Seventeen years ago, two Danish filmmakers, Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, started a movement known as Dogme95—translated as ‘dogma,’ and the year of its birth, 1995. The movement quickly spread from Denmark to Argentina, the States, Switzerland, bringing to international attention a group of lo-fi avant-garde films that decided to counteract Hollywood by focusing on reworking narrative, rather than on technology. What follows are thoughts on the first Dogme film, interspersed with excerpts from Von Trier and Vinterberg’s Manifesto and Vow of Chastity.
7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden (that is to say the film takes place here and now).
Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme classic, Festen, is probably the film I think and talk about the most. I am by all accounts incredibly annoying in my fandom. So I was of course pleased to hear that Vinterberg’s new film, The Hunt, has recently been released. Not that I have much chance of seeing it any time soon, though, I live in a country where The Guard came out two years later under the title “A policeman’s happy hour,” so I imagine The Hunt will be released in 2016 and renamed “The pedo who wasn’t a pedo.”
2. The film must be in color. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera.)
The fact that Mads Mikkelsen’s character is apparently shown to be innocent right from the beginning of the movie is an interesting choice, since the subject of child molestation was portrayed so differently in Festen. In the latter film for most of the running time we aren’t sure if the father is guilty or if the son has made up the whole story of being molested. In the commentary track, Vinterberg explains that this forces us become intimate with a character that would normally be too repellent to approach. Throughout the film we are faced with characters whose ambiguities constantly force us to dig deeper, to release the tensions darkly coiled under the roof of a Danish stately home.
10. The director must not be credited.
It is tempting to keep on talking about Festen exclusively in terms character, but it is important to mention why this temptation is so strong. The film adheres to the Dogme95 vow of chastity, created by Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier as a method of freeing them of control by imposing a huge number of constraints upon their work. One of the most famous points of this vow dictates that one must not take directorial credit for the film, and Von Trier himself has commented that he viewed the rules as a method for stripping away his dictatorial directorial powers. Nothing extra, nothing altered: the camera must be handheld, no props are allowed, no lighting rigs, no music or sound/image manipulation. I heard Mayo and Kermode talk about Dogme while reviewing The Hunt last week, one of them commenting that the vow of chastity sounded authoritarian and ridiculous. Yes sirs, that is the point. Let the text dictate so humans don’t have to.
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa.
The greatest misunderstanding in relation to Dogme95 emerges from taking it too seriously, or at least from ignoring the actual films produced according to its rules. The manifesto constantly refers to truth and ways of achieving it, yet it would be naïve to believe that this amounts to some twee, earnest search for sincerity. Both Vinterberg and Von Trier have a dark sense of humour and irony, and the roughness of their early films does not eliminate artifice, but rather draws attention to it. We notice how grainy the image is, how strange the natural light looks on camera. The vow of chastity, I maintain, has a deeply ironic tone. But let me remind the reader that irony is no bad thing, it is not cynical or tired. The irony of Dogme is that you need to establish meaningless, arbitrary rules to create meaning. The trouble with sincerity is that it doesn’t want to be argued with. And everything deserves to be doubted.
5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
The common saying is that great art is born out of struggle. To make this statement less grandiose, we could say that great films must deal with the encroachment of real life concerns. The power of the early Dogme films derives from the constant problems and difficulties of filming according to those rules. They are strongly collaborative projects, open to the contingent in every frame. The grainy quality of the evening section of the film is simply due to the fact that they weren’t allowed to use lighting rigs, but the gradual disintegration of the picture coincides perfectly with the rising conflict within the house. The severity with which Vinterberg
treats the medium of film belies both the greatest awe and respect for the medium, and the necessity of bringing it in contact with another medium: theatre.
6. The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons etc. must not occur.)
At one level, the Dogme95 manifesto appears to advocate a school of filmmaking totally opposed to what some might call conventional drama: the categorical denial of “temporal and geographical alienation,” sets and props, all of which points to a documentary style that opposes the setup of a stage. Despite this, it seems clear that the first four Dogme films, in particular Festen and The King is Alive, are heavily influenced by the constraints of theatrical production, and that those rules that appear to pull Dogme away from the stage are in fact necessary for conveying the immediacy and lack of control that are key to drama. It is certainly no coincidence that the two films I mention both heavily allude to the tragedies of Shakespeare.
9. The film format must be Academy 35mm.
We find in Festen a carefully set up opposition between generations, which is perhaps more reminiscent of Shakespeare’s comedies than his tragedies. Most of the comedic moments (for it is clear that Festen is as cruelly funny as it is “tragic”) emerge from the older family members’ mental confusion, for instance debating whether the soup is lobster, salmon, or plain tomato, and the grandfather repeatedly telling the same story. The old generation is thus associated with confusion, amnesia, a wilful ignorance and casual racism, whereas the younger is trapped (Christian in the past, Pia at the estate, even Michael, who tries to associate himself with the older generation, with his father, the Freemasons and the racism, doesn’t fit). When Helene collapses in the toilet after having read her sister’s suicide note, she screams that “they’re all crazy,” which might be taken as a superficial remark on the surreal situation, but should be taken literally, since insanity is apparent in so many of the characters: Christian’s breakdown in France, Linda’s suicide, the grandfather’s amnesia, the depressed family member, and perhaps even Michael’s violence. Of course, as in Hamlet, the plot mainly revolves around Christian’s questionable sanity (as, until Helene reads the note, it is unclear as to whether Christian really is insane, and making up the whole story). Of course, in this analogy, the dead sister, Linda, takes on the ambiguous role of Ophelia, implying a set of incestuous relations also hinted at in the dream sequence in which she talks lovingly to Christian. But of course, the fact that the question is resolved, that we know Christian, for all his breakdowns and depression, is not deluded, is in itself a fundamental break from the Shakespearean source, and an indication that the film’s concern with tragedy is not totally analogous to Shakespeare’s. Certainly, Christian shares many traits with Hamlet, as something of a trickster, or at least a man whose weapons are his words, and his depression is also similar, but unlike Hamlet we see that Christian’s disposition is equally due to the abuse he has suffered, that is to say, his nurture, as much as his nature, contribute to his actions. His hesitancy obviously derives from the power his father exudes over him, as evidenced when Helge descends into the kitchen to congratulate Kim and bullies Christian into apologising.
8. Genre movies are not acceptable
Both Festen and the The Hunt, from what I can tell, are as unambiguous about the truth as any whodunit, insofar as we know who is guilty and who isn’t, but this renders that truth unimportant. Artifice cannot be dispensed with, even with rules as stringent as those of Dogme, but it can be degraded, abused until it gives forth something different and strange. Some might see the techniques of early Vinterberg and Von Trier as fundamentally conservative, literally reactionary, in that they are a reaction against the Hollywood behemoth, yet this opinion carries on the fallacy that progressivism and the avant-garde are expressed only through technical innovation.
3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
Yet few would consider Michael Bay or James Cameron examples of avant-garde cinema. Throughout the 20th century, these various movements (futurism, modernism, dada, conceptualism) have made creative use of the failing of technology, of glitches, misappropriations, mistypings, broken equipment. Dogme does something similar, by making the camera something the filmmaker must fight against, rather than a dumb ally, ready to be manipulated at will.
1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.)
Most of all, Dogme, even when it is abandoned, establishes a network of relations between films, a diverse community of found artifacts, ready to be recombined. They resist “aura,” they stay close to the material, physical or psychological, that produced them.