This article represents the fifth and last part of the “Film Movements 101” series. As mentioned in the first article, this list is not meant to be a definitive record of historical filmic sensibilities. It is rather an accessible series of heavily influential movements which addresses to film buffs and people who are looking to start exploring the history of cinema.
Dogme 95 is a thought-provoking film movement that was started in 1995 by a handful of Danish directors. These filmmakers co-signed a manifesto, which included inflexible, almost dogmatic rules, explaining the name which would later consolidate their movement in history. These radical directors rejected mainstream cinema, embraced a new kind of realism, and achieved a level of experimentation that influenced many cineastes over the years.
The two main figures of the movement are Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. They drafted the Dogme manifesto, which is known as the Vow of Chastity. This proclamation was almost a declaration of war against all mainstream cinema and called for an extreme movement, led by strict rules. For Trier and Vinterberg, the eclectic film movements “of the 1960s had betrayed their revolutionary calling, and now new technology was going to democratize cinema” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 713). They recruited Kristian Levring and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen to form a sort of brethren of cinematic pure realism. Kragh-Jacobsen even “compared the group to rockers rediscovering unplugged music” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 713). By the late 90s, the movement caught the attention of viewers, especially in Denmark. On New Year's Eve 2000, Dogme directors shot live films on different television channels. “Viewers were encouraged to switch among the films and create their own Dogme 95 movie. One-third of Denmark tuned in” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 713). Most critics and cineastes agree that the movement ended around the year 2005. However, its concepts and dedication to truthfulness were only beginning to influence filmmakers all over the world. “Reliant on video, promoted on the Internet, and consecrated by film festivals, Dogme 95 had launched something at once local and international – a film movement suited to a global age” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 714).
The rules of the 1995 manifesto paint a straightforward picture of what these filmmakers wanted to achieve. The directives are clearly written and represent the vision of a group of cineastes who were dedicated to finding unfiltered truth with their films. The manifesto required that films had to be shot on location, without any additional props. When it came to the quality of the image, the vow pointed to the use of hand-held cameras and rejected any additional manipulation such as “filters or laboratory reworking” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 713).
Because it was a movement that completely rejected mainstream cinema, it forbade the use of genre films. A Dogme film “could not include superficial action: Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 713). This active refusal of genres sets this movement apart from the other four sensibilities discussed in this 101 series.
These directors developed the stories with their actors, without a concrete script. The intimate atmosphere was also highlighted by the lack of intricate sets and special effects. Additionally, “Vinterberg noted that actors tended to forget the presence of small cameras” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 713). However intimate, Dogme filmmakers were not allowed to treat their films as personal artworks. Their projects, for which they were often uncredited, acted purely as an exercise in truthfulness. Nevertheless, some cineastes broke the rules as they developed professionally, and “most directors found their Vow projects becoming highly personal” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 713).
Considered the very first Dogme film, The Celebration by Thomas Vinterberg takes a look at a family gathering on the patriarch’s 60th birthday. The 1998 film discusses themes of death and trauma and grabs the attention of the viewer with intense scenes of confrontation and realization. Some critics and journalists called The Celebration a black comedy because it deals with extremely serious subjects while having a somewhat absurd party as a background. While it can definitely be placed within this category, the extremely candid acting and simple camera work take it even further. In Vinterberg’s grim film, “The guests, like the family members, are concerned solely with appearances but beneath that thin veneer of respectability lies an unfathomable darkness” (Richman, 2017).
Lars von Trier’s The Idiots is perhaps even harder to watch. His 1998 project takes a raw look at a group of adults spending their time acting as if they were developmentally disabled, to release their inhibitions. Shot entirely on digital cameras, the film seems like a disturbing home movie about a group that cares about nothing but itself. It can be an unsettling experience and many critics and journalists considered it an extremely problematic film. However, The Idiots seems to perfectly embody Trier’s filmic personality, which would consolidate him as a controversial figure in cinema. For him, shocking in a true Dogme fashion is not enough, when there are still boundaries to be broken. It is no wonder that his 1998 film actually strays from some of the rules he co-wrote in 1995. In the conclusion of his review, critic David Rooney enforced the idea that the Dogme founder is too unique to be placed within a movement: “Whether von Trier is a prankster or a visionary is open to debate, but The Idiots — which he wrote in four days — is a disturbing, provocative film that at the very least provides further proof he is a true original playing strictly by his own rules” (Rooney, 1998).
Italian for Beginners, directed by Lone Scherfig, is “the first Vow of Chastity film made by a woman” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 714). While the 2000 film can be considered a slight departure from the Dogme norms, it still retains the use of handheld cameras and natural lighting, which helps in capturing candid performances from the actors.
Scherfig’s film was perceived as a light-hearted romantic comedy. However, the Dogme sensibility makes the film more natural than an average genre movie. While generic romantic comedies follow a tried and tested formula, Italian for Beginners is an unpredictable film that seeks truth in human interaction.
Dogme 95 is a radical film movement that came as a total rejection of mainstream cinema. However, its undeniable dedication to truth and experimentation impacted both underground and commercial films. Filmmakers all over the world quickly adopted elements of the manifesto, especially those who wished to test the boundaries of the form. This new appetite for realism is a testament to the force and influence of all Dogme 95 cineastes.
Thompson, K., & Bordwell, D. (2002). Film History: An Introduction (2nd ed.). McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages.
Richman, D. (2017, February 8). Movies You Might Have Missed: Thomas Vinterberg's Festen. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/movies-you-might-have-missed-festen-thomas-vinterberg-a7569596.html
Rooney, D. (1998, May 20). The Idiots, Variety. https://variety.com/1998/film/reviews/the-idiots-1117477538/