Fluxury by Sergio Benvenuto

The idiot's tragedyJul/07/2016

In accepting to contribute to this volume on Dogville, it was with the idea to link this film with all of Lars von Trier’s filmwork.  An author’s work is never homogeneous, interwoven as it is with varied lines, contingencies and goals, and it is impossible to extract the “essence” of either a single work or a single author.  And yet, in von Trier’s films it is possible to grasp a fundamental, pervasive aim, of which Dogville is an important stage:  that is, to invent a radically tragic real-ist cinema (and not realist, as we shall see).

1. Idiocy

Of von Trier’s films, The Idiots (Idoterne, 1998)[1] impressed me the most.  Is it owing to idiosyncratic reasons of my own not necessarily shared by others, or is it because this film offers an explicit key to understanding the Danish director’s other films?

It is von Trier’s only film which precisely follows the norms laid out in DOGMA 95.  It narrates the wanderings of a group of young men and women throughout Denmark who behave—on occasion—as mental retards.  Each one has his or her own—not necessarily noble-- reason for joining the group.  For instance, pretending to be a bunch of noisy fools sometimes serves to get thrown out of a restaurant without paying the meal.  Stoffer, the group’s leader, theorizes as an ethical project what might at first glance appear a simple prank:  to draw out the “inner idiot” hidden within each of us.  But Stoffer’s provocatory mission really reveals its limits when he asks each one to “play the idiot” not in an anonymous public places but in his or her own home or work environment.  There, however, no one dares to howl like an idiot--with one exception, as we will soon see.

Idioterne is the second film of what von Trier has referred to as the “Trilogy of the Golden Heart”--the first being Breaking the Waves (1996) and the third Dancer in the Dark (2000).  The “golden hearts” are all working class females.  Von Trier considers himself the heir of Karl Dreyer—and it is not by chance that his two preferred Dreyer’s films are The passion of Joan of Arc and Gertrud, both of which have at their core are two victimized women: Joan of Arc the victim of a political conflict in which she is just a pawn, and Gertrud pays the victim of her lifelong dedication to love.

Two of von Trier’s female protagonists from his Trilogy meet a terrible death.  Bess, the young bride of Breaking the Waves, allows herself to be sexually abused and mortally beaten by some really bad types, in the hope of—superstitiously, magically—saving her husband from permanent paralysis.  Selma, the young mother of Dancer in the Dark, prefers to risk the gallows rather than deprive her son of the money needed to save his sight.  Both sacrifice themselves for male figures.[2]  What is striking about both is their innocent, infantile, slightly stupid air, as though they experienced in the world through an imaginary filter—religious in the case of Bess, theatrical and dance-like in the case of Selma.  Their values are not adapted to a winners’ world.  Bess, with her silly beret , holds Calvinist “dialogues” with the Eternal Father, and she herself responds in His name, severely and gruffly.  After her death, her doctor friend comments that “Bess was good”—a good martyr, albeit a bit stupid.

Even though von Trier did not consider himself inspired by Fellini, some of his heroines remind me of characters interpreted by Giulietta Masina:  Gelsomina (the clown of La strada[3]) or Cabiria (the slum whore of Nights of Cabiria[4]).  And von Trier really loves Liliana Cavani’s  The Night Porter[5], wherein a female prisoner of a Nazi lager ends up in a sort of sadomasochistic complicity with her jailor, an SS officer.

At the risk of being accused of misogyny, von Trier closely links femininity with a certain idiocywhich makes women the chosen victims of humiliating persecutions—one might even wonder if this is a fantasy which haunts him.  Beyond the suspicion of a mental handicap, there sometimes lies a physical handicap as well.  Selma, the “dancer in the dark”, is nearly blind.  Could von Trier’s preference for Stupid Martyr Women be linked to his 1995 conversion to Catholicism (which coincided with his signing the Dekalog with Thomas Vinterberg, which formed the base of DOGMA 95)?  Or perhaps to his family’s rigorous Communist upbringing.  I can think of perhaps only one other great filmmaker—Kenji Mizoguchi—whose cinema is as dominated by the painful figure of the humiliated and offended woman.[6]

