Six years after he was declared persona non grata by the organisers of the Cannes film festival for jokingly announcing his affinity with Hitler, the brilliant and provocative 60-year-old Danish director Lars von Trier is in negotiations to unveil his next project at Cannes in 2018.
The House That Jack Built charts the development of a serial killer called Jack, played by Drugstore Cowboy star Matt Dillon, over the course of a decade-long murder spree in 1970s America. Among the actors cast as his victims are Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction), Sofie Gråbøl, best known as Sarah Lund in the Danish crime series The Killing, and Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road). In February, Von Trier said the film was inspired by the rise of Donald Trump, the “rat king”.
The film, which has a budget of €8.7m (£7.6m), began shooting this week in Dalsland, Sweden, where Von Trier held a press conference alongside Dillon, Thurman and two of the film’s producers, Louise Vesth and Madeleine Ekman. He described The House That Jack Built as “maybe the most traditional film I’ve made”. In response to a suggestion that Jack’s victims would all be women, he said: “That’s not correct. But it could’ve been if I didn’t read through and put a few men in.”
The production, which originated as an idea for TV, will move to Copenhagen in May, before what Vesth called a “huge” post-production period devoted to complicated visual-effects work and “digressions about art and architecture”. Von Trier told reporters he considered serial killing analogous to making art: “You have to be cynical to do both.”
Vesth hinted that the new movie had been scheduled loosely with Cannes in mind but Von Trier went further: “I have talked to the people I know in Cannes and … yeah, maybe.”
Prior to the 2011 controversy, Von Trier had been a regular and much-rewarded fixture at Cannes. Awards bestowed on him there included the Palme d’Or in 2000 for his musical Dancer in the Dark, starring the singer Björk, and the Grand Jury prize in 1996 for Breaking the Waves. The festival’s best actress prize had also gone on three occasions to performers in his films: Björk, Charlotte Gainsbourg for Antichrist and Kirsten Dunst for Melancholia. In the wake of his remarks at the 2011 festival, however, he was banned.
Von Trier had been responding to a question about his German roots when he stumbled into the controversy: “I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew ... Then it turned out that I was not a Jew ... I found out that I was really a Nazi which also gave me some pleasure.
“What can I say? I understand Hitler. He did some wrong things, absolutely, but I can see him sitting there in his bunker at the end ... I sympathise with him, yes, a little bit.”
He continued: “But come on, I am not for the second world war, and I am not against Jews. I am very much for Jews; well, not too much because Israel is a pain in the ass. But still, how can I get out of this sentence ... OK, I’m a Nazi.”
He apologised afterwards for his comments but then retracted that apology several months later. In 2014, he presented the first half of his sexually explicit two-part drama Nymphomaniac at the Berlin film festival while wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the Cannes logo and the words “Persona Non Grata”.
Sitting before the press again on Tuesday, the knuckles on his right hand tattooed with the word “FUCK”, Von Trier was visibly nervous and at times even had to hold his hands steady to stop them shaking. He squinted and said: “Thankfully I’ve got the wrong glasses on so I can only see something very out of focus, and that feels good and reassuring – that the press is the same as when I left it.” Asked what made him decide to speak publicly again, he replied: “My producer.”
Having previously equated teetotalism with a loss of creativity, he was questioned about his old bad habits. “No, I did not return to these habits. Or only partly … I drink, for Christ’s sake. But I’m working on not doing that so much. Unfortunately there have come no drugs my way.”
Thurman, who previously had a small part in Nymphomaniac, called Von Trier “an amazing director for actors … he’s incredibly sensitive and tender”. Dillon said: “Lars’s films are always unique. From an actor’s standpoint, I’ve always been impressed with the performances. We actors know that you can give a great performance and it can be edited a certain way that makes you roll your eyes … But I feel I’m in very good hands with Lars.”
Von Trier is famously popular with actors, with Kristen Stewart declaring last year that she would “kill” to work with him. His relationship with Björk, meanwhile, was reportedly volatile, with the singer attempting to eat her costume and to flee the set.
The director declined to comment on the part played in The House That Jack Built by the celebrated Swiss actor Bruno Ganz, though he did use the opportunity to allude to the Cannes controversy. “Didn’t he play Hitler?” Von Trier said, referring to Ganz’s role in the 2004 film Downfall.
•This article was amended on 9 March, to correct Bruno Ganz’s nationality.