The Boss of It All - Direktøren for det hele - Lars von Trier - Ravn - Kristoffer - Peter Ganzler - Jens Albinus - bathroom - mirror - Automavision

The Boss of It All
2006, directed by Lars von Trier

One of the hallmarks of Lars von Trier is his willingness to erect artificial obstructions that challenge his creativity. Like the more normal challenges of filmmaking – budgetary limits, censorship, studio conflicts, etc. – obstructions like the Dogme 95 rules or the various obstacles von Trier gave Jørgen Leth in The Five Obstructions tend to inspire creative thinking which might spread into other aspects of a movie. The Boss of It All is shot with a strange process called Automavision that seems to be another of his obstructions. Automavision is a program that leaves decisions about shot framing to a computer, which has to guess which characters and which parts of the scene are important to include. As a result characters get cropped in strange ways, shots are filled with dead space, and disruptive jump cuts break up the action. These rough effects force the film to lean heavily on basic virtues like good writing and acting, but Automavision is more than some arbitrary challenge – it also mirrors and points to the film’s argument.

The decision to use Automavision is an almost exact correlative to company owner Ravn’s decision to hide his leadership role behind a fictional president. Both are denials of responsibility – Lars von Trier can blame all the awkward compositions on his experimental shooting system, just as Ravn can blame all of his unpopular decisions (selling the company, eliminating perks, laying off his staff) on the non-existent boss. More than that, however, both decisions are feigned abdications of power. Ravn pretends to be just another employee, but he still holds tight control over the company, while von Trier pretends to leave his filming to chance even as he retains creative power over the movie’s most essential elements.

The Boss of It All - Direktøren for det hele - Lars von Trier - Automavision - Lise - Kristoffer - Iben Hjejle - Jens Albinus - meeting

Both Ravn and von Trier have peculiar motives for appearing to abdicate control. With his outsized craving for approval, Ravn wants his employees to love him like a “teddy bear”. Von Trier has a more instructive purpose, but we have to look closely in order to define it. Nevertheless, if we’re familiar with von Trier’s preceding films, his purpose should not be hard to guess. Ravn and von Trier are both trying – one unsuccessfully and the other ironically – to avoid playing God.

The sin of playing God is at the heart of so many of von Trier’s films. Dancer in the Dark argues that the death penalty requires humans to play God, and the film is divided between the godlike point of view of its musical scenes and the human point of view of its drama. Dogville is about the eagerness of ordinary people, particularly in American society, to take judgment into their own hands, and the movie is built around a symbolically godlike perspective, its sets designed to be seen from above or through invisible walls. Manderley‘s sets are like Dogville‘s, and in its key incident the well-meaning protagonist opts to kill an innocent old woman, believing her act will save the community.

The Boss of It All - Direktøren for det hele - Lars von Trier - Friðrik Þór Friðriksson - Finnur

In this light those movies might sound like moral lessons, but that would not give them full credit for their practical understanding. The problem with humans arrogating a divine point of view is not that it offends some deity, but that it’s a miscalculation of their position in the universe, with all sorts of unfortunate repercussions. If it’s wrong to punish, to judge, or to claim to know what others deserve, it’s not because it violates a commandment but because we simply do not have access to the godlike perspective that would justify those actions. Saying it’s wrong to “play God” does not presuppose the existence of any deity.

Even before The Boss of It All reveals its setting and subject, the title alone points to a notion of God tailored to a human idea of power. If people think of God as a “boss” we can start to see why they would envy that God’s power and want to take it over… as absurd as such a wish would be. This projection of human attributes onto a deity goes hand in hand with projection of godlike attributes onto human beings – both rest on the strange assumption that the generative force of the universe is like a person. The title also hints that the film will summarize von Trier’s thinking on the topic that has preoccupied his last several films.

The Boss of It All - Direktøren for det hele - Lars von Trier - Mia Lyhne - Jean-Marc Barr - Iben Hjejle - Casper Christensen - Louise Mieritz - Heidi - Spencer - Lise - Gorm - Mette - six seniors

A story of office politics is an almost ideal framework for showing the folly of pretending to divine superiority. Ravn may wish to conceal his power, but he still delights in exercising it. Kristoffer, the actor Ravn hires to play the big boss, is literally “playing” God insofar as the company president is a godlike figure, onto whom the neurotic “six seniors” each projects a particular emotion or need: anger (Gorm), fear (Mette), lust (Lise), romance (Heidi), a wish for security (Nalle), or a need for understanding (Spencer). Kristoffer’s ex-wife Kisser also gets a taste of playing God, sitting at the president’s desk and catching her ex off guard, but until Kristoffer turns the tables by announcing a fictional president above himself, Ravn’s the one effectively playing God. Once the actor gets a taste of Ravn’s power, and Ravn admits his true role to everyone, Kristoffer realizes that his power of attorney gives him real power, which he too relishes.

