In 1992 he and producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen founded the movie production company Zentropa Entertainment, named after a train company in Europa, their most recent film at the time. The reason for doing this was to achieve financial independence and to have total creative control. The production company has produced many movies other than von Trier's own as well as television series. It also has produced hardcore sex films: Constance (1998), Pink Prison (1999), HotMen CoolBoyz (2000) and All About Anna (2005).
To make money for his newly founded company, he made The Kingdom (Riget, 1994) and The Kingdom II (Riget II, 1997), a pair of miniseries recorded in the Danish national hospital, the name "Riget" being a colloquial name for the hospital known as Rigshospitalet (lit. The Kingdom's Hospital) in Danish. A projected third instalment in the series was derailed by the 1998 death of Ernst-Hugo Järegård, who played Helmer, one of the major characters.
In 1995, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg presented their manifesto for a new cinematic movement which they called Dogme 95. It would however take a while before the first of these films appeared, and at this point many thought of the concept mainly as a radical idea with no future.
In 1996, von Trier conducted an unusual theatrical experiment in Copenhagen involving 53 actors, which he titled Psychomobile 1: The World Clock. A documentary chronicling the project was directed by Jesper Jargil, and was released in 2000 with the title De Udstillede (The Exhibited).
Von Trier's next film, Breaking the Waves (1996), the first film in von Trier's 'Golden Heart Trilogy', won the Grand Prix at Cannes and featured Emily Watson, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Its grainy images and hand-held photography pointed towards Dogme 95. The second was The Idiots (1998), nominated for a Palme d'Or, which he presented in person at the Cannes Film Festival notwithstanding his dislike of travelling. Dancer in the Dark (2000) was the final component of the trilogy.
As originator of the Dogme 95 concept, which has led to international interest in Danish film as a whole, he has inspired filmmakers all over the world. Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, who created the Dogme 95 Manifesto and the "Vow of Chastity" together with their fellow Dogme directors Kristian Levring and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen shared in 2008 the European Film Award European Achievement in World Cinema.
Von Trier's use of sexually explicit images in The Idiots (1998) started a wave of arthouse mainstream films with unsimulated sex, such as Catherine Breillat's Romance (1999), Baise-Moi (2000), Intimacy (2001), Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny (2003) and Michael Winterbottom's 9 songs (2004).
In 1998, Lars von Trier also made history by having his company Zentropa be the world's first mainstream film company to produce hardcore pornographic films. Three of these films, Constance (1998), Pink Prison (1999) and the adult/mainstream crossover-feature All About Anna (2005), were made primarily for a female audience, and were extremely successful in Europe, with the first two being directly responsible for the March 2006 legalising of pornography in Norway.
Women too like to see other people having sex. What they don't like is the endless close-ups of hammering bodyparts without a story. Lars von Trier is the first to have realised this and produced valuable quality porn films for women.
— Stern No. 40, 27 September 2007
Lars von Trier's initiative spearheaded a European wave of female-friendly porn films from directors such as Anna Span, Erika Lust and Petra Joy, while von Trier's company Zentropa was forced to abandon the experiment due to pressure from English business partners. In July 2009, women's magazine Cosmopolitan ranked Pink Prison as No. 1 in its Top Five of the best women's porn, calling it the "role model for the new porn-generation". Lars von Trier would return to explicit images in his self-directed Antichrist (2009), exploring darker themes, but ran into severe censorship problems when he tried once more with Nymphomaniac (2013).
In 2000, von Trier premiered a musical featuring Icelandic musician Björk, Dancer in the Dark. The film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. The song "I've Seen It All" (which Trier co-wrote) received an Academy Award nomination for Best Song.
The Five Obstructions (2003), made by Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth, is a documentary, but also incorporates lengthy sections of experimental films. The premise is that Lars von Trier challenges director Jørgen Leth, his friend and mentor, to remake his old experimental film The Perfect Human (1967) five times, each time with a different 'obstruction' (or obstacle) specified by von Trier.
He then directed two films in his announced 'US trilogy': Dogville (2003), starring Nicole Kidman and Manderlay (2005), starring Bryce Dallas Howard in the same role – as Grace. Both films are extremely stylised, with the actors playing their parts on a nearly empty soundstage with little but chalk marks on the floor to indicate the sets. Both films had huge casts of major international actors (Harriet Andersson, Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe, etc.), and questioned various issues relating to American society, such as intolerance in Dogville and slavery in Manderlay.
