David Richter

Lars and the Real World: Dogville as a Political Film


Still from Dogville, 2003


There are very few lovers of film who do not believe, in their heart of hearts, in auteurism. We can obviously have appreciation for the technical elements of film—editing, sound, cinematography, etc.—but when it comes down to it, a film is a unity of elements, a world that is constituted by the assembly of these elements under a hegemonic principle. Sometimes this hegemony is exercised by a production company or franchise, rather than by a single director (for example, the Judd Apatow comedy franchise of the mid-2000s). However, what most appeals to film spectators about auteurism is not that it gives us access to the subjectivity of the individual director, but rather that the works of an auteur form a series, system, or “world” that is somehow continuous, and that by watching the complete works of an auteur (even an auteur-producer such as Apatow), we achieve the fullest possible representation of this world. We have, for example, the New York of Martin Scorsese and the New York of Woody Allen, and to the extent that these auteurs are indeed auteurs, they present different, mutually exclusive images of the city. It does no good to imagine Travis Bickle and Alvy Singer somehow crossing paths in the “real New York” because such an encounter would be “staged” according to the sensibility of whoever was imagining it, and would transpire according to a “worldview” foreign to that of either director. Films therefore place us in a world that is not our own—a world that absorbs us while we are immersed in it and haunts us long after we have emerged.

And what more can we ask of this medium?

As it turns out, a lot more. And this “a lot more” is the Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, a genius both maligned and misread, and whose work represents one of the few truly revolutionary contributions to cinema in the past twenty years.

I have not seen Melancholia (released at Cannes this May) nor is it likely that I will see it until November, when it opens in the U.S. (If culture can travel this slowly in the information age, it is perhaps a happy sign that culture has not yet been reduced to information.) So if there is an occasion for this piece, it is not the film itself, but rather the scandal surrounding von Trier, who was banned from Cannes after a string of supposedly antisemitic, pro-Nazi comments he made at the film’s press conference.

Von Trier is known more for his provocations than for the quality of his work—for the tattoo of the letters F-U-C-K on his knuckles, for scenes of genital mutilation in 2010’s Antichrist, for his declarations that Barack Obama has a white man inside of him, and that George W. Bush wanted to be whipped by Condoleezza Rice, etc., etc., etc. And of course the shallowness and sensationalism of this media image is characteristic if not constitutive of the contemporary figure of the celebrity, leading many to claim that his provocations and transgressions (both within his movies and in his capacity as a public figure) are empty bids for recognition rather than legitimate artistic statements.

It should not be taken as an a priori defense of von Trier that many canonical films have a dubious political or sexual content that is at once “deep” and meretricious (most notably the films of Alfred Hitchcock, which indulge the viewer’s voyeurism to a greater extent than they subvert it). If we are to take the medium seriously, which I do, we ought to believe that it has real effects on the viewer beyond mere diversion, and that an indulgence in certain movies (no matter how artful or intelligent) can be both a symptom and an enabling cause of various forms of ethical and political dishonesty.

In this case, I believe it’s necessary to examine the various misinterpretations and reaction-formations that are built into the meaning of a work of art. Even if we can discern some deeper moral or political content in a given film, this content may not be present to most viewers, who may even take away from a film the very ideology that it is meant to critique (the obvious proof of this is the use of various anti-war films as training and propaganda for American soldiers). Since von Trier’s movies often feature the mistreatment of women, should we therefore conclude that whatever their deeper message, they function if not as instigators of violence, at the very least as pornographic wish-fulfillment of various misogynist male fantasies?

We cannot acquit von Trier of these changes simply by arguing that his films are not only violent but ALSO sensitive, not only offensive but ALSO artistic. This “ALSO” implies a trade-off, an acknowledgment that von Trier might as well make films that are less offensive, and that their offensiveness is accidental rather than essential to their merit. In this case, his critics are indeed justified in labeling his work as meretricious, pornographic, etc.

