A Series On Lars Von Trier, Part 1

Carl Kruse Arts Blog - Photo of Lars Von Trier

Part 1: A Brief Discussion of Dogme 95

by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Arts Blog

There is a pristineness characterizing the modern film scene. I do not mean a pristineness or cleanliness of character, theme, or narrative, necessarily, but rather of the visual. Films, and other recorded media, have become indescribably high-quality, to the extent that one can see the tiny circular pores on an actor’s skin, or the goosebumps on the bodies of lovers, or the granules of salt on a table. Of course, considering the rapid advancement of filming technology; any would testify that the crispness of the image in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, shot in 1968 with the revolutionary 70mm spherical-lensed Super Panavision 70, is a delectable thing with an intricate and sophisticated image even in comparison with later films, such as Alejandro Iñárritu’s 2015 feature, The Revenant, which was filmed on various models of the ARRI ALEXA series. My conclusion being: if one has the money, why wouldn’t one propose a film of the highest calibre; clean, and sharp, and visually breath-taking.

But I have a bone to pick with such clarity, the same bone that I might fiddle with if I were to discuss hyperrealism in painted artworks. When a film overtakes its viewer, when its eye becomes greater than the eye of its beholder, then I think it begins to separate itself from its observer. Just as, in hyperrealism, a painting of an apple, which looks perfectly like an apple, cannot be an apple because it is too perfect, too real, too incredible to be the thing itself. The painted apple has overtaken the apple itself, and in so doing, becomes not-apple. It becomes an apple we can never hope to touch or taste, because it is infinitely better than any apple we might come across.

This is why I fall upon the name Lars von Trier. Trier, in his odd trajectory of filmmaking, has an overwhelming catalogue of brilliance strung to his name. I recently had the pleasure of watching his debut, The Element of Crime (1984), which I realised was indeed the veritable predecessor of much of his narrator-led filmography. The Element of Crime also offered me a prequel-esque vision into his later film The House That Jack Built (2018), mainly referentially but also in sentiment; that is, of the story behind insidious acts. Though Trier has indeed made some ‘pristine’ works, including The House That Jack Built, which was filmed on the ARRI ALEXA MINI, I admire Trier’s commitment to the aesthetic and significance of a lower-quality film, which he owed to his own manifesto, created as a joint endeavour by he and director Thomas Vinterberg. This manifesto was called Dogme 95.

Carl Kruse Arts Blog - image of Lars Von Trier

Lars Von Trier

I would be loathe to attempt to describe the foundational philosophy behind this manifesto, so let me refer to our good friend Wikipedia for an answer. This sentence describes the rules detailed in the accompanying Vows of Chastity which detailed the ‘dogma’ (I suppose) behind Dogme 95:

“These were rules to create films based on the traditional values of story, acting, and theme, and excluding the use of elaborate special effects or technology.”

And, in so doing the above, the power of filmmaking was pulled out from under the rug of large corporate studios and placed back in the palms of the directors, offering them artistic authority with which to tell their stories once again. Before I continue discussing Von Trier, let me share with you the rules of Dogme 95, for I am sure that you are curious:

  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.
  10. The director must not be credited.

(And, further):

″Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work”, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations. Thus I make my VOW OF CHASTITY.″

I would argue that the last section of this passage might be devoid; we know, of course, that the film Festen (1998), was created by Thomas Vinterberg, and that the 1996 feature Breaking the Waves was directed by Lars von Trier (and arguably not a Dogme 95 film, despite von Trier’s desires for it to be…we’ll discuss that at a later date), so the tenth statement appears unachieved. Not that this matters; perhaps I’m misinterpreting the rule, anyhow.

This manifesto, which was inspired by and directly quotes François Truffaut’s Une certaine tendance du cinéma français (1954), was revolutionary for the film industry, which had taken a sharp turn towards the extremely high-budget, high-production, and highly-controlled waters of Hollywood and its sheer breadth of influence. Von Trier and Vinterberg claimed their manifesto was aimed at restoring a kind of balance within the film industry, so that its barriers could be brought down and opened up to a greater number of less-wealthy creatives.

Von Trier, despite his many scandals and sometime questionable approach to directing is, to me, a genius, and a master of his craft. If there is anything I take away from all that I have seen from him, it is that von Trier is a palpably self-aware creator, conscious of his own faults and unafraid to highlight them to his audience. I watched the new series of his 90s series The Kingdom, released this winter on MUBI, and, though I preferred the earlier series on a personal level, what I particularly enjoyed in this new incarnation of The Kingdom was von Trier’s incessant self-deprecation. He consistently mentions how cocky the young von Trier was and how mediocre and unremarkable the earlier series were (despite fervent disagreement on my part). This is what makes a great artist, to me. It is well and good to celebrate and publicly enjoy one’s work, I think, but to have the insight to damn it, to acknowledge how one has progressed and also not progressed, is a wonderfully powerful thing that I think we should all learn from as artists and creators. Perhaps it is no good to be embarrassed, or ashamed by one’s past, but to learn from it, and to continue forging ahead after all the mistakes, all the indignities, all the failures, is how we progress, in all parts of life.
The homepage of the Carl Kruse Arts Blog.
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Hazel include Giorgio Morandi, Central Governor Theory, and Art for Art’s Sake.
Also find Carl Kruse on XING.

Author: Carl Kruse

Carl Kruse: Human. Being.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *