Restrictions, obstructions and liberations
by Peter Schepelern
© Peter Schepelern
During the spring of 1995, Lars von Trier was invited to participate in an international symposium in Paris organized by the French Ministry of Culture. The subject of the symposium was ’Le cinéma vers son deuxième siècle’. At about the same time, celebrations were underway to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of film. Although December 28, 1895 is normally regarded as the official birthday of film – the date the Lumière brothers held their first public film show in the Grand Café in Paris – the brothers had in fact shown their first film to a select audience as early as March 22, 1895.
DOGME 95. Trier usually turns down such invitations as a matter of course, but in this case, he decided to accept the offer. He saw it as an opportunity to present a number of new ideas that he had been developing along with his young colleague Thomas Vinterberg after finishing the television series The Kingdom (1994). At a public debate in the Odéon – Théatre de l’Europe on March 20, 1995, Trier stepped to the front of the stage to deliver his contribution. He started by asking permission to speak on a topic outside the ambit of the debate. He then announced that he represented the Dogma 95 group, read their manifesto aloud and after he had finished, he cast red pamphlets featuring the manifesto text into the audience. He then left the theatre. Later on, when he was contacted by journalists eager to hear more, he declared – in the style of the youth section of the Danish Communist Party – that he had the group’s permission to present the text but not to discuss it.
The dogma text is presented as a ’rescue bid’ (in a clear if unstated reference to Truffaut’s famous article from 1954 “Une certaine tendence du cinéma français”), which aims to counteract ’certain tendencies’ in modern film. Dogma 95 rejects both the bourgeois theory of auteur (i.e., the notion that the film director is the prime creator), as well as the concept of film as a work of illusion. According to the manifesto, film art can be saved by adopting two strategies: 1) by making films with directors who reject the role of artist and remain anonymous, and 2) by following 10 rules of production. The goal of the latter strategy, also known as the Vow of Chastity, is to combat predictable plots, superficial action and cosmetic technological trickery, in other words all the illusionary razzmatazz that is so dominant in film today. The purpose of the Dogma’s Ten Commandments is to show us the way to an alternative film art by promoting certain technical/aesthetic procedures, thus guaranteeing suitable resistance to conventional production processes in a number of fundamental areas.
Since that time, the rule that everything must be filmed on Academy 35mm format has been lifted (both Dogma 1, The Celebration, and Dogma 2, The Idiots, were recorded on video). Subsequently, however, it was decided that all films should be distributed on 35mm, with the rather curious postscript that the director’s name must not appear in the credits (conforming to the last stipulation of the Vow of Chastity, i.e. ’I am no longer an artist’). The latter rule is more of a self-ironic joke than anything else. The important thing is still to find artistic liberation in cinematic/technical asceticism and rebel against dominant mainstream film making (especially Hollywood) with its preoccupation with genres and special effects and its worshipping of the golden calf of commercialism. In a Dogma film, no one can hide behind special effects. The truth will out: ’My highest goal is to compel the truth from both my characters and settings.’
The Dogma manifesto, signed by Trier and Thomas Vinterberg (but mostly based on Trier’s ideas), as well as the happening in the Odéon theatre, were received as a humorous provocation, an ironic event á la Trier. But the best part of the joke was that Trier and Vinterberg were in earnest. The basis of the manifesto was that film was celebrating its 100th anniversary and that there had not been a collective, manifesto-like declaration from the film world since the 1960s. (Trier however had introduced his Europa trilogy with manifestos.) If one looks carefully at the intellectual ballast of the Dogma movement, one can clearly discern connections to a number of earlier proposals that also featured a series of rules and principles. The first practical attempt to bind film production to a series of hard and fast rules came about in the 1920s when Dziga Vertov, one of the major figures in Russian revolutionary film, during the silent period, began producing an endless stream of manifestos. In a series of short energetic texts, he wrote off all film drama as bourgeois and old-fashioned and promoted instead the sort of political, non-narrative propaganda films that he was producing himself: ’Film drama is the opium of the people. Down with the immortal kings and queens of the big screen! Long live ordinary mortals who are occupied with their normal jobs! Down with kitchen sink dramas: film us in unexpected ways just as we are,’ is how he put it in his Preliminary Guide to the Kinoglaz Circle (1926). In addition, his manifestos encouraged filmmakers to use ’fast transport, film with a high light-sensitivity, light hand-held cameras and appropriate lighting equipment’. During the post-war period, Italian neo-realism also turned its back on the Hollywood style. Instead of glamour, its devotees created a cinema based on amateur actors, authentic locations and stories based on examining the banalities of everyday life as presented in screenwriter Cesare Zavattini’s program ’Alcune idee sul cinema’ (Some Ideas on the Art of Film, 1952).
