A Beginner's Guide to Dogme 95

Bold invention or direct to video junk? We offer a guide to one of Denmark's biggest film exports.

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Scanbox Entertainment

On March 20th, 1995 Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier announced the Dogme 95 manifesto to the world. This would be a set of ten rules designed to shake up what its creators saw as a crisis in cinema, written and signed by von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Kristian Levring, and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen (dubbed the “Dogme Brotherhood”). The rules were as follows:

  • 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).
  • 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.)
  • The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
  • 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.)
  • Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  • The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
  • Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)
  • Genre movies are not acceptable.
  • The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  • The director must not be credited.

Their aim was to strip away the artifice of modern cinema, returning it to something raw and exciting. Or was it?

The true intentions behind the movement quickly became muddled, and the authenticity of the manifesto came to be especially questionable when even the “Brotherhood” disregarded the rules when it suited them. Dogme 95 then, is perhaps best viewed as a game, a tongue-in-cheek act of provocation and a test for filmmakers to create something “real.”

Now though, it can be difficult to look back and see more than a whole lot of direct to video junk. What once felt like a shot in the arm quickly gave way to uninspired filmmaking and failed attempts to recapture that early spark. But did anything worthwhile ever come from Dogme? Well, yes actually, and here’s a guide to some of the titles you may want to seek out:

The Celebration (1998)

Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration kicked off Dogme with one hell of a bang. With a raw, unfiltered film in which lead character Christian returns home on his father’s 60th birthday to confront the family patriarch. The celebrations proceed until the time comes for Christian to make a speech—in which he reveals to the stunned party guests that he and his deceased sister were sexually abused by their father as children.

What follows is a man’s desperate struggle to have his truth heard. Even in the face of being ridiculed and physically removed from the premises, Christian stands defiantly, determined to be heard. The film is equal parts harrowing and darkly funny, with the handheld Dogme style adding an authentic edge, giving viewers the illusion of watching somebody’s insane home movie. Despite later successes, Dogme never truly managed to top its first and best outing.

The Idiots (1998)

The Idiots is perhaps the quintessential Dogme film, the one that feels like the purest expression of the manifesto’s spirit. Brash and in your face, Lars von Trier’s film is designed to be as provocative and offensive as possible, demanding your attention and daring you to be repulsed.

The film centers around a group of middle-class people desperate for an escape from the mundanity of life. They do this by embracing their “inner-idiot,” both privately and in public. While the premise alone is enough to turn many off, let alone the explicit sexual content which caused quite the stir, the film actually goes to some strangely heartfelt places. It’s also a vital turning point in von Trier’s career, where he began to adopt a looser style that would carry over to many of his later films.

Mifune (1999)

Directed by veteran filmmaker Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, Mifune was the third film to fall under the Dogme banner. This one is something of a departure from the previous two, dropping the dark and provocative undertones in favor of a much sweeter tone. Dogme’s first (but not last) romantic comedy sees Kresten returning to his family farm after his father’s death, where he’s reunited with his brother Rud.

When Liva, a prostitute from the city, answers an ad for work at the farm, the stage is set for an almost conventional rom-com. What follows is an enjoyable time, in which our characters contend with the ways in which they’ve tried to leave their pasts behind. And confront the fact that they’ve settled into lifestyles they aren’t truly content with.

The film takes its name from Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, whom Kresten imitates for his brother’s amusement, utilizing kitchen equipment as a makeshift costume. This is all done in a way that draws specific attention to the Dogme rule of using only the props available in the location. Later films, like The King Is Alive, would push the idea of creativity born out of one’s limited surroundings even further, but we’ll get to that.

Julien Donkey-Boy (1999)

Like much of Harmony Korine’s work, Julien Donkey-Boy has something of a reputation for being a “love it or hate it” film. While many praise Korine’s creative uses of still photography and hidden cameras, others criticize the aimless story and confused ideas. I, admittedly, am more inclined towards the latter, although fans of Korine’s unique style will likely get considerably more out of the film. Especially those with a fondness for the loose, observational approach of his directorial debut Gummo.

Korine uses his cinematic tricks to put us in the mindset of Julien, whose schizophrenia effects both his own and his family’s lives. The end result is a muddled collection of what can barely be described as scenes, which makes Gummo look conventional by comparison. Julien Donkey-Boy isn’t without its defenders though, with some seeing it as an honest portrait of schizophrenia. And to give credit where it’s due, Werner Herzog’s memorable performance as Julien’s miserable father is really something.

