Newsletter for American friends 30. March 2004

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Dear American friends


I have previously mentioned my work with Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier and now I just want to remind you that his most amazing movie yet has just opened in American movie theaters. Even if my photos had not been in this movie I would have sent you this reminder. It will go down in movie history as a classic - at least in the rest of the world. As usual Americans have a harder time with such European art movies.


One important reason to see it: that his next movie will be far, far more provocative in America as it hits deep into American race-relations. But without seeing Dogville first, much will be lost in its sequel "Manderlay" which is directly inspired by my show "American Pictures". Last week I was presenting my show for all the actors - most of them black. Harry Belafonte and several others had turned down the leading roles as they felt it would be too dangerous for their careers. The more radical-minded Danny Glover accepted and we immedeately hooked up. I am not going to reveal anything about "Manderlay" - but rest assured that you will hear about it next year. And prepare yourself for it by seeing Dogville now. It is running in all the major cities. Below some reviews from NY Times.


My only complaint about Dogville concerns about my pictures:
Somehow I felt that my pictures in the end drags down the universal message of the movie to a more narrow American scene. I think they are the main reason American reviewers in Cannes called the movie "anti-American". So let me just tell you this: The second time I saw it in Denmark I saw it with some of my Danish Muslim immigrant friends. Throughout the movie - as it gets more and more cruel to Nicole Kidman - they were wispering to me: "Look, this is the (Danish) government again tightening the screw around our neck." I think any persecuted people will see Dogville being their own story and even asked Lars von Trier about this. Yes, he deffinitely had the racist Danish government in mind when he made the movie and even took fullpage ads out in all our major papers during the last election attacking the racism of the governing parties.
Well, so much for his alleged "anti-Americanism". 

With love

Jacob Holdt 

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 Average Reader Rating: 4.38 Stars

 Number of Votes: 238


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   Extreme and daring but not cynical, November 16, 2003
Reviewer: frank.ihlenburg
I was hesitant about going to this movie despite the enthusiastic reviews here in Germany. Usually, I find "critically acclaimed" movies artificial rather than artful. Not this one, though. Never mind Lars Trier not having been to America: the claims about the movie being anti-American are rubbish. For Europeans, the US represent
extreme opportunities in either direction (this is about the only thing where I agree with the NYT review): a natural setting for a movie about the extremes of human behavior.
Though the set is reduced extremely as well, it is still very much a film: the camera makes you see things from more angles than you ever will in a theatre perspective.
Is the movie cynical? The reviewer refers to Brecht; I was more reminded of Chekhov. Do we call Chekhov cynical because he sees through people? IMO, true and, if you will, loving interest in people is needed for creating such art. Cynicism, on the contrary, is a form of neglect. Are the good sides in the town people neglected? No they aren't; in the beginning Grace's presence brings out the best in everyone. This culminates in the idyllic Fourth-of-July party (where a conventional movie would have ended). Then, gradually, good turns to mean and mean turns to cruel. Well motivated in each case and person. The motivations differ, but mostly it is immoral chances of achieving easy gains which corrupts people, and for which Grace is blamed as much as anybody else in this movie.




   Unprepared, March 25, 2004
Reviewer: rfhalpin
I was unprepared for this movie. Dogville is unsettling and captivating which, at the end, made a longlasting impression on us. Particularly captivating was the photo montage of real (?) photos used as a backdrop to the trailing credits - they made the preceding story seem more plausible.

When the movie began, my wife and I thought "Three hours of this?". Three hours later we were begging for more. My senses were like they are after a week of touring in India - totally raw, but that much more sensitive.

Highly recommended.




   Dogville's worth a visit, November 1, 2003
Reviewer: kappa9
There's been a lot of hysteric noise about Dogville's alleged anti-Americanism,but von Trier has located his sacrificial fables in Scotland and Germany before going to the States. Dogville may set America to rights but it does the same with von Trier's career, particularly in the breezy dialogue in the car between Grace and her father. How does the arrogant Lars redeems himself of his past sadistic sins? Through more sadism, by playing tribute to the ganster movie,with a triumphant Grace vindicating the genre. But Dogville is a naked fantasy, a staged fake, a pleasure to be treasured every frame while enabling us to hold back our emotions. I think that's called Brechtian; I think that's called talent too.