A few years later, a number of young French filmmakers began to develop their own alternative to Hollywood, in what by 1959-60 became known as ’la nouvelle vague’. This new wave – led by François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol – never produced an independent manifesto. Nonetheless, they were heavily influenced by a famous manifesto written by Alexandre Astrucs called the ’Naissance d’une nouvelle avant-garde: La caméra-Stylo’ (The Birth of a new Avant-Garde: The Camera as Pen, 1948), in which Astrucs argued ’that film must become the most comprehensive and most accessible language imaginable’. But the practical application of New Wave techniques was in itself a declaration and broke with the previous generations’ acceptance of a literary and conformist approach to cinema. The New Wave directors created spontaneous informal films that broke with all the old conventions about editing and traditional acting. Of these, Godard’s A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) stands out as the central masterpiece. However, this process of rejuvenation was not confined to France. In West Germany, a group of young directors broke with tradition by publishing the so-called Oberhausen manifesto in 1962. Ironically, the 26 directors who created this manifesto (including Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz) would not be the ones to fully realize the concepts put forward in the document. Instead, a group of new more talented directors would emerge during the 1970s, for example, Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders: ’This new cinema needs to develop new forms of freedom: freedom from industrial conventions and from the commercial interference of the establishment…The old cinema is dead. We believe in the new.’
BACK TO LUMIÈRE. Much of the thinking behind Dogma 95 is owes a debt to previous movements. It can be roughly described as an anti-establishment reaction (similar to Vertov, la nouvelle vague and Oberhausen), as well as an initiative to counter the ’bourgeois’ entertainment film and the superficial action film (Vertov and the Oberhausen Group). Dogma aims to pursue reality, the unembellished truth, the genuine and the real (Neo-realism, the New Wave). Dogma 95 can in fact be regarded as a kind of cinematic fundamentalism, a back-to-nature movement, an attempt to return to the cinematic innocence and simplicity of the Lumières, a time when the gardener got sprayed with water and workers simply left their factory. It is all about liberation through renunciation.
This explanation only stretches so far, however, especially when one considers the work of that other great film pioneer, Méliès. His films prove that trickery and special effects are just as original and just as fundamental a part of film art as the realism of the Lumières. But the most telling philosophical weakness in the argument is the fact that the most logical but paradoxical consequence of Dogma’s initiative to spurn technology would involve elimination of the camera itself. In other words, if we are intent on getting rid of all the technical aids which are employed to make films, why should we spare the most dominant? The camera is the object that is most contrary to the natural order! And what about the actors? Why should the locations and the props be authentic when the people – i.e., the actors – are not? No explanation is forthcoming. Since Dogma is designed to be taken as religious doctrine, a set of rules that one follows but does not question, this aspect of the argument remains teasingly hidden within Dogma 95 – because there is in fact a direct conflict between the dogmatic and the innovatory sides of the movement.
It is obvious that if the quest for a ’true’ picture of reality is carried to its conclusion, then logically not only would the actors need to be dropped, but also the entire fictional process of film making, in the spirit of Vertov, documentarism à la French cinéma vérité, the English Free Cinema and the American Direct Cinema. Alternatively, one could pursue a method similar to that employed in the television series An American Family (1973), where cameras followed the lives of a Californian family for a whole year. In other words, this would be akin to an early version of the reality show or reality soap, which was so prevalent on television during the 1990s. The Idiots owes a debt to this type of authentic reporting, which can be described as a kind of sociological documentarism focused on human behavior. One could even go so far as to compare the film’s visual style – its grainy hand-held video recordings, its lack of aesthetic quality with lamps and camera barely out of sight or occasionally on screen – with Ed Powers’ home video documentary-style sex films.
However, the whole point of Dogma 95 is not to emulate documentarism, since this would make it appear conventional rather than innovative. Dogma aims instead to challenge the conventions of the fiction film in order to create a dialectic relationship between fiction and the search for truth. In this respect, it is expressing the same tendencies evident as far back as neo-realism, a movement that also sought to banish the art of illusion and replace it with a truthful portrayal of reality within the bounds of fiction.
