Dogme Uncut : Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, and the Gang That Took on Hollywood

Dogme Uncut : Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, and the Gang That Took on Hollywood
Jack Stevenson
September 2003
Film & TV
6 x 9

In 1995, Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, the forthcoming Dogville) and three fellow Danish directors swore allegiance to a “vow of chastity” aimed at jolting filmmakers around the world who had become stuck in the mire of slick, emotionally manipulative, high-concept, and bombastic movie productions. They named their philosophy “Dogme95,” and its tenets demanded a return to the basic core of filmmaking: the use of natural lighting and a hand-held camera, and the refusal to use special effects, a soundtrack of any kind (only natural sounds found on location were acceptable), and movie sets (all shooting was to take place on location).

Like the French New Wave and 1960’s American Underground film movements, Dogme had a profound affect on filmmaking around the world, including the sacred cow known as “Hollywood.” In part because of the proliferation of relatively inexpensive digital cameras and technology, the movement resonated with young and independent filmmakers, creating a surge in back-to-the-basics, guerilla filmmaking. It also had a profound influence on everything from Hollywood filmmakers to dance choreographers to computer game manufacturers.

The list of films and filmmakers to come out of the Dogme movement reads like a who’s who of art-house cinema from the late-1990s and early-2000s: the aforementioned Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), Harmony Korine (Julien Donkey-Boy), Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners), and Susanne Bier (Open Hearts) among many others.

Dogme Uncut is written by film journalist and historian Jack Stevenson, who, while living in Demark for the past decade, has had a true insider’s view of the Dogme movement—from its conception to its early triumphs to its current incarnation. With a good deal of humor and fascinating insights, Stevenson brings a mixture of history, analysis, and reportage to bear on the eight-year-old film movement, examining the subject from multiple perspectives. Dogme’s debt to previous film “waves” is explored, as is the impact Dogme itself has had on current trends in cinema and on today’s young filmmakers. Penned in a lively, accessible, and jargon-free style, Dogme Uncut is a richly illustrated survey of the entire Dogme canon that is both entertaining and hugely informative.

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“The Dogme Manifesto” and “Vow of Chastity”

John Cassavettes, Jean-Luc Godard, and the Gang That Influenced Dogme
The American Underground
The New German Cinema
Other Danish Film Movements
The French New Wave

Lars von Trier’s Pre-Dogme Films
The Element of Crime, Epidemic, and Europa
The Kingdom and Breaking the Waves

Dogme Unveiled
Creation and Initial Reaction
The Growing Controversy
The Funding of Dogme

Danish Dogme Films
The Celebration
The Idiots
The King is Alive
Italian for Beginners
Truly Human
Kira’s Reason—A Love Story
Open Hearts
Old, New, Borrowed and Blue
In Your Hands

The Individuals and Institutions Behind Danish Dogme
The Danish Film School
The Danish Film Institute
The Dogme Studios—Zentropa and Nimbus
Peter Aalbæk Jensen—Dogme Mother
Vibeke Windeløv and Id Tardini—Zentropa’s Dynamic Duo
Mogens Rukov—The Mad Professor of Dogme
Jørgen Leth—The Obstructed Man
Tómas Gislason—Beyond Dogme
Jesper Jargil—The Fifth Beatle
Anthony Dod Mantle—Leaving Dogme

American Dogme Films
Chetzemoka’s Curse
The Bread Basket
Julien: Donkey Boy
Bad Acting
Security, Colorado
Converging With Angels
The Sparkle Room
Dogme’s Impact on America

Other Foreign Dogme Films
Joy Ride
Cabin Fever
Once Upon Another Time
Wedding Days
The Ending

The End of Dogme?


Plot Synopses of All 33 Dogme Films

Previous Manifestos and Statements by Lars von Trier:

“The Element of Crime”

Dogumentary Manifestos and Vow of Chastity Issued by the Dogumentary Brothers: Lars von Trier, Børge Høst, and Tøger Seidenfaden
The Closure of Dogme—Press Release from the Dogme Secretariat, June 2002


The “Godfather of Dogme,” manuscript studies professor Mogens Rukov, has stated that no film “wave” ever lasts longer than eight years.

In that case, Dogme’s number is just about up.
But if Dogme’s impact as a revolutionary call-to-arms has faded, its ability to sell tickets and impress critics is anything but exhausted. Italian For Beginners, Dogme film #5—the first of the second-wave of Dogme—smashed box office records in Denmark and was a big hit in most foreign markets, becoming, for example, one of the most-seen Danish films ever in America.

