Daniel Kothenschulte, born in 1967, is a staff critic on several German dailies, including Frankfurter Rundschau, and the weekly Die Zeit. He is a regular contributor to the film magazines Film Dienst and Steadycam, and is the author of Nachbesserungen am Amerikanischen Traum (first published in 1998, and about to reappear in a new expanded edition), dealing with the films directed by Robert Redford. He has also written widely on film history, performance and installation art and popular culture.
What were your initial impressions when you first heard about Dogma 95?
I was happy because somebody was reviving the manifesto idea…
Were there specific aspects of the Dogma manifesto that especially appealed to you?
One thing I liked from the very beginning was that guns were excluded from films. That was 1995. If you see film historically, that is already an era gone by. That era was mostly influenced by the works of Quentin Tarantino. And I still think that Dogma is a reaction against that wide popularization of a certain… not only style but an issue in American cinema: the rediscovery of the gangster film from a post-modern angle. That means focusing on the reverse side of that genre. Having the gangster waiting on the loo for his next occasion to kill somebody and reflecting on some pop cultural issue, like Madonna's feet or some such thing. [Laughter.]
There was also the advent of a sub-genre in American cinema called the "kids-and-guns" movie. All you needed were some mentally stunted kids and a gun, and it didn't matter what they did. To people who are looking for reasonable storytelling, this is of course a nightmare.
What about those parts of the Dogma manifesto that mention refraining from personal taste, from being an artist and from creating a "work"? Did they also appeal to you?
Yes, because it was in my opinion an ironic reflection of the style in which manifestos should be written. Especially at the time of expressionism and early modernism, of course everybody wanted to tear down the establishment. But the great thing about the Dogma manifesto is that it is a typical post-modern thing to revive something that is considered old-fashioned and dated.
I once did an interview with a country singer from America, whom I liked, and who had been a punk musician before. He told me at the time, the most punk thing to do was to sing country music. [Laughter.] If you apply this principle to post-modernism, then at a certain time, the most post-modern thing to do was modernist stuff.
Of course, for someone who was always going for provocation, and being a proponent of post-modern cinema like Lars von Trier, at a certain time, the best way to be provocative was to revive a type of cinema that everybody was sick and tired of in the late 70s and early 80s; and that was a naïve social realism.
And as we know, this revival was accompanied by mostly digital camera techniques that, as many have already pointed out, are similar to the Arriflex in the early 70s which allowed filmmakers to direct camera movement into any space they wanted. The Dogma approach is not really the same esthetic, but at first glance it is. The interest of post-modernism doesn't go beyond the surface. That's part of post-modernism, that it touches the outward appearances of art. And Dogma deals with the outward appearance of a period in modernist cinema and plays with that image.
Had you been following Lars von Trier's career from the beginning?
Yes. The first film of his that I saw was Europa, which amazed me. Then I went back and saw his earlier films, and followed his career from then on.
Can you tell me what appeals to you most in Trier's films?
He has the power to create an artistic entirety, combining all the elements of film – an installation of sounds and images that can take you somewhere.
What was your personal impression of The Idiots?
I liked this film very much. It also touches on an issue in modernism: early performance cinema, early performance theater work, and the documents we have about it. So The Idiots looks a bit like a Vito Acconci film. There's an interesting work by the installation artist, Mike Kelley, which he calls Fresh Acconci – it's a post-modern approach to the performance documents of the early 70s on the human body, video tapes which looked very flat, were made with primitive video technology and involved a very pure esthetic. A man in a room is all we see. Mike Kelley did a remake of all these classical performance films but he hired beautiful young Hollywood actors and he set the same stories in big houses with swimming pools. He gave all this false Hollywood glamour to the same performance ideas, which had nothing to do with the esthetic they came with. […] And suddenly you could see that a lot of the things that you liked in the past about these early modern ideas, didn't have anything to do with the ideas themselves but derived rather from purist modernist image-making. With The Idiots, the Dogma cinema revives this arte povera or art brut esthetic of early performance work. I found that very funny.
