We are all sinners

The perfect Dogme film has not yet been made and cannot be made, for like many of the ten commandments of the Bible the Dogme-rules are impossible to abide to, says Lars von Trier. But the intentions are noble and it must then be up to the conscience of each individual how you approach the rules and whether you feel that you have abided to them

By Peter Rundle

Excerpts from an interview given by Lars von Triers in his office, Wednesday November 4th 1999.

You and the other three original Dogme-brethren have decided no longer to be the supreme judges of the coming Dogme-films. From now on the individual director must sign a solemn declaration that he or she has abided to the rules. Why?

“When we formed the committee of priests to approve or reject the films we realised that when the approval procedure is external – that is when it is not done by the director of the film – it quickly ends up being a question of cheating the committee, which really serves no purpose.”

In the same way that it can become a game cheating the tax man?

“Yes, apart from the fact that this is much easier and there is no punishment – other than possibly when you enter the life hereafter and Saint Peter’s last words are “You can come in – but it wasn’t a Dogme-film!” But we soon discovered that only the maker of the film has the information necessary to decide that. And many of the rules can’t be kept or are as impossible to keep as the commandment “Love your neighbour like yourself”. It’s not possible, but the intention is noble and how you choose to go about it is your own personal matter. So therefore it was very clear to us that it had to be a question of conscience whether or not you felt you had abided by the Dogme-rules. Also, we have other judges to that – the people who watch the films, and that suits me just fine.”

But if you are no longer the supreme judge, what do you want to tell aspiring Dogme-directors which they can’t already read in the Dogme-manifest and the vow of chastity?

“You can compare the change in the approval procedure to converting from Catholicism to Protestantism. We are now by definition sinners due to the fact that the rules cannot be kept. Our position must be that the perfect Dogme-film has not been made and probably never will be. The Manifest and The Vow of Chastity are the holy rules and this is my interpretation of the text, so to speak. I am not saying it is worth more than other people’s thoughts and that’s the whole point of these rules – they are a tool to be used freely.”

But why have the rules, if you can’t abide to them anyway?

“You can liken this game of Dogme to the sport of dressage. Dressage is not a particularly good means of transportation if it is only a question of moving quickly from A to B. It is a very clearly defined discipline which comprises a number of different rules, and if you want to use your horse for that purpose then it makes sense to keep within these rules – otherwise there is no point in the whole exercise. It’s the same thing with chess. And far be it from me to force anyone into either chess or dressage, but if you choose to do so yourself, in my opinion there is only one way: follow the rules. And if you like to think that this dressage or chess means something in the sense that people will be partaking in it for years to come, you build a community with people who are also interested in working within those rules. And for me the interesting thing is watching the various interpretations of the rules – maybe others will choose to attach importance to some new aspects.”

You have The Vow of Chastity in front of you – let’s hear how you chose to interpret the rules.

“One of the rules that was difficult for me to observe was the first one – the one about reality and fiction, how they meet. But it is also an exciting rule, because if you tell a man what to do in real life, to which extent is it reality and to which extent are you in control? I have interpreted the rule in that you cannot bring in props – if you are filming in a house, you use the furniture and props that are present in that house. If our fiction necessitates the use of a certain prop, we have to film where the prop can be found instead of moving the prop to where we would like to be.

In that respect Thomas Vinterberg has confessed to having built a reception desk but that it was built using components already present at the location. Was that a violation?

“Well, I myself have violated that rule to a much greater extent. The Idiots is about some people who move into this empty house and therefore I asked the actors to bring with them what they would imagine they themselves would bring if they were to move into an empty house. In that way we have already moved some props from their homes and out onto location and in that way it is against the rules – but at the same time I do find that there is a kind of logic in that transgression.”

In the sense that if the objective is to seek reality, in reality you wouldn’t be likely to find people moving into empty houses without bringing any belongings with them?

“Yes, so what I stressed in my interpretation was to refrain from any responsibility for those transgressions. I didn’t tell them what to bring – I didn’t ask for anything specific which was necessary for the story – that would have been a circumvention. It’s also a matter of making the actors responsible for their characters, so if they felt that their character would read a Donald Duck magazine, they would bring one themselves. It is clearly in conflict with the first rule but I felt that it would be in the Dogme-spirit to do so.”

“One of the most difficult things was that they had to eat while they were in this house, and that called for some shopping which I didn’t dictate either – but to do so we needed some money. So my circumvention in that respect was that we gave them money to do the shopping – we didn’t feel it was reasonable that the actors should actually have expenses from being in a Dogme-film. I discussed that at length with Thomas, and he felt it was completely wrong.”