And indeed in the manifesto written for his third feature film, Europa, von Trier acknowledges and affirms a sexual impulse present in his work:

[...] Our relationship to film can be described in so many ways, and is explained in myriad different ways: We have to make films with a pedagogical purpose, we can desire to use film as a ship that can carry us off on a voyage of discovery to unknown lands, or we can claim that we want to use film to influence our audience and get it to laugh or cry—and pay. All this can sound perfectly OK, but I don't think much of it.

There is only ONE excuse for suffering and making other people suffer the hell that the genesis of a film involves: the gratification of the fleshly desires that arise in a fraction of a second, when the cinema's loudspeakers and projector, in tandem, and inexplicably, allow the illusion of movement and light to find their way like an electron leaving its path and thereby generating the light needed to create ONE SINGLE THING: a miraculous blast of LIFE! THIS is the only reward a film-maker gets, the only thing he hopes and longs for. This physical experience when the magic of film takes place and works its way through the body, to a trembling ejaculation [...] NOTHING ELSE! There, now it's written down, which feels good. So forget all the excuses: 'childish fascination' and 'all-encompassing humility', because this is my confession, in black and white: LARS VON TRIER, THE TRUE ONANIST OF THE SILVER SCREEN.

And yet, in Europa, the third part of the trilogy, there isn't the least trace of derivative manoeuvering. At last, purity and clarity are achieved! Here there is nothing to hide reality under a suffocating layer of 'art' [...] no trick is too mean, no technique too tawdry, no effort too tasteless.


At last. May God alone judge me for my alchemical attempts to create life from celluloid. But one thing is certain: life outside the cinema can never find its equal, because it is His creation, and therefore divine.

Is this “onanism” common to all film-making? And if so, is Trier simply confirming the view of Fredric Jameson (among others) that “pornographic films are thus only the potentiation of films in general, which ask us to stare at the world as though it were a naked body”?

In fact, it is supremely misguided to identify the onanism described here with the “rapt, mindless fascination” characteristic of both pornography and movie-watching in general. In fact, the onanism we associate with pornography is pornography’s negation, bringing to an end the viewer’s “rapt, mindless fascination” and returning him to an uglier and disenchanted, but also more visceral, reality. Therefore, insofar as von Trier’s movies are onanistic in this sense, they are fighting a quixotic battle against the hypnotic, pornographic function that lies at cinema’s very essence.

And in fact, Europa begins with the provocation that by watching it we are willingly giving ourselves up to hypnosis. We see advancing train tracks surrounded by darkness and over this image we hear the voice of the narrator instructing us to close our eyes and descend into “Europa.” Into what are we descending—the continent? The film itself? One thing is certain—we are being told to suspend our autonomy and submit to the film—just as we surrender to every film we watch. And the presumably innocent passivity of the viewer is mirrored within the film itself by the innocent passivity of the protagonist, Leopold Kessler, a pacifist American who acquires a position as a sleeping car conductor in post-World War Two Germany, assuming (falsely, as it turns out) that he will not be tainted by the country’s disastrous political history. Kessler gradually discovers the existence of an underground Nazi resistance network whose agents attempt to make him an accessory to their terrorist plots against the new regime. The hypnotic movement of the train is as inexorable as the passage of history, while the menial labor that Kessler performs in the sleeping car plays out the stupid material exigencies that bind subjects to their social roles and prevent them from reflexively realizing their complicity in the disasters of history.

Von Trier’s interest in the ideology and habitus of wage labor can be compared with that of Jean-Luc Godard, who, in films such as Tout Va Bien and Passion, attempted to remedy the exclusion of labor and the workplace from cinema by portraying the tactical deliberations taking place among militant factory workers. If von Trier’s treatment of this material is more successful (particularly in Europa, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville), it is because unlike Godard, who focuses on the opinions and ideas of workers who already have some reflexive consciousness of their class or individual interests, von Trier isolates the process of labor itself in its most atomized and alienated form. In this form, labor appears as a dream or a trance, and our inability to awake from the nightmare of history is identified with the hypnotic effects of both capitalist production and postmodern cultural consumption.

