Moving from the Perfect to the Human: Dogme Comes Home

in 7th Motovun Film Festival

by Goran Gocic

In the mid-Seventies, Tinseltown set out to conquer the world with narratives of strictly limited intellectual and emotional ambitions, but a huge appetite when it came to spectacle, ideology and marketing. And the world gave in. One can argue that such requirements unavoidably end up in some sort of ‘crisis’. But, as long as box office figures are high, who cares? Well, the Europeans do. At least some of them – such as the Danish filmmakers Lars von Trier and Jorgen Leth. Their mutual effort The Five Obstructions (De Fem Benspaend, Denmark 2003), screened in the official programme at the Motovun Film Festival in Croatia (26 to 30 July), is an intriguing exercise in (im)perfection and limitation as a source of filmmaking.

It is obvious that trying to catch up with the American ‘arms race’ in the cinema is not only impossible but, in a way, senseless. As is well known, a heroic alternative was initially conceived by four Danish filmmakers a decade ago. Even though they were vague about what exactly they were reacting against (it was defined as ‘a certain tendency in cinema’), their true ‘enemy’ (i.e. aesthetic antagonist) was most likely to be found across the Atlantic. To put it simply, they inverted the Hollywood rules and imposed strictly limited technical means while preserving huge ambitions when it came to drama, characters and the intellectual scope of their work. This is easier said than done, but their idea was to reduce the existing industrial rules (of Hollywood) to the absurd, creating a cinema for adults in the ‘clear’ sense of the word. The Danes decided that small is beautiful and spelled out the rules of fair play, defined as a tight set of do-not ‘s for the filmmakers which they called Dogme 95.

Dogme clearly signified that filmmakers who do not boast the ridiculous, $300-million-a-movie budgets of James Cameron or Steven Spielberg do not need to be ashamed of the fact. The Danes turned the apparent ‘handicap’ of a low budget and cheap DV cameras into an obvious advantage. Their manifesto smacks of asceticism. It proudly champions an economy of means, announcing the exclusion of those elements which diminish cinema’s significance as an art form and which turn it into goods sold by the meter, an infantile triumph of gadgetry, a purely business venture. The Dogme 95 manifesto envisaged no special effects, no artificial lighting, no props (except those found on the set), no twiddling in post-production (sound should be direct as well), even no elaborate camera movements, because the device should be hand-held anyway. A cynic might ask: ‘Is there anything left to do in a fiction film, once you take away these fabulous props, set design, lighting, explosions, tripods, cranes and all the other tricks of the trade which become more sophisticated by the day?’

But this was precisely Dogme’s point. It announced a huge ambition, creating a common ground for filmmakers all over Europe – if not world-wide. By depriving oneself of the technical frills of the medium, one is compelled to return to the thrills of real characters, storytelling and acting. As Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, one of the Dogme signatories and the director of the third Dogme film, Mifune’s Last Song (1999), explained, it is a kind of ‘unplugged’ cinema. In other words, these were rules by which sincerity becomes a major asset, and a talent for storytelling becomes more important than your ability to raise big bucks. Dogme championed a certain democratisation of the medium: it said that it does not matter whether you studied cinema at the University of Southern California or on a correspondence course in Bulgaria, or whether the producer is Buena Vista or your dad.

What the Danes called ‘the vow of chastity’ is, in a way, a solemn declaration of restraint in the filmmaking process (supposedly the defining, but apparently abandoned Protestant ethic). Interestingly, it has turned out that Dogme did not make an impression on Third World filmmakers (with whom it shares some common ideological ground) as much as on European and American ones. Surprisingly, most of the 30-odd projects completed in Dogme’s footsteps (and deserving an official Dogme certificate) are US-made. Even more significantly, dozens more have been made under the influence of the Dogme venture.

The Five Obstructions is right up this alley. A decade later, it extends Dogme’s postulates in microcosm to the work of two Danish directors. Five Obstructions thus shifts this global dispute to a different field. Rather than discussing the relationship between Europe and the US, Scandinavia and Europe, or Denmark and Europe, it considers a dispute within Danish cinema itself (where Dogme rightly belongs). Speaking in relative terms, one fraction, represented by the benevolent Jorgen Leth, is Apollonian and crystal-like, glamorous and calculated, cold and intoxifying – if not spiritual and God-like. The other, represented by the cynical Von Trier, is Dionysian and amorphous, imperfect and emotional, incident-prone and viral, uncultivated and gutsy – if not man-made and only too human. These are really the two extreme fractions of the Danish, Scandinavian, ‘Protestant’, and perhaps the whole of ‘Western’ cinema.