What did he do himself?

“Well, he chose a place where they had the food already.”

Yes, but only to the extent that when they had eaten the food somebody had to buy some more.

“Yes, but if you look at the text, you could say that if you go somewhere and there is a roast of pork, it can be part of the story.”

You mention this as a confession, but my guess is that nine out of ten people will laugh at this bit and say: surely it’s not crucial to the film or the spirit whether it has taken place in your way or his – but that was what Thomas felt?

“We discussed it based on our individual interpretation of the rules. For me the most important thing about this whole Dogme-business was that we became focused on the characters and what they contained. Because of that I found that it was quite interesting that they went down to the supermarket themselves and did the shopping. It’s true that at one stage they did buy some things that were mentioned in the script – some caviar among other things.”

As a director you must also have to decide with yourself: What is for me the important thing about these rules – why are we using them at all?

“Certainly, and I happen to be a catholic myself – albeit not a very good one for I would say that the bit about being good to one another is more important than the bit about kneeling and praying in the church. So in my interpretation the important thing is that you can look yourself and other people into the face.”

“Then we reach what for me has been one of the most interesting aspects – rule number two which states that the sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. What makes it interesting is the fact that you have to make all the decisions on the spot. It is as if you were shooting the very first talk movies. Back then they had no possibility of mixing the sound afterwards, reproducing or using filters. That meant that the split second decided what the film would look like and the valuable effect of that is that you have to be very careful and thorough with what you are doing.”

“In effect you could say that many of the Dogme-rules have been designed to remove the safety net. And it is a safety net when you can soup up a scene with some beat-music – then at least the scene will have that value. You don’t have that possibility here. You have to decide beforehand what you want to use the sound for and how you are going to do it. And in applying that rule I know that I disagree strongly with the other Dogme-brethren. I believe, for instance, that if you increase or decrease the volume of the sound from a certain scene – and you do it afterwards – then it is reproduced. And to sound very holier-than-thou I have shot a lot of scenes mute – if we needed mute scenes. To change the level of the sound is completely wrong in my understanding. The idea is that each frame and the accompanying sound have been produced together and should not be changed afterwards.”

When I read that rule, I understood it to mean that the music was to have a natural function in the film. So that if you had a party, you would have an orchestra in the shot and they would be playing for real. But in several of the films there are scenes, where the music is simply background music performed by a musician standing behind the camera.

“I haven’t interpreted the rule that way – your interpretation is more severe than mine on that point. I also have scenes with music in them and we have recorded the music on location – a bit like the first talk movies. It’s interesting to discuss it, but for me the attractive thing about doing it this way is that it is difficult. For me as a director, it is extremely fun trying to add the music on the spot. Especially the moment when the music sets in and the emotional chords are engaged is a very important means of expression. And it was fun having a musician on the set and then having to communicate with him – it was a completely new discipline which I found interesting. But I admit that if you look at it from the point of realism, it is not very realistic.”

Then there are the rules about the hand held camera and the fact that the film must be in colour. I guess there isn’t a lot to say about that?

“Both yes and no – because what does hand held mean? If you are using a 35 mm camera it typically means shoulder mounted – and we actually constructed a shoulder mount for the small video-cameras. So you can discuss where the limit is with all the various ways you can attach a camera to a cameraman.”

“Regarding the rule about colour, that one was for me, because I have always felt it difficult to accept the way a colour film looks. I have always spent a lot of energy changing it one way or other, so I could bear looking at it, and therefore it was a wonderful rule for me. That’s the great thing about entering a convent: There are things that you simply can’t do, so you don’t have to worry about them.”

Optical work and filters are forbidden, it says, and this is where….

“…yes, apparently this is a rule that I seem to have broken. Some would argue that I must have been able to see that work had been done to The Idiots in the laboratory, but I must be very naïve in that respect. But why the hell should I be interested in that? My whole point was that it shouldn’t be necessary to use filters, and that is still my point.”

But the moment the film has been shot and it turns out there are certain scenes which have become so underexposed that the audience need infrared night-sight vision equipment just to see what is going on, what do you do? Do you simply chuck it out?

“You either chuck it out or you keep it – depending on what gives the best result. We have now re-edited the film in a new version, and there was a scene that was very dark, but then we just chose some other takes which weren’t so dark. When I saw the film in the second version it was a much more exciting film to watch. It’s true that in some scenes the light jumped back and forth, but that only made it more exciting – the scenes became more intense. And I would argue that the aesthetics in flattening out a scene completely are obsolete. So actually, I find these changes in light a big improvement – Dogme or no Dogme.”

