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In Features, Issues

EXTERMINATING ANGEL
When it premiered in Cannes, Lars von Trier's Dogville had the American critics up in arms. Placing Hollywood stars on a minimally-adorned stage, the film played like a Brechtian version of Our Town with a nasty agit-prop coda. Still, as Howard Feinstein discovers, the film is a natural progression for the director of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark.

The Brechtian soundstage location for Lars von Trier's Dogville. Photos: Rolf Konow.

Dogville was the barometer movie at the last Cannes Film Festival.Variety called it an “ideologically apocalyptic blast at American values.” Screen claimed that it “emerges as a vivid and thoughtful exploration of a world condemned to suffer from the constant, grinding disappointments of human nature.” Whatever it is, it fits snugly into the arc of Lars von Trier’s oeuvre.

The film centers on Grace (Nicole Kidman), a beautiful, well-dressed woman who, several decades back, wanders into dead-end Dogville, Colo., which abuts an abandoned silver mine and the Rockies. She is running from gangsters, and the seemingly kind townspeople take her in. She forges her strongest bond with Tom (Paul Bettany), a folksy intellectual. But once a police search commences, the townspeople turn against her, forcing her to suffer cruel behavior and even crueler acts. Christlike, Grace turns the other cheek until the person she considers her most trusted friend betrays her. In a microsecond, she shifts gears, then unleashes vengeance like a Fury.

Chlöe Sevigny in Dogville.
One of von Trier’s first feature-length projects was an abstract video version of Medea (1988), the archetypal revenge drama. With his later films — Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000) — he moved away from his headier early work and began to focus on good versus evil, female martyrdom and sacrifice. (His idol, after all, is fellow Danish “spiritual filmmaker” Carl Theodor Dreyer.) In all his films, he closely observes power and its abuses. Ever the moralist, he synthesizes all these concerns in Dogville.

Moving even further away from the Dogme 95 manifesto than he did with Dancer, in which artifice-laden musical numbers evolved out of naturalistic scenes, von Trier eschews realism completely in Dogville. The set is a single stage, with chalk drawings marking the site of walls and doors. An offscreen narrator relays much of the action. Von Trier has mentioned several sources of inspiration, among them Brechtian theater, Kurt Weill’s song “Pirate Jenny” (also set in an isolated town) and the television plays that were popular in the 1950s and again in the 1970s. Americans will think of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, but von Trier says he had not read it until after preproduction.

Von Trier has never visited the U.S. — he has a fear of flying — but Dogville, like Dancer, is set in small-town America. He defends his right to set his films here: Hollywood has used the world for its sets, he points out. He also has a love/hate attitude toward America. He asks, shouldn’t the world’s only superpower be just?

Dogville is the first in a trilogy of films — Manderlay and Wasington are the next two — that were supposed to star Kidman. But like Dancer star Björk, Kidman and also Bettany have spoken publicly about the difficulty of working with von Trier. If this man were easygoing, however, he probably wouldn’t be what he is: the most provocative director making movies today.

The Brechtian soundstage location for Lars von Trier's Dogville.

Filmmaker: The title of the film — Dogville — reminds me of the name of your filmmaking manifesto, Dogme 95, but also of Dogpatch, the village of the American cartoon “Lil’ Abner.” Where did the name come from?

Lars von Trier: I had a discussion with a guy who was helping with the script. The film was [originally] supposed to be about something else; it was supposed to be about how you kind of destroy people. We were talking about concentration camps, and he had a theory that the most important thing was that [the prisoners] should be [made into] animals. It made it easier for everybody — it made it easier for the inmates, it made it easier for the guards. So he said, why don’t we call [the town in the movie] Dogville? That was where it started. Actually, it should have been “Dogsville,” but I liked the little mistake. That’s all there is to it.

Filmmaker: In some ways, this film, with its themes of betrayal and then revenge, looks back to your first, in 1988, which was an adaptation of Medea.

von Trier: That’s right: Medea. I haven’t thought about that. I was not very pleased with Medea.

Filmmaker: The combination of the sets, the offscreen narrator, Kidman’s subtle, reserved performance and perhaps the overall tone of the film — it seems as if Dogville steps back from the more emotional dramatics of the previous two films.

Nicole Kidman and Ben Gazzara in Dogville.

von Trier: Yes, it is more intellectual and less emotional. I am not afraid of that. I don’t think there is one way a film should be. I’ve tried the emotional, and I think Dogville has a little of everything. It lies very close to me. It’s filled with sarcasm and narration. The whole setup is to me more personal than the “Golden Heart” stuff with Breaking the Waves and all that. This is kind of more “me,” I think.

Filmmaker: At what point did you decide on the “filmed play” approach?

HOW THEY DID IT
Production Format
High Definition and DV.
Camera Manufacturer and Model
Sony Hi-Def CineAlta was the main camera.
Film Stock
Film output at Hokus Bogus to Kodak 5242.
Editing System
Avid.
Color Correction
Digital Vision's Valhalla system. Online compressed video to 4:2:2.
von Trier: I originally wrote the script for, what should we say, “normal” locations. And then I went out fishing, and I kept seeing this whole thing from above. I was thinking about maps, and then suddenly it was very clear to me that this is how it should look. It has a Brecht thing in it, this little town where you can see everybody all the time — it was perfectly logical. I think the last drop was when I saw Lord of the Rings. I said, “Oh shit.”

Filmmaker: Why?

von Trier: Watching Barry Lyndon, you know that they’ve been waiting three months to have this cloud and this mountain, and that gives it some power. If you know they did it on a computer, it’s completely uninteresting, I think.