2. Karen’s pain

This stupidity of the weak and persecuted does not always carry female connotations.  In The Boss of It All,[7]  Ravn secretly owns a Danish computer company whose employees believe he is just one of them.  All company decisions—especially the most abhorrent—are attributed to an imaginary boss who resides in America.  When Ravn decides to sell the company to a ruthless businessman (which will imply firing all personnel), he hires Kristoffer, a down-on-his-heels actor, to play the part of the big boss, thus unloading any responsibility for the sale.  These powerless employees—men and women alike—strike a soft note in us, yet even they transmit a sort of sweet idiocy.  They believe the unlikely lies that Ravn and Kristoffer dish out and allow themselves to be manipulated at will.  These underlings—with their fundamental “golden heart”—are stupidly good like Bess and Selma; they share nothing of the sharpness or humor of Majakovskij’s or Brecht’s proletarian characters, for example.

Not even The Idiots escapes this paradigm of the Stupid, Persecuted Martyr Woman.  Stoffer’s group co-opts Karen, a woman encountered in their runabouts, who, with her innocent and sweet air, seems far from the crazy disorder of the group of fake imbeciles.  She seemingly enjoys being part of their adventure, yet somehow remains at the margins of the group.  When Stoffer asks each one to “play the idiot” in their familiar surroundings, Karen returns home like the others.  There, we learn that she had recently lost her son, and that her running away from home was a way to act out her pain. It was during her aimless wandering that she met up with this group of “idiots”.  Just a few shots suffice to grasp the grim, desperate climate at her home with icy relatives who despise her.  And right in the middle of the family supper, wrapped in bitter silence, Karen lets out the characteristic howl of the idiot.  I find this Karen-Returns-Home sequence one of contemporary cinema’s most touching moments.

It Karen’s courage which in retrospect furnishes us a key to read the entire film.  Our timid “middle class” Karen is the Golden Heart:  she need not try to draw out the inner Idiot, because her pain has already rendered her one.  It is precisely because Stoffer’s philosophy is so “ideological” that it is unconvincing.  Why should there be an “inner idiot” rather than an inner crazy person, pervert or tormentor?  One might venture to say that it is because von Trier has a weakness for the mentally challenged.  In his TV miniseries The Kingdom[8] we see a sort of televised version of the Greek Chorus: two actors affected by Down’s Syndrome commentate on the unfolding story to stress for the public the tragic tone of the show.  Karen’s scream amidst her grim family makes us grasp that the incomprehensible, inarticulate cries of the idiot are a unique expression of pain and desperation.  It is the unbearable side of life which turns us into idiots.  Playing the idiot unleashes that scream—which is not for help or relief, but is an expression of our total inadequacy to life.

3. Mulier sacra

Dogville on the other hand seems to deviate from this theme.  Its beautiful protagonist Grace is only in part a Persecuted Woman:  in the end she vindicates herself, and her persecutors—the inhabitants of Dogville—are all killed.  But this “happy ending” is nevertheless disturbing:  how can we rejoice in the fact that so many defenseless albeit mean citizens are slaughtered by ferocious gangsters?  We are ashamed of our very “virtuous” feelings of vendetta which the very film itself provokes.

With Dogville this paradigm of the Persecuted Woman seems less pertinent, also because the star who impersonates Grace—the statuesque Australian beauty Nicole Kidman—certainly does not have the physique du rôle of the usual pathetic persecuted woman.[9]

But, with her collection of figurines, the beautiful victim has something innocently infantile about her, and when a woman of Dogville smashes them one by one to punish and torment her, we sense that Grace’s pain is like that of a child.  It is precisely the childishness of her pain that is so moving in this scene. Yet, while a certain stupidity floats around Grace, in the end we discover that it was contrived.

Grace’s situation—more so than the heroines of von Trier’s other films—seems to echo the philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer [10], a judiciary figure of ancient Rome, who had lost any legal right or protection, who anyone could kill without incurring any sanction whatsoever; he could not even be sacrificed.  For Agamben, homo sacer can be found today in anyone without legal status—for example, those interned in Nazi concentration camps, illegal immigrants, victims of certain special laws, etc.—in short, those reduced to a “bare life”, legal non-entities left with only zoé, biological life.  Grace/Kidman—increasingly treated as a mere body which anyone in their little town can abuse at will—becomes a mulier sacra[11].

For von Trier the paradigm of exclusion is the Persecuted Woman/Prisoner, the mulier sacra as a bare body left to the mercy of others.  Whether it be the body for sheer sexual use (Bess), the body as the solitude and idiocy of pain (Karen), the body as blind motherhood which dreams itself a dancer (Selma), or the body as humiliated slave (Grace).