   Not An Attack on American Culture, March 22, 2004
Reviewer: svanes
It is understandable that to many, Dogville appears to critique aspects of American culture, and this is in all likelihood due to the story’s setting in a mythical American village.

However, one must note that Von Trier is Danish, and over the course of several films, he has used his examination of small town existence as a vehicle for critiquing Danish narrow-mindedness, as well as the dangers of mass thinking. This is especially relevant, given that Von Trier rarely leaves Denmark, on account of his aversion to air travel.

By making his films in English (rather than Danish), and by placing his films outside of Denmark, Von Trier not only increases the international profile of his films (also increasing their potential for profit), but he gains perspective on the subject matter by distancing himself from it.

Certainly, Von Trier’s Breaking The Waves is no more an attack on the particularities of Scottish culture, than Dogville is on American culture. What the two films have in common, however, is a mutual skepticism towards cultures that seek to control behavior through their strict moral codes. One can be more specific about the two aforementioned films, in that they are both critiques of violent cultures that rationalize vengeance through their moral codes, but one will also find the same general themes present in his Danish language Dogme film, The Idiots.


   Giving us what we want, March 21, 2004
Reviewer: liuxx
This film provokes our distintively American desire for a violent denouement and it gives it to us, in spades.

People are going to tell you that this film is about small town life, or that it is a European fantasy about American life. They're wrong. It is a long meditation on sanctimonious self deceptions, and the audience does not escape easily from its own fantasies of "justice" and simplistic desires for revenge. The "coda" as it was called in the Times inspires both terror and ptiy, which makes it, in a very classical sense, a successful tragedy.

It is not for those of us who would prefer to pay protection to good intentions to keep the truth at bay. This is one of the most powerful and challenging films I've seen in a long itme.


   A modern masterpiece, March 26, 2004
Reviewer: manuel.schulz
I just want to express my admiration for Lars von Trier and recommend this movie to anyone who is only remotely interested in movies as an art form.

Dogville is the most exceptional and provocative movie I have seen in many, many years. Von Trier's achievement to keep the viewers as detached as possible with its Brechtian technique, while on the other hand involving us emotionally with his formidable storytelling and a sensational group of actors is simply breathtaking. (The film offers especially outstanding performances by Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany and Patricia Clarkson.)

The emotional involvement with Grace's suffering and the incredible twist in the end is stronger than any conventional movie could have produced. This movie and the ideas it reflects on human kind and society will stay with you forever.

Dogville for me is a modern masterpiece that belongs in the same league as the greatest works of Kazan, Hitchcock, Fellini, Truffaut and Godard.

See for yourself.




   'The Visit' revisited, March 21, 2004
Reviewer: sabina480
The fact that this play - it is much more of a play than a movie in my opinion - is set in the States is irrelevant. It merely seems to be a new location for this genre but not a new era.

It relates to a European tradition where a similar dynamic set in the archetypical small village demonstrates, presumably unexpectedly, savagery, such as in 'Andorra' by Max Frisch and especially in 'The Visit' by Friedrich Durrenmatt (or Duerrenmatt), amongst others. These plays are required reading in the average German senior high school and are likely to be well known in other European countries too.

This type of study on human nature depicts a historical time (such as the Great Depression in this case) where people have to make harder moral choices than in prosperous times where it might be less of a challenge to keep one's integrity.

Whether there is any political reason why this genre is being revived in today's political context and why this time the States have been chosen as the playground, is a question Mr v. Trier should be asked.

But to merely view this study of extreme human behaviour as another European attack on God's own country is simply an expression of an Americentrist point of view which fails to analyse the historical roots of this whole genre. In fact, it is doubtful if this theatrical performance had made it into American papers at all, had it not been declared to take place in the States.


   Kidman hits new high, March 26, 2004
Reviewer: mongo258

Nicole Kidman's performance is stunning.

Her best performance yet.


