In the early ’90s, Francis Ford Coppola predicted the future: “Suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is gonna be the new Mozart,” he said, “and make a beautiful film with her father’s little camcorder, and for once this whole professionalism about movies will be destroyed, forever, and it will really become an art form.”
He was on the right track, but the revolution of lo-fi camerawork actually came from a couple of bored Danes. Just a few years after Coppola’s proclamation, directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg joined a few of their cohorts in scribbling out 10 rules to inform their work going forward.
The Dogme 95 Manifesto was a call-to-arms for filmmakers eager to escape the confines of commercial production and transform cinema into a fully creative endeavor. That involved a stripping away of artifice on virtually every level of production. Shot with cheap camcorders to enhance the gritty naturalism and devoid of fancy effects, it was a radical maneuver that yielded 10 years of bracing experiments with emerging technology and pure DIY ingenuity, anticipating the digital revolution in modern storytelling that would soon flourish in many forms.
It was also something of a joke.
The so-called introduction to the manifesto was written in radical anti-bourgeois terms that bordered on self-parody (“Cinema is not individual”) and the directors broke their own rules all over the place. But the mock-seriousness of the manifesto didn’t stop it from offering some legitimate observations as well, including this one: “For the first time, anyone can make movies. But the more accessible the medium becomes, the more important the avant-garde. … Discipline is the answer.”
In other words, Dogme 95 recognized the revolutionary nature of cheaper filmmaking methods, as well as its potential to devolve into amateurish drek. The avoid that, the screed demanded that any filmmaker who agreed to make a Dogme film had to take a “Vow of Chastity” that they would adhere to a set of 10 rules. These included shooting only on location with diegetic sound and handheld camera movement; no fancy lighting schemes were allowed, nor was “superficial action” — the narratives couldn’t take hyperbolic twists, and “genre movies are not acceptable.”
So what was? By the time Lorna Scherfig’s compelling romantic comedy “Italian for Beginners” came out in 2000, almost everything. “Dogme” eventually became synonymous with “cheap and edgy.” But “The Celebration,” “The Idiots,” and “Julien Donkey-Boy” stand out among the 35 official Dogme films for attempting to work within the framework of the manifesto to create narratives defined by their lo-fi, ragtag aesthetic in deeper ways. The movement had a unified purpose, and contributed a bonafide new chapter to film history that illustrated the continuing potential of the medium.
It also yielded movies that argued for unfiltered creativity on every level: Many of these stories were as uncompromising in subject as they were in the way it was explored. Dogme 95 films made it exciting to think about movies as the antidote to Hollywood escapism, but it helped that the movies were pretty good, too.
To that end, this was more than the last great filmmaking movement and struck a closer resemblance to the creative gambles of André Breton’s surrealist crew. Principled and ludicrous at the same time, Dogme 95 aimed to reinvent the potential of cinema, and even as a lark, it succeeded right out of the gate.
That’s because “The Celebration,” Vinterberg’s operatic look at a hectic family reunion that gets very, very dark, would remain the most widely embraced Dogme 95 production as the list grew. The story of wealthy businessman Helge (Henning Moritzen) who invites his grown children to his home for his 60th birthday party, “The Celebration” is already an engrossing look at the stink of privilege and upper-class malaise when his son Christian (Ulrich Thomsen) stands up to give a toast to his father at a very busy dinner and grins all the way through an admission that the patriarch sexually abused his kids. The circumstances grow darker and more harrowing from there, as Vinterberg uses the pixelated visuals to echo the increasing discomfort and disillusionment of the palatial setting, creating an ironic contrast between the controlled nature of the mansion and its collapse under the colossal weight of moral ineptitude.
“The Celebration” was a hit with critics and even became the country’s Oscar submission (it wasn’t selected, but Vinterberg would get his revenge by winning for “Another Round” years later). One might argue that Dogme 95 didn’t inform the movie’s success so much as the strong writing, performances, and direction that yielded such compelling material, regardless of its form. But consider for a moment how a more conventional version of “The Celebration” might play out, with overbearing music cues and glossy camerawork bound to feel like an extension of the bourgeois milieu rather than a canny indictment of it. The form of the movie defines its critique.