4. Handicapped cinema?

Yet, von Trier’s cinema is not just essentially about the physically or mentally handicapped or idiots, or beings—mostly feminine—reduced to a bare life.  In some way, it is a cinema which itself wants to be handicapped or even a little bit stupid.  A cinema in its own way stripped bare, in contrast with Hollywood’s “well dressed” layered perfection of special effects, the best actors, and masterful editing which leaves us breathless.

In alternative to this imposition of a “perfect” cinema on a global audience, the famous Dekalog provocatively exploited imperfection by proposing an invalid cinema.  With DOGMA, the director limits himself via seemingly arbitrary norms.  Von Trier pursues good cinema not by “taking advantage of all available possibilities”, but rather by willfully and “stupidly” restricting possibilities.  DOGMA addresses the director’s “vow of chastity”: is there anything more silly today than a vow of chastity?  Dogma’s directors in fact handicap their work in their attempt at a naïve and rough cinema—which, precisely for this, reveals itself as highly sophisticated.  Crime and sanctity, knowledge and naiveté are juxtaposed in the same character, as in von Trier’s criminal and saint cinema, whose ultimate refinement is achieved by means of a contrived awkwardness.

In The Five Obstructions (2003), von Trier and Jørgen Leth take up the latter’s old film, A perfect human, which recounts a self-proclaimed perfect human, who is happy to be so.  Obviously, for us, this self-satisfied perfect human has an air of idiocy about him.  And the five obstructions are essentially five constraints—along the lines of the Dekalog—that von Trier imposes on the other director.  The Five Obstructions can thus be read as a manifesto of poetics:  in contrast to a polished American cinema, he attempts a European way characterized by shortcomings and idiocies.  Because only an imperfect cinema can be a tragic cinema.  In this way, an underlying uncertainty falls over that idiocy that von Trier holds so dear:  to contrast the satisfied imbecility of the “perfect human in a perfect cinema” with that dissatisfied, bare, cruel cinema which puts on stage imperfect human beings.

This desire to handicap his films led to his use of Automavision in The Boss of It All:  the director sets up several movie cameras, but allows the computer to decide which angle to use.  He leaves it to risk and chance, a bit like Pollock did with painting and Cage with music.  So that in the final version of the film, there are gaps in the continuity of the film sequences, imbalances, etc.  A way to find the film form most proper to its content.  The shakiness of the film reverberates the shaky small world of business which the film represents.  The harshness of the form sensitizes us to the harshness of the object.  Certain films are irritating because they film misery and degradation but in a polished, slick style which lacks the horror, so that poverty and pain, sublimated by art, seem redeemed.  But they are not redeemed in the real.  Instead, through his often artificial and stylized cinema, von Trier wants to lead us to the Real--to a bare truth that can only be expressed through idiocy or subjection, and to the cruel crudeness of social relationhips.


5. “Realism” and Real-ism

In so far as a self-limitation of expressive possibilities, the Dekalog really is like a game.  A game between persons or teams is possible if both accept certain rules, which always imply certain exclusions, that is, that certain plays are unacceptable (a basic rule of soccer is that no player—except the goalie—can touch the ball with his hands).  Today, instead, the idea has taken hold that the artist need no longer be limited by rules or conventions: anything can be utilized to create effects.  Contemporary artists produce installations which utilize any expressive means, from videos to odors.  The Dekalog takes the opposite direction with respect to this promiscuous present trend:  to re-establish a certain “chastity”, certain unjustified rules to be obeyed.  One could argue that a film is not a team game, but rather a product that should satisfy, above all, the public.  But DOGMA 95 is a self-imposition of rules regarding moviemakers, and not the public.  It is the artist’s attempt to deprive himself of expressive possibilities, to “obstruct” himself.

And yet, the Dekalog’s commandments are not completely arbitrary, and seemingly aim to reduce the distance between the cinema of fiction and the documentary.  But this reduction of manipulative liberty does not lead to verisme (to the closest resemblance, the illusionist non-distinction between fiction and reality) but rather to Real-ism:  towards the Real.  Let us not go into all the theories here which distinguish reality from the Real—above all that proposed by Jacques Lacan.  It suffices here to say that the so-called “vériste” cinema tends to give the sensation that we are not watching a film—hence, something artificial or constructed—but rather concrete, real events.  Von Trier’s Real-ism—not in the least contradictory to Brechtian techniques of estrangement—consists rather in making us feel the Real not as something which takes the place of the fiction itself, but that toward which the work tends.  The Dekalog’s self-limitations aim not to circumvent the reality in which the filmmaker is working, but to force him in some way to show the existence of this reality beyond representation.  In von Trier’s films, we sense that he is constrained, even if we do not see this constraint.

