Where to begin with Dogme 95

Twenty-five years after the first Dogme films premiered, we look back at the abrasive, low-budget output of the movement with a manifesto to strip away the gloss of mainstream cinema.

The Idiots (1998)

Why this might not seem so easy

At a film symposium in Paris in 1995, red pamphlets containing a manifesto were thrown into the audience by Danish director Lars von Trier. They announced the arrival of a new artistic movement, Dogme 95, and its ‘Vow of Chastity,’ rules devised by von Trier and fellow filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg to take back cinema from the grasp of Hollywood’s big budgets and glossy spectacle. Shooting with handheld cameras and no studio lighting on location with only props found on-site were requirements. Non-diegetic sound and music were banned, stripping production back to basics so as not to distract viewers from the performances. Certificates of authenticity were granted (31 official Dogme films were eventually made). 

Rules were strict, but the movement’s ethos was anti-establishment and abrasive, geared to breaking through the superficiality of bourgeois entertainment and sanctimonious conformity. Dogme adherents swore to refrain from personal taste as a way to force the truth out, and situations of social discomfort, even emotional brutality, were frequent in their cinema of revolt. 

Dogme, which re-energised low-budget filmmaking in Denmark and beyond, was officially disbanded in 2005, as advancing digital technology democratised aesthetics. Its renegade spirit can still be felt today in new work by its agitators and their acolytes.

The best place to start – Festen 

Festen (1998)

The first Dogme films, Vinterberg’s Festen (1998) and von Trier’s The Idiots (1998) remain, arguably, the best embodiments of the manifesto’s spirit, as their protagonists shatter hypocritical bourgeois decorum through transgressive exploits. In Festen, extended family members gather for the 60th birthday of respected patriarch Helge (Henning Moritzen) at the grand hotel he runs. Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) confronts his father in a toast about abuse he and his twin sister Linda, who recently committed suicide, endured. The partygoers, complicit in Helge’s denial and gaslighting, plough on with the meal. Christian, spurred on by hotel staff, overthrows the family narrative through successive toasts.

Black-humoured absurdism blends with pathos. The raw authenticity of the Handycam look reinforces a commitment to messy truth-telling. Other secrets spill, exposing the classism, racism and misogyny at the rotten household’s core, and showing, as in Luis Buñuel’s surrealist classic The Exterminating Angel (1962), that the veneer of civilisation gilding privilege is thin.

What to watch next

While Festen won the Jury Prize at Cannes, The Idiots drew attention there of a more outraged sort. It revolves around a group of middle-class adults, led by Stoffer (Jens Albinus), who agree to renounce societally dictated inhibitions by pretending to be developmentally disabled in public places. The film offended some with its representation of performed disability, and its unsimulated sex (using, in one rule-break, a porn industry stand-in.) The protagonists are themselves uneasy over the ethics of their stunts – a flakiness underlined when Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), more extreme in daring, joins. Unhinged by recent grief, she lacks well-regulated boundaries. 

The Idiots is part of von Trier’s Golden Hearts trilogy. The other two instalments were heavily influenced by the manifesto, but broke too many prohibitions to be certified. The trilogy centres on naive, pure-hearted heroines subjected to cruelty. In Breaking the Waves (1996), a pious woman devotes herself to risky sexual encounters at her paralysed husband’s request. Vérité-style musical Dancer in the Dark (2000) stars Bjork as a sight-impaired factory worker conned and condemned to death. Debate ensued over whether von Trier loves and identifies with women, or simply relishes punishing them.

Mifune’s Last Song (1999)

Søren Kragh-Jacobsen and Kristian Levring, compatriots of Vinterberg and von Trier, joined to form the Dogme 95 collective, in what was initially a very Danish movement. Kragh-Jacobsen made Dogme #3, Mifune’s Last Song (1999). More light-hearted than the first two Dogme instalments, the film is also one of the movement’s most successful. In it, newlywed Kresten (Anders W. Berthelsen), a businessman who has told his wife nothing of his troubled roots, moves back to his family’s shambolic farm on an island after his father dies. Liva (Iben Hjejle), a sex worker on the run from a controlling pimp, answers his advertisement for help running the place and taking care of Kresten’s developmentally disabled brother. Like fellow Dogme adherents, Kragh-Jacobsen wrote and signed a ‘confession’ of non-complying elements (admitting, for instance, covering a window with a black drape, and chasing hens).

Romance also sweetens the austerity of Danish director Lone Scherfig’s grainy comedy Italian for Beginners (2000), in which a widow (played, again, by Bethelsen), takes over a suspended pastor’s post in a Copenhagen suburb. An Italian waitress teaches a language class, and it’s here that plotlines rife with chance incident and irrepressible longing come together. 

Italian for Beginners (2000)

Where not to start 

Julien Donkey-Boy (1999)

American filmmaker Harmony Korine’s debut Gummo (1997), about kids in an impoverished Middle America passing time with wanton violence, revealed a vitriolic antagonist of the mainstream and moralistic, so it’s no surprise he was attracted to Dogme and made its first feature outside Europe with Julien Donkey-Boy (1999). Julien (Ewen Bremner) is an aide at a school for the blind who has schizophrenia and lives at home with his dysfunctional family. Shot in New York with Chloe Sevigny as Julien’s pregnant sister and Werner Herzog as his bullying father prone to unhinged drunken monologues, the improvised collection of lo-fi, grainy fragments is as discordant as Julien’s life. Critically panned more than it was praised, the film’s champions saw truthful humanity amid the ugliness and antagonism, while to others it was sourly repellent.

Dogme films made outside Denmark tended to garner less excited attention, and had to find their fans as oddball, niche experiments. José Luis Marques made Argentinian Dogme film Fuckland (2000) as a black-humoured political exploit to retaliate against British imperialism, recording it illegally in the Falklands without local government permission or awareness by locals of his motivations. Decades after the Falklands War, a magician and stand-up comedian from Buenos Aires (Fabian Stratas) takes a hidden camera on a trip to the islands, where he sets about impregnating a local, reasoning that Argentines should join his ‘invasion’ to skew the demographic. In this instance, the subversive idea of the enterprise packed more punch than its loose Dogme execution.

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