And so it went for Lars von Trier’s “The Idiots,” released the same year. Whereas Dogme #1 used the unglamorous miniDV look to rupture the mystique of privilege, Dogme #2 looked to the other side of the equation. Von Trier’s provocative look at a group of outsiders who pretend to be mentally disabled to take advantage of other people is a subversive gamble from a filmmaker whose entire career has been defined by exactly that. The movie centers on the perspective of Karen (Bodil Jørgensen), who comes across the group in a diner and falls for their antics before she’s entranced by their anarchic quest.
In between inane antics in the woods and one rather explicit orgy scene, “The Idiots” includes compelling debates the underlying ethics in play. This is a movie that knows it will make you squirm and think about why you’re squirming all once, and it’s all the effective because the Dogme framework injects each scene with raw, documentary immediacy. Von Trier doesn’t take his provocative concept for granted. The movie presents the shock of its premise from the perspective of characters who find joy in what they do, a radical maneuver that provokes genuine questions about just how much societal frustration can lead to extreme acts. The jolting final scene, when Karen takes a page from her new friends and attempts a handicap of her own, is tragic and liberating, all at once.
A similar balance comes out of Harmony Korine’s “Julien Donkey-Boy,” which begins with a schizophrenic young man (Ewen Bremner) murdering a child when he refuses to give him one of his pet turtle. Yeah, yeah…and we’re supposed to feel bad for this guy? But “Julien Donkey-Boy” makes the case without devolving into a bleak psychological thriller. It’s a ludicrous dark comedy about tragic circumstances that doesn’t mock them. It provokes scary questions tinged with absurdist bite, like this one: Who wouldn’t have Werner Herzog as a father and not go insane?
Years before his “Jack Reacher” and “Mandalorian” gigs, the Bavarian auteur played the ultimate bad guy: a deadbeat dad. As a rambling, drunken, and abusive overlord of Julien’s home, Herzog unleashes bizarre tirades about history and manhood with the swirling chaos of a poem gone wrong (or what Daniel Kaluuya’s “Nope” character might call “a bad miracle”). “You’re going to be a winner, just don’t shiver,” he declares to his son. “A winner doesn’t shiver.”
But “Julien Donkey-Boy” shivers all over the place — the camerawork makes sure of that — as it delves inside the dynamic between Julien and his pregnant sister Pearl (Chloë Sevigny, whose faux pregnancy technically violated a Dogme rule), leading up to a tragic twist that sets up Julien’s final spiritual revelation. By the end, he hasn’t escaped the gritty boundaries of his painful reality (the world of the movie is an eternal prison) but he’s committed to finding his way through it with a fresh moral code. As with “The Idiots” and “The Celebration,” Korine manages to get intimate with the kind of protagonist that could never make his way into the commercial arena and make the case that the art form shouldn’t be restricted to the easiest archetypes.
In that regard, it’s a shame that the movie wound up as one of the only U.S. entries in the movement (and really the only good one). From the French New Wave to John Cassavetes, filmmakers who embraced an economy of means charted paths to stories that would otherwise never get told. American cinema has largely been defined as an industry that requires commercial resources, not the government subsidies enjoyed by European auteurs, and the Dogme 95 playbook is the ideal workaround to that conundrum.
Some might argue that Dogme 95’s DNA continued with the so-called “mumblecore movement” that found directors such as the Duplass brothers and Joe Swanberg making cheap movies about everyday situations. Yet even the best of these movies lacked the narrative ambition of the Dogme films. The movement was successful because form and content operated on the same wavelength. It encouraged technical innovation, but the spirit behind it inspired thematic swings, too. Even a gentler, less cynical effort like “Italian for Beginners” pushed for a fresh level of intimacy with its characters than traditional genre conventions allow for.
Ultimately, Dogme 95 birthed 35 titles; it’s fun to consider what might have happened if it had birthed 35 more. But with its 2005 disbandment, another digital video force entered the media landscape. It democratized the moving image in ways that the Dogme 95 directors anticipated and feared, because it allowed basically any amateur image-maker to upload their work and go viral as a result.
Even today, YouTube threatens the potential for artistic standards to stand out, when kids stream their way to stardom and never look back. The struggle is real, but it hasn’t negated the potential for daring cinema to pierce the noise. Anyone worried about keeping up the good fight would do well to look back at these key Dogme films to see the terms of the battle up close.