Dogme is dead. Long live Dogme

The most radical film-making movement since the French new wave is finished. But it continues to inspire the biggest names in world cinema. Ryan Gilbey travels to Copenhagen to ask its founders why they did it - and what it means

In the grounds of Film City, the converted army barracks in the Copenhagen suburb of Hvidovre, the bleak monotony of the landscape is disturbed by some sweetly eccentric touches. A quartet of garden gnomes has congregated in one corner of the lawn to pee, while beyond the offices of Zentropa and Nimbus, the film companies who finance most of Denmark's cinematic output, you will find a magnificent tank belonging to Lars von Trier. He tells me that he received it as a Christmas present, as though such a gift were as commonplace as bath salts. And there it rests, imposing but ultimately useless, like a plaything discarded by a bored, fickle god.

The pressing question is whether Dogme95, the "Vow of Chastity" drawn up by Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, has suffered the same fate. If you arrive at Film City expecting to find the place bristling with the rebellious spirit of Dogme95, you are likely to feel disheartened. It isn't the premises themselves, which suggest well-organised hippie communes: in the Nimbus office, someone's dog scampers among the desks, and, over at Zentropa, employees are encouraged to wear their slippers to work. But it's hard to ignore the fact that traces of Dogme are not much in evidence these days.

Vinterberg, whose movie Festen first introduced a suspicious world to the manifesto's mix of austerity and tomfoolery, is here to finish off his follow-up feature, It's All About Love, a romantic fantasia which features Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes, Sean Penn - and no Dogme-style wobbly cameras whatsoever.

Von Trier is present too, pruning away at his new film Dogville, in which Nicole Kidman, James Caan and Lauren Bacall wander a brazenly studio-bound set intended to represent 1930s America. And don't look to director Lone Scherfig for signs of Dogme's continued prosperity. Her own contribution, Italian for Beginners, might be on the verge of release in Britain, but it's old news in her home country, where she is already hard at work on a picture steeped in the kind of extravagances expressly outlawed by Dogme95 - sets, costumes, lighting, that sort of thing.

Have Von Trier and his fellow provocateurs abandoned Dogme in favour of the new thrills promised by big stars and elaborate productions? And if so, what happens to a movement that introduced into the perfumed boudoir of modern cinema a bracing whiff of genuine revolution? There is the sense that this miniature insurrection has run its course, and that a gang of new urchins is required to restore to cinema some of the urgency it got seven years ago when Von Trier called Vinterberg and blithely asked: "Do you want to start a wave?"

The origins of Dogme can be traced to a touching scene of nocturnal candour that took place back in 1993 between Von Trier and Peter Aalbaek Jensen, the scurrilous co-founders of Zentropa. Since the early 1980s, Von Trier had been making waves on the international art-house circuit with films that were visually and technically astonishing, but disdainful of spontaneity and human warmth. Dogme95 might reasonably be seen as Von Trier's earnest rebellion against that poised and precious early work.

"Lars's first films were extremely controlled," says his producer, Vibeke Windelov. "He felt he'd painted himself into a corner. Something had to change." His fellow director, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, who would later make Mifune, gentlest of the Dogme movies, remembers commiserating with Von Trier about the technical difficulties involved in film production. "Lars and I asked each other, 'How do we get back to joyful film-making?'"

But it was Jensen who first heard that word - Dogme - leave Von Trier's lips back in 1993. "We were in the sleeping compartment of a train, and we had the kind of intimate moment that you get when two men are lying naked together in the dark. Then Lars piped up [he affects a weedy voice], 'I want to do something called Dogme.' I said, 'It's a stupid title, go back to sleep.' I didn't hear anything more until spring 1995. We had invested lots of money in lighting equipment, so when he said he wanted to go back to basics, I said, 'You fucking creep!' I was so pissed at him. And I was sure it wouldn't work."

Vinterberg, however, felt invigorated. "We wrote the rules together," he says. "It took about half an hour." Windelov recalls: "I had the office across from Lars and Thomas. I could hear so much laughter."

When the manifesto was made public, there was a suspicion, as there is with anything in which Von Trier is involved, that the whole thing was a tease. In sophisticated cultural networks, the dread of being duped into applauding the emperor's new clothes becomes intensified, and much of the media's obsession with Dogme95 revolved around trying to rumble these poker-faced pranksters. Of course, that rather missed the point that the whole thing was both spectacularly funny and of the utmost seriousness.

The reason that Dogme95 was greeted with such intense levels of enthusiasm and hostility was that no one had challenged cinematic language and form so aggressively since the start of the French new wave 40 years before. Without realising it, the world had been in need of a fresh way of watching and digesting films.

