The Political Philosophy of a Dogville
On Dogville by Lars von Trier

Per Aage Brandt

A young person escapes from a cruel and unbearable world and finds a new one which, little by little, turns out to be the same. The inhabitants turn out to be equipped with an unbearable potential for deceit, lies, hypocrisy, vindictiveness, cynicism, petty-mindedness and other significant petty things which lead to boundless degradation in the community. Evil is not "caused by society", but society is caused by human beings, whose contribution includes evil. We are not only to blame for the wretchedness, we are also ethically responsible for it in every detail. As Grace's gangster father remarks in the final scene of Dogville, you disrespect your fellow man if you forgive him for everything, if you fail to hold him responsible and instead ascribe to him the benevolence of good intentions, a benevolence that you are well aware cannot even be attributed to yourself - this is arrogance. It is arrogant to assume that other people are simply unable to behave in a decent manner and, consequently, to not react to their disgusting conduct (you cannot blame a dog for biting). From an ethical point of view, we must let the critical boundary we feel between respectful and degrading behavior be known when we experience its transgression. We show a lack of respect if we put up with other people's villainy. We have to react to deceit, injustice, exploitation, fraud, and so on. Otherwise we do not truly respect one another.

After the painstaking exposure of one vile act after another in one episode after another in the course of the hour-long demonstration of the town's behavior towards Grace, the viewer develops an urgent desire to see this bullying and hypocritical town punished, so her sudden transition near the end from being a (seemingly) naďve believer in 'turning the other cheek' or the like to becoming her father's successor in the armed mafia business and wiping out the entire town with the exception of the dog (who after all has a reasonable cause for barking in the last scene) come more or less as a relief. This apocalyptic punishment is really felt to be "well deserved" and you leave the theater wondering what it means for you to actually feel that way. What with all those people dead.

How does the world become a better place to live? By forgiveness and faith in the fundamental kind-heartedness of man despite the vileness? One problem is the following: if one subject - S1 - mistreats another subject - S2 - because of something S2 has done that S1 cannot forgive, and a third party - S3 - cannot make S1 stop, then S3 could very well forgive S1 for his cruelty toward S2, but the world will become a worse place to live since mistreatment is now condoned. What is forgiven is now the mistreatment! Who do we forgive "more" if we do not manage to completely forgive absolutely everyone, or cannot do so without dying as a consequence (e.g. if I forgive my murderer in actu instead of defending myself)? The alternative to this religious encouragement of hypocrisy, conspiracy and plain barbarity would be something like a sentiment of justice, the sentiment that justice and respect are interconnected. If you are prevented from expressing this connection socially, i.e. if it is not possible to get people to acknowledge that an injustice, an unethical act, that has been committed is less respectable than an act that in itself can be characterized as ethical, lawful, correct, then you have to express your disapproval to the responsible party by holding him accountable, as we put it… In order to be accountable, he must first be held accountable.

Through the main character's physical as well as psychological experiences, Dogville illustrates what can be described as a real dilemma: you either tolerate any act against you in the name of kind-heartedness or, as the gangster does, you give people what you think they "deserve", which generally, or ultimately at least, is death. In situations where the juridical system of a society is not working - if, for instance, it has caved in under the pressure of corruption and terror - the dilemma is crystal clear, and people's behavior is generally a mixture of or a compromise between its two sides.

The justice system cannot work properly in a society as isolated from government and communication as Dogville, a remote little town in the Rocky Mountains where everything is easily concealed - not only humans like Grace hiding from people in the big city, but also local crimes of any degree of severity such as slavery and rape - and there is nothing to prevent evil from flourishing when a totally defenseless human being finds herself at the mercy of another. It is Marquis de Sade's character Justine all over again, incident by incident, and, as far as ethics goes, these events are prototypical scenarios which all demonstrate how a person's frailty is not remedied by another person's assistance and support (that would be the schema for good acts) but is instead worsened by the other person's reckless exploitation of the lack of marked boundaries (evil is exploitation and absence of empathy, and often even the exploitation of someone else's empathy). The intellectual eccentric of the town, the budding young writer - who even develops a kind of love for the girl, a love she requites - betrays her, of course, in the most devastating way; he, on the other hand, finds the inspiration to write a novel about her and especially about himself and is pleased about this! He is the one who ends up making a call to the gangsters, thereby definitively sealing her fate - though, as it turns out, he seals his own as well as that of the town. Maybe, probably, because his betrayal is experienced as particularly hurtful, since it is her love, her very soul, her self, he has trampled on. This ambivalent and opportunistic young man is a pretty pungent depiction of the sentimental intellectual who is ultimately a self-righteous and cynical yes-man who thinks of himself as a hero while acting in the service of community-endorsed cruelty. To achieve justice when up against such inhumanity one must have access to a larger surrounding community, and if such access is contingent on intellectual mediation, the mediator has to be courageous enough to aid those who are relying on him, because otherwise they are helpless.

There is little indication in the movie that such courage, and the strength necessary to stop the escalating cruelty, can be expected to come from up above, in the form of some kind of religio-moral reformation. Dogville is just as pious and Christian as it is callous and cynical. Grace has witnessed the horrors of the big city; now she is first-hand witness to the horrors of small-town life, and she is brought to conclude that her youthful fantasies of moral innocence and generosity are not supported by the reality of the small-scale community. What does the movie have to say on the matter? It appears to me its leading principle is political and baroque: that seeing what is going on, experiencing it as visible, i.e. as a piece performed on a stage in the theater that is the world - as in Life Is a Dream by Calderón - is an occasion for humans to develop a critical rationality by means of which it becomes possible to narrate events that happen and evaluate them from the perspective that injustice exists, is done by someone to someone, but also lends itself to critical description and is punishable and correctable. The message is not Grace's revenge in that case, but her retaliation is part of the narrative chain of events, shown in a theatrical form - the theatrical movie. I think Dogville's aesthetically powerful, theater-like, and stylized mode of presentation pulls us in that direction, evoking a baroque reflection, this double viewpoint of both identification and distance that constitutes the internal connection between rationality and theatricality. Politics is the immanent employment and advancement of reason rather than the mere implementation of fixed ideas, furtively instigated haphazardness or hierocracy. In this sense, politics is about power, to be sure, but politics is manifestly not a concomitant of power.

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