Controversy erupted on the 2004 set for Manderlay when actor John C. Reilly walked off the Trollhättan, Sweden, set in late March. Reilly walked off the film when he learned that an upcoming scene involved the slaughter of a donkey for food. The film's producer says the animal—who was old and not expected to live much longer—was killed off-camera by a certified veterinarian, in accordance with Swedish law. Reilly was replaced by Željko Ivanek.
The US was also the scene for Dear Wendy (2005), a feature film directed by von Trier's "Dogme-brother" Thomas Vinterberg from a script by von Trier. It starred Jamie Bell and Bill Pullman and dealt with gun worship and violence in American society.
In 2006, von Trier released a Danish-language comedy film, The Boss of It All. It was shot using a process that von Trier has called Automavision, which involves the director choosing the best possible fixed camera position and then allowing a computer to randomly choose when to tilt, pan or zoom.
It was followed by an autobiographical film, De unge år: Erik Nietzsche sagaen del 1 (2007), scripted by von Trier but directed by Jacob Thuesen, which tells the story of von Trier's years as a student at the National Film School of Denmark. It stars Jonatan Spang as von Trier's alter ego, called "Erik Nietzsche", and is narrated by von Trier himself. All main characters in the film are based on real people from the Danish film industry, with the thinly veiled portrayals including Jens Albinus as director Nils Malmros, Dejan Čukić as screenwriter Mogens Rukov and Søren Pilmark in an especially unflattering portrayal as sex-obsessed school principal Henning Camre.
Von Trier's next feature film was Antichrist, an art film about "a grieving couple who retreat to their cabin in the woods, hoping a return to Eden will repair their broken hearts and troubled marriage; but nature takes its course and things go from bad to worse". The film, which includes sexually explicit content, stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. It premiered in competition at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where the festival's jury honoured the movie by giving the Best Actress award to Gainsbourg. The Cannes Film Festival Ecumenical Jury, which gives prizes for movies that promote spiritual, humanist and universal values, also "honoured" the film with a special "anti-award"; a spokesman for the jury described it as "the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world." In 2010 the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported on their website that the film production company Zentropa is reportedly making more revenue from suing movie pirates in Germany that have downloaded Antichrist illegally than from box office and DVD sales, demanding a payment of around 1,300 euros per download to avoid legal action.
In 2011 Von Trier released Melancholia, a psychological disaster drama that was shot between 22 July and 8 September 2010 at Film i Väst's studios in Trollhättan, Sweden (exterior scenes were filmed in the area surrounding the Tjolöholm Castle). Magnolia Pictures acquired the distribution rights for North America. The film was in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
Following Melancholia, von Trier commenced the production of Nymphomaniac, a film about the sexual awakening of a woman played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. The director explained his inspiration for the project:
my DP on [Melancholia], Manuel Claro, at one point voiced a surprising prejudice. He urged me not to fall into the trap that so many aging directors fall into – that the women get younger and younger and nuder and nuder. That's all I needed to hear. I most definitely intend for the women in my films to get younger and younger and nuder and nuder.
In early December 2013, a four-hour version of the five-and-a-half-hour film was shown to the press in a private preview session and the cast also includes Stellan Skarsgård (in his sixth von Trier film), Shia LaBeouf, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, Christian Slater and Uma Thurman. In response to claims that he has merely created a "porn film", Skarsgård stated: "... if you look at this film, it's actually a really bad porn movie, even if you fast forward. And after a while you find you don't even react to the explicit scenes. They become as natural as seeing someone eating a bowl of cereal." Von Trier refused to attend the private screening due to the negative response that he received to Nazi-related remarks at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, which led to his expulsion from the festival. In the director's defense, Skarsgård stated at the screening, "Everyone knows he's not a Nazi, and it was disgraceful the way the press had these headlines saying he was."
For its public release in the UK, the four-hour version of Nymphomaniac was divided into two volumes—Volume I and Volume II—and the film's UK premiere was on 22 February 2014. In interviews prior to the UK release date, Gainsbourg and co-star Stacy Martin revealed that prosthetic vaginas, body doubles, and special effects were used for the production of the film. Martin also stated that the film's characters are a reflection of the director himself and referred to the experience as an "honour" that she enjoyed.