Which is not to suggest that cinema hadn't gone through several stages of transformation in the intervening decades. As Godard and Truffaut began to show signs of fatigue, and the nouvelle vague became assimilated into the mainstream, young American film-makers were preparing to stage their own insurrection from within Hollywood. "It's so easy to make a picture on 16mm today without a lot of bread," said Steven Spielberg in 1974, "because the major studios are looking for new people." After that generation capitulated to the establishment, America once more became the scene of DIY rebellion in the early 1990s, with the popularity of such down-and-dirty independent features as Reservoir Dogs, El Mariachi and Clerks.

What distinguishes the Dogme movement are its political and intellectual underpinnings, and the nourishment it draws from past triumphs and future possibilities. Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith gave hope to every nerd trapped in a McJob. But Von Trier's revolution was more informed. Not for nothing did he launch the manifesto at Paris's Odeon Theatre, a key location in the May 1968 uprisings.

Von Trier had ostensibly turned up to participate in a conference about cinema, though it's a wonder now that no one on the door noticed the bags he was carrying. "They were terribly heavy," he recalls. "My wife helped me with them on the train." Inside were hundreds of vivid red leaflets proclaiming the Vow of Chastity: the 10 rules that between them expunged from the film-making process every sort of artificiality, from the imposition of genre demands and "superficial action" to the use of filters and overdubs.

"The leader at this conference asked me a question and my response was to throw these leaflets down from the balcony. It felt very historic. My best idea was that after I read out the rules, I refused to discuss them." Because that forced the audience to draw its own conclusions? "No, because it allowed me to get out more quickly. It was a very boring conference."

The next that anyone heard about Dogme95 was at the 1998 Cannes film festival, when the first and finest Dogme films - Festen and Von Trier's The Idiots - were premiered. Festen, which won the Jury prize, was a country-house psycho-drama rendered still more intense by the hand-held video camerawork, which made it entirely plausible that at any moment we might bang heads with a member of the cast. It's no accident that Richard Kelly, in his Dogme journal The Name of This Book Is Dogme95, describes the cameras used in the film as being "the size of a fist" - the implied violence suits a visual style that incorporates punishment and intimidation. The Idiots was even better, and its story of a loose collective dedicated to public displays of "spassing" (feigning mental disability) created a thrilling marriage of form and content. You were never certain how far the characters would go, and the explicit sex confirmed that Von Trier shared their distaste for boundaries. "The Idiots is the film that has the least control," says Scherfig of her favourite Dogme work. "It's even about lack of control."

For a time, Dogme95 enjoyed a honeymoon period, prolonged in no small part by a happy coincidence: the success of The Blair Witch Project, another low-budget picture that combined digital photography (technically a contravention of Dogme rules) and primitive technique to give audiences old ideas in a new form.

Suddenly, it seemed that everyone and his dog was turning Dogme. Martin Scorsese called Von Trier "a wonderful film-maker. He got furious, threw everything up in the air, and said, 'Look, let's start from nowhere now.' " Mike Figgis, whose 1995 movie Leaving Las Vegas was a stripped-down harbinger of Dogme, made the split-screen Timecode (2000), which bravely dispensed with the services of an editor in order to play as four continuous takes. Harmony Korine's Julien Donkey Boy (Dogme #6) was a brave experiment, even if it was finally unable to disguise its longing for a conventional plot. Spike Lee pared down his usual hyperbolic style to shoot Bamboozled on digital video, rediscovering his old, undiminished fury, while the immediacy of Michael Winterbottom's Wonderland also smacked of Dogme. The Falklands satire Fuckland, by Argentinian director Jose Luis Marques, became Dogme #8.

Meanwhile, Von Trier got out his best notepaper to rattle off letters to 10 of the world's greatest directors, inviting them to make a Dogme film. Only Kurosawa, who died while the note was in the post, had a good reason for not responding. Of the rest, you can assume that the likes of Bergman and Bertolucci felt it to be irrelevant, or a young man's game. "They probably get a lot of junk mail," says Von Trier. "Dear Sir, would you like to...? No!"

Vinterberg met with Steven Spielberg, and exhorted him to join the cause. If Spielberg's reluctance is unsurprising, we should at least credit him for the back-to-basics rawness contained in the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. No major US director has yet attempted a Dogme movie, though David Fincher, director of Seven and Fight Club, tells me that he has been having light-hearted discussions with Steven Soderbergh, Alexander Payne (Election) and Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) about the potential for a "purification process". "You're not supposed to use anything that you used in your last movie - none of the equipment, none of the elements. Steven said, 'Look, David, you can't have any rain, you can't have any CGI...'" Vinterberg is visibly thrilled when I tell him this news: "It would be very interesting to see Fincher undressed, because he is always so well dressed."

