From the NS archive: Dogme 95

In this extract from his 1999 review of Thomas Vinterberg's film “Festen", Jonathan Romney considers Lars von Trier's contributions
to the Dogme 95 manifesto for a new cinema

Festen is the first broadside from Dogme 95, a collective of Danish film-makers, including the inveterate provocateur Lars von Trier. The group, echoing François Truffaut's polemic of the 1950s, describes itself as "a rescue action . . . with the expressed goal of countering certain tendencies in the cinema today".

Dogme declares itself at war with illusionism, with what it calls "cosmeticised" cinema, and with auteurism: "The individual Film will be decadent by definition." Hence the anonymity, and the image of a quasi-monastic fraternity working under ten restrictive rules called the "Vow of Chastity". These rules have received rather more publicity than the manifesto that accompanies them and which, if you read between the lines, has distinctly reactionary ideological undertones in its quasi-religious preoccupation with truth and purity.

The rules are essentially a recipe for realist simplicity. Shooting must be done on location; the camera must be hand-held; genre movies are not acceptable. Oddest of all, rule ten specifies that the director must not be credited, and must agree to refrain from personal taste. This is surely the most challenging part of Dogme. Imagine a cinema in which directors were obliged to bend their will to that of the collective, or even to the demands of film language itself.

Anonymity, however, is one rule that the Dogmetists contrive to flout. Thomas Vinterberg and von Trier are openly recognised as the directors of Festen and The Idiots (Dogme #1 and #2 respectively) and have publicised them widely. Some members even claim that the Vow is nothing more than an amusing way to rediscover low-budget basics. This seems a disappointing step-down from the promised hardline rigour: firebrand polemic is woefully absent from cinema these days, even if it only serves to start arguments.

It remains to be seen how other film-makers will meet the challenge, but Dogme has started something. Industry pundits claim that Festen's success presages a digital revolution in independent cinema. But you wonder how long the shock of the back-to-basics new will last. Dogme will probably function just fine as a brand-name bait for funding, but as either methodology or ideology it's nowhere near as radical as it seems. It would take more extreme or more arbitrary rules to create a genuinely new film language, rather than this bare-bones vérité.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, On tour with the far right