WHO DARES TO SPAZZ? The greatest success of Dogma 95 – and the movement really has enjoyed a surprising degree of recognition – is that it managed to force the film world to take its quasi-religious set of rules seriously as a new innovative artistic method. Not only that, it also caught the imagination of the general public. This is surprising, because there is no shortage of low-budget films which do not look much different from Dogma films. Recent Danish examples include Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher (1996), Anders Rønnow-Klarlund’s Den Attende (The Eighteenth, 1996) and Jonas Elmer’s Let’s get lost (1997). Not since Cassavete’s Shadows (1960) and Husbands (1970) and Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984), have low-budget films been considered to be groundbreaking examples of film art. Nor can one say that the public has ever expressed much interest in the technical details of low-budget movies. There cannot be too many ordinary cinema-goers who deliberately seek out a film because it has been made with a hand-held camera without the use of artificial light. Nonetheless, the dogma rules have received a lot of attention from both the public and the film industry – so much so that Zentropa has had to set up a special Dogma office to handle inquiries. A number of non-Danes have also opted to make Dogma films, e.g. Jean-Marc Barr with Lovers (1999) and Harmony Korine with Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), although without attracting any great critical success.
There have been a number of international articles and even conferences on the subject. Perhaps this is because Dogma has suggested how films can be made outside the Hollywood tradition and all its big-budget machinery. Dogma offers a new more optimistic model that is particularly relevant for small film nations and especially stimulating to young artists. In Denmark, meanwhile, the word ’dogma’ has become a part of ordinary people’s vocabulary. Apart from anything else, this has been a wonderful piece of marketing. Usually it takes an enormous amount of effort and large sums of money to establish a marketing slogan as a household word. But now, the word seems to have taken on a life of its own. We now hear debates featuring new hybrids such as dogma architecture, dogma theatre and dogma literature. One is forced to ask the question: how has Dogma managed to achieve such phenomenal success without actually offering methods that are either particularly new or original. A number of factors have contributed to this success. One of them is Trier’s standing as a pioneer in European avant-garde cinema and his undoubted ability to attract publicity. Another factor is the inherent challenge contained in the Dogma manifesto itself. It throws down the gauntlet to all filmmakers who read it, challenging them to follow the examples provided by the Dogma group. This is analogous to the typical schoolboy game of daring others to follow one’s example.
The Dogma manifesto demands aesthetic purification, as well as a production-side heavily influenced by ascetic criteria, in other words, an approach that lends itself to the making of low-budget films, even though this is never expressly stated. The Dogma movement is an invitation to play a game that has some pretty strange rules. Dogma is enjoyable in the same way that children’s games such as blindman’s buff or bobbing for apples are enjoyable. The fun is produced by restraining the participants. Dogma rules dictate that the filmmaker abandon using a large part of film’s technological arsenal. This can be compared to spending a holiday in the reconstructed Iron-age village at Lejre near Copenhagen. Try surviving a week without the modern conveniences of the last thousand years and see what happens!
Then of course there is the packaging. The whole Dogma concept has been deliberately clothed in ironic, quasi-religious imagery. Of course, the word dogma is itself a religious term and the Vow of Chastity is a clear reference to the vows taken by members of religious orders. In fact, all the ideas behind the Dogma rules are inspired by religion. Even the way it proscribes Hollywood techniques – technical miracles and trickery contra the ascetic fundamentalism of the Dogma films – is like a faint echo of the old battle between Protestant starkness and Catholic ornament.
PRODUCTION. The Dogma 95 movement is a direct result of the 1995 manifesto. Besides Trier and Vinterberg, its membership list includes: Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, best known for gentle, warm-hearted films for children and young people (including the 1981 masterpiece, Gummi Tarzan); Kristian Levring, who makes TV commercials; and documentary filmmaker Anne Wivel, who left the group soon after joining. The initial Dogma project, which included the production of four films, received personal assurances of support from the former Danish Minister of Culture, Jytte Hilden. Her ministerial high-handedness – she had sidestepped official procedures by promising Dogma funding – created opposition in the Danish Film Institute. Shortly after these promises of support, Hilden was replaced as Minister of Culture – though for other reasons – and the ministry did not feel it was duty-bound to respect any personal commitments she had made. The project, however, was saved by the Danish national broadcasting service (DR TV) and its director, Bjørn Erichsen. Without even being allowed to read the screenplays, he provided the funding the films needed in exchange for their broadcasting rights. The Idiots, which was more expensive than the other two Dogma films, cost around 14 million Danish crowns, one million of which came from the Danish Film Institute and 3.7 million from DR TV. The Dogma brethren kept in touch with each other during the next few years as their projects developed. They discussed in particular the difficulties of keeping to the strict demands laid down by the Dogma rules. Celibacy in theory and celibacy in practice are two quite different things. By 1998 however, the first two films had been completed. Certificates were issued and signed by the members of the group. They were proof that Dogma 1 (The Celebration) and Dogma 2 (The Idiots) had been ’produced in compliance with the rules and intentions set forth in the Dogma 95 Manifesto’. In 1999, Dogma 3 (Mifune) was premiered. In 2000, Dogma 4 (The King Is Alive) was released. These four films, according to rumor, were directed by Thomas Vinterberg, Lars von Trier, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen and Kristian Levring, in that order. Of course, in keeping with the tenets of the Vow of Chastity, the directors have never been specified.