Danish Dogme films #6 and #7, Truly Human and Kira’s Reason—A Love Story, won most of the major Danish awards in 2001 and were praised by American critics upon their U.S. releases. And Susanne Bier’s Open Hearts (#8), which premiered on September 6, 2002 to impassioned accolades in the Danish press, went on to set the record for opening weekend grosses for a Dogme film. In America the film met with wildly positive audience response at Sundance 2003 where Variety praised it as “poignant, thoughtful and utterly absorbing.” And the two most recent Danish Dogme films, by up-and-coming women directors, Natasha Arthy and Annette K. Olesen, have subsequently also been deemed successes.
To the joy of its fans and the torment of its detractors, Dogme lives!
Much has already been said and written about the first three Dogme films, The Celebration, The Idiots, and Mifune, directed respectively by Thomas Vinterberg, Lars von Trier, and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen. They made the first splash. Their films constituted a kind of first wave that swept through the film world in a spray of hype and controversy. Seemingly every film journalist wrote a piece about Dogme and every film magazine ran a spread on it. Dogme was hot stuff in 1998 and 1999. It was an audacious challenge to the powers-that-be, a tantalizing riddle that just might be “the answer” . . . the flag under which the Davids of the film world could unite against the Hollywood Goliath.
At the start of 1999, young, fresh-faced Thomas Vinterberg himself visited the Cave of the Cyclops to have lunch with Steven Spielberg and challenge him to make a Dogme film. Heady stuff for the young filmmaker from little Denmark who came clutching what was just his second feature film. Dogme was his ticket to the inner-sanctums of the Hollywood Temple, the magic key to film festival acclaim and adulation around the world. Dogme gossip and Dogme rumors seemed to dominate every film-related cocktail party and every indie-film panel discussion. There was no escaping the reach of Dogme “talk”—even if there were only three movies up to this point.
But under the sizzling glare of so much media scrutiny, the novelty of Dogme began to evaporate. Dogme became typecast, or rather “hypecast.” The film world didn’t crumble and Hollywood kept making movies stuffed with expensive special effects, glossy production values, and weak stories. And while film nerds the world over continued to devote themselves to arcane speculation as to which of the rules in the Vow of Chastity so-and-so director had violated, the general film-going public tired of the obscurantism Dogme had wrought. The promise of Dogme had yet to be redeemed and many interesting questions were left hanging in the air. Some people were, in fact, alienated by all the hype and branded the whole thing a publicity stunt. The backlash had begun.
Finally indifference set in. By late 2000, Dogme seemed to have run out of gas.
In fact much was about to happen with the movement.
Italian For Beginners, as noted, kicked off a kind of second wave and Dogme found a new head of steam as more films were released. It now entered what was perhaps its most diverse and interesting phase, and certainly its most successful if judged by the impressive box-offices grosses. And of course that was a problem in its own right. Dogme had “almost turned into a genre formula, and that was never the intention,” as the final press-release from the Dogme secretariat stated in June of 2002, on the occasion of its shut down and the cessation of the issuance of certificates.
One Danish critic described the closing of the Secretariat as “the burial of Dogme,” but if that were true then it appears to have been a premature burial. As noted, two more Danish Dogme films have come out since the official counting stopped and more films, both Danish and international, are in the pipeline.
The Brothers had created something beyond their control. Maybe they even created a Frankenstein.
Thomas Vinterberg might know something about that. He ran so many victory laps after The Celebration that it took him almost five years to get his next movie, It’s All About Love, onto screens. He gave so many interviews about Dogme that he eventually grew sick of it and tried to make this film as anti-Dogme as possible. “I spit in the face of Dogme with this movie, ” he stated in issue #22 of the Danish trade publication, Film, which was printed in English and distributed for free at the 2002 Cannes festival. Vinterberg’s face was on the cover, pictured in profile—dashing, intense, determined—because everybody assumed it was a given that It’s All About Love would be “in-competition” that year. Hadn’t The Celebration been the talk of the 1998 festival, playing to a full house in their biggest theater and winning salvos of thunderous applause at the end? So much greater the shock, then, when the selection committee rejected it. They told him they found it too “American” and were disappointed he hadn’t given them something more in the spirit of The Celebration.
