P:O.V. No.10 - Aspects of Dogma, On THE DOGMA MOVEMENT IN GENERAL

Great Cry and Little Wool

Niels Weisberg

Historically, neorealism in 1944-1945, the British "free cinema" of 1956-1959, and the French New Wave of 1958-1959 show the first efforts that were made to create a cinema that was not costly, that came closer to reality, and that was free from slavery to technique.
Louis Marcorelles, 1973

In a press release of October 8th 1999, signed by the four Dogma brothers, it says that "considering the fact that there are numerous practical problems connected with our review of aspiring Dogma films, we have decided on a change of practice when issuing Dogma certificates. In future the director himself is solemnly to declare his adherence to the Dogma95 Manifesto."[1]

And the new practice is further revised in a press release of March 9th 2000 with the establishing of a Dogma Secretariat. A fee, varying from 5.000 to 15.000 Danish kroner, for certification is introduced, with the possibility of a dispensation if very good reasons are stated. "Please note," states the press release, "that Dogma Certificates shall be issued solely on the basis of a signed and sworn statement to the effect that the Vow of Chastity has been adhered to in full and without any review of the applicant films! After a film has been certified and officially numbered we shall, however, appreciate to receive a VHS copy (preferably with English subtitles) for our Dogma Library."[2]

And seeing that Thomas Vinterberg in an interview on November 4th 1999 declares, "…after all Dogma 95 in my eyes has become convention in itself,"[3] let’s look at certain aspects of this quickly outdated, anti-bourgeois not wave, but rather ripple on the vast ocean of cinema.

In its iconoclastic reaction against "certain tendencies" and "the cosmeticised" cinema, which primarily must mean Hollywood mainstream, the Dogma manifesto insists that "the characters’ inner lives justify the plot", which by the way is the case with most good films. And the manifesto also relates itself to the French New Wave and the truth ("My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and my settings"), a word which instantly suggests the Italian Neorealism. And luckily, though critics can never fully agree, we have a defining set of rules (not dogmatic, mind you) of these two movements – with the crucial difference that both have been compiled by critics long after that the two movements had begun.

10 Points of Neorealism[4]

  1. A message: for the Italian filmmakers, cinema is a way of expression and communication in the true sense of the word.

  2. Topical scripts inspired by concrete events; great historical and social issues are tackled from the point of view of the common people.

  3. A sense of detail as a means of authentification.

  4. A sense of the masses and the ability to surprise (De Sica) or manipulate them in front of the camera (De Santis, Visconti): the protagonists are captured in their relationship to the masses.

  5. Realism: but reality is filtered by a very delicate sensitivity.

  6. The truth of actors, often nonprofessionals.

  7. The truth of decor and a refusal of the studio.

  8. The truth of the lighting.

  9. Photography reminiscent of the reportage style stresses the impression of truth.

  10. An extremely free camera; its unrestricted movements result from the use of postsynchronisation.

A list of shared characteristics of the French New Wave (including the Cahiers group, the Left Bank group, and the "commercial" one, e.g. Vadim)[5]

  1. Many films were made on low budgets.

  2. The Cahiers group often worked on each other's films and shared crews

  3. Stories were often original or based on "hard-boiled" or "pulp" American fiction.

  4. Characters were often "young and reckless".

  5. Location filming, in Paris or well-known tourist spots.

  6. Cinematography was improvised, self-conscious, innovatory.

  7. Films were riddled with references and "hommages" to Hollywood and the great European "art" directors (Renoir, Dreyer, Rossellini, etc.).

  8. Some were European co-productions and they appealed to young audiences throughout Europe.

  9. They produced their own stars – Jean-Paul Belmondo, Anna Karina, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jeanne Moreau, Anouk Aimée, Jean-Claude Brialy, etc.

These two movements did not need dogmatic rules; the participants knew that they differed too much to adopt a common set of rules, but by distancing themselves from mutual enemies and conditions and by rejecting old conventions they had something in common.

Italian Neorealism

The neorealists opposed 20 years of fascism, the war, and a film industry which had neglected to deal with the reality of contemporary Italy and instead had dedicated itself to escapism. Now new Marxist directors (Visconti, De Santis) could meet with more experienced colleagues (Rossellini, De Sica), whose careers had begun under the auspices of fascism, to launch a project of documenting a new postwar reality (Zavattini talked about "this hunger for reality, for truth"[6]), of showing poverty as it really existed in its authentic environment, of depicting daily life in all its facets, of upgrading dialects at the expense of Tuscan, favored by the fascists – in short, of vindicating common human conditions as openly and as honestly as possible. This project did not require a fixed technique (few neorealistic films showed all the ten characteristics); the aesthetics of the directors differed too much, and furthermore they "never intended to reduce their narratives to mere depiction of the 'real world', to 'record and reveal the physical reality' as advocated by Zavattini"[7] , but they were more concerned with political-historical issues (Visconti) and/or with moral ones. "'There doesn’t exist a technique for capturing truth,' Rossellini agreed. 'Only a moral position can do it' – a desire 'to understand, to understand fully, …a greater curiosity about individuals', not merely their 'surface', but 'the most subtle aspects of their soul'."[8]

Improved economic conditions, the Andreotti law (reintroducing censorship) and the directors’ personal and artistic development caused the loose structure of the movement to disintegrate within a decade, and some of the directors changed their focus from the physical world to an individual psychology, i.e. a psychological realism or an inner neorealism (Rossellini, Antonioni).

