Born Lars Trier on April 30, 1956 in Copenhagen, von Trier was raised in an environment of freedom, feeling that nothing was restricted save "feelings, religion and enjoyment", he later remarked. He made short films with his mother's Super 8 camera from an early age, spent time watching movies, and eventually entered the National Film School of Denmark. It was during his study that he inserted 'von' into his name as a tribute to Joseph von Sternberg. Graduating in 1983, his short film Befrielsesbilleder (Images of a Relief) was awarded Best Film at the Munich Film Festival the following year.
Von Trier first established his name as a filmmaker with a trilogy of films dealing with a dark and traumatised Europe: The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987) and Europa (Zentropa, 1991). However, it was his second television outing, The Kingdom (1994) co-directed by Morten Amfred, that brought him public acclaim, and helped to define a style which would be formalised as Dogme 95—a rigorously spare manifesto for film production. Dogme was a call for a more simple form of filmmaking, the use of hand-held cameras and available light, of non-generic plotting and an uncredited director. This aesthetic regime provided the background for his second trilogy, Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998) and Dancer in the Dark (2000). These films, contained in what he calls the "Golden Heart Trilogy" inspired by a children’s book, are stories of the surrender and sanctification of women.
Turning his attention to the America, von Trier—while famously unwilling to travel there— made Dogville (2003), set, but not shot, in small-town America and with Hollywood stars including Nicole Kidman. A film about hypocrisy and intolerance, it marks the first in a trilogy that takes on America from a soundstage in Europe. He followed this film with the second of the group, Manderlay (2005), which, with a similarly high-profile cast, focuses on slavery and freedom.
All von Trier’s films, until his return to lower budgets and smaller casts with The Boss of It All (2006), were Officially Selected for the Cannes Film Festival, where he has been awarded the Grand Prix du Jury for Breaking the Waves and the Palme d’Or for Dancer in the Dark.