In a desperate attempt to end this nightmarish trance, Kessler ends up colluding with the terrorists and detonating the bomb they have entrusted him with. However, instead of freeing him from history, this act of terrorism throws him back into it, and both the corpse and the viewer are consigned by the narrator to an eternal zombie-like hypnosis from which even death offers no escape:

In the morning, the sleeper has found rest on the bottom of the river. The force of the stream has opened the door and is leading you on. Above your body, people are still alive. Follow the river as days go by. Head for the ocean that mirrors the sky. You want to wake up to free yourself of the image of Europa. But it is not possible.
The film ends and we want to wake up. But the dream-state of the film is of a piece with the dream-like passivity of our own historical immersion, and even after we are dead, our participation in history will persist like a stain upon the world.

In light of this analysis, von Trier’s statements on Nazism become much more intelligible. If Trier calls himself a Nazi, it is because he believes that the sins of history do not disappear with those who commit them, but continue to animate the politics of the present moment. The acknowledgment of this complicity is symbolized in Europa by the taking of the Eucharist, a sacrament identical in function to von Trier’s heretical doctrine of cinematic onanism—the transformation of immaterial (and therefore spiritual) light into living flesh.

To what extent should von Trier’s historical narratives be read as expressions of political defeatism? After all, many of von Trier’s later films—notably, Dogville, Manderlay, The Boss of it All, and Antichrist—detail the inability of their idealistic protagonists to escape or transcend preexisting models of oppression, from racism to capitalism to misogyny. Do all of the political sentiments aroused in these films amount to no more than spilt seed?

In fact, this skepticism with regard to the value of representation is thematized throughout von Trier’s work. Dogville, in particular, interrogates the value of allegory through the male protagonist’s obsession with “illustration.” When Grace (Nicole Kidman), a mysterious woman with a dangerous past, seeks refuge in Dogville, the young idealist Tom Edison (Paul Bettany) takes it as an opportunity to teach the denizens of the Depression-era Colorado town the virtues of acceptance and inclusion, which he thinks are badly lacking. For Tom, whose sermons on moral rearmament have heretofore made little impression on the townspeople, Grace’s presence is welcome insofar as her outsider status is a concrete illustration of the very moral problems he seeks to address. Throughout the film, the narrator continues to draw our attention first and foremost to Tom’s problem of illustration, even as the community becomes increasingly exploitative of Grace and ultimately turns her into a slave. Insofar as the townspeople treat Grace badly, has this illustration been a success or a failure? And what about the film itself, whose allegorical status is spelled out from the beginning by the fact that it takes place on an empty set, with only the most necessary props, and lines drawn on the ground to indicate the location of houses? Does Dogville illustrate the need for moral rearmament? Does it illustrate the vanity of political projects? Does it illustrate something about illustration itself? Or does its critique of illustration block our reading of it as an illustration of anything, indicating that its significance derives not from its content but from its perlocutionary effects?

In Dogville “illustration” has two meanings. On the one hand, illustration is the imitation of reality in a work of art (for example, the moralizing novel that Tom wants to write). And on the other hand, illustration is reality itself insofar as reality is an illustration of deeper laws and truths. And it is in this second sense that Grace’s presence in Dogville is, for Tom, an illustration—the incarnation of the abstract principles that Tom wants to impart to the community. Dogville itself (and indeed any representational work of art) is certainly an illustration in this first sense. But what about the second sense? Is the film Dogville really a fleshly incarnation of a more immaterial truth or reality?

