The film had its world premiere at the Cannes International Film Festival on May 14, 2018. It was reported that more than a hundred audience members - including some critics - walked out during the premiere, though a six-minute standing ovation followed the screening. Some of the upset audience members continued to condemn the film on social media for its extreme violence and nihilistic tone.
The scene involving the main character's mutilation of a duckling when he was a child was done with the help of special effects, and the duckling was not harmed. Despite this, there was considerable audience backlash toward this scene, but PETA has defended the film in a statement, praising its accurate portrayal of the link between adolescent animal abuse and psychopathy. Animal cruelty is actually known to be a common trait among serial murderers, especially when they are young.
The 'Iceman' mentioned by Jack was contract killer Richard Kuklinski who committed over a hundred murders for organized crime syndicates. Like Jack, Kuklinski often kept the bodies inside a freezer for a while to make the time of death impossible to ascertain, a habit that earned him his infamous nickname.
The House That Jack Built (2018) will make its debut out of competition at the 2018 Cannes Film, seven years after Lars von Trier's infamous "Nazi" comments during the press conference for Melancholia (2011) resulted in his being labeled "persona non grata" and banned from the festival.
The film references Lars von Trier's feature film debut The Element of Crime (1984). There is a scene in which the female lead, Kim (Me Me Lai), is first introduced, she is heard speaking the rhyme "The House That Jack Built". Like this film, "The Element of Crime" also concerns a serial killer.
Lars von Trier explains the origins of this film as follows: "The House That Jack Built (2018) celebrates the idea that life is evil and soulless, which is sadly proven by the recent rise of the Homo trumpus - the rat king." [from 'Lars von Trier inspired by Donald Trump for new serial-killer film', The Guardian, Feb. 14, 2017]
The film has caused some controversy with the MPAA due to a November 28th screening of the unrated version at the Cannes Film Festival that is closely before the R-rated release. IFC Films is now facing sanctions over the screening for failing to obtain the appropriate waiver and a possible revocation of the R-rating.
A few times Verge says to Jack: ''Do you want me to show you the way to the next whiskey bar?''. This is referencing most popularly The Doors' 'Alabama Song', which in turn is a rendition of an opera song of the same name, written originally in German by Bertolt Brecht.
Jack is an engineer who sees himself as an architect. He commits a series of murders in the Pacific Northwest. Matt Dillon also played a character in There's Something About Mary (1998) who was pretending to be an architect and was accused of being a serial murderer who operated in the states of Utah and Washington (Pacific Northwest). In both films there is a theme regarding the decomposition of bodies.
It has been questioned whether this film could be the third part in Lars von Trier's USA trilogy, which included Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005) but was never finished. Originally, Washington was announced as the trilogy's third installment, but as of 2019, it has not yet entered production.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Jack cutting off Simple's breasts is reminiscent of how Jack the Ripper does the same to a prostitute in Alan Moore's graphic novelle 'From Hell'. The policeman not believing her story because he thinks she is drunk is somewhat similar to one of Jeffrey Dahmer's victims, who managed to escape his apartment in an intoxicated state, and was returned to Dahmer by the police. Other similarities to serial killers include faking an injury in order to appear harmless like Ted Bundy, and keeping bodies in a freezer like Richard Kuklinski.
The shot of Jack and Verge standing in a boat strongly resembles the painting "La Barque de Dante" by Eugène Delacroix, which was in itself influenced by "The Raft of the Medusa" (Le Radeau de La Méduse) by Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault.
The strange relationship and voyage of Jack and his guide Verge are not only reminiscent of Dante Alighieri's "La Divina Commedia" (The Divine Comedy), but it also features elements from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's "Faust", where the characters Mephistopheles and Faust travel through the world beyond the laws of physics and investigate humanity. The casting of Bruno Ganz also points to this interpretation, because he's one of the most celebrated stage performers of "Faust" in theatre history. In one sequence of the film Jack even discusses Goethe's life, but doesn't mention his "Faust".
The House That Jack Built (2018) often makes references to German history, sometimes very obvious by showing Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Adolf Hitler, but also in more subtle and disturbing ways by talking about the 'artistry' involved in engineering the infamous German WWII Stuka dive bomber and Nazi architect Albert Speer's work. Jack's final 'art project' in the film involves shooting multiple people with only one bullet and Jack explains, that he got inspired by reading about German soldiers in WWII at the eastern front, who ran out of bullets. The film also mentions explicitly the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald and its strange relationship to Goethe. The sequence where Jack sadistically kills a whole family on a hunting ground in the forest also strongly evokes a German WWII extermination camp.
The final part of the film depicts the strange voyage of Jack and his guide Verge through the underworld in a similar way to Dante Alighieri's famous 14th century Italian poem "La Divina Commedia" (The Divine Comedy), where Dante himself is guided through Hell ('Inferno') and eventually to God by the character Virgil. In one scene, Verge clearly identifies himself as the author of the epic "Aeneid", which was written by the Roman poet Virgil in real-life. In the Divine Comedy, Dante enters the vestibule of the underworld through the Gates of Hell, symbolized by the door in the freezer that Jack only manages to open near the end to find Verge on the other side. Jack and Verge can then be seen crossing the river of wailing in a classic depiction of Dante and Virgil doing the same. Hell consists of nine floors (circles) with each floor created to punish a specific type of sinner. They pass by a cabin in a dark forest that is reminiscent of the one from Antichrist (2009), and may symbolize the second circle that punishes the lustful. The murky waters that they swim through and float in may represent the fifth circle, Wrath, for those who bear ill will towards others. The lowest circle of Hell is typically reserved for those who have committed the sin of treachery, but Verge tells Jack that he only took him there for sight-seeing, as Jack belongs a couple of circles up (possible the seventh circle, which is reserved for those who committed violence against others). When Jack tries to climb his way out of Hell and falls down below, he may end up in the actual center of Hell, where those who have committed treachery against God are punished by Lucifer himself.
During their voyage through Hell, Jack and Verge come near a cabin surrounded by a dark forest, which looks very similar to the cabin in Lars von Trier's movie Antichrist (2009). Like this movie, Antichrist was structured in chapters and contained many references to Christian symbolism.