The insight here is that manufacturing a higher power to mask one’s responsibility is a cowardly way of playing God. The subterfuge allows people to exercise power or dominate others without arousing animosity. Ravn’s behavior might look unusual – who’s ever heard of a company president hiding his role? – but it’s what people have been doing throughout history. Whenever a state uses religion to control its subjects, its leaders play God by shifting the face of their authority onto a higher power that they can easily manage. When parents excuse punishments by appealing to tradition (“This is what my parents did to me”), it’s usually safe to say they’re enforcing their own will more than any tradition. When one country invades another, there’s usually a lofty pretext (imposing democracy, denazification) that has nothing to do with the real intention. In Dogville, in similar fashion, Ben constantly uses “the freight industry” to excuse all sorts of bad behavior.

The Boss of It All uses the recurring image of a teddy bear to satirize the pretensions of tyrants who wish to be loved. Ravn wants his employees to see him as a “teddy bear”, and Kisser advises Kristoffer to take Ravn’s place as the “cuddly teddy bear”. The six seniors use an actual teddy bear as a surrogate for their missing president at meetings, and when Kristoffer (playing “Svend”) takes them on their outing to Kullen they throw the teddy bear off a cliff. When Ravn meets Kristoffer at a cinema to argue over the company’s sale to the Icelanders, he holds a sort of popsicle with the face of a cute bear.

The Boss of It All - Direktøren for det hele - Lars von Trier - teddy bear - conference room

The manufacture of surrogate gods to get away with playing God is not limited to the power struggles of business and politics. In the movie’s Danish title “The boss” is “Direktøren” which is synonymous with a movie director’s title. Artists too shift responsibility for their choices onto higher authorities who have nothing to do with their real motives. When deciding whether to sign the deed of sale, Kristoffer tells Ravn that the character he performs is “the boss of it all”, and he reveres Gambini so highly that when Finnur acknowledges the playwright, Kristoffer casts aside all his values and signs the contract, betraying everyone who trusted him. The satire has plenty of real world correlatives in artists who adhere religiously to convenient rules, theories, and principles. In his always-ironic voice-over, von Trier declares that he will “obey the laws of the genre.” Art itself, like the freight industry in Dogville, is a persistent sacred cow, a catch-all excuse for anything that comes under its heading. The scene at the cinema, where Ravn and Kristoffer watch The Mirror – Tarkovsky’s most self-consciously arty film – closely parallels the scene in Dancer in the Dark where Selma and Kathy watch 42nd Street and annoy the audience with their talking. In both cases the film on the screen points to the subject of von Trier’s movie: the God’s-eye view of the Busby Berkeley number, and the use of “Art” to indulge personal whims.

It’s no accident that both Ravn and Kristoffer, when they tell company employees about the imagined boss over them, locate that boss in America. Not only is the United States conveniently distant from Denmark, it’s also the subject of von Trier’s criticism, from Dancer in the Dark to Manderley, of a country prone to playing God – in the War on Terror and American Exceptionalism, but also for its use of the death penalty and mass incarceration. It’s understood that autocratic countries will play God, but we should expect more from a democracy that aspires to set an example for the world.

The Boss of It All - Direktøren for det hele - Lars von Trier - Peter Ganzler - Jens Albinus - Ravn - Kristoffer - zoo - elephant - neutral territory

The Boss of It All begins with a disclaimer and ends with an apology:

“Here comes a movie, and, if it already looks a bit weird, then hang in there because anyone can see it. Although you see my reflection, trust me, this film won’t be worth a moment’s reflection. It’s a comedy, and harmless as such. No preaching or swaying of opinion. Just a cozy time. So why not poke fun at artsy-fartsy culture?”

“And so we reached, on the verge of giving up, the end of our comedy. Like you, I would like to get home, but I’d like to apologize to those who wanted more and those who wanted less. Those who got what they came for… deserve it.”

Lars von Trier delivers both these speeches from a crane, symbolically representing God’s view from above, and his occasional interruptions obey the dramatic convention of a deus ex machina. In light of everything else we’re shown, both statements sound as suspicious as Ravn’s big game. Of course the movie has something to say, and of course von Trier has nothing to apologize for. The final words are ironic too, because there’s very little judgment in saying that people who get what they want deserve it… yet by singling out the word “deserve”, which represents so well the language of those who play God, von Trier nails in his point decisively.

CONNECTIONS:

Dancer in the Dark – Scene where characters talk over a movie; argument about playing God

Dogville – Story about how people unsuspectingly play God