Scent and Sensibility

The last thing Danish production company Zentropa Real wants is a sure thing. 'We like to do things that haven't been tried or done before,' says Troels Rasmussen, ceo of the one-year-old documentary unit of Zentropa Productions, director Lars von Trier's (Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves) feature film company. 'The documentaries where you yourself are a little unsure of whether it will succeed or not, because then you have the drive and the filmmaker has something at stake.'
October 1, 2001

The last thing Danish production company Zentropa Real wants is a sure thing. ‘We like to do things that haven’t been tried or done before,’ says Troels Rasmussen, CEO of the one-year-old documentary unit of Zentropa Productions, director Lars von Trier’s (Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves) feature film company. ‘The documentaries where you yourself are a little unsure of whether it will succeed or not, because then you have the drive and the filmmaker has something at stake.’

In a business where the tyranny of the narrative gains strength with every passing commission, Zentropa Real operates under a manifesto that boldly states, ‘The story is the villain.’ Written by von Trier when the company was founded in March 2000, the manifesto submits that in order to find truth, or the ‘real’ story, filmmakers must ‘defocus’. In other words, they must abandon the classic journalistic approach to documentaries that encourages chasing an angle. Explains Rasmussen, ‘You have to spread out, open your eyes and show everything. Let people form their opinions and get whatever feeling they get from watching the documentary. That is what’s important for Lars. When you do documentaries, you fail as a filmmaker when you choose what you want your viewers to feel or think.’

Never one to merely pay lip service to an idea, von Trier has teamed up with Danish producer/director Jorgen Leth to film The Five Obstructions. Produced by Zentropa Real, the us$370,000 doc has Leth revisit his 1967 film The Perfect Human Being (von Trier fell in love with the short in film school and took to calling it ‘the little masterpiece’), only this time he must deal with four rules – or obstructions – provided by von Trier. Each rule forces Leth to take a different approach to the older doc. In the end, Leth will have recreated The Perfect Human Being four different ways. The fifth recreation will be by von Trier. The resulting film both embraces and documents the defocus theory.

The effort marks von Trier’s first foray into docs as a director, and Carsten Holst, editor-in-chief of Zentropa Real, hopes it will help spark a rebirth of the genre. ‘In Europe, Zentropa has a reputation of being quite special – that the things that come from here are quite special – mostly because of Lars’ approach to the medium,’ he says. ‘What we’re trying to do is tell the world that this is an approach we would like to take to the world of documentaries. We would like to be the company that takes in the people who have some edge, and who have an approach that isn’t the approach we normally see.’

Both Holst and Rasmussen emphasize that docs produced by Zentropa Real won’t have a certain look or feel, but will have the Zentropa ‘scent’. ‘We’re not a square company,’ states Holst. ‘If we think we have an idea for the company to be this and that, there always comes along a very enthusiastic producer with a great project and we try that on. More or less, it works out all right. We’re a soft company that way, we tend to move the ideals.’

‘It’s not like we’ve said we only want to do this type of documentary or that type of documentary,’ continues Rasmussen. ‘Sometimes directors come to us with an idea and we say, ‘Wow, you’ve come to the right place. This smells like Zentropa.”

The idea to start up a documentary unit within Zentropa came during a road trip to Cannes. Holst, who was von Trier’s assistant for four years before heading up Zentropa Real with Rasmussen, reveals that because of the director’s many phobias, his preferred mode of transportation is a mobile home. As the trip from Denmark to the south of France is long (especially at a maximum speed of 100 km/h), Holst and von Trier often pass the time by contemplating a variety of topics. ‘We talked about the world of documentaries, and about the fiction world trying to find the drama and characters and stories that, for the most part, are out there in real life,’ recalls Holst. ‘As you can see from Lars’ movies, they are fiction movies, but they cross over into new ways of approaching the medium. The stories, to some extent, are based on his own life and his phobias. So, we decided to found a company that would do the ‘real’ stuff. That’s where the name Zentropa Real comes in. Everyone knows the world of docs isn’t as celebre or as economically safe as the world of features, but sometimes you have to go with your heart, and that’s what both of us did.’

Holst sees this passion as the one key difference between the world of feature films and the documentary industry. ‘It’s the same thing in that there are people who have the money and those who would like to get their hands on the money. On that scale, it’s quite the same. But, it’s different people. They tend to be in it because they love it – because they love the stories. As I said, everyone knows this isn’t going to make everybody a fortune, but this is hopefully going to give viewers a lot of good stories to which they can relate. Even the broadcasters we meet around the world are in because of that.’

Rasmussen refers to the Zentropa family when discussing the company, and Holst is eager to find new relatives for the documentary unit. ‘Zentropa is about 10 years old, and it’s developed a great network through Lars’ international movies,’ says Holst. ‘We would love to do the same thing. Unfortunately, we can’t use the same coproduction partners [as Zentropa Productions], because the documentary world is another world; it takes specialists and producers who know their way around the business. What we would love to do is not just find a coproduction partner that can secure us money. That’s a nice thing, but we would also like them to participate in the project, both in the helping of ideas, how to plan it, and how to launch it. We’re quite open to suggestions from all over the world.’

Rasmussen explains that because the company is still young, partnerships thus far have been project specific, although he would like to see that change. Currently, Zentropa Real has joined with Belgium’s Wajnbrosse, Panic in France and Almaz in Switzerland for The Five Obstructions, which goes into pre-production in November. Additionally, Zentropa Real wishes to do for docs what the Dogme 95 manifesto, embodied by von Trier’s The Idiots and fellow director Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, did for feature films.

According to that manifesto, Dogme films must follow 10 rules outlined in ‘The Vow of Chastity’. For example, rule number eight stipulates that genre movies are not acceptable; rule number nine claims the film format must be Academy 35mm; and rule number 10 instructs that the director not be credited. ‘We’ve asked Lars to come up with a set of rules for the new standard of documentaries,’ says Rasmussen. ‘They’ll be different from the Dogme rules and there will be an ethics aspect in it. Starting in October, we’ll invite six or eight international doc-makers to play with these rules.

They have to have produced a certain number of documentaries before, because they have to feel like they now work under a set of rules. It has to be people who find a challenge in this.’

Dogme rules were developed with a sense of irony, although they hope to achieve an earnest objective. It will be interesting to see the rules von Trier believes will liberate the documentary from its current conventions.

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.