Danish film poobah Lars von Trier prides himself on being the grain of grit in the well-oiled oyster of world cinema. Sometimes, the result is mere irritation; often enough, it’s a pearl. The Jacob Thuesen-helmed “The Early Years — Eric Nietszche Part I” is more like mother-of-pearl — or father, since von Trier’s screenplay is an apologia for himself. But this rough-hewn comedy is droll enough to entice world cinema fans, established von Trier-ites, budding film students and more, since the world portrayed in this faux biopic is as universal a snake pit as “The Office.”
It’s quite remarkable that von Trier — whose talentless naif of a stand-in, Eric Nietzsche (Jonatan Spang), enters the National Film School of Denmark by accident in 1978 — should be so candid about himself, his peers or his tutors, all of whom are sliced up in von Trier’s rapier reflections. Then again, von Trier has always been eager to bare his teeth, whether against Western hegemony (“Zentropa”), Americanized culture (“Dogville”) or the corporate ethic (“The Boss of It All”). In “Eric Nietzsche,” von Trier hardly goes easy on his young self, who enters school knowing little and leaves knowing how to shaft his friends.
What Eric encounters upon his enrollment are hack professors — egomaniacal tyrants who are jealous of their students and haven’t made films in years — and students whose delusions of grandeur fog their own lenses. What’s particularly engaging about “Eric Nietzsche” is the way von Trier segues his character through the survivalist techniques of film school, and the way Thuesen meshes dreamy adolescence with the onset of cynicism, whether through the use of some glorious music, or his occasionally blissful flights with the camera. Always, the film lands back in the grimy classrooms, but not without leaving a suggestion of the attainable.
Production values are good, with von Trier’s personal 8mm footage interspersed with Sebastian Blenkov’s fluid shooting. “Eric Nietzsche” may be a bit inside-baseball, but some things about human ego and aspirations transcend location.