The 4th commandment, “The film must be in color”, goes contrary to the formalist and anti-realist idea of cinema for which true cinema should be filmed in black and white (as Rudolf Arnheim thought) precisely in order to contrast with the colors present in reality.  Yet von Trier’s need is not to simulate reality, but to diminish the distance from the real, and the real is colored.

Take the commandment that “Sound must never be produced apart from the images and vice versa”.  This apparently corresponds to a “realist” exigency in an illusionist sense:  when movie sequences are accompanied by a musical comment, everyone grasps that that music is outside of the situation and story being recounted.  Von Trier would have accepted Coppola’s use of Wagner in the scene from Apocalypse Now where the captain of a helicopter unit sends all his men off to battle the Vietcong to the sound of the passage of the Walkirie cavalcade diffused in every helicopter.  The film’s character himself uses this musical score in an attempt to turn the experience of war into a Wagnerian opera, to transform the horror and squalor of reality (a cruel war) into a sublime cinematic representation.  But it is precisely by denouncing this virtualization of reality that the Real—that is, what art refers to without representing It—peeks out in this film:  this Real is not what the cinema renders fascinating and gripping, but what the cinema misses, what transcends the cinema and what this latter never represents.

Von Trier has certainly not always respected his own self-constrictions.  But all of his film-work carries forward an ethical and aesthetical project—in opposition to every form of surrealism—of the aforementioned Real-ism.

Take the fact that the characters in Dancer in the Dark often dance.  Dance tends to aesthetically transfigure our life, so that “to live as though one were dancing” could be a metaphor for a happy life.[12]  But here the dancing episodes are out of sync and in contrast with the misery of Selma, who will never be able to dance--being nearly blind and about to be imprisoned and executed.  The recourse to an anti-realist form of dance is not resolved in an aesthetic sublimation of a tragic life, but on the contrary, points out real life in all its tragedy.  The Real which interests von Trier is that which his false idiots evoke even if only elliptically:  the pain and sufferance, in themselves inexpressible and not prettified, of human existence.


6. To die dancing

Many find in von Trier’s films above all another take on Brecht’s epic principles.  Von Trier would follow on Godard’s cinema, imbued as it was with a Brechtian “estrangement effect” (Verfremdungseffekt).  Breaking the Waves and the more recent Antichrist (2009) are broken up by actual written chapter headings, with brief summaries, as in old novels.  Godard himself recommended reintroducing chapter heads in films.  Von Trier, in filming Breaking the Waves, was probably thinking back to Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962), a film in Twelve Takes, this too about a female prostitute who identifies with Dreyer’s Joan of Arc being tried [what a coincidence!], and who ends up being killed.

Even Quentin Tarantino uses chapter headings to move his films along (take Inglorious Basterds, 2009) for example). And clearly even here this and other distancing techniques do not diminish in the least the effects of suspense and public involvement. In fact, they accentuate a sort of clinical coldness that does not pertain solely to the film's "bad guys" (the Nazis in this case) but to the film itself, which unfolds as if it were a duel between the pity of the audience and the ironic indifference of the persecutor.

While on the one hand von Trier may divide a film into chapters, on the other he may make it part of a Trilogy.  His first trilogy Europe was followed by Heart of Gold, and then USA—Land of Opportunities.  Even the television miniseries The Kingdom was planned as a trilogy.  Might his preference for Three be a superstition?  It could also be an attempt to break up the dramatic, inseparable whole of the film into a complete continuum such as we see today:  each of his films is divided into small sections, with each film appearing as a fragment of a longer series, like a soap opera.  I am convinced that von Trier would approve of the way films are shown in Italy, with an intermission which allows moviegoers to go to the bathroom, buy an ice cream, get a drink, etc.  To cut and paste—and show the cutting or pasting—is a distancing practice.