Upon the film’s release in Denmark, the critics, despite bending over backwards to say something nice about the country’s favorite film son, largely agreed. “The Celebration is Over” announced one headline, while another paper declared that “Vinterberg screwed up. ” [ii] American critics at Sundance 2003, where the film’s premiere took place, were similarly underwhelmed. “The most ardent admirers of the raw, truth-telling qualities of Dogme will no doubt be disappointed,” opined Variety’s Todd McCarthey in a piece headed “Vinterberg Disappoints with Comeback.” “Concept Takes Precedence over Narrative,” chimed in Screen.
Horrors! Vinterberg had sold out the gospel of Dogme: “acting and story, acting and story” (repeat until Hollywood listens). Now what kind of muddled story was this? In launching his new film he laid so much stress upon the fact that it was the opposite of Dogme that it began to seem like that was all that it was. It was quite a bit more than just that of course, but Vinterberg seemed to have psyched himself out. He could not escape Dogme’s embrace which he had earlier so encouraged.
Despite the closing of the Secretariat, Dogme Anno 2003 is anything but dead. It has in fact changed, broadened, developed . . . “grown up” as Toronto film festival officials put it in 2002 on occasion of the screening of Open Hearts. While the founders might well cringe at the prospect of their snotty love-child growing up and “maturing,” it has in any case survived. It has survived the departure of the four founding Dogme brothers and it has moved out from under the shadow of Lars von Trier. It has survived the failure of individual films and it has survived the success of individual films, such as The Celebration and Italian for Beginners whose popularity threatened to overshadow what Dogme was all about—the will to challenge oneself and experiment. It has survived innumerable charges of hype and fraud, and it has survived what many consider to be the failure and illegitimacy of many of the foreign (non-Danish) Dogme films.
The first chapter is over and much about Dogme that was inscrutable can now be examined with the benefit of hindsight. The next chapter is writing itself as we speak, and the jury is still out in many respects.
Many say it has proven to be a more elastic and adaptable concept than was originally thought possible. At the same time suspicions are voiced, by among others, Mogens Rukov, that the “great experiment” ended with the first four films. To some the subsequent films have proven that Dogme has indeed become the “uniform” that von Trier promised it would be—a mere cloak or covering so to speak, a dress code, a label . . . something easily donned or shed for purposes of convenience (or profit). Others assert that yes, Dogme is adaptable, but in the best sense, that it provides a framework that is loose enough to let each film breathe on its own. Dogme, they say, is still ripe for experimentation and can still lead to new discoveries.
In fact there is still much to discover even about Dogme’s past, for in spite of all the intense scrutiny it has received over the years, it was originally constructed as a kind of Rubik’s cube, and few have managed to get a grip on what von Trier himself described as the movement’s “impossible and paradoxical rules. ” Even insiders, such as von Trier pal, Jesper Jargil, have struggled with the central mystery of Dogme.
“Despite all that’s been said and written about Dogme, I spent almost a year simply figuring out what the manifesto actually meant, ” Jargil commented in issue 22 of Film on occasion of the release of his documentary about the movement, The Purified (which also had its American premiere at Sundance 2003).
Despite Dogme’s longevity, the mystery lingers. The debate goes on, more polarized than ever. This Dogme discussion, carried on among otherwise polite critics, professors, and film buffs, has actually turned into a shoving match. In fact today there is a scuffle taking place amongst cineastes, a brawl between partisans that is tinged with the scent of class warfare as charges of heresy, sell-out, and rank opportunism fly through the air. If Dogme has managed nothing else, it has made people passionate about film again and re-injected a bit of radical politics back into the mix, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the ’50s or ’60s.
Within these pages it is my objective to consider the movement from all perspectives, particularly from the “insider” perspective—the Danish perspective—since it is in Denmark that the movement is still being actively celebrated, dismissed, debated, loved, and hated. That is a central aim of this book, drawing as it does upon many sources of information and opinion thus far confined to the Danish language.
Dogme is a legitimate movement that should be taken seriously by film scholars, but it is also a story that contains a lot of the grist of raw human drama. There is hubris and humility, perseverance and perfidiousness, back-slapping and bandwagon jumping. . . .
It is the story of a great success that was never expected or predicted, a story that the film world is still attempting to understand. A story that is still unfolding.

Jack Stevenson
Allerød, Denmark

©2003 by Jack Stevenson