Bright Lights Film Journal

Dogville: Or Lars von Trier’s New Old Testament

On the seventh day … he should have kept working

Dogville is one of those films that, like Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, kind of “‘jes grows on you.” It is a disturbing film, which clearly was writer-director Lars von Trier‘s intent, but not because it is “anti-American.” Indeed, if this was von Trier’s intention, his film badly misfires, especially the postscript he tacks on at the end. It begins with a parade of photos culled largely from Walker Evans’ and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But their book was meant to stir the conscience of a nation. While it did not begin as a New Deal project, it helped bring about the goals of the New Deal. Not that poverty was eliminated, far from it, but it was a start. In Evans’ pictures as well as in James Agee’s text we got a glimpse of the human potential, the essential humanity, dignity, worth, and grit of every human being, no matter how impoverished or beaten down. There was something about their faces and the faces of their children that drew us to them. Evans’ pictures (along with those by Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Ben Shahn, and the other photographers who worked for FDR ‘s Farm Security Administration) had the power to move us then, and still do. Von Trier’s postscript in no way diminishes that power.

In the sequence that follows, von Trier gives us more of the same, a montage of images that makes us aware of just how much more needs doing. No thoughtful person would disagree, but is von Trier claiming that the problem is a uniquely American one? It is, I suppose, at least arguable that the Danes were — once upon a time — free of poverty and prejudice, but if they were, we (and von Trier, in particular) need to understand why.

In the mid-1950s, while on leave from my USAF duties in England, I stayed for several weeks in Copenhagen. While there I fell in with a number of students from the university. One afternoon, a member of the group asked me to explain how a country that was forever boasting of its freedom and democracy still practiced, as far as he could make out, slavery, by another name. I realized I couldn’t come up with any explanation that would have satisfied him . . . or me. I did, however, ask him to look around the room and to tell me what he saw. He did, and said he saw nothing unusual. To which I replied: “That’s the point. You see nothing unusual because the faces looking back at you look very much like your own. If your society should ever become as diverse as mine, it will be interesting to see how quickly you find a place for all those faces who do not look like yours, or share your experiences.” And judging from a Danish film I saw the other day, Martin Strange-Henson’s Der er en yndig mand, integration for the Danes, as for many other Europeans, has come neither quickly nor easily.

All this, however, is somewhat beside the point. What makes Dogville memorable is its universal theme, a kind of modern religious parable with an Old Testament twist. God sends his only daughter to earth. (He’s a crafty bugger.) We later learn that she wants him to give us another chance. Her name is Grace and grace is what we are offered. But for us to receive Grace, she must be seen not as some immaculate conception — that would be cheating — but as a troubled young woman who desperately needs our help. We also learn that, despite her plight, she has no intention of staying where she is not wanted.

The ball is definitely is in our court. It must be our choice. Perhaps this time we/the villagers will get it right. A vote is taken. She can stay, but there is a catch. The people of Dogville agree to help her but they also agree to charge her. Why? Because she seems to be in trouble with “the law” (although we never know for sure, “whose law?”). So there is some risk involved in giving her shelter. However, as the people of Dogville become increasingly aware that they may have to pay an even bigger price for helping her, they (unlike the Danes in WW II) up her “rent.” No longer the instrument of their salvation, she becomes the instrument of their lust, their greed, and their sloth. Grace is now everybody’s mistress. Even the young man who had first urged her to stay, and who, more than anyone else, seemed to understand what she had to offer, abandons her. I am reminded of Walter Van Tilberg Clark’s Ox Bow Incident, where the character who speaks out against the lynching, and who is most opposed to it, realizes, that by not stopping it, his sin is the greatest. Knowing (rather than believing) that the men who are about to be lynched are innocent, he nevertheless allows it to happen. The point being that Grace’s benefactor is no better, and maybe a lot worse, than the rest of Dogville’s inhabitants.

It is then that God (played appropriately by a former godfather, James Caan) makes his appearance. He seems to be saying to his daughter, “Now do you believe me? These people really aren’t worth saving.” Initially, she resists, and tries to explain their actions by suggesting that conditions may have made them the way they are. (In other words, as in West Side Story , they are not depraved, only deprived.) But this won’t wash, and she knows it. God has Grace ask herself, if she had behaved as they did, would she not deserve to be punished? Even to ask the question is to answer it. All that’s left is to decide whether she or her father should administer the punishment. She hesitates. God does not. He orders his henchmen to begin doing what she is reluctant to do. (We may have qualms about capital punishment, God, or at least the god of von Trier’s Old Testament, does not.) This is when Grace realizes that she must be prepared to kill the thing she loved the most — a kind of divinely sanctioned mercy killing — and so she executes her one-time benefactor. The execution, despite his betrayal and her previous degradation, is still painful to watch. (Shylock, I suspect, if he could have arranged a change in venue, would have fared better in Von Trier’s heavenly court than Portia, for whom, justice is always tempered by mercy.) In fact, none of Dogville’s inhabitants are spared, but that’s because none are innocent. Which is convenient, since neither God nor his daughter will have to wrestle with the conundrum of having to kill the innocent in order to punish the guilty. There does, however, remain one problem that is not so easily resolved. God will have to start all over again, and this time, at the risk of blaspheming, he may need more than a week to get it right.