Dogville and Manderlay, in particular, are presented as theatrical stages:  in lieu of houses and streets there are lines and signs on the pavement.  Here, von Trier is probably leaning towards the theatrical style of T. Wilder’s Our Town (1938)—a classic example of the indulgence with which the theater represented the boring, easygoing life of the American small town—where even Wilder reduced to a minimum the staging and its props.  Except that von Trier’s infernal “small town” is just the opposite of the essentially good and monotonous rhythm of Wilder’s town.

The lack of houses and walls in Dogville somehow makes its inhabitants visible at every moment:  the entire community thus becomes the visible, pervasive protagonist of the film.  Individual differences are minimized with respect to the polis, united in its shared vileness.  And when Grace becomes the slave of that community, we feel even more strongly her imprisonment in a space where everything can be seen by everyone.

However, von Trier does not repeat Brecht’s epic theater:  in reality, he opens us up to an extremely tragic dimension.  Or, one might say, he exalts to the maximum our feelings of pity and anguish—of eleos and phobos, to quote Aristotle.

We said that Dancer in the Dark presents itself as a film-ballet, but to all appearances nothing could be more estranged.  How can one “identify” with characters who every so often burst into dance?  (Who was it who said he didn’t like opera because the protagonist keeps on singing at the top of her voice while dying?)  And yet, as the film inches ever closer towards catastrophe, our perplexity and shock at this increasingly incongruous dancing grows.  The culmination is reached in the atrocious final scenes in which Selma—whom we know is fundamentally innocent—is brought to the gallows:  it hurts to see everyone in the grey gloomy prison where the execution will take place start to dance.  Dance, always the prototype of pure joy, is scandalously juxtaposed with one of the darkest imaginable situations.  Far from estranging us emotionally from Selma’s sad sort, the non- realistic tenor of the film—a dance—heightens our bewilderment.

Thus, von Trier lays bare in all of us our “idiotic” face , quasi-stupid innocence, our handicapped side—the  other face of our social identity.  He attempts to peer into the world of the unhappy, into the reality of social relations which are at once detached and pitiable.


7. Identifying with one’s torturer

In short, Von Trier grasped that the Brechtian rhetoric of estrangement, as an ironic detachment from the drama, can be utilized instead to exasperate our affections and pervert our empathies.

Take for example Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games (in both versions, 1998 and 2008): two young angel-faced men dressed completely in tennis whites take an entire family (father, mother and child) prisoner in their country house, and force on them, for pure fun, sophisticated games of torture, to then slowly kill them off one by one in a phlegmatic way.  But every so often, in the midst of such cruelty, scenes pop out which “distance” us:  for instance, more than once, one of our handsome torturers turns to the audience and with a wink in his eye, comments on both the public and the film.  For example, at a certain point, when the wife manages to shoot at one of the two torturers, the other sadistic angel “corrects” the scene, making the film “re-wind” and continue in the “right” way.  So that it is scripted that these defenseless victims will be killed, while the two torturers will get away with it and happily continue their funny game with other victims.  Now, these distancing expedients, far from easing our involvement, instead increase our anguish and disgust at people being tortured to death.  By interspersing meta-communications on the film itself, the directing places us squarely in the detached position of the two amused assassins:  not only does the audience mourn for the victims with whom they identify, but the metalinguistic irony almost forces them to come to identify with the murderers themselves.  Haneke thus reveals to us the far from “fraternal” and fundamentally sadistic presupposition of the Brechtian distancing:  an uninvolved glance into sufferance and injustice identifies us with Brecht’s “oppressors” as with Haneke’s torturers, who seem to contemplate with distance the misery and pain wrought by them.  And this identification of ours disgusts us…  Distance can multiply emotions (and not only negative ones).

Pasolini had already suggested this in the final scenes of Salò-Sade (1975).  In a courtyard, Fascist officials impose horrible tortures upon their young prisoners before killing them.  But these scenes are viewed from afar and without sound by the spectator, that is, from the point of view of one of the sadists.  In turn, in fact, one of the torturers is seen to observe this cruel scene from a window through opera glasses.  But at a certain point, the binoculars are turned around and the cruel events are viewed from an enormous distance.  The moral: true sadism, more than inflicting pain, consists in considering it from a Brechtian distance—with negative empathy.  And our identification with an indifferent estrangement maximizes our horror.