The French New Wave

The New Wave was an even more heterogeneous movement. Maybe the only thing they actually had in common – a kind of 10th characteristic – was the ambition to direct a movie before turning 35 – which they all did. And this aspect of age (an early manifestation of the still dormant youth revolution) is extremely important, as it not only explains the reckless rejection of the established film language, le cinéma de papa, but also the youthful characters and subject matters in their films. Revolutionary in a political sense only makes sense when applied to Godard and certain of the Left Bank group. And even though reality was an important issue to all them, Verfremdung, fabricated by every possible filmic trick, was just as important to several of them: modernism and experiments of every kind (Godard, Demy, Resnais) had made their entry on the screen, partly due to technical advances, e.g. light hand cameras and portable tape machines for synchronized sound recording.

The end of the New Wave was sad, according to the Dogma manifesto. "The Wave was up for grabs, like the directors themselves…the new wave proved to be a ripple that washed ashore and turned to muck". Fair enough, I think, as everyone is entitled to an opinion. But not fair to the enormous impact the New Wave (especially Godard) exerted on world cinema, an impact which Dogma 95 is a living proof of.

Dogma 95 versus Neorealism & New Wave

The 10 Dogma rules can be divided into two main groups: one concerned with technique and one concerned with genre.

The technical group (rules 1-5 and 9) seems very ascetic, as if faith in asceticism were a prerequisite of fidelity to reality, to truth; this belief was not uncommon among certain neorealists, of course, but it still has to be proven correct.

When comparing the Dogma rules with Neorealism and New Wave we find the following similarities and differences:

Rule 1 – Only location shooting: to the Neorealists (NR) shooting on location was extremely important for ideological reasons, and that goes for the New Wave (NW), too, but for financial reasons as it was cheaper shooting on the streets with the newly invented portable equipment than shooting in a studio. Mira Liehm writes that "the production costs on the neorealist films (except for the very first ones) were usually as high as those of films shot in the studio…Shooting time was usually longer and transportation costs higher. On the other hand, the neorealists expended less money on scriptwriters and actors."[9]

Rule 2 – No "false" sound: NR nearly always shot their films silent and then post-synchronized them, which gave the camera an extended freedom of movement (and as the Italian sound technicians were used to dubbing, they were masters of recreating perfect sounds). A portable synchronous tape recorder was invented in 1959, which made it possible for NW to produce direct sound instead of post-synchronization. In Murder (1930) Herbert Marshall listens to some music on the radio while shaving, and as it was technically impossible at that time to add the sound later, Hitchcock had a thirty-piece orchestra playing in the studio behind the bathroom set[10]. Kragh-Jacobsen in an interview with Peter Rundle tells that "…it was really good fun and very stimulating having an accordion player behind me in that sugar beet field at five o’clock in the morning."[11]

Rule 3 – Only hand-held camera: whereas NR used an extremely free camera resulting in steady pictures and smooth camera movements, NW used hand-held camera with shaky pictures, but nothing like the both shaken and stirred pictures that Vinterberg and especially Trier have produced.

Rule 4 – Only color: for NR color was out of the question due to financial and probably also ideological reasons (when Visconti in 1960 returned to (a sort of neo)realism in Rocco and His Brothers, he chose black-and-white). And NW, after its initial financial success, very soon turned to color.

Rule 5 – No optical works and filters: NR would probably not have objected to this kind of "cosmetics" if it would have served their purpose. And NW loved every kind of experimentation (Truffaut’s Day for Night).

Rule 9 – Only Academy 35mm: NR had no choice as Academy 35mm[12] was the standard format, but NW probably more often than not used various forms of Cinemascope (e.g. Dyaliscope, Techniscope) as, due to the anamorphic lens, the height of the negative frame was reduced to half (giving the pictures a grainy [read: realistic] look), and so money could be saved. I honestly wonder why Academy 35 mm is less artificial than other formats? Is it chosen to please TV?

Dogma rules 6-7-8 are about genre.

Rule 6 – No murders, weapons: NR was partly born as a reaction against the war, so weapons and murders (Rossellini’s war trilogy) belonged to everyday reality. NW adapted (American) "hard-boiled" novels, and crime plots were not at all unusual even in original manuscripts.

