narrative is designed to suggest that, as the filmmakers are creating a story about a plague, there is an actual plague erupting throughout Europe. A fact that allows the film to set us up with an eerie opening and erupt finally into a genuinely horrific climax.

Real horror.

Real horror.

They place great emphasis on actually making the process of creating and then presenting the screenplay into a suspenseful experience. But that doesn’t mean they ever put any credence into the “value” of the film within the film. The only concession Von Trier makes is to shoot those sequences in vivid 35mm, as opposed to the grainy 16mm photography for the rest of the film. And he scores those scenes with Wagner’s “Tristan & Isolde.” But this is not meant to give those scenes weight. It is only there to serve as a clear delineation between the fantasy world of the film and the reality of the filmmakers. It’s up to us to decide when and where those worlds finally merge; or if they do at all.

It’s worth noting, however, that the secondary plotline might have yielded an interesting film in its own right. It is presented as a series of fragments in which an idealistic Doctor named Mesmer (also played by Von Trier) travels the countryside attempting to combat the disease, unaware that he is in fact a carrier, spreading this sickness throughout Europe.

That is absolutely an interesting notion, but here it is only a contextual backdrop to observe the complex nuances of creation; and Epidemic’s most fascinating scenes have to do with Von Trier and Vørsel seeking inspiration.

A very funny and revealing moment involves them drawing a black line across their office wall, where they begin to mark specific story events. At one point, Von Trier makes a big deal out of highlighting the word: “drama.” Saying: “It is here that we must inject some drama into the film, because the audience will want to be walking out of the theater by this point.” Later, because the story will involve the dissection of human beings, they decide their “research” should include insight into this process. They perform an autopsy on a tube of toothpaste to discover how it is that the white paste and red stripes never mix.

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It all plays as wonderful satire and reveals just how bored Lars Von Trier might be with the standard filmmaking process that is taught at film schools. It is that critique of cinematic formality, coupled with the mockumentary style, that cements this as Von Trier’s most personal film. Because the sniping doesn’t stop with poking fun at storytelling conventions, the roasting is extended toward commercial filmmaking in general (the entire movie is “branded” with a watermark that remains at the upper right hand of the screen throughout its running time) and finally, what he seems to perceive as a perpetual banality in the Danish film industry.

I mentioned how the film is constructed like a thriller, building toward a horrific climax. The climax in question is in the form of a dinner, in which Lars and Niels invite a consultant from The Danish Film Institute – Claes Kastholm Hansen, who in a droll bit of self-parody simply plays himself – to dinner so they may unveil the screenplay they have been working on for five days. Hansen justifiably finds the pair’s twelve-page screenplay underwhelming. He also expresses concern at what they have devised for a climax – Dr. Mesmer emerging from a cave, getting on his knees and thanking God – dismissing it as “pathetic,” an insipid slice of existentialism for a film he expects should have “more action.” In turn, Lars retorts with: “you want a bloodbath, then?”

The last supper.

The last supper.

The extraordinary final scene involves this dinner interrupted by a hypnotist and a medium (played by an actual hypnotist and an actual non-actor subject named Gitte Lund). As the medium “enters” the screenplay for Epidemic, she physically experiences the horror of the bubonic plague, erupting into hysterics and ending the evening on a spectacularly awful note… Meaning that, however vicariously, Mr. Hansen now has his bloodbath.

The scene is made more powerful with the knowledge that Lund was actually hypnotized while performing the scene. It is a visceral, emotional moment of sheer harrowing terror – and Von Trier’s final shriek of defiance toward cinematic conformity. To have this dark scene then segue into the closing credits, which are accompanied by a bouncy and cheerful pop track: “Epidemic (We All Fall Down),” reveals the entire film for the ironic joke it really is. But that doesn’t take away the cumulative dread, which has been carefully parceled throughout the film – leaving an indelibly haunting impression.

Now then… Although the film could be dismissed by some as nothing more than a lark, let’s not discount that it was not necessarily intended that way. And, when taken as part of the whole trilogy (however retroactively), it gains even more validity. It is a worthy middle “chapter” when you consider both what followed as well as what preceded it. In a way, Von Trier is at once shunning the calculated film student formalism of his first feature, while opening himself up to the daring experimentation that will characterize his following work. And it does follow in the footsteps of The Element of Crime, by continuing to portray Europe through the filmmaker’s very particular lens.

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As this is all part of a trilogy observing Europe, however, Von Trier still makes room for personal, introspective statements about the current state of society. Not so much in the film within a film (which does take place in a Europe corrupted by its political formalities), but in the actual text of the film itself. When Lars and Niels take a road trip to Cologne to visit their friend, actor Udo Kier. The sequence begins with Kier relating a story from his own childhood and how his mother survived a WWII bombing; and ends with him standing pensively at the shore of a nearby lake, dipping his hand into the black water (where people once fled – terrified of the oncoming raids) and quietly stating: “My mother was not a Nazi.”

 It is a very profound lamentation that speaks, in some way, to a nation’s sense of guilt.

Even if the rest of Epidemic is blowing raspberries, Von Trier is still sure to ground the proceedings in a social reality, which gives this particular satire a dramatic and resonant undercurrent. Begging the question: What is the plague, exactly, which haunts Europe?

Although he doesn’t bother to explicitly answer the question, it’s not too hard to pick up on what he’s getting at. Any way you slice it, an epidemic exists.

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