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From Dogme to Doom: The Films of Lars von Trier

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By Kyle Katz

August 23, 2013

 Over the past two decades there have been few filmmakers in the world whose works have reached the same emotional depths as a Lars Von Trier film. While contemporary cinema at large is no stranger to themes like loneliness, injustice and existential misery, there is something about von Trier’s handling of these themes that, in my opinion, places him a cut above the other misery merchants. He speaks not from a place of private suffering, but rather a collective sorrow that he has seemingly spent his life dissecting. His 2011 film Melancholia demonstrates this perhaps more clearly than any other in his filmography. It is the story of a sensitive young woman who grows increasingly more miserable as the eponymous renegade planet threatens to decimate Earth. The film’s brilliance lies in its attempt to explore not only the emotional decline of a solitary woman, but the very force that now, as we speak, lurks in the zeitgeist of modern times. From his commitment to cinematic restraint, as professed in his “Dogme 95″ manifesto, to the visual extravagance of Melancholia, Von Trier has consistently used the medium to inform mankind of its stupidity, cruelty and, with Melancholia, its imminent demise.

    In 1995, Lars Von Trier and his friend Thomas Vinterberg, a fellow Dane and director, were growing disillusioned with modern cinema. The relentless slew of big budget Hollywood genre flicks was taking its toll, and the stage was set for revolution. Like most revolutions throughout history, the Dogme 95 movement was born in the shadows of a greedy elite. Hollywood’s power and influence had long made it the French Empire of world cinema, and by the early-mid 1990s, with few exceptions, it had become about as bloated and ineffectual as Louis the XVI. Fringe Hollywood was enjoying a fruitful heyday, with such classics as Pulp Fiction and 12 Monkeys, but even the finer, more artistic Hollywood films bared a trace of tinsel. Von Trier and Vinterberg seized this opportunity to spark the flames of revolt, penning a manifesto of cinematic disciplines and beliefs to abide by loyally thereafter. Dubbed the “Dogme 95 Manifesto”, the two directors distributed pamphlets of the doctrine at a Paris film conference in 1995. As stated by film analyst Peter Schepelern, the manifesto was “…an initiative taken to counter the trend toward bourgeois and superficial entertainment (Schepelern, Pg. 58).” The doctrine espoused the directors’ “Vow of Chastity”; a list of ten rigid guidelines for filmmaking. As dictated by the manifesto, “Genre films were outlawed, as were filters and fancy lighting. Directors went uncredited (Kingsley).” Additionally, the manifesto stipulated that films be shot on location exclusively, that all props and sets be native to those locations, and that any use of music must derive from the film’s diegesis. With an already established voice in Danish cinema, both von Trier and Vinterberg were ready to implement their new philosophy, amassing both critics and avid adherents in the process.

    The first two films to follow the “Vow of Chastity” were Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration and Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots. Released three years after the unveiling of the Dogme 95 manifesto, both films had all the earmarks of the doctrine’s rigid stipulations. A notable distinction between the two is how much more positively Vinterberg’s film was received  than Trier’s. While The Idiots has been panned and discounted by critics and average film watchers alike, The Celebration received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, is currently listed on IMDB’s Top 250 list, and has generally been one of the most highly rated independent films in the past fifteen years. Although the Dogme 95 movement went on to spawn a worldwide subculture of adherents, including Julien Donkey Boy director Harmony Korine, von Trier and Vinterberg themselves no longer participate in the movement. Furthermore, it has primarily been for von Trier’s non-Dogme films like Breaking The Waves and Dancer In The Dark that he has attained the auteur status he now indisputably holds. However, one constant of his films, both panned and acclaimed, is an unnerving degree of raw and primal emotion.

    In Dancer In The Dark particularly, von Trier taps into a level of despair so overwhelmingly real that the film feels nearly alive. It’s the story of Selma, a struggling but optimistic woman portrayed by Icelandic singer/musician Bjork, whose attempts to support her child and raise money for an eye operation are continually thwarted by a series of cruel circumstances. To counterbalance the tragic proportions of her journey, which include being robbed by a friend, losing her sight and eventually going to prison for murder, von Trier includes lighter moments of musical rapture. Selma intermittently breaks into song, performing extravagant numbers akin to those of old Hollywood musicals. As light and entertaining as these scenes are, however, the overriding tone of this film is gloom and doom. Von Trier also incorporates a theme that is both revisited and firmly established in many of his films: the impersonal and sometimes unjust nature of American culture, capitalism and democracy. In “Dancer” this theme is represented by the character of Bill, a middle class American police officer with whom Selma and her son are currently living. Selma has come to trust Bill and his wife Kathy, but when Bill is in need of fast funds, he steals a large sum from Selma that she’d been saving for her eye operation. In one very gripping and emotional scene, Selma confronts Bill after learning he robbed her, attempts to take the money back, he accosts her with a gun, and in the ensuing struggle, she accidentally shoots him. Bill dies and Selma goes to prison. Throughout the rest of the film, which includes Selma’s experience in prison and, at the end, her execution, von Trier’s disenchantment with the American system is front and center. From the ills of capitalism, symbolized by Bill and the ominous factory Selma works at, to the pitfalls of the justice system that sentences her to death, the film is rife with rhetoric.