Filmmaker: When shooting, did you follow your script directly or allow the actors to improvise?

von Trier: We made one take where we followed the script completely, and then we destroyed it more and more. In the end we only improvised or had no words. We did all kinds of little theater-school games, and then I used all this raw material and cut it together.

Filmmaker: And you ended up using more of what part?

von Trier: I probably used mostly what was written, but then all the other stuff I used as “spices” here and there.

Filmmaker: Todd McCarthy in Variety famously reviewed Dogville and seemed to think it was anti-American. How do you respond?

von Trier: Of course I am not anti-American in that sense. How could you be “anti” a country? But the politics that I see — and I was against the war — yes, very much so. This whole Western world against the Muslim thing — that’s not a war that can be fought with guns, even if you are a superpower. I think there’s 10 percent of the American population that have more or less the same political views as I have, but then again, the same goes for Denmark. So you know, there are probably more people that I agree with in America than in Denmark because Denmark is much smaller!

Filmmaker: Why did you cast such well-known actors in the smaller roles in your film?

von Trier: It’s not that I go for them because they’re known, but they are known because they have a quality. America has a big underworld of fantastic actors just below the star level. I have tried many times to work with Ben Gazzara. Philip Baker Hall I think is a great actor. All of them it would have been nice to work with [singly] instead of with 14 other actors. So the film is a little “over-cast” in that sense.

Filmmaker: But how can you have actors like Lauren Bacall in the film and consign them to such small parts?

von Trier: Yes, it’s terrible, but then they all wanted [to do the film]. Lauren Bacall came and said, “There’s no part.” I said, “You read the script!” She has more lines in the film than she has in the script. I told her it was a small part, and [she must have thought], “Oh, he’s only joking.” I think that having such good actors in minor parts makes the town alive in another way. Because they are so good, so you only have to see them for a very short time and you get the whole character.

Nicole Kidman in Dogville.
Filmmaker: What did Nicole Kidman bring to the part?

von Trier: A lot. I wrote it for her after seeing her in Eyes Wide Shut. I think my technique is actually trying to “pull out” the person, and I think we did well. I think we got a lot of the human being — her sweetness. I had a very insistent camera that I carried myself.

Filmmaker: If she had declined the film after reading the script, what would you have done?

von Trier: That’s what happens all the time. The reason we used Emily Watson [in Breaking the Waves] was because somebody else said no. And the good thing is that you never know how it would have been, you only know how it turns out.

Filmmaker: How do you feel about the production company Zentropa selling your movie in both a three-hour version and a two-hour version?

von Trier: Well, it’s a compromise. I am not very particular about what you do to my films as long as you know which one is the original. And the original is the [three-hour version]. [The two-hour version] was not cut down by me — it’s like [an abridged] version of a book. I have seen it, I think it’s okay, but I’m not approving or disapproving. If I approved it, I could just have made it! I had a contract that said it had to be two hours, but which law do you follow? I made it for three hours because it had to be three hours, you know, and this was kind of the compromise that came out of that.

Dogville.

Filmmaker: The simple setting of Dogville and this new trilogy, is it a reaction to the complexity of making Dancer in the Dark?

GO BACK AND WATCH...
The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant: Adapted from his own play, Fassbinder's 1972 tale of two sadistic fashion designers and their put-upon servant takes place in one room and is a tour de force of camera movement.
Written on the Wind: Brecht was also an influence on fellow German Douglas Sirk, whose stylized melodramas also explored American political themes.
Medea: Starring Maria Callas, Pasolini's 1969 version of Euripides's tragedy omits most of the dialogue in telling the ultimate revenge tale.
Click on a title to purchase it from Amazon.com.
von Trier: Oh yeah, I always think I have found a very simple way to make a film, and it always turns out to be hell. These six weeks of Dogville were not pleasant at all, not at all — it was such hard work. To have 15 actors at the same time, it was so frustrating. It was difficult. We shot six minutes a day.

Filmmaker: The way you describe your life, or your work, it sounds like you have to put yourself through punishment.

von Trier: Yes, I’m punishing myself all the time. But it’s like a mountain climber, you know: “Argh, okay, I’ll take this” — masochism, or a fear of emptiness, call it what you will. My problem is that I have a lot of adrenaline, and if I don’t use it for climbing a mountain, I use it for something completely destructive, which I’m trying not to do. I would love not to make films.

Filmmaker: What would you do?

von Trier: What would I do? That’s the question. I would go fly-fishing. I like the quietness of it. I would love doing that, but I’ve tried many times, and I’m very poor at it [laughs]. I’d also go hunting, but I’m poor at that too. Animals laugh at me — I’m afraid of the animals.

Filmmaker: I understand you don’t enjoy traveling too much. You actually have a phobia — a fear of flying?

von Trier: Yeah. I’m hysterical about flying, but phobia? I think that all of us have something we like to do and something we do not really like to do. And then it’s a matter of how much you press yourself. In my life, I can actually “go around” these places that I do not want to touch. Maybe that’s not very healthy — maybe I should just sit on an airplane and kind of panic about it. I don’t know, I’m working through this stuff [laughs].

Filmmaker: In some ways, not traveling is sort of like avoiding life.

von Trier: Yeah, I know it’s avoiding life, and I’m trying not to.

Filmmaker: By making films?

von Trier: Well, that’s avoiding life, making films. For me.

Go to Sidebar: Planned Interference: Carol Nahra on The Five Obstructions.

Also see the Online Feature from 6/11/02: Our Town.

Go to Dogville's Offical Web site: www.tvropa.com/Dogville/.



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