Perhaps the answer to this question (and to the question of the success or failure of Dogville as a political allegory, i.e. as a “realistic” illustration of deeper truths) depends partly on what the film is an allegory of, partly on whether this deeper level of meaning is “true,” and partly on whether the artifice of the film succeeds in making contact with and confirming this deeper meaning. Fredric Jameson, following Althusser’s discussions of “ideology,” has frequently commented on the provisionality of such interpretive schemes, describing the allegorical function of art as “cognitive mapping.” “Cognitive mapping” is an attempt to grasp reality not by revealing a deeper metaphysical meaning, but by locating the dominant structures that determine the social world as a totality. While a description of the dominant structure alone does not exhaust the possible explanations for and interpretations of reality (in Althusser’s terminology, reality is “overdetermined”), its virtue for Jameson is that it provides a useful retooling of the concept of “class consciousness”—imagined not as an incoherent mass of ressentiment and populist fantasies, but rather as a strategic conceptualization of the historical conjuncture.

The concept of cognitive mapping can certainly be applied to Dogville, particularly since we see the town appear to us not as itself, but as its map, its plan, its structure, the chalk marks on the stage that take the place of a set. The transparency of the houses makes visible the town’s social dynamic, and in one sequence, the town’s temporality too becomes visible, as we see Grace move through her ever more grueling series of daily chores, the spatial progress of her work tracing like the hands of a clock the passing hours of the day.

Yet despite Dogville’s explicitly allegorical style, what the film is an allegory of is actually difficult to pin down. For example, we can treat the town of Dogville equally plausibly as America itself or as some Third-World victim of American “humanitarian” intervention. On the one hand, the exploitation of Grace is structurally identical to the exploitation of illegal immigrants who are cited as a threat to “homeland security,” but are also a necessary part of the American economy, and whose successful exploitation by this economy depends in large part on their illegal status. From her subjective position, however, Grace is more like a liberal multiculturalist who romanticizes the innocence of “traditional” small-scale societies in spite of their own reactionary and oppressive social structures. The gangsters, like America itself, are no less innocent, and as much as we are led to despise the people of Dogville, the massacre at the end of the film translates into a disturbing allegory for the senseless violence of American imperialism.

If Dogville contains so many political registers, how do we order these registers into a hierarchy of meaning? How indeed can any of von Trier’s works be treated as political films if their allegorical content is so ambiguous that the best we can do is read them as vague “commentaries” on this or that political abstraction—for example, the instrumentalization of politics and the incompatibility of such instrumentalization with democracy (my capsule summary of Manderlay). These readings multiply endlessly and are a testament to the complexity and intelligence of von Trier’s work. However, such readings are to my mind contrary to the spirit of these films, which set as their standard of value not the multiplicity of possible interpretations, but the immediate intellectual and emotional experience they generate. This is what we might call the “reality” of the film—the concrete aesthetic experience that is an illustration or incarnation of more general truths—a film’s effects rather than its latent content.

To ask what this “reality” consists in is to ask after a film’s genre, in other words, the relationship a film bears towards other culture products, a relationship necessarily mediating its reception by an audience. I would argue that in von Trier’s movies, as in so many other “postmodern” films, the ultimate “meaning” often derives as much from their musical soundtrack as from their narrative logic. It would be wrong to believe that von Trier’s music merely disposes the viewer to a certain mood like a pair of colored glasses (as in the majority of Hollywood productions), or adds a layer of emotional reinforcement to what would otherwise be a moment of bewildering visual ambiguity (as in the films of Terrence Malick). Rather, pop music (or baroque music, von Trier’s other soundtrack of choice) is always used to achieve a specific supplementary effect, above and beyond generating a merely complementary atmosphere.