In von Trier, emotive effects are not entrusted solely to a stylized distancing, but also to “expressionist” contrivances.  For example, for about the first 20 minutes of Dancer in the Dark, I experienced an intense, almost physical discomfort.  The characters were filmed from too-low an angle, leaving no space over their heads: they appear crushed by an imaginary ceiling, like creatures who live enclosed in misery and illness.  But it is precisely this sociological compression that is not merely represented, but expressed through a framing style which crushes us.

Brecht’s project was ambiguous.  This perhaps was precisely why the era in which Brecht found his greatest popularity—the 60s and 70s—was also an era where its inverse shone, the Artaud-inspired “theater of cruelty”.  The avant-garde theater and cinema of that time was appreciated by both Brechtians and Artaudians.  On the one hand, the rational epic theater which aimed to make us think rather than feel, and on the other, the irrational theater of thecruelty which aimed to upset us.  How was it possible to combine Brecht’s reflective human detachment with Artaud’s inhuman Dionysianism?

In the end, true cruelty—what Sade brings into play—always implies the representation of some distancing, and a certain distancing of representation.  The Brechtian Verfremdung was basically an illusion, in so far as it deceived us about our “critical” capacities, wanting lo lead us to believe that at the theater we could be “scientific,” leaving us no choice but to identify with our heroes.  Von Trier grasped that to represent the cruelty surrounding the subordinate, female condition on stage necessitated a distancing, an artificiality which alone is capable of really breaking our hearts.

So what von Trier offers us is an example of radical tragic cinema.  In effect, he shows us beings who can do nothing but elicit our pity and anguish.  It is precisely because we distance ourselves from the atrocious destinies of Bess, Karen, Selma, Grace, the female protagonist of Antichrist, that their stories tear us apart.  Many of von Trier’s films have a very strong emotional impact, at times going beyond all limits of tolerance.  Various people have told me that they were so disturbed by von Trier’s films that they no longer go to see them…  “I’m not such a masochist!”  Von Trier does not spare the spectator, unlike today’s dominant cinema where a happy ending is always obligatory, even if at times disguised as a sad finale.  Even Aristotle pointed out that tragedy should not be too bitter, because recounting the story of a truly good man who suffers an absolutely doomed destiny is unbearable, as it wounds the spectator’s philanthropia.[13]  This is why, for example, directors for centuries have refused to allow Cordelia to die at the end of King Lear.  The audience would never have tolerated it.  So, von Trier is attempting a non-philanthropic, part-Aristotelian tragedy which does not look towards Hope, but stops short at representing the pain of a life laid bare.


  1. 8.             Demons in paradise


Von Trier lives in a country which, according to statistics on World Happiness, enjoys the highest levels of social well-being:  Denmark, together with some other Scandinavian countries, occupy first place in the world for quality of life, per capita income, democratic freedoms, social services, environmental sensitivity, life expectancy, etc.  Certainly, a country’s good fortune is always relative, only when compared with others:  nevertheless, Denmark seems like a happy corner of the planet.  Is it a paradox or a symptom that such a tragic cinema has emerged from such an enviable country?

Von Trier often situates his Calvaries in a conformist, cynical, egoistic and slave-driven America—to use certain clichés –in order to give some kind of sociological credibility to his characters’ malaise (although he himself has never been in the United States because of his phobia about flying).  The title for his (still uncompleted) trilogy—USA, Land of Opportunities—has an evidently ironic tone.[14]

The way in which von Trier represents America reminds us of how Brecht (1938) evoked Nazi Germany in Fear and Loathing in the Third Reich.  Brecht’s mosaic-like drama is often performed today, but what is most fundamentally disturbing is not the representation of the degradation of life in a specific totalitarian regime.  Rather, behind the screen of Hitlerian terror, Brecht in fact shows us the infernality of social co-existence as such, as though the Third Reich brought to light the malice and cruelty intrinsic to human relations.  Every country, however good its political system, needs heroes.  Not by chance some years later, in Closed Doors (1944), Sartre will finally let one of his characters utter, in a gnomic way, “hell lies in other people”.  Which could be transformed into “Nazism lies in others”.  In von Trier, behind the irony of the “land of opportunity”, the way is cleared for an outright denunciation of social life.

