Started by Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier in 1995, Dogme 95 was a Danish movement in cinema. It was a memorable attempt to create a framework within which art could truly be liberated. In order to do so, the filmmakers formulated a special manifesto that would help “take back power for the directors as artists.”
The rules were called the “Vow of Chastity” and were as follows:
- Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
- The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)
- The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
- The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera.)
- Optical work and filters are forbidden.
- The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
- Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.)
- Genre movies are not acceptable.
- The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
- The director must not be credited.
In an interview, Vinterberg explained: “When a film director makes a film, it quite automatically gets done in a particular way. You have a unit of thirty people around you, lots of lighting and all that, which has to be planned ages in advance. It’s a large, ponderous machine.”
He added, “The result is a particular kind of film, and this imposes limits on Danish film, I think. So 1995 was an obvious time to try and shake oneself out of all that in some way, and explore what can actually be done with the really basic qualities in film. To me is was so beautifully consistent.”
As a part of our weekly feature on world cinema, we jump into examples of Dogme 95 cinema in an attempt to properly understand the sensibilities of this unique movement in the history of cinema.
10 essential films from the Dogme 95 movement
Festen (Thomas Vinterberg – 1998)
The first film from the Dogme 95 movement, Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 black comedy depicts a wealthy patriarch’s 60th birthday. Things go awry when dark family secrets surface, leaving everyone in a state of utter confusion. The film picked up the Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival.
Vinterberg reflected, “I’m still proud of Festen. To me it’s like having a rich and famous son who travels the world and occasionally sends me a cheque. But I had some painful years after it. Success is always difficult to manage, but in this case I also felt I’d gone down that path as far as I could. I’m an actor/character man, and you can’t get any closer to actors/characters than you do in Festen.”
The Idiots (Lars von Trier – 1998)
Although von Trier’s Breaking the Waves was probably his first work which was influenced by the Dogme 95 movement, it broke many of the rules. That’s why The Idiots is referred to as von Trier’s first Dogme film. Shot completely with digital cameras, the film is a scathing critique of middle-class conservatism and it achieves that by showcasing the antics of suburban eccentrics.
The filmmaker said: “I make rules for all of my films. The Dogme rules were decided to make me concentrate on all the things I was beginning to get good at, like tracking shots. And so for every film, I had rules, I just change them so I don’t make the same film again.”
Mifune’s Last Song (Søren Kragh-Jacobsen – 1999)
This 1999 romantic comedy was a critical as well as commercial success, making it to the list of 10 bestselling Danish films worldwide. The title – Mifune’s Last Song – refers to the famous Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune whose characteristic persona is imitated in the film. It ended up winning Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
“It started out as a very local phenomenon,” Kragh-Jacobsen said. “We were going to do four films, for Denmark, for fun, and for the challenge of doing it with these rules…it was actually about liberating film through the process, not about a gimmick.”
Julien Donkey-Boy (Harmony Korine – 1999)
Harmony Korine‘s brilliant 1999 film tells the story of a young schizophrenic and his thoroughly dysfunctional family. While Julien Donkey-Boy broke a few Dogme 95 rules, the committee approved of Korine’s vision and praised him for his ability to “interpret the rules creatively.”
Korine revealed that he decided “to join the Brotherhood and submit to the Vow of Chastity because it fit with what I was doing beforehand. I did have to go about things differently, but it didn’t prevent me from making the film I [already] wanted to make.”
Lovers (Jean-Marc Barr – 1999)
The fifth addition to the list of films made according to the manifesto of the movement, Lovers features the romance between an illegal immigrant and a woman working in a bookshop. It balances the fantasy of love with the grim reality of existing social conditions.
Barr said: “With Lovers, we had a chance to discover new technology and to create our first film. We relished the freedom we discovered with this new technology in the streets of Paris and the liberty it gave the actors we wanted. So we decided to do a trilogy, called Free Trilogy.”
Italian for Beginners (Lone Scherfig – 2000)
Italian for Beginners deviates from the gravity of most Dogme films by presenting a comic tale of loneliness and the absurdity of fate. Shot using handheld video cameras and made on a relatively modest budget of $600,000, the film ended up grossing $16.4 million.
While talking about the movement, Scherfig explained: “Dogme 95 was a stimulus for all of us to go back to the basics and be more character-oriented. It forced the artists to think of stories closer to their world, and shoot in their own surroundings.”
Truly Human (Åke Sandgren – 2001)
Åke Sandgren’s experimental 2001 drama about an imaginary man named “P” who exists only in the mind of a seven-year-old child. She pretends that P hides behind her bedroom’s wallpaper but when her house is demolished, he actually emerges from the ruins without any identity of his own.
Truly Human explores the peculiar set of characteristics that form the human condition. Although it does violate the “Vow of Chastity” by using some special effects like night vision, the film remains true to the spirit of the movement.
Kira’s Reason: A Love Story (Ole Christian Madsen – 2001)
Madsen’s riveting investigation of motherhood and madness stars Stine Stengade as a young woman who struggles to maintain her family after being released from a psych ward. For her brilliant performance, Stengade won the Bodil and Robert awards for Best Actress.
The director said: “It’s true there has been a sort of Danish wave the last 10 years. When I went to film school we were taught mostly about Structure, Character and Drama. We weren’t taught a lot of visuals or cinematography. It was always about the storytelling. It was deliberate: The film school wanted to break the technical dominion in moviemaking, the DP driven movies, and giving the power back to the director.”
Open Hearts (Susanne Bier – 2002)
One of the more well-known works from the Dogme 95 movement, Susanne Bier’s 2002 drama presents the strange case of a young couple who undergo different kinds of trauma. The intensity of Bier’s artistic power won her the prestigious International Critics Award at the Toronto Film Festival.
Bier elaborated: “I think this film has a very universal theme. It describes a state of mind and situation that lots of people in the Western part of the world can identify with: something unexpected happens in your life and everything changes. In a way I think we have this fear in us and this anxiousness; that’s the way our lives look.”
In Your Hands (Anette K. Olesen – 2004)
Annette K. Olesen’s 2004 work is a unique addition to the fascinating legacy of Dogme 95. It follows the story of a young minister who is assigned to a women’s prison where she meets Kate, a woman who claims to have healing abilities that can only be explained by supernatural logic.
In Your Hands uses its spiritual explorations to form a cohesive thesis on social realism. Instead of experimenting with the narrative techniques, the film uses its powerful story to force the audience to reflect on mortality and human nature.