DOGMA 1: THE CELEBRATION. Already as a very young man Vinterberg showed remarkable talent and sensitivity with films such as Sidste Omgang (Last Round) from 1993, Drengen der gik baglæns (The Boy who Walked Backwards, 1994) as well as, to a lesser degree, his first feature-length film De største helte (The Greatest Heroes, 1996). Vinterberg proved that he was able to adapt and develop what has been called the Danish realist tradition. All the same, The Celebration was such a huge and unexpected success that it must have come as rather a shock for the young filmmaker. After winning at Cannes, accolades have rained down on the young director. In Danish film, which has not always enjoyed so much success abroad, a period of soul-searching usually follows the big flops, when everyone asks what went wrong. In the case of The Celebration, one has to ask, what on earth was it that went so right. The answer must have something to do with the film’s unique combination of plot, casting and virtuoso cinematography. The story is about a son’s unmasking of his demonic father at a birthday celebration in his honor. It is told as a classic Aristotelian drama with strict observance of the unity of time, place and action, producing a powerful cinematic experience. The film is in fact based on an allegedly true story stemming from a radio broadcast in 1996. A young man suffering from AIDS had told guests in a speech he made at his father’s birthday party how his father has sexually abused both him and his twin sister when they were children (the sister had later committed suicide). The film starts with the main character wandering down a country road. It is summertime and the Danish landscape looks idyllic. But then the celebration starts. Of course, the screenplay could have been written as a classical piece of theatrical film art. Even though the subject matter – a family dispute – lends itself to theatrical treatment in the tradition of Swedish playwrights such as Strindberg and Norén, Vinterberg does not take this approach. Instead, we are treated to a continuous flow of visual imagery created by the inquiring, all-intrusive camera; a camera which tirelessly peels back all the hypocrisy to reveal the family’s terrible secret. In accordance with the tenets of Dogma 95, the truth is finally revealed despite all the obstacles. In this respect, the film’s cinematographic form matches the narrative project. It is also worth mentioning the performance of the actors: they are given the opportunity to ’become’ their characters to a degree which normal film making usually prevents. At the end of the day, it is really the actors’ film. They all shine as Natural Born Actors under the indiscernible control of their anonymous director.
DOGMA 2: THE IDIOTS. Dogma 95 acknowledges its connection to the French New Wave, even though it criticizes the faults of the French movement in its attempts to revolutionize film at the beginning of the 1960s. One of the favorite themes of the French New Wave was the examination of individuals – or often a group – who have set themselves apart from normal middle-class conventions. This applies to Godard’s anarchistic anti-hero in A bout de souffle, and it applies to the unconventional love affair in Une femme est une femme (1961) and in Bande à part (1964), and it also encompasses – with an increasing political awareness – the couple in Pierrot le fou (1965). This theme is also apparent in Truffaut’s film oeuvre, regarding the gang of young boys in his short film Les mistons (1957), the two boys who skip school in Les quatre cents coups (1959), and the menage à trois in Jules et Jim (1961). As for Chabrol, this theme appears with the young people in Les cousins (1959) and Les bonnes femmes (1960). This is pretty close to the theme that The Idiots has returned to, i.e. an anarchistic gang of bums who run around, play games and experiment more or less for the fun of it. The Idiots is an experiment about people’s need for freedom and restrictions. Although the film is bound by the tenets of the Dogma rules, the same rules release it from the conventions of normal film making.. The aesthetic methodology is reflected in the plot, which includes a parallel experiment with social norms. The game the ’Idiots’ play is both anarchistic and rule-bound. They abandon their own normality, but only in accordance with established rules. Once the old order has been eliminated, the new order begins to appear. In this respect, The Idiots has become the prototypical Dogma film. In The Celebration the Dogma technique is primarily a way to expand the actors’ range through the use of a continuous flow of imagery. In Kragh-Jacobsen’s Mifune, an energetic, moving story about the triumph of love, the Dogma technique is employed to liberate both the actors and the director. Dogma encourages the director to concentrate on the story and gives the actors a greater opportunity to develop their roles. The same could also be said about Levring’s The King Is Alive, which is about a bunch of tourists trapped in the Kalahari Desert, who spend their time rehearsing Shakespeare’s King Lear while waiting for rescue or death. This film, incidentally, facilitated the director’s return to film after a long career making commercials. It is only in The Idiots that we find consistency between the technical and the aesthetic basis of the film. The Idiots is the only film that has taken up the Dogma challenge. Does the teacher dare to spazz out in the art class? Does the returned wife dare to spazz out in the family home? Does Trier dare to spazz out with the language of film? In The Idiots, the group attempts to reach back to their original state, back to the original idiot that lies in all of us, just as Trier is attempting to rediscover film’s original art form. When the film explores and transgresses middle-class conventions regarding nudity and sex, it is an indicative expression of this theme. This matches the film’s transgression of norms and conventions regarding the art of film making itself.