In effect, unlike much of leftist cinema or theater, von Trier does not indulge in any Eulogy whatsoever on the fundamental goodness and wisdom of People.  On the contrary, Dogville shows how “simple folk” can turn into persecutory monsters.  Put any well-meaning person in the right circumstance and he can transform into a torturer (as Stanley Milgram showed with his famous experiment[15]).  This denunciation of the horror of the banality of everyday life is really part of the American tradition.  But Dogville, a rogue town, could be located in any part of the world, and it is not by chance that he presents it as a stage city made up purely of signs.

Still, at the end of Dogville, we see a series of photographs of an actual poor American city in the 1930s, photos which however should not be interpreted as a second thought about the theatrical style of the film, as though to say “look at how the characters in Dogville could really have existed in the real America!”  What those final photos create is actually a stylistic disorientation.  The film in the end resembles a sort of 18th century philosophical-like apology, and like certain Marivaux dramas (La dispute [1744], for example) which illustrated a scientific controversy, it appears more a staged parabola.  What those photos do instead is to thrust us into a Depression-era reality.  Just the opposite of what happened in Breaking the Waves, where unrealistic graphics interrupted the realistic continuum of the film:  even here, and even if in an inverse sense, the director inflicts us with a screeching style.  In Breaking the Waves, artifice breaks up a likely story situated in a precise time and place, while in Dogville, the realism of the final photos breaks up the didactic artificiality of the film.

Von Trier’s real intent is in short to dislocate us: by engrossing us in a situation which seems real, he reminds us that we are dealing only with an artistic fiction; and when we are convinced that we are participating in an almost abstract demonstrative parabola, he reminds us that all of this could be true and concrete.  This dislocation thus aims at pointing out to us that the function of cinema should not be to imitate reality—thus pushing reality more and more to imitate cinema—but to bring us closer to the Real, towards the pain of life laid bare which cinema can only allude to.



Agamben, G. (1995) Homo Sacer, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Brecht, B. (1938) Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, Methuen, 1990.

Marivaux, P.C. de Chamblain de (1744) La dispute, in Oeuvres Complètes, Paris : Crémille, 1973.

Milgram S. (1983) Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, New York: Harper/Collins.

Sartre, J.-P. (1944) No exit, and Three Other Plays, Vintage, 1989.

Wilder, T. (1938) Our Town, Harper Collins, 2003.


[1] Also called Dogma #2.

[2] Some have complained that many of von Trier’s scripts are tearjerkers.  In effect, like in many melodramas—for example, La traviata and Madame Butterfly—von Trier loves to show us the sad end of, above all, women.

[3] La strada (1954).


[4] Le notti di Cabiria (1957)


[5] Il portiere di notte (1974).


[6] Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (1952) most closely resembles for me the Golden Heart trilogy in its narration of the pained and sorrowful life of a woman who sustains every imaginable kind of taunting to end up a poor prostitute.

[7] Direktøren for det hele, 2006.

[8] Riget, 1994, 1997.


[9] Even Emily Watson—the Bess of Breaking the Waves—is somehow too pretty and bright for the part.

[10] In particular: Agamben 1995.

[11] We might ask why this completely harmless figure of the outsider with no legal rights is so attractive to a part of philosophical and political thought today, and also to some movie directors.  It is probably an antiphrastic effect of globalization: when cultures and economies mix freely, people are impressed by cases which by contrast show exclusion.


[12] The idea of representing reality as a ballet was taken up, for example, by Paolo Virzì in Tutta la vita davanti (2008; All of Life Before You), along the lines of an Italian comedy: at the start of the film, the unemployed protagonist observes the morning crowds as they head to work as though they were dancing.  Even here, the choreographic form brings forth an ironic effect, given that the morning commute is usually one of the bleakest moments of the day.  The point is that with Virzì it is clearly enunciated that thus Universal Ballet is a subjective perception of the protagonist, in short, “verity” is reaffirmed via its almost hallucinatory transgression.  The tragedy of Dancer in the Dark derives instead from the fact that the dancing form slides from Selma’s subjective perception or desire to the actual film way of being, as if the directing fully assumed the perception of the protagonist.  Verism in short is undermined by Real-ism.

[13]Poetics, XIII, 2, 12 (Bekker 1452b, 40).  

[14] Dogville and Manderlay (2005) are the first two films of this “American” trilogy.

[15] With this Milgram (1983) showed how the majority of people, chosen by random, in a situation in which an authority orders them to torture a person (per supposedly scientific reasons), end up actually doing so without opposing any resistance.


Flussi © 2016Privacy Policy