The third and fourth Dogme films - Soren Kragh-Jacobsen's Mifune and Kristian Levring's The King is Alive - confronted less inflammatory themes and passions than its Dogme predecessors, and helpfully demonstrated that Dogme was not just "a manifesto for migraines", as it had been christened by one critic. But they also provided the first indication that the initial ferociousness could not be sustained - that if it was, it would quickly become as artificial as the conventions against which the group was railing.

After the rude shock of Festen and The Idiots, there was an inevitable sense of anticlimax compounded by the ghastly ineptness of Dogme #5, Jean-Marc Barr's 1999 effort Lovers (never released in UK cinemas), and by Von Trier's decision that the Dogme brotherhood should stop assessing the authenticity of each film, and simply issue certificates to anyone who claimed to have adhered to the manifesto (25 to date), a revision which arguably had the effect of removing quality control. "It was always meant to be a wave," notes Vinterberg. "And they don't go on forever."

Jensen feels differently. When I suggest that Dogme can't continue indefinitely, he blasts back: "Why not? Coca-Cola has been the same since the late 19th century." Later, perusing old interviews, I come across Vinterberg's assertion that: "Dogme95 is a set of rules for a director, not a production company. It's not Coca-Cola we're doing here." Suddenly the gradual demise of Dogme seems as much about a conflict of interests as the organic decline suggested by Vinterberg.

The Dogme films did indeed rejuvenate the directors involved - especially those who, like Von Trier, Scherfig and Kragh-Jacobsen, were searching for a way to shake off bad habits ("It's good for directors who have lost their full erection," chuckles Jensen). But at some point it became a business: something to be marketed. "In terms of investment, these have been our most profitable films," says Jensen, making you understand precisely why he hopes it will go on for ever.

Scherfig's likeable romantic comedy Italian for Beginners, about a gaggle of misfits finding love, proves that there is life in the old Dogme yet. No one could mistake it for a groundbreaking work - indeed, its producer Ib Tardini tells me: "We just wanted to make a good film with a happy ending." But Scherfig has a canny grasp of character and comedy, and the rule proscribing overdubbed music works wonders for the film: the silence following a punchline or a pratfall would in mainstream cinema be plugged with a jaunty score imploring us to laugh. Here, the joke just hangs in the air, reverberating, which is far funnier.

Whatever the individual merits of subsequent Dogme works, the movement is no longer greater than the sum of its films. The directors who pioneered it have progressed to new challenges. But despite the absence of a fresh manifesto, or another gang of guerrillas with movie cameras, Dogme's influence has undoubtedly been felt in world cinema - especially in the steep rise in digital video productions - even if it has yet to inspire another concerted wave. That will come. For now, the improvisatory aesthetic that fuelled the punk movement has found another medium in which to take root. For his part, Von Trier seems unconcerned with, even uninterested in, the manifesto's legacy. "Have you seen any of the non-Danish ones?" he asks Scherfig over lunch. She wrinkles her nose. "" Von Trier flashes his trademark smirk. "We're so open, we only see the Danish Dogme films," he sniggers. "The other ones don't count."

D espite Von Trier's efforts to feign indifference - and his habit of subverting a sincere inquiry with an offhand quip - there evidently resides in him an abiding fondness for what Dogme95 achieved. Like any committed artist, he doesn't want to stand still, and for all the success of Dogme95, it has left him almost as conflicted about his role as a director as he was before its inception. "When you direct, you manipulate. Since all this Dogme nonsense, it's like we have to pretend that we don't manipulate, we just collect things from other people that they want to give us. In my early films, I would say to the actors, 'Stand over there and say this line.' It's more honest in a way. Film is false. But then life is false. On TheIdiots, I made those rules for myself. Look at it as a medicine. It was a medicine that I had had before. I'd put similar limitations on my other work. But this was a medicine I could push on others. Like Lone [Scherfig]. I don't know if she needed the medicine, but it was good for her." And for cinema? "That I don't know," he shrugs, his invisible shutter descending with a crash before he can give too much away.

In a sense, it is irrelevant whether there will be any more Dogme films, or whether those that are made can measure up to the standard set by the initial batch. The sorcerers have already worked their magic: cinema once again amounted, albeit briefly, to something savage and substantial - something actually worth arguing about. "Dogme has been accepted and corrupted," explains Vinterberg. "That's natural. But that doesn't make it any less important. Now you have to fight against it once more. You can't say, 'Oh, we invented Dogme back in 1995' and then go back to sleep. It's a constant renewal process. As an artist you have a duty to be skating on thin ice at all times."

Perhaps we should look again at Von Trier's tank, and see it as an incitement rather than a symbol of abandonment. As he goofs around in front of it, I notice that its gun is pointed directly at the editing suite where the reels of Dogville await his attention. You feel certain that he would passionately endorse any new cinematic movement, even if it meant that he would be overthrown in the process.

Italian for Beginners is released next Friday.


Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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