    Von Trier has commented that his affinity for exploring the ills of American culture stems from its profound influence on the world, including his native Denmark. In an article by David Gretten on the British news site The Telegraph, a quote from von Trier states: “‘America is a good subject, because such a big part of our lives has to do with America…We’re a nation under influence – a very bad influence (Gritten).’” Von Trier’s Dogville and especially its sequel Manderlay have more acutely explored these issues, in that they specifically address American greed and the naivete and arrogance of American interventionism. In Manderlay, the character of Grace arrives at a plantation in the 1930s American South, where slavery has not yet been abolished. With a kind and bleeding heart, Grace sets about liberating the slaves from their ignorance and bondage; a noble gesture with ultimately disastrous repercussions. The film has been said to allegorize American intervention in Iraq, and the naivete of suddenly introducing the doctrine of democracy to a culture long-held in the grip of tyranny. While this appears to be an accurate assessment, the film is no less a reminder of the atrocities experienced by countless black individuals during slavery, and a searing condemnation of the spoils of power and privilege.

    Although America has primarily served as the target of von Trier’s rhetoric and wrath, it is clear that he has some pretty strong feelings about humanity at large. As an article on Slate.com comments in regards to Manderlay, “Von Trier exposes more than he might have liked about his contempt for his actors, his audience, and the human race…(Stevens)” It is the human race, more so than America specifically I believe, that von Trier has a problem with. He has focused on America simply because of its considerable front-and-center influence throughout most of the world, and because its media, politics, and promotion of personal ambition have so strongly come to shape modern man. That’s not to say that America alone is responsible for the present dilemma in which we now find ourselves, but the hand it has had in reinforcing the dilemma is undeniable. Von Trier’s most recent film, as a counterpoint to his use of minimalism and socially/politically focused storylines, is an exploration of the very dilemma I’m referring to.  

    Melancholia tells the story of Justine, a young woman portrayed by Kirsten Dunst, who is gradually succumbing to a sadness above and beyond mere depression. After a languid sequence of strange imagery foretelling the film’s conclusion, Melancholia begins at Justine’s wedding reception. She initially appears exuberant and well-adjusted, but over the course of the lengthy reception, she reveals the increasing misery that has taken over her life. By the end of the reception Justine can no longer sustain her joyful facade, and ends up breaking off her relationship with the man she has just married. Coinciding with the reception is the appearance of a rapidly approaching planet called “Melancholia”. As Justine’s brother-in-law John assures her, scientists have concluded that “Melancholia” poses no threat to Earth, and will definitely pass it by. Despite this assurance, Justine becomes transfixed by the planet, gazing at it repeatedly and gradually falling under its spell.

    It is evident that the “spell” being cast by the planet “Melancholia” is a thinly veiled metaphor for the gloom and isolation of modern times. The film itself seems a clear warning of some unthinkable impending doom. However, the clever twist here is that, as opposed to Melancholia’s arrival being a mere astronomical cataclysm, it is a symbol of lost harmony. This loss is evident throughout the beginning of the film, where such characters as Justine’s mother, father, brother-in-law, and boss all represent the kind of self-centeredness and neuroses that now pervade humanity. Conversely, Justine herself represents the select few individuals left in the world with the sensitivity and instinct to detect the strange forces at work behind the scenes. Whatever these forces may be, von Trier has proven himself an astute assessor of their magnitude and scope.

    An interesting departure from von Trier’s other female-driven films is that the character of Justine is not at the mercy of cruel and despicable male figures. In fact, as New York Times contributor A.O Scott states, “The men who hover around the wedding, including the clueless Michael and the officious John, are not menacing, just useless (Scott).” Additionally, in a terrific scene towards the end of the wedding reception, Justine tells her boss Jack (portrayed by Stellan Skarsgard) every bitter insight she’s ever had about him and his egotistical personality. This not only reveals her well hidden resentments, but demonstrates a strength and resolve against the tyranny of her male dominated society. The character of Justine’s sister Claire, on the other hand, is somewhat the opposite. Portrayed by the gorgeous Charlotte Gainsbourg, Claire is reserved, conventional and relatively shallow. Her moment of great strength comes too, however, when her husband John commits suicide after discovering that “Melancholia” will indeed collide with Earth. Though initially gripped with debilitating fear, and relying on her calm and collected husband for emotional strength, Claire is now forced to be strong for her son. Luckily, by this point, Justine has recovered somewhat from her depression, and is now the more level headed of the two.

