Be truthful, be human, get naked: 1995’s groundbreaking manifesto didn’t just shake up cinema, says PATRICK KINGSLEY. It inspired Danes to make the world’s best television, buildings and food (if you like fried mould with your grasshopper)…
“Il est merde!” yelled Mark Kermode, from the back of the cinema. The year was 1998 and Kermode – then BBC Radio 1’s film critic – had not taken kindly to that year’s Cannes film festival. Specifically, he was narked by a new work by Lars von Trier, The Idiots (Idioterne), a film shot with shaky cameras that centred on an orgy-loving group of rebels who, in public, acted like people with mental disabilities.
The Idiots was one of the first films to emerge from the ‘Dogme 95’ movement. Three years earlier, its ringleader, von Trier, had stood up at a Paris conference and showered its audience with pamphlets. These were the bigwigs of European film; the pamphlets were the manifesto for a new doctrine of chastity that rejected much of what they stood for. At the heart of Dogme were ten rules signed by four Danish directors, of whom von Trier remains the most prominent. Part-gimmick and part-sincere, Dogme raged against the unrealistic plotlines and overwrought visuals of mainstream cinema. “I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste,” read its manifesto. “My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings.” Genre films were outlawed, as were filters and fancy lighting. Directors went uncredited.
Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen, about a family reunion that goes spectacularly wrong, was the first Dogme film, appearing in 1998, just ahead of The Idiots. And although it angered some, Dogme was for many the most exciting thing to hit cinema since the French new wave. “I was sitting in Cannes, watching those films, and thinking, ‘This is fantastic,'” remembers film critic Christian Monggaard, then at the start of his career. “This is what it must have been like to sit in Paris in the early 60s and watch the first films by Godard and Truffaut. Finally, films are talking to me about the kind of experiences that happen in my life.”
“This is what it must have been like to sit in Paris in the early 60s and watch the first films by Godard and Truffaut.”
Von Trier and Vinterberg later abandoned their project (they worried it had itself become too generic), but for several years it remained the talk of European arthouse cinema. Dogme wasn’t just a watershed for film, though; it was a watershed for all of Denmark, and one that would come to embody its cultural renaissance.
In the Spring of 2012 I travelled around the country, from the Copenhagen set of The Killing to the windmills of Jutland, interviewing great Danes for a book about the nation recently named the happiest on Earth. Dogme, I discovered, had even sparked a renaissance in Danish cooking. In the mid-1990s, says Bi Skaarup, president of the Danish Gastronomic Association, “food culture was really down the pan. If mother had an evening off, you had pizza, Coca-Cola and chips.” Yet its restaurants are now world-beaters, with twelve Michelin-starred venues – twelve more than in the early 1980s. Copenhagen’s Noma was named best restaurant in the world for three consecutive years (sample dishes: vegetables served in a trough of earth and eggs you fry yourself).
How did this come about? Largely thanks to the New Nordic Kitchen (NNK), a movement founded in 2004 with values partly inspired by Dogme 95. Von Trier and co advocated using basic equipment and props found on location; the NNK wanted something similar: local techniques and local, seasonal produce. They even had a manifesto promoting “the purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics we wish to associate with our region”.
Claus Meyer, co-founder of Noma, says: “I was very inspired by the Dogme brothers. I thought if they could do it, we could do it.” Copenhagen’s supermarkets are now full of once-obscure roots and herbs; a new generation of Danish chefs likes to shock and confound. At the ‘I’m A Kombo’ pop up restaurant in Copenhagen I had to carve through the table with a Stanley knife to reach part of my meal: a herb chalice beneath the surface. It was fun, bizarre, slightly shocking and (by the time I’d hacked through) quite tiring. Very Dogme. And even this paled beside the city’s Nordic Food Lab, which experiments in the name of the NNK. There, I was fed fried mould garnished with grasshopper. (It tasted quite good, actually; a cross between steak and an oily cereal bar.) And Noma, meanwhile, serves live shrimp. “You don’t really know what to say when you see two little shrimps still alive,” says food critic Bent Christensen. “It gives a little bit of fear.”