Rule 7 – Here and now: this was perhaps the single most important trait in the neorealist movement, at least according to Zavattini. Very important for NW, but not a must (Jules et Jim and other films by Truffaut).

Rule 8 – No genre films: critics of NR, e.g. Raymond Durgnat, has labeled NR films "male weepies" because of their occasional melodramatic traits (especially De Sica). NW adored genre movies as a homage to their beloved Hollywood but also – as was the case with Godard in the 60s – as capitalist products open to deconstruction in film after film (A bout de souffle – the gangster/film noir film, Une femme est une femme – the musical, Les carabiniers – the war film, etc).

This leaves us with rule 10: The director must not be credited – I must admit, a very original idea, but also absolutely ridiculous.

Isn’t Dogma95 just a sleek, superficial, commercial gimmick?[13]

The Dogma concept is, of course, also a game; it is for fun, at least to a certain degree, therefore the brothers can freely choose what rules to introduce. In my opinion, though, rule 8 creates serious trouble for the brothers because the 3 Danish Dogma films can easily, as I see them, be described as (partly) genre films:

Is The Celebration not a melodrama?

Is The Idiots not a melodrama combined with (pseudo-) documentarism?

Is Mifune not a romantic comedy?

Furthermore, (shamefully or maybe with a giggle?) all 3 brothers have conceded that they have transgressed the rules, so I find it relevant to ask how many rules a director is allowed to break – and how often – without having the Dogma certificate revoked? How about a slogan like "The most trangressive/sinful Dogma film ever made!"? If the brothers do not take the rules seriously, why should the audience?

On the other hand, if the brothers take the rules seriously, why does Trier then direct Dancer in the Dark, which according to rumors is more like a Hollywood film, i.e. a cosmetized film, than a Dogma film, and why does Kragh-Jacobsen only want to adhere to the Dogma rules in one of the approx. five films left for him to direct.[14] ? Are they, as they claimed happened to the New Wave directors, already up for grabs after one Dogma film?

In these days in which several new young directors have created original and unconventional works for the Danish cinema, the Dogma experiment is still an enriching contribution – as any experiment is. The rules (except number 10) are not sensationally new – on the contrary, and I have my doubts that the nauseatingly shaky images of Trier and Vinterberg are the right tools to force out the truth of the characters and the settings.


On a visit to Denmark in spring Alan Parker, experienced film director and newly appointed Chairman of the Film Council in Britain, came up with an interesting observation[15]. According to him Hollywood has always looked upon film as a commodity dependent on its audience, whereas European filmmakers, especially the Auteurs of the 60s and 70s thought of their films as "art" – and completely disregarded their audiences. This "fatal error" gave the Americans free reins to conquer the whole market. The new Danish Dogma concept is not nearly as destructive as the Auteur concept. Parker genuinely liked Mifune and The Celebration but strikes a warning note: before embarking on new projects filmmakers ought to consider the implications. A Dogma film is technically speaking not the kind of film that easily lends itself to the big screen. When audiences realize that, they might as well watch a film on video, why go to the cinema?

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1 www.dogme95.dk

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 In 1952 the Paris journal Films et Documents published its "Ten points of neorealism". They are quoted in Mira Liehm: Passion and Defiance. Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present. Berkeley; University of California Press, 1984, p.131f.

5 Roy Stafford, "Paris 1960. The French New Wave", Film Reader, no. 1, 1996, p.34f.

6 Cesare Zavattini, "A Thesis on Neo-Realism", in David Overbey (ed), Springtime in Italy, London, Talisman Books, 1978, p. 69.

7 Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance, p. 71.

8 Tag Gallagher, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini. New York, Da Capo Press, 1998, p. 267.

9 Mira Liehm: Passion and Defiance, p. 331, note 43.

10 Francois Truffaut: Hitchcock. London, Secker & Warburg, 1967, p. 60f.

11 Kragh-Jacobsen in an interview with Peter Rundle, Nov. 5, 1999. www.dogme95.dk

12 Academy is the technical term for the ratio of width to height of the image both on film and screen, namely 1.33:1 or 4:3.

13 This headline is one of the "Frequently Asked Questions" on the Dogme 95 homepage (www.dogme95.dk). The answer is (surprise, surprise) "Most definitely not", but the answer is elaborated much more interestingly a few lines later: "There is an implicit duplicity in The Dogme 95 Manifesto. On one hand it contains a deep irony and on the other it is most serious meant. Irony and seriousness is interlinked in (sic) inseparable".

14 Kragh-Jacobsen interviewed by Peter Rundle, Nov. 5th 1999. www.dogme95.dk

15 Interview with Anders Lange in Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, March 13th, 2000.

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