One of the rules which off hand seems most unequivocal is the ninth commandment which states that the film format must be Academy 35 mm – but both The Idiots, The Celebration and The King and I have been shot on video. How does that figure?

“Yes, for me the rule simply says that the film must be shot on 35 mm film and in Academy which is a clearly defined format. But when you enter into a collective you have to submit to the collective, and I clearly remember that it was Søren Kragh – to wash my own hands and throw it at him – who felt it would be completely impossible for the poor cameraman to carry a 35 mm camera. I had to protest, of course. I believe at that time we had already shot Breaking The Waves using a moviecam, which is an extremely heavy camera and without any major problems. But then Søren made the smart move of interpreting the rule as referring to the distribution format. That the films, as he put it, could also be shot on 16 mm – the crucial factor was only that they were distributed on 35 mm. Because the rule doesn’t say what you have to use to shoot the film, it just says “The film format must be…” We then had a vote which showed three in favour of it being a distribution format and one against.”

“I shall refrain from telling who was against, but the opponent then said afterwards: If it is only a distribution format, then of course you can also shoot your film on video – that must be fairly logical. We agreed on that which, to be frank, has been hilarious and has given some radically different possibilities. Mainly it has made the process much cheaper which of course also pleases me. And it has led to a trend where people around the world have started making these cheap, cheap Dogme-films. They might not be completely according to the rules, but if it means that people who used to be limited by a notion of how a proper film should be, if those people now feel that they can make film – then I find that has a certain quality to it.”

But why did you make the rule about the film format in the first place?

“We wanted it to be film, because it is more difficult to manipulate with film than for instance video. The problem with video is that it gives you a thousand possibilities not covered by the rules. You can manipulate during the recording phase the same way that you can do it at a later stage using film – you can colour grade and other fantastic things. Therefore Thomas and I had a long discussion about our position on these matters – for instance white balance where we agreed on setting it to automatic. At least we then hadn’t made an aesthetic choice in using various white balances to give different tones of colour. Many of the rules are, after all, designed to rob the director of his power over these things, to make him concentrate on other things. To get something from the surroundings in stead of forcing it out of them. You can say that our decision to use video wasn’t a particularly noble one – I certainly don’t find that. If you make it a point of honour to go by the rules, naturally you shoot the film on Academy 35 mm using a 35 mm camera.”

“A question that isn’t covered by the rules at all is whether you can use several cameras. All of us – with the possible exception of Søren – have used several cameras but in doing that again you neutralise some of the other rules. Then you can choose to edit it like an OB-production without getting any problems with the sound jumping up and down – and then at a later stage make a lot of your decisions. The agreement between Thomas and myself was therefore that for each camera there should be one soundtrack. So that if you used several cameras you couldn’t treat the sound any way you wanted – you had produced one sound and one picture together in every camera and had to use them together.”

But if we accept that you are all sinners in the Dogme-sense of the word, are some sins worse than others?

Well, that is the question. Can I move a chair five centimetres? Because if I can move a chair five centimetres to be able to film you better, can Søren Kragh move a painters lift 200 meters to get a picture of a field? As a rule my position is that if it is calculated – and to a large extent his film is based on that picture – it is worse than if it just happens in the situation. My transgression, which I have confessed to countless times, that I used stand-ins in the sex-scene is also of a grave nature because it was essential for me to include that effect. Again this means that you are manipulating – that you want to control things instead of saying: This can’t be done and then it is nearer the truth not to do it. When both Søren and I – and to some extent Thomas – have tried to justify our transgressions with the fact that they were essential, it only makes it worse – it has been premeditated, so to say, and not a crime of passion.”

The last rule is the one about the director not being credited…

“Yes, the one about the director is a bit of a joke and of course somewhat provocative. Even if it’s bulls, I felt that it was quite noble to submit to the idea of the film being more important than whoever made it. I am sure that it was difficult to accept for many people that the name is not on the reel! It’s about seeking some form of truth – that this truth is more important than whatever honour it might give you later. It was the worst provocation you could make – I used to be rolling in credits myself.”

That was the tenth commandment – don’t you think that we’ve got through most of the potential problems?

Yes, I believe that was it – well, that is to say: I have moved a couple of candles closer to some people to get a better lighting….

Don’t you think we’re moving into…

… the small claims department?

Yes, or at least something that can be settled with a couple of Hail Mary’s to stay in the analogy?

Yes, or a couple of slaps around the face.