What is simultaneously uncomfortable and powerful about von Trier’s use of pop music is that it reveals the secret affinity between suffering and media culture, not by showing suffering or sadism as the privileged content or logical extension of media culture (a theme addressed with regard to visual culture in movies such as Vertigo or Peeping Tom) but rather by juxtaposing subjective pop-culture fantasies with the harsh material conditions which these fantasies attempt to transform. Thus, the seventies pop soundtrack of Breaking the Waves (paired with kitsch images of twilight landscapes and seascapes) presents to us Bess’s private reimagining of her oppressive surroundings, while Selma’s interior musical fantasies in Dancer in the Dark show us how she is able to find pleasure in her grueling factory job. In the credits of Dogville and Manderlay, similarly, the juxtaposition of David Bowie’s “Young Americans” with iconic images of American poverty, violence, and the civil rights movement shows the struggle between fantasy and reality.

Culture (and especially pop music) is commonly treated as escapism, as fantasy, and as religion, and is therefore considered irrelevant to the inherent ugliness of wage labor under capitalism. What von Trier’s pop films reveal is what Slavoj Žižek refers to as the efficacy of illusion, or the inscription of illusion effects within reality. To simply dismiss these illusions or attempt to supplant them with some progressive or “populist” political culture is to miss the point, which is that these illusions are as much the product of a desire for the Good as they are a product of consumerist decadence and self-deception (in other words, they contain what Fredric Jameson calls the “utopian impulse”).

Pop, as we see in Dancer in the Dark, is not autonomous from processes of labor and production. Like the work song, which must be as old as music itself, popular music incorporates within its form the repetitive rhythms of labor, even if this connection is typically disavowed in favor of its more comfortable affiliation with autonomous art and the mass media. In Dancer, von Trier brings together the cliché mass media elements of popular music with its inherent potential for creative reinterpretation and individual expression.

Returning to the case of Dogville, the use of David Bowie’s “Young Americans” over the end credits radically alters the film, which up to that point has an exclusively baroque soundtrack (von Trier uses the exact same schema in Dogville’s sequel, Manderlay). After the gangsters have massacred the townspeople, we see from above the chalk drawing of the dog on the empty stage—the same dog that barked at Grace at her first entrance into Dogville. Suddenly, the chalk dog stands up—it has in an instant become a real dog--and barks menacingly. As the credits roll we hear David Bowie’s “Young Americans” juxtaposed against iconic photographs of the Great Depression and other scenes of American poverty and violence. Both of these operations show something that has been repressed from the film itself. Obviously von Trier could have made a movie that all along had a real dog, as well as real houses and real mountains and real sunlight. Similarly, he could have made a documentary featuring real historical footage from the great depression. Nevertheless, this “reality” only emerges at the end as a way of pointing to the insufficiency of film itself insofar as its reality effects rely on stereotyped forms of verisimilitude. Even these final documentary images figure as iconic Americana rather than as a reality to be confronted. And so between the disturbing allegory played out on the empty stage and the disturbing photographs we know to be true but that nevertheless appear frozen and canonical, the image of the greatest power is that the of the dog—the transition from the symbol to the thing itself.

And what is this thing itself if not the suffering that von Trier depicts on screen? Von Trier’s films, like all great films, generate powerful images that incorporate themselves into the subconscious mind, and deploy fantasies that generate strong emotional identifications. However, von Trier’s films are always an affirmation of reality over cinema. No matter how much we buy into the aesthetic fantasies he depicts, these fantasies are always framed as partially successful ways of dealing with reality, never replacements of it. The questions von Trier raises cannot be posed to the films themselves but only to the reality into which they cast us out.

Melancholia, von Trier’s latest film, deals with the end of the world. This theme is a reminder of a strangely ignored feature of representation—that all representation points back to this one world, reality and history to which there is no alternative. The multiplicity of representations gives us the false impression that there are a multiplicity of realities that can coexist side by side without conflict—a reality of art and a reality of politics, a reality of subjectivity and a reality of objectivity. A reality of the present and of history, of consumption and of production, escapism and suffering, representation and the Real. To say that there is a single reality is not to conflate or reduce these oppositions, but to recognize reality as a site of suffering and conflict that such partial views occlude by pretending to autonomous purity.

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