Trier commented on this sense of doubleness in his diary, complaining about ’those damn Dogma rules’, while gushing enthusiastically: ’Hold on, you do this shit, you can set these things free. You can damn well do it.’ This is also the key to understanding the importance of the hand-held camera. Since the 1960s, the hand-held camera – as a stylistic feature – has usually been confined either to expressing intense feeling in a character (subjective camera) or to reporting demonstrations or rioting (political documentarism). In Dogma films, its role has been expanded to become an all-intrusive tool, untiringly seeking out the truth, which despite all the odds must be revealed. This is in accordance with the vows taken by the members of Dogma and The Celebration is the best example of this method. However, it is also used to mark a conscious abandonment of formalist control over the image and image composition (framing). Instead, the camera can be pointed directly at the action itself, the characters’ interactions and the location (The Idiots). ’Composition – that’s when you are interested in the framing of the images, but if all you do is point the camera, this means you are interested in the content. (…) When you compose a picture, this usually means you want to take control. But if you are able to forget this for a second and try to work yourself into the image and figure out what’s going on in the center of it, then you should be able to sense where the action is and point directly at it…’
However, it is important to bear in mind that although Dogma shares ideas with a number of earlier movements and initiatives, and represents a turning point of sorts in Trier’s own production, it is primarily rooted in Trier’s own work. His previous films were also made under sets of rules – especially internal ones – and he has produced a number of manifestos, some more cryptic than others. As far back as Epidemic, Trier has experimented with his own brand of cinematic ascetics, dictated by the ascetics of a tight budget. (Epidemic is also an early example of Trier’s attempt to wrest control over the entire process of filmmaking: he was director, writer, actor and photographer.) The film was also shot on authentic locations by the director himself. It is worth mentioning too the bizarre restrictions that applied to the making of Dimension and the theatre performance called Verdensuret (The World Clock). In The Kingdom, Trier discarded lighting and conventional editing in most scenes to simplify film production. He filmed Breaking the Waves with hand-held cameras and there were occasional blurred images even though it was a major international production. With The Idiots, these stylistic features became elevated to the status of dogma under the auspices of the Vow of Chastity. These restrictions have also marked the Dogma brethren’s single collective project, D dag (D Day, 2000). Furthermore, this stylistic influence is also apparent in Dancer in the Dark (2000). Even though it is definitely not a Dogma film and breaks nearly all the Dogma rules, Dogma is everywhere apparent in the intense acting and the use of hand-held cameras, two of Dogma’s chief stylistic characteristics.
The development of Trier’s work can be regarded as the development of cinematic expression via artistic and technical liberation. It corresponds to his efforts to demystify film production for ordinary people (initiatives such as Film Town, armybase.com and 101 StormTroopers). In contrast to his image as an egocentric loner in Danish cinema, Trier has also become a personality who generously inspires others and rallies other artists to a cause.
IDIOCY AND CONTROL. Thematically, The Idiots can be divided into two dominant tendencies, a satirical tendency and a sentimental tendency. The satirical tendency is expressed in the racy comedy that, in true classical fashion, makes fun of the hypocrisy and snobbery of the middle-class. The sentimental tendency is apparent in the romantic premise that there is such a thing as positive primitiveness – to which ’idiots’ and sensitive women seem to have affinity. The most attractive qualities of The Idiots are its boldness, energy and cheekiness, which combine to give the project the form of a personal statement. The mature Trier has returned to the Danish suburb (Lyngby) of his youth, without losing any of his anarchism or his satirical thirst for revenge. Just as the film reminds us of the social and political experiments of the 1970s, it can also be seen as Trier’s ironical return to the persona of his youth. The decadent pathos of the earlier period has been replaced by artistic maturity but – as the diary reveals – the lonely and tortured youth has not disappeared: ’And there’s some game or other that little Lars from some class or other has staged, and it won’t ever come to anything because deep deep deep down you know that you are one hundred and ninety thousand per cent lonely in your own itsy-bitsy, stupid, idiotic, humiliating world.’