   Despair/Nihilism/ Pretention, October 5, 2003
Reviewer: lindal170
This movie offers its, loyal, $15.00 a ticket viewers despair and nihilism in a neat package consisting of an excellent cast and artistic cinematography; however, its pretentious and laborious script renders the meaning of its characters lives void of any growth or enlightenment. Why would the board of the prestigious NYC Film Festival choose to subject its audience to three hours of violent, meaningless hype? This is one viewer who will think twice before ordering tickets next year!

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   The film of the century, March 7, 2004
Reviewer: flsune
The greatest picture of this new century. It's too long,no doubt,but still a masterpiece.A fantastic cast,lead by Nicole Kidman in her greatest performance.A movie to remember.


New York Times:

It Fakes a Village: Lars von Trier's America


Published: March 21, 2004


DOGVILLE, the setting for Lars von Trier's new film of the same name, is a tiny, obscure town in the Colorado Rockies. The adult population numbers about 15, and during the Great Depression, when the film takes place, these people's lives are busy, joyless and harsh. The hard-bitten folk who inhabited the Northwestern factory town in "Dancer in the Dark," Mr. von Trier's previous foray into Americana, at least had a community theater, but the most Dogville can offer is some meetings presided over by a self-styled intellectual named Tom Edison Jr. (the English actor Paul Bettany).

Dogville is, in short, a place where life seems to have been reduced to its crude minimum. A modern American happening upon "Dogville," which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, will quickly become aware of what has been omitted. "I deliberately took out religion," Mr. von Trier said in a recent telephone interview. Also, he might have added, such quintessential American passions as sports, popular culture and politics: one of the citizens does own a radio, but he snaps it off as soon as one of President Roosevelt's fireside chats comes over the airwaves. In "Dancer in the Dark" you could glimpse a framed photograph of President Eisenhower hanging on the wall, a curious touch in a movie supposedly set in 1964, but nonetheless a scrambled signal of some connection between the fictitious characters and the actual political entity they are supposed to inhabit. In the 1930's in Dogville, where the brief appearance of a constable is the only sign of the existence of the state, there are no pictures of F. D. R. hanging on the wall.

Then again, there aren't any walls. Nor are there any trees or houses or enclosed physical structures of any kind. There is nothing, in short, to mark Dogville as a place, American or otherwise: aside from one or two skeletal structures, an outcropping or two of painted styrofoam and a few pieces of furniture, Dogville is conjured out of chalk outlines and stark stage effects. The floor plans of the tiny houses are stenciled on the ground, as are invisible streets and phantom landmarks like the prized gooseberry bushes and the nonexistent dog whose nonetheless audible bark signals the arrival of a stranger.

What happens to that stranger — a woman named Grace, played with a flawless combination of vulnerability and cunning by Nicole Kidman — constitutes Mr. Von Trier's latest American tragedy. Young Tom Edison, worried without any obvious reason that the town is in need of "moral rearmament," wishes for a test of its virtues, a real-life "illustration" (one of his favorite words) of his vague notions of community and responsibility. Grace, who is fleeing from big-city gangsters, seems to offer a perfect opportunity. She is reluctant to impose on the town's kindness but also utterly helpless. Dogville rises to the challenge of her presence by opening its arms in generosity, and then enclosing her in a pious, self-justifying embrace of indentured servitude, humiliation and, eventually, sexual slavery.

It has been frequently noted that Mr. von Trier, a Dane, has never been to the United States. It was so frequently noted in discussions of "Dancer" that he was provoked to conceive an entire American trilogy, and to pre-empt objections by noting, in press materials, that the makers of "Casablanca" had never been to Morocco. Nor had Kafka been to the United States while writing "Amerika." "I must say I'm very fond of this idea that Kafka didn't go to America," Mr. von Trier said. "For me it's about America, even though it's about what he had seen in Europe. Somehow America is a canvas that you can use. Of course the film is, like Kafka's book, inspired by my own meeting with not Americans but mostly Danish people. It could be a place anywhere."

Tom Edison, who is at once Mr. von Trier's alter ego and, ultimately, his villain, might endorse this interpretation. Toward the end of the movie, after the true, ugly nature of the town and its people has been revealed, he conceives a novel — maybe even a trilogy — about the experiences of a town just like it. "Why not just call it Dogville?" Grace asks. "No, no," he says, "it has to be universal. A lot of writers make that mistake." It is a mistake Mr. von Trier is far too clever to avoid.