The Five Obstructions, a sort of cinematic version of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises de style, is generated from the clash of two personalities. Two directors, settled under the same roof, in the friendly, almost conspiratorial atmosphere of Zentropa’s production offices, discuss the rules of the game. They are straightforward, or so it seems: Von Trier announces his affinity for a 1967 short by Jorgen Leth, a kind of MTV precursor which he has apparently seen 20 times, together with his sympathy for his colleague. But soon it becomes clear that Von Trier, in a way, wants to change history: he wants Leth’s movie remade in 2002/3 by Leth himself. Moreover, Von Trier immediately starts fumbling for a crack in Leth’s perfect appearance and a crack in his perfect movie, which happens to be called A Perfect Human. Clearly, for the rest of the movie, Von Trier will be playing an overtly friendly, smiling Mephistopheles, and Leth a moderately ambitious, undemanding Doctor Faustus. Von Trier can make Leth famous, but in return he wants to order him around and butcher his work. Leth agrees to make five remakes of five sequences from the original film, each with a different set of constraints (‘obstructions’) provided by Von Trier.

Leth, by the way, seems everything that Von Trier is not: a dapper dresser, a colonial resident, good-looking and pleasant company. Von Trier apparently tries to convert Leth to ‘his’ side, but, relishing his role of a self-styled Hollywood mogul, he starts (half-mockingly, it’s true), to play mind games, doing his best to demolish Leth’s perfect façade, even occasionally showing some muscle (‘You have to go back to Bombay!’). On his part, Leth seems all too happy to comply, even pleased that the resulting effort will be a movie largely about him. He has more than one problem: to keep his remake in line with Von Trier’s instructions, while retaining his integrity both as an ‘artist’ and as an ’employee’. He is always playing along, but rarely letting down his guard, even when attacked by Von Trier’s persistent, corruptive intellect.

But there is much more at stake here than the clash of two egos. Von Trier wants to ‘test’ in front of the audience whether Leth’s Apollonian style comes from ‘within’ or is the result of some imposed or conditional set-up. Obstruction Number One limits all the cuts in the undressing sequence to 12 frames per second, excludes the set, has to provide an answer to all the questions that the voice-over poses in The Perfect Human, and to cap it all, has to be shot in Cuba! As Von Trier puts it, ‘I want to move from the perfect to the human’. Leth’s remake rigidly follows the rules, but does not budge an inch from his own aesthetics. Obstruction Number Two is even more testing: the meal sequence has to be shot in a really ‘miserable place’ (Cuba apparently does not qualify) and Leth has to play the role himself. Leth comes up with a perverse sequence in which a lavish five-star-hotel meal is served in the middle of a side street in the slums of Bombay, and, much to his discomfort, Leth has to consume it in front of hungry passers-by.

It is interesting that Leth handles himself and these apparently preposterous tasks remarkably well, as long as the limits are precise and strict. He does fine when presented with constraints, but seems puzzled when offered a free rein. As soon as he disobeys one of the rules (Obstruction Number Two was not supposed to show dwellers in the poor quarter of Bombay, just the hero and his bad conscience), Von Trier conceives a devilish ‘punishment’. Obstruction Number Three says that there are no limitations whatsoever: it is either complete freedom, or back to Bombay. Leth opts for the first and, predictably, this is his weakest remade sequence. The moral is that he apparently seems happier finding his way around restrictions, (just like American filmmakers under the Hays Code) rather than (like filmmakers in today’s Hollywood), being limited by his own imagination.

And this is where The Five Obstructions, which is really about the imperfections of a perfect human, really touches a nerve, and proves the point which Von Trier has been advocating all along – or at least since 1995. Technology takes us much further than we want to go. We need less, not more: less, rather than more speed (traffic accidents); less, rather than more communication (the excessive use of text messages and e-mails); less, not more work (Scientism); less, not more control (modern states as Panopticon); fewer, not more gadgets (the dynamics of changing Western technology). Less really is more. Only when the imposing and all-too-rapid Progress is gone, one, perhaps, can find a cosy place for oneself.