    This film really marks a milestone in von Trier’s career-long judgement of mankind. While his early films merely assessed the evidence, Melancholia has sentenced and condemned the entire species to die. By the end of the film, Justine has cycled through stages of immense misery, and has finally attained a sort of calm and closure, realizing, as she informs her sister Claire toward the end, that mankind is evil and deserves to be wiped out. I think she is also channeling some sort of innate sense that whatever lies beyond life isn’t necessarily the dread-inducing mystery that so many think it to be. Instead, as she demonstrates in the scene  where she lies naked in the night, there is an infinite oneness between man, nature and the great beyond. Human beings don’t actually die, as the general consensus holds, but merely rejoin that oneness, converting back into the pure energy from which they originated. In the end, the planet crashes into Earth, and the last frame of the film hauntingly depicts Justine, Claire and Claire’s son being consumed by flames.

    Recently, von Trier’s next film Nymphomaniac was announced, slated for release on Christmas day of this year. The film will apparently trace the dark journey of a hyper-sexual woman as she recounts her story to the man who saved her after a brutal beating. Again, von Trier is right in his element, further investigating the more mysterious and deplorable aspects of mankind. It seems von Trier may have a difficult time topping Melancholia’s tone of dread and finality, but then again, one of his greatest strengths is his ability to reinvent himself. Ever since his foray into restraint with the Vow of Chastity, von Trier has experimented with form and content, both successfully and unsuccessfully. He has challenged, inspired, and divided audiences; turned off many with such statements as “…his ancestry made him ‘sympathize with [Hitler] a little bit (Zakarin).’”  He’s been the object of ridicule and praise, but through it all, he has consistently committed himself to something that not enough filmmakers are willing to try: the elevation of cinema.

    Even the Dogme 95 movement, despite its current obscurity, was still a noble effort to purify the medium. It reflected von Trier’s inherent understanding that cinema, like any art form, should be used to tell the truth. In an industry defined largely by derivative and profit motive, von Trier and Vinterberg’s movement was “…a search for reality, for the truth without illusions, and a movement towards the genuine and the humane (Schepelern, Pg. 58).” Luckily for his fans, von Trier’s “search for reality” continues to this day, as he has not only attempted to purify the aesthetics of the medium, but also the elements of theme, acting and overall execution. With every film he pushes his actors seemingly to the brink of meltdown, generating consistently top notch performances. He has also pushed the envelope in terms of sexual realism, as both his film Antichrist and the upcoming Nymphomaniac feature graphic and unsimulated sexual acts.  Throughout his career, von Trier has aspired to a raw and undiluted style that film-by-film he comes closer to perfecting. If Melancholia was any indication of the feats he has yet to accomplish, his humble search for reality may end up leading him someplace well beyond its borders.

At powefist.us, we believe in the spirit of creativity. We consequently stand firmly behind all those for whom the creative impulse not only inspires artistic endeavor, but acts as a sort of compass in their life’s pursuits . Though not all of us agree with Lars von Trier’s “Dogme ’95 Manifesto”, or perhaps even like some of the films produced by it, one thing we can all appreciate is the artist’s willingness to allign himself with an ideal that he believed was ultimately for the greater good of cinema. We believe that if everyone lived by his or her own personal manifesto, a sort of inner guiding light to navigate their lives by, the world would only be the better for it. For a manifesto is more than a collection of words , it is a deeply personal promise to one’s self, a one sided conversation with the soul. That’s why we call for everyone, man, woman and child, to make and submit their own personal manifesto, and, more importantly, to live by it. Let us share in your journey as you strive to live by your own personal ideals, and hopefully change your life in the process.

The Following are the vows undertaken by Lars Von Trier in his Manifesto.

 

The goal of the Dogme collective is to purify filmmaking by refusing expensive and spectacular special effects, post-production modifications and other technical gimmicks. The filmmakers concentrate on the story and the actors’ performances. They believe this approach may better engage the audience, as they are not alienated or distracted by overproduction. To this end, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg produced ten rules to which any Dogme film must conform. These rules, referred to as the “Vow of Chastity,” are as follows:[1]

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).

2.   The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)

3.   The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.

4.   The film must be in colour. 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).

5.   Optical work and filters are forbidden.

6.   The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)

7.   Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now).

8.   Genre movies are not acceptable.

9.   The film format must be Academy 35 mm.

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10.The director must not be credited.

From Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia

Lars von Trier

Kyle Katz
Kyle Katz
Kyle T. Katz is a musician and writer from southern California. He performs locally under the stage name "The Sound Experiment".

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