What makes "Dogville" so fascinating, and so troubling, is the tension between the universal and the specific. "You mean, why not just call it Denmark?" Mr. von Trier responded, mockingly, when asked about his choice. Because, of course, it couldn't possibly be Denmark. It's America. The script may have been written in Danish and then translated into the strange, mock-literary English the characters speak. The characters themselves may be played by a motley, international collection of actors ranging from Lauren Bacall to Chloë Sevigny to Stellan Skarsgard. (You can hardly expect a man who once cast Catherine Deneuve as a factory worker named Kathy to care much about authenticity.) But the clothes and folkways of Dogville harken unmistakably back to the land of John Steinbeck, Mark Twain and Sherwood Anderson, whose observations have been filtered through Mr. von Trier's equally unmistakable European sensibility. The movie presents a curious blend of the alien and the familiar: it is a fantasy of America, but not an American fantasy.

The sight of actors all occupying the same barren stage, and the knowledge that the camera will never leave this spot, induce a squirming, suffocating sense of claustrophobia, which may be part of Mr. von Trier's point. In his pitiless view, everyone lives in a fundamental state of isolation, but no one is ever alone. The illusion of intimacy is sustained by the shaky close-ups that have become hallmarks of his intrusive, unnerving camera style, but even the most secret moments seem at the same time to occur in full public view. One of the film's grimmest scenes, the first of several rapes, takes place in one of the houses, and the camera pulls back through the invisible walls to the streets of the town, where the other Dogvilleans are going about their desultory business. Their obliviousness to what is taking place in the children's bedroom over at Vera and Chuck's house seems like a malign and active refusal to acknowledge it, a symbol of the repressive, willed innocence that is among the town's many sins. The people of Dogville are proud, hypocritical and never more dangerous than when they are convinced of the righteousness of their actions. Grace, as it happens, may not be much better.



Who are these people? What is this place? The formal audacity of "Dogville" is hard to separate from the provocations of its story and setting. Mr. von Trier, who has never seen the United States, nonetheless seems to suggest that he can see through it — through us. It is hardly surprising that some Americans have taken this personally, and responded to this brutal allegory in a defensive tone. Last spring in Cannes, where geopolitical tensions between Europe and the United States hung in the air like a bad smell, Mr. von Trier courted accusations of anti-Americanism — which, unlike awards, were numerous. Todd McCarthy, the chief film critic for Variety, wrote that "the identification with Dogville and the United States is total and unambiguous." He concluded that "through his contrived tale of one mistreated woman, who is devious herself, von Trier indicts as being unfit to inhabit the earth a country that has surely attracted, and given opportunity to, more people onto its shores than any other in the history of the world."

Mr. von Trier does his part to further this reading. The film's violent denouement is followed by a sudden, gear-grinding shift from allegory to documentary, as the screen fills with photographs of destitute and miserable Americans, starting with Dorothea Lange's dust bowl families and running through the present. The pictures, accompanied by David Bowie's jaunty "Young Americans," seem to taunt us with a reality we would prefer to ignore, and to scold us for believing, like those benighted Dogvilleans, in our own unshakable goodness.

Or something like that. The coda is so heavy-handed it's hard to take it seriously at all. "Of course, it's cheating a bit to put these pictures up, you might say," Mr. von Trier conceded. "But I can't deny that I am by heart a socialist, and therefore the American system as I see it would make a situation like this more probable, maybe push people more quickly to the wrong side. My primitive view is that if a system is partly built on the idea that you are the maker of your own happiness, then of course poor people are miserable in the sense that they failed completely. Whereas in other countries, you might look at that more as a failure of the society."

To take "Dogville" primarily as the vehicle for this view, however, is to make it a much less interesting movie than it is. You might as well say that "Dancer in the Dark," which has a bizarre plot involving blindness — and which ends very badly, indeed — is a treatise against privatized health care and capital punishment, aspects of modern American society most likely to appall the citizens of Western European social democracies. Expanding the possible interpretation of "Dogville" (if not his view of human nature), Mr. Von Trier offered, "I think the point to the film is that evil can arise anywhere, as long as the situation is right." It is the pervasiveness of that evil — the thoroughness of the film's pessimism — that may seem most alien of all to doggedly optimistic American sensibilities.

"Dogville" belongs in the company of other European dreams about America — Kafka's "Amerika," of course, but also Bertolt Brecht's plays set among the gangsters of Chicago and films like Wim Wenders's "Paris, Texas" and Michelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point." To call these various works dreams is to caution against taking them too literally, and also to suggest that they may be most interesting for what they reveal about the dreamers. In spite of being led by James Caan, who once played Sonny Corleone, the black-hatted thugs who roll into Dogville have more in common with Brecht's gangsters, who were Nazis in disguise, than with our own tradition of sentimental, mama's-boy mobsters from "The Public Enemy" to "The Sopranos." And the citizens of Dogville, for all their exaggerated frontier folksiness, seem to have been projected from the anxious unconscious of Europe. They are rooted to the spot, immobilized by habit and prejudice, incapable of flight or self-invention, and the social pathology to which they — and Grace — fall prey looks more like fascism than like our homegrown forms of viciousness and intolerance.

"Manderlay," the middle film in Mr. von Trier's American trilogy, will tackle a more identifiably American problem — racism and the legacy of slavery — and it will be interesting to see what European demons haunt its spartan stage. It is also interesting to note that, now that Ms. Kidman has moved on, the part of Grace will be played by Bryce Howard, a young actress who, as Mr. von Trier perhaps coyly put it, "turned out to be the daughter of an American director, Ron Howard." And while it may be going too far to suggest a link between Dogville and Mayberry — or, for that matter, between Dogville and Whoville — Mr. von Trier's austere art film may be closer to the mess and ruckus of American popular culture than he knows, and not only because of his fondness for populating his allegorical landscapes with movie stars. Part of being American is participating in an endless argument about what America means, an argument to which "Dogville" adds an unignorable, if curiously accented, voice.

And Dogville may be closer than we think. Shortly after a recent screening of the film, I turned on the television and stumbled on another small town in Colorado, rendered in a self-consciously minimalist style, where American piety is subjected to systematic and brutal deconstruction. Sometimes travel to a strange place gives you a new perspective on home, and a new appreciation for it. After Dogville, South Park will never look quite the same.  


New York Times:

Virtue Is Its Own Punishment


The clearest path toward understanding Lars von Trier, whose three-hour quasi-Christian allegory, ''Dogville,'' is certain to divide audiences into passionate champions and hissing naysayers, is to accept that he is a ruthless provocateur with a practical joker's sensibility.

Unlike most serious filmmakers who demand your trust, Mr. von Trier solicits it with a supercilious smirk, then mocks your emotional expectations with a teasing ambiguity. Alfred Hitchcock, who's also been accused of sadism, played tricks that tickled. Mr. von Trier wants his to leave a sting, along with the uneasy suspicion that he's played you for a fool.


''Dogville,'' which has the first of two New York Film Festival screenings tonight, has the outlines of a savage Brechtian deconstruction of ''Our Town.'' While you watch the movie, it can seem ridiculously long-winded (especially near the end, when James Caan appears as a mobster in a black sedan). But once it's over, its characters' miserable faces remain etched in your memory, and its cynical message lingers.

As a contemptuous, nose-thumbing expression of this Danish director's misanthropy, the movie is relentlessly true to its hateful vision, depicting as a lie the ideal of embracing human community (and especially the cozy, cookie-baking dream of small-town America). The only true solidarity to be found in any group, it proposes, is through vengeful, xenophobic mob violence.

Because most people automatically flinch at such misanthropy, ''Dogville,'' which concludes that people are no better (and probably worse) than dogs, faces a dim commercial future. Set during the Depression in Dogville, an imaginary American town, it reworks Mr. von Trier's favorite parable of human cruelty -- the persecution and martyrdom of an innocent young woman -- then subjects it to a transcendentally nasty twist.