The film was also released in two volumes for the Australian release on 20 March 2014, with an interval separating the back-to-back sections. In his review of the film for 3RRR film criticism program, "Plato's Cave", presenter Josh Nelson stated that, since the production of Breaking the Waves, the filmmaker that Von Trier is most akin to is Alfred Hitchcock, due to his portrayal of feminine issues. Nelson also mentioned filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky as another influence, who Von Trier himself has also cited.
In February 2014, an uncensored version of Volume I was shown at the Berlin Film Festival, with no announcement of when or if the complete five-and-a-half-hour Nymphomaniac would be made available to the public.
Von Trier suffers from multiple phobias, including an intense fear of flying. His fear of air travel frequently places severely limiting constraints on him and his crew, necessitating that virtually all of his films be shot in either Denmark or Sweden, even those set in the United States or other foreign countries. Von Trier has had a number of his films featured at the Cannes Film Festival over the course of his career, and each time has insisted on driving from Denmark to France for the festival and back.
On numerous occasions von Trier has also stated that he suffers from occasional depression which renders him incapable of performing his work and unable to fulfill social obligations.
Lars von Trier has said that "a film should be like a stone in your shoe". To create original art he feels that filmmakers must distinguish themselves stylistically from other films, often by placing restrictions on the filmmaking process. The most famous restriction is the cinematic "vow of chastity" of the Dogme95 movement with which he is associated, though only one of his films, The Idiots, is an actual Dogme 95 film. In Dancer in the Dark, jump shots and dramatically-different color palettes and camera techniques were used for the "real world" and musical portions of the film, and in Dogville everything was filmed on a sound stage with no set where the walls of the buildings in the fictional town were marked as lines on the floor.
Von Trier often shoots digitally and operates the camera himself, preferring to continuously shoot the actors in-character without stopping between takes. In Dogville he let actors stay in character for hours, in the style of method acting. These techniques often put great strain on actors, most famously with Björk during the filming of Dancer in the Dark. Often he uses the same regular group of actors in many of his films: some of his frequently used actors are Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier and Stellan Skarsgård.
He is heavily influenced by the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer and the film The Night Porter. He was so inspired by the short film The Perfect Human directed by Jørgen Leth that he challenged Leth to redo the short five times in feature film The Five Obstructions.
Von Trier has on occasion referred to his films as falling into thematic and stylistic trilogies. This pattern began with his first feature film, marking the beginning of The Europa trilogy, though he claims a trilogy was not initially planned, instead being applied to the films in retrospect. The Europe trilogy illuminated the traumas of Europe in the past and future. This trilogy includes The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987) and Europa (1991).
The Golden Heart trilogy was about naive heroines who maintain their 'golden hearts' despite the tragedies they experience. This trilogy consists of Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998) and Dancer in the Dark (2000). While all three films are sometimes associated with the Dogme 95 movement, only The Idiots is a certified Dogme 95 film.
The USA: Land of Opportunities trilogy follows the character of Grace, and is set in a stylised American past. Von Trier has stated he was inspired to make a trilogy about the United States as a reaction to Americans at the Cannes film festival who said he had no right to make the Dancer in the Dark, which was often viewed as being critical of a country he has never been to (and has no intention of ever visiting, due to his phobia of travel); however, von Trier himself has stated in interviews he did not intend it to be a criticism of America, saying the film takes place in a "fictional America". Von Trier proposed the films as ‘a series of sermons on America’s sins and hypocrisy’, inspired by the fact that American movie makers have made many movies about places across the world to which they have not travelled. All three movies will be shot in the same distinctive style, on a bare sound stage with no set and buildings marked by lines on the floor. This style is inspired by 1970s televised theatre. The trilogy will consist of Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005) and the so far not produced Wasington.
The Depression Trilogy consists of Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac. All three star Charlotte Gainsbourg and deal with characters who suffer depression or grief in different ways. This trilogy is said to represent the depression that von Trier himself experiences.
The Kingdom (Riget) was planned as a trilogy of three seasons with 13 episodes in total, but the third season was not filmed due to death of star Ernst-Hugo Järegård shortly after completion of the second season.