12/01/2012 16:55

Review of Dogville (2003), dir. Lars von Trier

Photo: Limereviews and Strawberry Confessions
“I've found out that people are the same all over. Greedy as animals. In a small town they're just a bit less successful. Feed 'em enough, they'll eat till their bellies burst.”

Dogville is a movie exuding controversy on several levels. First of all, the movie’s director, Lars von Trier, caused uproar at the 2011 Cannes Festival by remarking in a jocular tone that he sympathized a little bit with Adolf Hitler and that Albert Speer, the famous Nazi architect, was one of God’s greatest children. Second, following the massacre at Utøya, it was made public that Anders Behring Breivik listed Dogville as one of his favorite movies on his Facebook page. Most importantly, the film lacerates the image of small town inhabitants, traditionally portrayed as good-natured, humble and god-fearing people, along with the view that man is inherently good. No movie portrays this theme with such vividness and power as Dogville.


Dogville was written and directed by the controversial director of Danish origin, Lars von Trier, in 2003. It is the first part of the USA: The Land of Opportunities trilogy, comprising the movies Manderlay and the so far not produced Washington. The movie stars the following actors and actresses: Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Chloë Sevigny, Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård, Udo Kier, James Caan, and John Hurts as the movie’s narrator.

The film takes place in an isolated small town during America’s Great Depression. The townspeople provide shelter to Grace who is on the run from mobsters. To be allowed to stay and take refuge in the town, she promises to help the townspeople out to prove she is a good person. At first, the citizens of Dogville are very modest and reluctant to ask any favors from Grace. A sentimental viewer will exclaim with awe at how cordial and amicable the inhabitants of Dogville are. Although the mobsters offer them a reward for turning Grace in, they refuse to betray her, even though they could have used the benefit of a financial reward. One might ask, “Does any other town emanate such an aurora of warmth and kindheartedness?” If you find nothing suspicious about the whole ambience, you are not very familiar with Lars von Trier. Let’s just say that the director chose to name the town “Dogville” for a very good reason. After making Dogville appear as a stereotypically friendly and modest small town, von Trier gradually reveals the darker side of the “kind” townsfolk. As one of the characters says, “I've found out that people are the same all over. Greedy as animals. In a small town they're just a bit less successful. Feed 'em enough, they'll eat till their bellies burst,” which is exactly what, to Grace’s dismay, slowly unfolds in Dogville.

As the townspeople find out, Grace is officially wanted for a bank robbery. They conclude that harboring her poses a threat to them all and thus, they demand that Grace spend more time doing chores for less pay. As time goes by, the town’s citizens grow more abusive of Grace. One of the men forces Grace to have a sexual intercourse with him against her will, threatening to turn her in if she refuses to let him carry out the lecherous act. Ironically, it is the same man who warns Grace of the townspeople’s wicked nature. Then his son begs Grace to spank him and when she refuses, he becomes so obnoxious that Grace eventually fulfills his wish. He goes on to tell his mother, who in turn tells Grace to demonstrate the Doctrine of Stoicism to her children, while she breaks Grace's precious figurines, one by one, telling her she will stop only when she manages to hold back her tears. “I believe smashing them is less a crime than making them. I am going to break two of your figurines first, and if you can demonstrate your knowledge of the Doctrine of Stoicism by holding back your tears, I'll stop.” After Grace attempts to escape later on in a vehicle, the driver of the truck uses the opportunity to rape her and drags her back to town again. The rape is apparently a surcharge for carrying “a dangerous load”. There, the town folks decide that in order to prevent Grace from ever escaping from Dogville again, she must be chained up to a heavy iron wheel, thus limiting her movements to the boundaries of Dogville. Grace’s status as a slave is made even more degrading when the town’s men take turns at abusing her on a daily basis. As if it weren’t humiliating enough, the children ring the town bell whenever such a ribald act takes place. Later, the townspeople call up the mobsters to rid them of Grace, which, unfortunately, turns out to be tantamount to opening up Pandora’s Box. Revealing more, however, I would end up spoiling the movie for the viewer. Let me just say the movie is so powerful it will linger in your thoughts for days on end.


Dogville has been criticized by many for the anti-Americanism as it bashes the popular image of American small-town life, as well as for being exceedingly pessimistic about human nature. Lars von Trier is known for his disdain for America; however, the message of the film is relevant to human communities around the world, may they be urban or rural. Von Trier attempts to get across the idea that human values and compassion are nothing but ephemeral and are quickly forgotten under the right circumstances. He alone has been quoted saying “Evil can arise anywhere, as long as the situation is right.”


The director makes it quite clear that the second people gain complete control over an individual and provided that they are not scared by the vision of having to draw consequences, they lose all decorum they might have had. They are capable of the outright abominable behavior tantamount to that of the beasts, the latter being viewed in our culture as inferior to people in every shape and form. Dogville, however, argues that human nature is inherently dark and deep down beneath the façade that the mankind displays, or rather feigns, in its everyday life, there lurks the animalistic drive of a beast, oblivious to all morals and tacit social conventions, which we adore and flaunt.


The setting of the movie is not what one would expect of a feature film. It is quite primitive, free from any elaborate scenes. Although there are some objects placed on stage, most of the scenery consists of outlines and labels drawn up in chalk. While not infrequent in black box theatres, this setting is quite a rarity in the world of film. Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) by Louis Malle and Red Garters (1954) by George Marshall are some of the few examples of such experimentation with the scenery. The blatantly artificial setting is reminiscent of the staging technique frequently used by the world-renowned playwright Bertolt Brecht. He believed that a play must be executed in such a way that the audience feels reticent to identify with the characters or the plot emotionally, but feels compelled to conduct a rational self-reflection and critically analyze the action taking place on stage. The prime purpose of such a manner of staging a play or a movie is that it reduces the viewer's complacency and insinuates that the reality of an individual is constructed in the same way as the fictional world with actors on stage. In the world of drama this staging method is known as the “verfremdungseffekt”, and also “the distancing effect” or “the alienation effect”.


As far as the structure of the plot is concerned, the drama is divided into a prologue and nine chapters, all narrated linearly. The narrator also plays an important part in the movie, introducing each chapter in a brusque manner. Viewers might complain about the scarcity of special effects in Dogville; these are, nevertheless, used to a certain extent. For example, lighting is used to evoke the images of moving clouds and sound effects are used to make up for missing objects, such as doors. Even though there isn’t a single door in the movie, whenever a character opens one, we hear a creaking sound as if the door was actually present on stage.


Dogville and its on/off stage crew have received various accolades from several countries in the world. These include the Bodil Awards for the Best Danish Film, the Robert Award for the Best Costume Design and for the Best Screenplay, the European Film Awards for the Best Cinematographer, and other prestigious awards in countries such as Russia, Brazil, Spain, and Germany.


I mustn’t forget to mention that the American director Quentin Tarantino, one of the biggest names in contemporary film, praised Dogville by saying that he considered the movie to be one of his top 20 films that have been produced ever since the inception of his own directing career. He moved on to add that if von Trier had only written the movie for stage, he would have received the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. If you are a connoisseur of cinema or drama and are hungry for Pulitzer Prize quality, this movie is for you. If you are a person who likes to reflect on human nature, or human psyche in general, Dogville will not fail to satisfy you either. Moreover, the ending is so poetic and powerful that it will remain an indelible memory in your soul for the rest of your life, regardless of your taste in cinema.

Tomáš Buš