The Five Obstructions converts the perfect world of a music video into the imperfect world of the ‘deprived’ (in Cuba, Haiti and India), of ‘ethnic’ rather than Nordic actors, of amateur, rather than professional actors, of suburban, rather than studio settings, of unexpected, rather than calculated situations, and so on. Thus Von Trier’s urge for ‘reality’ manifests itself in his films as a philosophy of imperfection. The Element of Crime, Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark are all stories about illness, both mental and physical. Moreover, The Idiots, Dogville and the TV series The Kingdom have groups of sick and dislocated protagonists who are able to create self-contained communities. Von Trier’s Dogme-like anti-aesthetic, including improper jump cuts, ‘clumsy’ camerawork, dripping and rusty locations and few props or none at all, contributes to such a premise all too well. A perfect world is obstructed, just as in the Dogme films, and, at least for a while, a sleek cinematic spectacle is abandoned, just as the Nouvelle Vague was trying to obstruct the artificiality of the French cinema that preceded it.

The Five Obstructions gives an additional clue as to how to interpret (and emphasise) Dogme’s contribution to contemporary cinema. But, as it was said, in this small-scale exchange between Leth and Von Trier, there is a lot more than meets the eye. It is not only when Von Trier takes Scandinavian cinema from the Apollonian art of Carl Dreyer and Victor Sjostrom to the Dionysian path of Dogme’s neurotic, sweaty, trembling art. It is, perhaps, also where the worldwide cinema audience – if not humanity – wants to be taken: for a swift ride from a sterile Danish studio to the dirtiness of the Bombay slums, from a cold expression of Nordic beauty to the carnal world of a Cuban smoking a cigar, from Leth’s precursor of a music video to paraphrases of Wim Wenders and Ingmar Bergman, from a world of make-believe constructed in a studio to a raw ‘event’ shot on the street.

Von Trier’s Turn: Not a Bit Dogme-tic

The heart and soul of The Five Obstructions, as well as of Dogme’s spirit, is a person who can be easily labeled one of the five greatest contemporary European filmmakers: Lars von Trier. It is interesting that Von Trier has asked himself the very same questions and given himself the very same tasks he sets for Leth. Von Trier’s opus has ranged from highly stylised, Leth-like films to the verite attempts of Dogme. His 1991 film, indicatively entitled Europa, rested on a largely French cinematic tradition of poetic monologue and introspection. It was preceded by the similarly monologue-prone The Element of Crime. Both were, interestingly enough, similar in this respect to Leth’s The Perfect Human, whose intriguing, meditative voice-over contemplates perfection (of an image/of a human being), and unavoidably makes one think about death. More radically stylised and hermetic, The Element of Crime was voted by a critic for the International Film Guide as one of the ten best Danish films of all time. But with his next film, Von Trier was preparing the audience for a big surprise.

With Breaking the Waves (1996), Von Trier abandoned extravagant art house experiment– at least for a while (Europa was black and white with some tinted bits, The Element Of Crime was shot in brownish sepia, and The Kingdom in scary shades of red). It initiated the future, which came with the first Dogme film, Thomas Vinterberg’s transgressive The Celebration (1998), another sensation in every sense of the word. Its exploration of child abuse (even though this was conveyed as a distant memory at the family reunion, not as an explicit act) was as shocking as it was ascetic. But the idea of Dogme did not end in platitudes and sensationalism. It clearly set out to stun the audience with a tangible reality, not with pre-historic monsters. The Celebration was a big hit in Denmark, beating Hollywood blockbusters.

Both The Celebration and Breaking the Waves were exceptionally involving because one had simply lost the habit of seeing moral and psychological issues raised in (Northern/ Protestant) European cinema with such power and magnitude – at least since Ingmar Bergman’s heyday. Breaking the Waves brought Von Trier to the brink of festival success. His next work could have been a real winner, were it not as puzzling, extravagant and disturbing as The Idiots, Von Trier’s official Dogme entry. That was about a community of people who pose as retarded in order to exploit ‘politically correct’ attitudes towards the deprived, benefiting from sympathy, pocket money and liberties which they take in large quantities. The group boldly hijacks the almost sacred ground devoted to lunatics, the sick and the handicapped in the West.

However, the idea does not remain a pure gimmick in Von Trier’s film. He takes it to unexpected limits, and his heroes are on the verge of turning their loony act into a kind of reality. It works both for the characters inside the narrative (which does not differentiate clearly between a pose and actual lunacy) and for the audience (which is not quite sure where the acting stops). The situation set up in The Idiots is further developed by taking full advantage of its bizarre humour and exploring its shocking potential, especially its huge challenge for the performers in acting out repulsive and stunning fits. All of these facets of The Idiots are equally anarchic and unpredictable. Just as in The Five Obstructions, Von Trier came very close here, perhaps too close, to the central ideal of contemporary art: staging an event.