On the other hand, we can't overlook the fact that the storytelling is very well constructed – it always is in Lars von Trier's films, in my opinion. He never forgets the usual cinema routine of touching an audience. Therefore, his work is never performance-like and never really avant-garde. In that sense, it's always classical, the way that classical Hollywood cinema is always classical. If you analyze his films, I think you would find the same plot points as in classical Hollywood cinema storytelling. And I like this contradiction.
Maybe the most provocative aspect of The Idiots is that it looks like a porn movie in some parts. Filmmakers, during the past twenty years, have asked themselves: what can we do to include that part of popular cinema which has not yet found its way into mainstream cinema until now. Lars von Trier was one of the first to successfully include that. A more recent example is the French film, Romance, which I don't think is very successful in that respect. Again, the most provocative thing to do is to include something that had been abandoned by people for a long time. At the same time, there was a constant flirtation between mainstream cinema and pornographic cinema. I've always called this kind of cinema "intellectual porno."
[…] The depiction of sex in popular avant-garde cinema of the 60s and 70s illustrated the same desire to see the same graphic qualities as the real porno does but giving an intellectual excuse for doing so, to a different type of audience. Even in the early days of the cinema, around 1910, when attempts were made to attract an intellectual audience into the movie houses, excuses were found to show the same images of exploitation, but embedded in an intellectual context. This is what is happening today with respect to the issues and the esthetics of pornographic cinema.
Is Festen/The Celebration also a film that appealed to you?
I hated that film. I hated it really badly, especially because the audience loved it so much. The same thing happened to me with Dancer in the Dark, which I saw in an art cinema packed with young people, who were responsive to this cliché-ridden, bourgeois setting, which is so reminiscent of early Chabrol and of Buñuel. And then this great issue of – Oh, God, this poor kid has been abused – it is all so predictable. You can foresee exactly what will happen. The naïve pleasure of seeing these rich people being so crude, I really found it utterly distracting… It works on such a simple level. It's like children's theater when the big bad wolf or the bad robber appears and everybody applauds. I had the same impression when that father was outed as a child-abuser.
And I hated the photography. Nobody had mentioned in the reviews I read that it was shot on video. Everybody was praising the use of light as if it had been "filmed" and obviously it wasn't filmed. I don't have anything against video. I work a lot with video art. But I hate video disguised as film, and Festen is video disguised as film.
So I was very happy when Mifune came out, which was really shot on film. I don't know Søren Kragh-Jacobsen's other work, but I assume he's a very traditional modernist, a semi-popular filmmaker who works with a traditional esthetic, without overruling anything. He was taking the Dogma esthetics very seriously, using them for a serious purpose, without that ironic post-modern approach. So this is maybe the most conventional of those films, a film that really takes improvisation seriously as a concept. Something I think that Lars von Trier cannot really do, though he aims for it. The first screenplay of The Idiots was based on improvisation to a great degree, but in the end, it doesn't look like improvisation at all. I don't know how he works practically during the filmmaking process, but for me, this film doesn't live up to its promise of being improvised.
You've mentioned Breaking the Waves. Do you care to comment further on that film?
This film was extraordinary on various levels. It's strange. I wish I could hate Lars von Trier throughout his work but I don't. This is a very important film for a decade that began with David Lynch's Wild at Heart (1990). Both films revive ideas of absolute love and "existentialist melodrama." (I know that people who are very strict about these terms wouldn't apply them in this context, especially not to Wild at Heart.) I think those are two post-modern approaches to one of the truly neglected genres in popular American or British cinema, which might also be called the "fantastic romance." A number of films from the 40s, such as William Dieterle's Portrait of Jenny (US, 1948), Frank Borzage's Smilin' Through (US, 1941) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale (UK, 1944) and A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven (UK, 1946), all deal with the issue of love overcoming death… This very naïve and beautiful romantic idea seems to have had a comeback in some of the post-modern, popular films the 90s.