“You don’t really know what to say when you see two little shrimps still alive. It gives a little bit of fear.”
Dogme’s tentacles have reached into Danish architecture, reminding practitioners of the need to focus on the human. By the mid-1990s, many mainstream Danish architects had become obsessed with detailing, and less concerned with how their buildings fostered human interaction. “The big offices were doing what I call ‘hi-tech baroque,'” says Nille Juul-Sørensen of the Danish Design Centre. “It was advanced for the sake of being advanced.”
The annex Henning Larsen Architects built for Berlingske Tidende newspaper was a case in point. Boasting a fiddly, double-fronted facade that becomes more transparent as the day goes on, the annex is, argues Juul-Sørensen, too focused on detail for detail’s sake – like a Hollywood film prioritising special effects over narrative.
Since 2000, Juul-Sørensen argues, a new generation of architects (firms such as the Bjarke Ingels Group, Effekt and Cobe) have focused on making engaging external spaces, rich in architectural narrative rather than awash with detail. “The detailing is crap,” says Juul-Sørensen. “But to walk around in these buildings and plazas is pure joy. You could say that each plaza is doing its own little Dogme movie.” The indirect impact of Dogme, he adds, is wider than is commonly realised: “It took everyone outside their normal bubble and got them to say, ‘Is this the direction we want to go in?’ These young designers were the Dogme of architecture. They got the human being back.”
“These young designers were the Dogme of architecture. They got the human being back.”
Dogme’s biggest effect may have been psychological rather than ideological. For years, Denmark had seen itself as an inconsequential backwater, and ambition had dwindled accordingly. Danes who thought big were often cut down by their peers, thanks largely to a Nordic cultural concept called ‘Janteloven’ or ‘Jante’s Law’, which discourages attention-seeking. The success of Dogme showed that Denmark – small as it is, with a population of just over five million – could be a cultural force. “It’s the same thing as a guy with a small penis who wants a huge motorbike,” Vinterberg once told Variety. “When you’re a small country, you have to yell to get heard.”
Danes took note – not least the team behind two shows Britain has come to love. Dogme, says Piv Bernth, producer of Borgen and The Killing, “opened up people’s eyes to Denmark. And we opened up to the world. We started to look at ourselves as less local and more international. We became more curious and ambitious.”
Aesthetically, The Killing owes little to Dogme. You could compare its unadorned realism to the pared-back plots of Festen and The Idiots. But really, its excellence is inspired less by Dogme and more by the ambition it fostered. Traditionally, Danish television hadn’t been very progressive: dramas tended to be one-off adaptations of stage plays. After Dogme, says Bernth, she and her colleagues started visiting the sets of big American series, including NYPD Blue and The West Wing. They didn’t want to replicate what they had seen; they wanted to better it. “It was my ambition to do the world’s best show,” says Søren Sveistrup, creator of The Killing. “People laughed at me. They said, ‘Oh, we can’t do that – we’re only Danish.'”
“It was my ambition to do the world’s best show. People laughed at me. They said, ‘Oh, we can’t do that- we’re only Danish'”
Of course, not everyone agrees this renaissance was triggered by Dogme. Denmark’s triumph at Euro 1992 was undeniably a boost; the country’s star fashion designer Henrik Vibskov, for one, believes Denmark was already on the rise. “The Dogme movies,” he says, “were just mirroring whatever else was going on.”
For politicians, the explanation may be even more prosaic. “Dogme is one of the reasons why a lot of creative stuff is happening,” says Uffe Elbaek, the culture minister. “But it’s sure not the only one.” The boom in food, television and architecture, he says, is the result of three decades of financial support. This has assisted the Danish Film School and the New Nordic Kitchen movement, and delivered grassroots funding for young creatives. Free university tuition hasn’t hurt, either. “Now we see the fruit of that kind of public investment,” says Elbaek.
But film critic Monggaard has no doubt there is a link between Von Trier’s 1995 pamphlet-hurling and the ambition shown by today’s young go-getters. “It was a very brash statement from von Trier,” he says. “You could say the same about René Redzepi when he makes his food in Noma. It’s very, ