by Peter Øvig Knudsen
Is the purpose of both Dogma 95 and The Idiots to give up control?
“Yes, you couldn’t put it more precisely. Now you’ve pigeon-holed them. So we don’t need to talk any more …?
The film director Lars von Trier is not inclined to describe his artistic achievements in words; he would rather show clips and out-takes from his new Dogma film, The Idiots, about a group of young adults who move into a large empty house in a leafy suburb to “spass about”–i.e. act like spastics or idiots.
You are very pleased with the film?
“I am very pleased with the film. I tried to imbue it with life and lightness, and I’ve succeeded. Some people say it’s all very silly, and yes, that is exactly what it is. In some places, disastrously silly: malicious, foolish, and meaningless silliness. But the film contains other facets.”
“If you examine the history of the cinema the way I’m constantly doing, I’ve tried to seek some of the lightness and enjoyment possessed by the films I refer to with The Idiots: the French new wave, and what I call the Swinging London period–including the Beatles films where they ran through London carrying a giant iron bedstead. The new wave gave fresh air, and in the same way Dogma 95 has been designed to give fresh air, to regain lost innocence.”
With Breaking the Waves you wanted to make women cry, and you succeeded. What kind of reactions are you hoping for this time?
“The Idiots is a more complex, far weirder film, a film you ought to be amused and moved by, but also a bit disturbed by. The film contains a dangerousness because it juggles with the concept of normalcy, with the way we ought to and ought not to behave. And if one devalues rationality, the world tends to fall apart.”
Some people will be indignant about some scenes, but hardly about the film as a whole. For one of its features is that it keeps giving off contradictory signals”.
“In old-fashioned terms, you might say it is a more political film than I’ve made before. On the surface it is about our attitudes to the mentally handicapped and how much we appreciate them. At a deeper level it must appear to be in defence of abnormality.”
“The idea for The Idiots arose at the same time as the Dogma project. At one level the Dogma rules emerged from a desire to submit to the authority and the rules I was never given in my humanistic, cultural-leftist upbringing; at another level they express the desire to make something quite simple. In a normal film production you are hampered by having to make decision about and control an infinite number of things such as filters and colours. The Dogma rules basically say that you mustn’t do any of that.
You are responsible for the script, which states that it was “written 16th – 19th May 1997”. Surely you didn’t complete it in four days?
“Yes, I did. Actually it’s a phrase I got from the good Marquis de Sade, who wrote Justine in the Bastille in a fortnight, I believe it was. Of course I’d toyed with a couple of ideas beforehand, but I hadn’t written a single cue, and it was a wonderful feeling to just write away. I haven’t even reread it, as you can see in one place where a character has been given the wrong name for an entire scene”.
“In the past I spent years writing each script, but it was more Dogma-like to give up control. The whole idea is to shake the dust off yourself–or maybe “dust yourself off” sounds too easy; “cast off the burdens” is more like it. If you go on correcting a script you may lose your enthusiasm. It almost happened in this process, too, when we spent ages changing scenes and moving back and forth; but in the end we returned to the original, and the final version of the film is very close to the script. So unless The Idiots exudes enjoyment or at least the joy of film-making, the project will have failed completely”.
In your introduction to the script you write about “avoiding dramaturgy”?
“Yes, but then, it would be difficult to avoid breathing here in life. It’s a contradiction in terms, because no matter what choice you make, it’s dramaturgy. Dogma 95 contains a few impossible, paradoxical rules, but the same goes for religious dogmas, too.”
“The essence of my dramaturgical considerations is that I want to chuck out the most superfluous, habitual constraints and escape from rigidity, but at the same time film is a means of communication. Joyce also wanted to escape from rigidity, but it gradually grows difficult to communicate with others apart from yourself. I liked Ulysses very, very much, but Finnegan’s Wake is not easy; you have to command at least four or five languages and have considerable knowledge of the flora of different culture groups.”
Compared to the script, some of the scenes must have been improvised?
“Yes; I encouraged the cast to make up their own lines. Altogether, my initial approach was pretty nursery-school-like: “Come along, let’s see what you can do and feel like”. And of course everything ground to a halt, as many people have been forced to realise before me. Actors need bricks to play with, and in fact we rejected all the improvised fragments we had made without a plan. Improvisation without a plan is like tennis without tennis balls.”
“The do-as-you-feel-like approach also resulted in people taking a very relaxed view about turning up at work on time. The same applied to the idea that the crew would do its own cooking and house-keeping, which resulted in the worst manifestations of house-sharing: everything was a mess and got incredibly foul. So in the end I had to make the great “freedom with responsibility” speech.”
Did the spassing spread to when you weren’t shooting?
“In the weeks preceding shooting we worked a great deal on the spassing, and the cast became very fond of spassing. But gradually they simply got bored if they didn’t have to spass. And as an outsider, as time goes by you become quite unaffected by spassing, whereas at first it was pretty distracting to have someone drooling down your trousers”.
“The spassing bit finally functioned quite naturally, as did the nude scenes, which we had loads of. One morning I greeted the cast naked in the front drive and insisted that today was to be a nude day. No, we didn’t have any nudity problems.”
“In many ways the six weeks of shooting was the most intense film experience I’ve ever had. Also because I operated one of the cameras myself, and my own footage actually comprises eighty or ninety percent of the finished film. I was frantically geared up the whole time, and practically didn’t sleep at night.”
Lars von Trier clicks on the editing computer until he gets to footage of the two female leads in which he spends hours using therapeutic techniques to invoke authentic feelings of grief–while filming non-stop.
You once said you preferred having as little to do with actors as possible because otherwise they insisted on your playing the therapist. And what are you doing now …?
“Only a fool does not fear actors, but you can’t beat them, and if you can’t beat them, join them, as they say. As I’ve got older I’ve become very interested in that part of the work.”
Trier clicks forward to a “forest scene” to illustrate the consequences of the Dogma rules.
“During shooting it turned out that the Dogma rule that sound and picture must not be produced separately was a very interesting rule. In fact it was like this that the very first sound movies were made, but since then more and more of a virtue has been made of producing the two facets separately. The rule means–as I interpret it–that you are allowed to do nothing with the sound and picture after shooting: sound and picture hang together, and neither may be changed or moved afterwards. This means that we often edited according to the sound instead of the picture, because if you require a particular sound or cue, you have to use the picture that accompanies it, which has meant weirder pictures and peculiar differences in the intended result between the sound and picture sides.”
“In the forest scene we had put a mike up a tree to capture the ambient sound … it is like reinventing movie-making, don’t you see? Bring the ambience forward instead of the sound of the scene itself is a common, simple effect, but now it suddenly became difficult to achieve because the decisions had to be taken on the spot. A load of cinematic effects that otherwise seem easy or cheap to me suddenly become difficult again … can’t you hear that this is the only right way of doing it? I was thrilled to bits after that day in the woods. It was like returning to the poetry I encountered when I began making films as a child.”
There is also music in the scene–isn’t that cheating?
“No. We used a harmonica, the kind you could buy through Mickey Mouse Magazine in the old days, and simply installed the harmonica player where we had scenes with music. In the forest scene he stood in the forest with a microphone as we took the scene, and the sound engineer mixed the music and speech as we shot. When we do the closing credits tomorrow, he will play the same way while we are filming them. “ Trier clicks forward to the “skiing scene”.
“Another Dogma rule is that you mustn’t bring in props, but in the house we found some old skis, and we took them with us to the ski jump in Holte and shot a ski scene in midsummer–that’s Dogma in a nutshell. And the dogs you hear in the background now, I would normally have avoided, but all of a sudden they fit! But of course it is possible that I am the only person who can take pleasure in things like that.”
Do you also have a need to spass out the cream cake in the middle of afternoon tea in the closing scene?
“Oh, I think I’ve always done so. Tom Elling, my old cameraman, always talked about “the dirty trading stamps”. There are two kinds of stamp–the dirty ones and the decent ones–but the dirty ones are just as good–I mean the ones you get for negative coverage or behaviour.”
But the “idiot” and “spassing” theme goes well with the desire to lose control?
“Yes, that was my intention, but the film contradicts itself in a way, because the group does not succeed. Maybe it only works out for the lead, Karen, and that might be the moral of the film. My films have become highly moral recently.”
And the moral is …?
“The moral is that you can practise the technique–the Dogma technique or the idiot technique–from now to kingdom come without anything coming out of it unless you have a profound, passionate desire and need to do so. Karen discovers that she needs the technique, and therefore it changes her life. Idiocy is like hypnosis or ejaculation: if you want it, you can’t have it–and if you don’t want it, you can.”
Have you become more of an idiot through making this film?
“I don’t think that’s possible … No, it’s probably kind of like my own therapy: I sit there pouring out my woes year after year, coming up with one enormity after another about my mother and the way she let me down; but it doesn’t make me any the less fearful.”
Your films and your success have no therapeutic effect on you?
“I don’t feel they do, no. The last year has been more full of fear than ever before … but on the personal level, each of my films is a little monument … and this film has been a very cheap, if very tiring, monument. The genesis of these monuments becomes what life is all about, and so it’s hard to quit … it becomes an addiction of sorts.”