Also in Les Amants du Pont Neuf by Leos Carax (France, 1991), which I like for the very same reason. It's a film that is as artificial as anything in recreating some realist modes in its storytelling, but at the same time is a classic fairy tale which has nothing to do with any of the contemporary issues the film evokes. And that I think must have been a key inspiration for Lars von Trier...
At any rate, I liked the way that Breaking the Waves revived the genre, by completely different means. The digital manipulation of the conventional film camera work by Robby Müller was something I had never seen before in cinema. We have to keep in mind, I think, that popular cinema is always blind to the innovations of art and avant-garde cinema, and what it includes every now and then is very limited. Breaking the Waves is the most advanced and avant-garde film in the mainstream cinema of the time. The use of pictures out of focus, when we see through the eyes of the protagonist as tears well up in her eyes. Giving an emotional excuse for an avant-garde thing is appealing, because classical avant-garde in the modernist sense doesn't leave much room for emotion, though of course there are exceptions. But the key thing about modern music is that it doesn't help the listener in a conventional way to experience feelings. They simply avoided the famous keys that you can play to make people cry or laugh. And Lars von Trier knows a lot about those keys. He knows how to play the keyboard. So it's interesting to see how he uses a modernist look while playing on that emotional keyboard.
Have I understood it correctly that Dancer in the Dark is the first Lars von Trier film that you did not like?
Yes, and after Dancer in the Dark, my admiration for his work may be over for quite some time.
As a person who works both with American and European cinema, what are your views of the ways in which these cinemas are compared? I imagine that from your perspective, the comparisons sometimes look quite simplistic.
That's a difficult question, because I don't think it's so easy to distinguish between these two concepts of cinema, especially in the last twenty or thirty years.
So you feel it isn't especially relevant to compare different directions in American and European cinema today at any rate? That we simply have a world cinema now?
Maybe it's not that easy. American cinema right now has two main currents: Hollywood and the so-called American independent cinema. But American independent cinema has been promoted by the Sundance Film Festival, which in my view is a very conventional force right now. The films that are shown at Sundance and are very popular at Sundance have, in my opinion, a very conventional use of storytelling and of genres. Even films that seem to use non-mainstream techniques of storytelling, like The Usual Suspects, are still fundamentally conventional in the ways they tell their stories. These films surprise the viewer by slightly varying the traditional storytelling form of classical Hollywood cinema, that always has to deal with emotional conflicts. Therefore they are very classical and not avant-garde at all. Even Being John Malkovich. I liked that film, but its avant-garde or experimental aspects are very limited. And the main thing is that these films promote a classical concept of Hollywood storytelling.
In the early 70s when the term "American independent cinema" first turned up, it was a truly experimental field. But I don't see that right now. What I see in Europe is a development which tends to take American independent cinema as a model for commercial art house filmmaking which tends to replace a lot of traditional auteur filmmaking. This development followed a change in the policies of the film funding organizations, which especially in Germany try to find more commercial perspectives. At the same time, the advent of commercial television offered more possibilities for young script writers and directors to enter the scene than ever before. But these young writers and directors are mainly influenced by popular American writing teachers like Syd Field. Their books, which promote classical Hollywood storytelling, have a wide circulation all over Europe. We are facing a development similar to the one in the late 20s when classical Hollywood cinema became the world model for popular filmmaking. What we are witnessing now is the second revolution of American cinema, although it appears to us as an alternative to the dominant Hollywood cinema.
I understand you've written a book on Robert Redford's work, from Ordinary People (1980) to Horse Whisperer (1998). Can you tell me about your interest in Redford?
Mostly, I wanted to see what happens when somebody who has tremendous influence in Hollywood and is so well accepted by everybody, begins to make his own films. What kinds of films would he make for his own pleasure? I found a correspondance between the films he chose to play in as an actor and the films he directed. One issue in particular appeared frequently in all his films: avoiding the expectations confronting a successful person. Redford saw himself as an actor who was cast for his good looks, but didn't consider himself good-looking at all. Usually you hear that from women, and I was very interested in exploring this from a man's point of view – about someone who is limited by expectations concerning outward appearance and trying to work against them.
Leeds International Film Festival, 8 October 2000
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