Unlike the director's earlier variations on the theme, this one doesn't culminate with a comforting peal of celestial bells or a song of faith by an angel facing the electric chair.

Grace (Nicole Kidman), a beautiful stranger running from mobsters, who wanders into Dogville and throws herself on the mercy of the townspeople, doesn't ascend anywhere. Mr. von Trier pulls the rug out from under her by suggesting that retaliation is more satisfying than martyrdom, and asserting that forgiveness is a form of moral arrogance that deserves to be trampled. For those who come to care about Grace, the turnaround is a nasty slap in the face, and the practical joker's final crow of ''what did you expect?''

The Brechtian gap between the audience and what unfolds is much wider in ''Dogville'' than in Mr. von Trier's previous movies because the new film, shot in digital video, all but does away with naturalistic trappings. It takes place on a stage designed as a map, with props and chalk directions indicating place names like Elm Street (although we're told that there are no elms in Dogville). The stage is large enough to accommodate moving cars.

A favorite camera device is to peer down from above to observe the characters (their actions sometimes sped-up) as scurrying ants. Because of the Depression, the town is hopelessly bedraggled, and filming the movie (in bleached-out color) on a stage set has enhanced the claustrophobic ambience.

That Brechtian distance is further widened by the flowery delivery of an unctuous British narrator (John Hurt), who relates the story in a facetious parody of fairy-tale language. Like a storybook, the movie is divided into chapters with explanatory titles.

When Grace arrives in Dogville, she is befriended by Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), a young philosopher, know-it-all and John-Boy Walton type who appoints himself her protector and pleads her case with the townspeople. (Eventually, he and Grace fall in love.) To gain community acceptance, Grace volunteers her labor as Dogville's unpaid housekeeper, gardener, baby sitter, and all-purpose farmhand.

But her neighbors' good will curdles into suspicion and loathing after schoolchildren spot her being raped in an orchard by Chuck (Stellan Skarsgard), an apple farmer who blackmails her into becoming his plaything. Then her life goes swiftly downhill, and she ends up a prisoner and unpaid prostitute, all the while maintaining the vestiges of a misplaced Panglossian faith in her persecutors' underlying humanity.

Among the actors portraying the townspeople, who gather for regular meetings, are Lauren Bacall, Blair Brown, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara, Chloë Sevigny and Philip Baker Hall. They make up an ominously mean-spirited ensemble, ruled by fear, greed, lust and envy.

Ms. Kidman's Grace (sweetly underplayed) is an angel of compassion and charity who forgives their rudeness and excuses their sins. Her sin (in their eyes) is to act as if she's better than other people. And one of the movie's most unsettling notions is that good people are resented for their virtue. And because they make everyone around them feel even worse about themselves, they need to be taught a lesson.

A lot of fuss has been made about Mr. von Trier's supposed anti-Americanism. (He has never visited this country.) It seems to me that this showy stance is more a provocative maneuver than a hardened prejudice. As long as the United States is touted as the promised land whose streets are paved with gold, its myths are ripe for puncture. We ought to be able to stand it.


Written and directed by Lars von Trier; director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle; edited by Molly Malene Stensgaard; production designer, Peter Grant; produced by Vibeke Windelov; released by Lions Gate Films. Running time: 177 minutes. This film is not rated. Shown tonight at 8:30 P.M. and Sunday at 4:30 P.M. at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, as part of the 41st New York Film Festival.

WITH: Nicole Kidman (Grace), Harriet Andersson (Gloria), Lauren Bacall (Ma Ginger), Jean-Marc Barr (the Man With the Big Hat), Paul Bettany (Tom Edison), Blair Brown (Mrs. Henson), James Caan (the Big Man), Patricia Clarkson (Vera), Jeremy Davies (Bill Henson), Ben Gazzara (Jack McKay), Philip Baker Hall (Tom Edison Sr.), Siobhan Fallon Hogan (Martha), John Hurt (Narrator), Zeljko Ivanek (Ben), Chloë Sevigny (Liz Henson), Udo Kier (the Man in the Coat) and Stellan Skarsgard (Chuck).


Published: 10 - 04 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section B , Column 4 , Page 7