Trier regards The Idiots as ’the truest and most genuine thing (he has) made’. The film also flirts ironically with documentarism with its documentary style interviews of the characters that are included in the narrative. ’It is wonderful how the Dogma rules have managed to chuck out aesthetics,’ comments Trier at one point, but he also remarks that aesthetic considerations return more or less automatically. This paradoxical situation also applies to artistic control. Trier has described Dogma 95 and The Idiots as an attempt to relinquish control. Nevertheless, artistic control is an unavoidable factor in Trier’s universe. In effect however, despite all its apparently improvised scenes and camerawork – much of which resembles out-takes from a home movie – the film is, at heart, just as formalistic as Europa, where every shot was planned down to the last detail. If this proves anything, it is that Trier cannot completely break free of his own nature. Trier apparently acknowledges this fact himself when he writes in his diary that: ’It is of course a film that is not nearly as calculated as ’Breaking’ but nonetheless much, much, much more calculated.’
The screenplay was written before filming started. Hardly any of the improvised scenes made it into the final film and Trier personally carried out 90 per cent of the video filming. All this despite the fact that Dogma’s tough restrictions emanated from Trier himself. In the end, artistic control was never relinquished, regardless of whether the ‘official’ director was Lars von Trier or a person not credited at all.
DOGMA 3: MIFUNE’S LAST SONG. In the diary he kept while making The Idiots, Trier speculated that Søren Kragh-Jacobsen would be the one who had the hardest time ’swallowing the whole concept.’ The strange thing is that without diverging from the Dogma restrictions, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen has managed to make a film that is unmistakably his own work. Mifune is his second film for adults and resembles in many ways his first, Isfugle (Kingfishers, 1983). Between these two films, he has made some of the best (including the best) Danish films for children and young people, i.e. Gummi Tarzan (Rubber Tarzan, 1981), Skyggen af Emma (Emma’s Shadow, 1988), and Drengene fra Sankt Petri (The Boys of St. Peter’s, 1991). Mifune’s two brothers, the city slicker (Anders W. Berthelsen) and his retarded brother (Jesper Asholt), closely resemble the odd couple in Kingfisher, i.e. a smart guy and a dumb guy. Kingfisher was a beautiful film, which – along with films such as Malmros’ Aarhus trilogy with Kundskabens Træ (The Tree of Knowledge, 1981) as the main work; Bille August’s Honning Måne (Honey Moon, 1978) and Maj (May, 1982); and Morten Arnfred’s Mig og Charly (Me and Charly, 1978) and Johnny Larsen (1979) – represents the core of the sensitive humanistic cinema which has characterized Danish cinema since the 1970s. These films are full of morose Danish characters suffering from a sort of all-pervasive sense of doom and despair. The cinematography is meticulous, the colors are muted, and the acting is very low key. Today’s films call for more vitality and Mifune certainly delivers this. In terms of its plot, it includes, oddly enough, many of the same elements as The Celebration and The Idiots. Like them, it has a prodigal son returning to his father’s house, where a variety of skeletons can be heard rattling in the cupboard. The film even features a genuine idiot as well as a female figure of redemption. Just like in the old days, female contact is still considered to provide resolution to male obsessions. Fortunately, some sort of equality exists today. The woman too has her traumas and they also need to be resolved. In this case, mutual redemption is the solution for both characters and this makes for excellent melodrama. And Mifune is an unashamedly melodramatic film. The film’s main location, on the island of Lolland, represents in many ways a perverse caricature of the idealized Danish farm immortalized in the books of Morten Korch (1876-1954). Korch was a popular writer whose novels, which were set in the Danish countryside, were turned into a number of successful films. For many, his books represent all that is worst in popular taste. Interestingly enough, Trier was executive producer for a tongue-in-cheek TV series based on these sentimental stories (Morten Korch, 1999-2000).
Nevertheless, Kragh-Jacobsen’s treatment of Korch’s typical rural settings is not especially sarcastic. And Mifune ends up trumpeting a number of good old-fashioned truisms, i.e. that city life is false and unfulfilling, orgasms are scary and a little impersonal, and of course the oldest chestnut of them all, that happiness comes from a commitment to the family, the land, true love and maintaining the family farm.
It is interesting that the Dogma method can also produce a film that is so traditional. There is, of course, nothing in Dogma 95 that actually insists on a shaky picture. The hand-held camera may just as easily be held by someone who has arms as steady as a rock. This is the general impression one gets from Mifune. The cinematography is beautiful, almost classical. The influence of Dogma rules are only apparent in the occasional high-contrast shot, where the lack of adequate lighting has made itself felt. All the same, it seems as if Dogma has forced Kragh-Jacobsen to abandon his tendency to produce pretty pictures and play it safe. In Mifune, the diabolical is given free rein and naked emotion is center stage.
