“What Kind of Magic is This?
How Come I Can’t Help Adore You?”:
Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark
as a Religious Film

By Gilbert Yeoh


1. For an overview of the very broad field of religion and film studies, see Chapters 1and 2 of Melanie J. Wright, Religion and Film: An Introduction (London: I. B. Taurus, 2007). As Wright observes, the study of the relationship between religion and film could also focus on “popular” Hollywood films like The Da Vinci Code (2006), Bruce Almighty (2003) and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005).

2. A recent example is the collection Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, ed. Kenneth R. Morefield (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008). This collection of essays discusses the films of European directors like Ingmar Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Andrei Tarkovsky, Eric Rohmer and the Brothers Dardenne in relation to religious or spiritual concerns. While the volume also features an African and a Middle Eastern director, European directors form the dominant group.

3. For a discussion of the genres of the melodrama and the musical in Dancer, see Brenda Austin-Smith, “’Mum’s the Word’: The Trial of Genre in Dancer in the Dark,” Post Script, 26.1 (2006), 32-42. Austin-Smith sees Dancer as a film that posits “[a] contest between the musical and the melodrama” (33).

4. Trier on von Trier ed. Stig Björkman (London: Faber and Faber, 2003), 104.

5. Caroline Bainbridge, The Cinema of Lars von Trier: Authenticity and Artifice (London: Wallflower Press, 2007), 87.

6. Ibid.

7. Von Trier himself often enacts gestures to claim membership to the tradition of the European masters. There is, for instance, the provocative but not inapt dedication of Antichrist to Tarkovsky. Bainbridge also quotes von Trier as saying: “There have been two Danish directors—Carl Theodor Dreyer and me.” See The Cinema of Lars von Trier: Authenticity and Artifice, 14.

8. In Dancer’s parallel film Breaking the Waves, the protagonist Bess too is a well-defined Christ-figure. See Linda Mercadante, “Bess the Christ Figure?: Theological Interpretations of Breaking the Waves,”Journal of Religion & Film,, 5.1 (2001).

9. In her focus on genre, Austin-Smith alternatively reads “Selma’s imagined dance sequence with Novy” in the trial scene as a moment when “the two genres, the musical and the melodrama, meet and briefly exchange identities” (40). Austin-Smith’s point, nevertheless, is that Selma’s reverie is but a short-lived one as the musical genre is subsequently eliminated by the trial’s guilty verdict which further bestows the melodrama genre—and Selma’s doomed role within it—ascendency.

10. For example, see Bill Scalia, “Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith, Persona, and Faith in Narrative” in Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema.

11. Irena S. M. Makarushka differs from this view and argues for “an ironic or even cynical” reading of the ending. See “Transgressing Goodness in Breaking the Waves,” Journal of Religion & Film, 2.1 (1998).

12. Jane Feuer, The Hollywood Musical (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993), 84.

13. Here the religious dimension of von Trier’s film is conveyed not only by its content but by the form and medium of film itself. It is part of the cinematic experience of von Trier’s film as a sensuous musical. This manner of discerning how the religious dimension can be expressed by the film medium itself has been one important strand in religion and film studies. For instance, for Greg Watkins, it is important that a director pays attention to “the nature of the [film] medium and, by extension, what it might mean for an artist to think 'religiously' within it.” See “Seeing and Being Seen: Distinctively Filmic and Religious Elements in Film,” Journal of Religion & Film,, 3.2 (1999). In this light, von Trier’s attempt to film the musical scenes using one hundred cameras to convey a sense of their being “like a live transmission or a live performance” can be interpreted in terms of the film’s religious dimension. Here the musical scenes would convey a sense of heightened, immediate contact with the “divine” realm, reflecting again a concern with expressing the religious via the film medium. For von Trier’s comments on the one hundred cameras experiment, see Lars von Trier, Dancer in the Dark (London: FilmFour Books, 2000), vii-viii.

14. Lars von Trier, Breaking the Waves (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), 18.

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