The King Is Alive (2000)

The King Is Alive is Dogme at its most self-referential, taking the story of “King Lear” and applying the rules of the manifesto. The film revolves around a mismatched group of tourists on a coach journey through the desert, whose personalities clash when the bus breaks down far from civilization. They settle down in a long-abandoned town, where the sole remaining resident watches the action from afar.

It’s not long before the group becomes bored, and tempers begin to flare up. Keen to maintain a modicum of calm, Shakespeare aficionado Henry suggests they put on a performance of “King Lear,” hoping that the endeavor will keep everyone from turning on each other. Although his failing memory and the lack of resources means that their version largely consists of cobbled together moments, utilizing their surroundings in lieu of props and sets.

The film draws parallels between their doomed production and the process of making a Dogme film, as director Kristian Levring follows the characters’ declining mental states as their reality begins to blur with that of the play. The King Is Alive goes to some (not entirely earned) rather nasty places, and a number of character beats fall into cliché, but is an intriguing artifact nonetheless.

Italian For Beginners (2000)

Italian For Beginners, one of Dogme’s biggest success stories, is perhaps the film most defiant of the rule against genre movies. Even more so than MifuneLone Scherfig‘s film is a pretty conventional rom-com, without any of the cynicism commonly associated with Dogme. The core of the narrative is an Italian language class at a local rec center, the attendants of which are all fundamentally lonely people.

Over the course of the film we see how each of their lives connect, their everyday struggles and the ruts they’re all stuck in. The characters of Italian For Beginners are all broken in some way, and while their various problems are far from solved by the end, the comfort they find in each other might just be enough for them.

The visual style that the Dogme rules lend the film compliments the honest emotions of the characters, who all have to reckon with the fact that their lives aren’t exactly where they imagined they’d be. However, Scherfig’s empathy for these people is what keeps the film from drowning in cynicism. They’re flawed people for sure, and she doesn’t shy away from that, but their desire for a stable happiness is treated earnestly and without contempt. If the other films on this list have gotten you down, Italian For Beginners may be exactly what you need.

Cabin Fever (2000)

Mona J. Hoel‘s Cabin Fever, Norway’s first entry into the Dogme movement, is something of a forgotten gem. Borrowing from the claustrophobic family dynamics of The Celebration, the film depicts a tense Christmas trip to a remote mountain cabin. And this being a Dogme film, you can absolutely bet on there being dark secrets, underlying resentment and a whole lot of yelling.

Cabin Fever may not be as sharp or disorienting as The Celebration, try as it might, but the film still does a solid job of cramming way too many family members into a cabin for a showdown that makes your worst vacations seem tame by comparison. The Dogme aesthetic is used to great effect here, achieving a similar home video look that Vinterberg utilized with the frantic handheld camera. It hardly reinvents the wheel, nor does it signal any particular new development for the movement, but if you’re after another suitably nasty family melodrama, this is worth checking out.

Open Hearts (2002)

And rounding out our list is perhaps the most sentimental movie to come from the movement, Susanne Bier‘s Open Hearts. A late entry into the Dogme canon, Open Hearts‘ success showed that Dogme films were still capable of captivating audiences and if any film on the list suggested that the movement could still have a bright future, it was this one. Of course, this was not the case though as Dogme only had two more years left in it, during which time, there was very little of note released.

The film stars Mads Mikkelsen and Sonja Richter as Niels and Cecilie, two lovers brought together by the type of contrived circumstances that Bier and screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen thrive in. When Niels’ wife Marie hits Cecilie’s fiancee Joachim with her car, all of their lives are changed. Joachim is taken to the hospital where he is placed under the care of Niels, who feels great sympathy for Cecilie. The two begin to spend time together and eventually become romantically involved, complicating Niels family life and Cecilie’s sense of obligation to stay with Joachim.

Open Hearts is a raw, sometimes devastating film and Bier deftly utilizes the Dogme style to enhance the heightened emotions. The director has always been fascinated with the eyes of her characters, focusing on the smallest of facial gestures to let us into their mindset. Making what might seem like a strange match (hand-held, lo-fi visual style and romantic drama) work with precisely the intended effect. Dogme was certainly no stranger to a more tender storytelling approach, as we’ve seen on this list, but never was it as even-handed or hard-hitting as Open Hearts.

Finished all these and interested in finding out more? The unofficial Dogme 95 website contains everything you need to know, from the full manifesto to a complete list of all 35 Dogme films (but be aware that a number of these are not available to watch, and many more are not very good).

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