D DAY. The original plan was that Thomas Vinterberg would make a film about life in Denmark with Bo Erhardt from Nimbus as producer. Trier was persuaded to join the project and it developed into a joint TV production called D dag (D Day 2000), aimed at marking the new millennium and involving all the Dogma brethren. It was Trier’s idea to turn it into a kind of TV play in real life, broadcast live with actors directed via earpieces. Vinterberg thought up the idea of creating an interactive film, which allowed the audience to zap between the different narrative threads as presented by the announcer. As the public were told, the film ’tells the story of four people who meet up at the dawn of the new millennium to carry out a plan they have worked on. This is where you come into the picture. If you have a remote control you can produce your own film. This is what you have to do: You can follow each of these characters on their own channel (…), so you can decide yourself what you would like to watch and when. One thing is certain: no one will watch exactly the same film.’
All four interconnected films were recorded and directed live on New Year’s Eve (between 11:05 pm and 12:15 am). The four Dogma members were located in the control room (Kragh-Jacobsen, Vinterberg, Levring in Tivoli, Trier in the Open Film Town), each directing their own main character/actor and film crew by remote control as they made their way around downtown Copenhagen on the last night of the millennium. Even though the screenplay was sketchy and the dress rehearsal had been a disaster, the actors bravely threw themselves into the project, which they played as part improvisation, part party game. Each main character represented a narrative string (and one long unedited shot), which was woven together to create a single story about a bank heist. Thomas Vinterberg directed the part about the neurotic explosives expert, Niels-Henning (Nikolaj Kopernikus). Lars von Trier was responsible for the storyline centered on the vengeful wife, Lise (Charlotte Sachs Bostrup), who joins the heist to uncover her husband’s infidelity (the husband is played by Stellan Skarsgård). Søren Kragh-Jacobsen followed the banker, Boris (Dejan Cukic), whose pushy friend (Jesper Asholt) ends up with all the money. Finally, Kristian Levring directed Niels-Henning’s friend Carl (Bjarne Henriksen), who has to send his girlfriend (Helle Dolleris) away as well as calm down a potential suicide victim. The four films – each of which lasts 70 minutes after minimal editing – were broadcast during prime time by seven different Danish channels on January 1, 2000. The distribution was as follows: Kragh-Jacobsen on DR1, Vinterberg on TV2, Levring on TV3 and Trier hidden away on the low-budget channel, TvDanmark 1. In addition, all four films appeared in split-screen format on TV3+. Two further channels, DR2 and TvDanmark 2, showed footage from the control room filmed by Jesper Jargil, who was responsible for video recording the project from start to finish. Trier would have preferred a technique that allowed more improvisation. He visualized something like an experimental puppet show, where the directors – like a team of multi-players in a computer café – could compete against each other and the puppets could turn against their masters. However, a more organized system was chosen, which meant that most scenes were pre-arranged. Nonetheless, there were a number of unexpected developments during filming, including Bjarne Henriksen’s decision to chain Charlotte Sachs Bostrup to a filing cabinet during the bank raid. After several desperate orders (not least from the director, Levring), she was released. It was not in the screenplay and would have undermined another part of the story, as Sachs Bostrup was scheduled to play a big confrontational scene with Stellan Skarsgård only a few minutes later at another address. This episode suggested how chaotic things could get if the ’puppets’ really decided to revolt. There were also technical and communication glitches. Trier was unable to inform Sachs Bostrup that she was to slap her sister for instance. The sister escaped unscathed and this made it more difficult for the audience to make any sense out of the mysterious letter ’D’ in the calendar (the sister’s name was Dorte, but this is mentioned nowhere in the film).
COMPLEMENTARITY. There a number of earlier examples of such a complimentary narrative in the history of fiction, where a narrative is split into different points of view that the reader/viewer must sort out in order to produce a complete story. In literature, there is Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet (1957-60) and Jan Kjærstad’s trilogy about Jonas Wergeland, which starts with Forføreren (The Seducer, 1993). In the theatre, Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests (1973, TV-version 1977), offers another good example. It is also a trilogy and explores the story of a disastrous family weekend from the point of view of the people in the dining room, the living room and the garden. In cinema, there is André Cayatte’s La vie conjugale (1963), which tells the story of a marriage from the point of view of the two spouses. This is also the case in Warris Hussein’s two TV films, Divorce His/Divorce Hers (1973), which present a divorce from each partner’s point of view. The actors, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, probably did not have to do much background research. However, all the examples mentioned so far concern the filming of alternative variations of a story that the viewer can compare and eventually combine. This also holds true for Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon (1950), which presents four different and conflicting versions of a story. Since then, other attempts have been made i.e. Kieslowski’s Przypadek (1987), Peter Howitt’s Sliding Doors (1998), and Tom Tykwer’s Lola rennt (Run Lola Run, 1998). Each of these films presents several hypothetical variations of a storyline.