Von Trier likes to set his narratives within a microcosm of closed systems, such as the hospital in The Kingdom, an American town in Dogville, or a ‘private’ discussion in The Five Obstructions. However, the boldness of The Idiots does not stop at anything – the actors even have ‘real’ (on-screen) sex on one occasion. No wonder this grim masterpiece and its gallows humour had such timid distribution and received such reserved reactions in the press. Like Von Trier’s other films (at least two of which – the misanthropic manifesto Dogville and the sacrifice-advocating Breaking the Waves – deserve a similarly high rating), The Idiots simply pushes the limits too far by conventional movie-going standards. This is definitely not the strictly channeled entertainment envisaged by Hollywood. It is deeply disturbing and transgressive art. In our view, The Idiots is the centrepiece of the four features directed by the original signatories of Dogme 95.

In spite of the scary name of its manifesto, Dogme is far from dogmatic: even in its four defining features, the rules were occasionally bent and broken (the camera in The Celebration did not remain hand-held all the time, for example), but the spirit is preserved. Expensive special effects are thus turned into much cheaper ‘special situations’. Overpriced star charisma is turned into much cheaper professional actors. Cheaper, in this case, can be better. Less is definitely more.

Some observers were quick to dismiss the Danes on the grounds that Dogme’s manifesto was basically a sly publicity stunt, an extravagant gimmick to attract the attention of the film market. Von Trier did apply shock tactics in his work, but such comments do not exactly do him justice. The filmmaker is closer to a thinking man, than to your textbook self-publicist. It is evident that Von Trier joined the group with a notable career already to his credit.

The existing state of affairs has resulted in a subdued European angst, most frequently expressed by the French in attempts to protect their own market. Then, following the French, who fought their war on economic grounds, the Danes launched their piece de resistance in the field of aesthetics in the mid-1990s. Artistic manifestos are essentially European phenomena. And in cinema, Dogme bears a weight which goes beyond national lines. In the late Fifties, a couple of young cinema-critics-turned-filmmakers took the measure of French films and found that they have lost touch both with art and with life. Faced with a very similar situation in today’s cinema, one can hardly wait for the next generation of angry young men. For their part, the Danes have made the most recent heroic (albeit failed), attempt to invert this situation.


1 First to follow was Jean-Marc Barr’s Lovers, set in Paris and Julien Donkey-Boy, about a schizophrenic boy and his dysfunctional family, set in New York and directed by Harmony Korine (best known for his film Kids, which itself ventures into similar kind of verite cinema on the line with Dogme). Check for a complete list.

2 The list is extensive, first to spring from memory are films such as Lukas Moodysson’s Lilja 4-Ever and Emir Kusturica’s Super 8 Stories.

3 Of course, this is an apparent narrative line, even though the genesis of the movie could have been entirely different. (Perhaps the remake was shot initially, and the conversations were only added later?)

4 As far as the miserable locations go, the writer of this review can testify that the Bombay’s red light district really can stand for one of the circles of hell.

5 To wrap it up, Obstruction number four announces that the shaving sequence has to be turned into a cartoon. Both directors agree that they strongly dislike the genre (‘It can be only crap’), but a cartoon it becomes (a possible respectable bill for MTV). The final, fifth obstruction demands that Leth, even though is credited, does nothing: Von Trier will write it, and Leth has to play along. This results is a kind of Bergman-like introspection of Leth by Von Trier, who ‘knows him better then he knows himself’. Nothing is as perfect as it seems, seems to be the premise.

6 Many seemed disgusted by the Cannes’s decision to award its top prize to Von Trier’s utterly original Dancer in the Dark, even though much more puzzling is the fact is that Von Trier has not received Palme d’Or earlier. Like many conscious European artists, Von Trier has spent a long time pondering about an authentic Continental response to the invasion of American-produced mainstream. And he offered several inventive answers.

7 Kingdom was a bizarre, postmodern TV series – a possible European answer to Twin Peaks, the least American of all successful American TV series.

8 Dogville, cluttered with A-list cast, at the same time disproves and proves this point.

9 A Danish actress with a gastronomical name Paprika was Dogme’s muse. Paprika Steen appears in three Dogme’s films. The expressiveness of her face matches that of her name: it would secure her a place on the big screen even in case she was born in silent era or if Dogme decided that the real cinema is the one without sound. And cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle is also Dogme veteran, signing three of the mentioned projects as well.

10 The number four signatory of the Danish quartet is Kristian Levring, the director of the Dogme film The King Is Alive.