The advent of interactivity, however, produced a revolutionary change in complementarity. Now the audience can also participate. The first film to use this new technique was a German production called Mörderische Entscheidung (Murderous Decision, 1991), a sensational crime thriller by Oliver Hirschbiegel. It took the form of two parallel TV movies, one of which told the female lead’s story while the other concentrated on the male lead’s narrative. The two TV movies were broadcast simultaneously on two German channels, ARD and ZDF, allowing the viewer to skip back and forth between the two: ’Umschalten erwünscht’ or ’Skip channel?’ as the subtitle put it. Similar developments have occurred in other media. Julio Cortázar’s 1963 novel Rayuela is a noteworthy forerunner. It advises readers to read the chapters in two different sequences. Then there is Svend Åge Madsen’s Tilføjelser (Appendices, 1967), a novel consisting of a cassette tape and five small volumes, which the reader can arrange and combine at will. Besides this, there are also previous experiments mentioned earlier in this article i.e. John Krizanc’s play Tamara and Trier’s own theatrical experiment Verdensuret.
THE PROBLEM OF INTERACTIVITY. Around 1.5 million Danes watched D dag, putting it on a par with other big successes in Danish television. On the other hand, there were no real alternatives to the film during the 70 minutes it was aired. There was no shortage of pre-publicity either. Trier’s film crew was met by a crowd in Copenhagen’s Central Station chanting ’Dogma film! Dogma film!’ But, the general feeling afterwards was that the experiment had been more of a curiosity than a success. Some of the problems had to do with the films’ technical and aesthetic construction. There were too many long boring shots of empty streets and too many scenes where nothing much happened. For instance, people were shown running back and forth beside the bank without any apparent motivation. Gaps between the entertaining scenes were simply too long. However, there were a number of watchable scenes, e.g. when Kopernikus enters the hotel room just as a couple are trying to produce a baby or when Bjarne Henriksen, after being informed that Mr. Trier is not to be disturbed, has comical problems with the man who has decided to kill himself unless Bjarne can immediately find him a woman. And Tommy Kenter is good as the unhappy drunk who has lost hope of getting laid on New Year’s Eve. The most effective scene was Trier’s closing scene, but then again it had been carefully worked out beforehand in the screenplay.
The main problem however had to do with the use of interactivity as an artistic method. Viewers can only watch one thing at a time and that choice limits their enjoyment of the rest. When you choose to see one scene, you are simultaneously opting out of watching three others without really knowing what it is you are missing. You cannot judge what is significant and what is irrelevant. And this is fatal because the whole drama is based on a strict chronological order of events, that makes all choices definitive (unless of course you tape all four movies and review them later). If Hamlet were narrated in this way, you might easily miss out on the ghost scene and end up watching Ophelia filing her nails instead. One possible defense of the method would be to point out how much it resembles the way events occur in real life. In the real world, we usually make choices for keeps and we often have to make decisions without knowledge of any alternatives or even knowing what the consequences might be. In real life, decisions are often repented (divorce figures testify to that), but no one has yet found a way to turn the clock back and relive events. That is how reality is put together, but art does not have to confine itself to reflecting this. One of the chief attractions of fiction is that it allows us to experience continuity and significance liberated from the trivialities, the tedium and the bad choices of real life. There is a significant difference between choices made in the real world and choices in the world of art. Perhaps D dag indicated that interactivity is little more than a cinematic dead end, but it was an interesting experiment and one that explored the use of new production methods. With Dimension, Trier shot the slowest recording in film history (approx. 90 minutes in 30 years). In contrast, D dag must hold the record for the fastest film ever made, i.e. roughly four and a half hours of low-budget TV, which – thanks to new logistic, administrative and technical methods – was broadcast live for 70 minutes.
Dogma 95 started as a Trier extravaganza, an ironic experiment aimed at being a sort of glorious spoof. Then, thanks to their innovative and stimulating approach to cinema, the first Danish Dogma films began to achieve success – way beyond initial expectations. Trier’s spoof was suddenly reassessed as a trailblazing new concept in film art. Its new goal was to explore new creative possibilities based on a method built upon tough technical restrictions, the liberation found in arbitrariness, and most of all the demystification of the cinematic process itself. This was not intended to apply only to Trier’s own personal methods, but was regarded as a contribution to the community of filmmakers across the globe. Dogma became a movement of liberation – with all the artfulness that implies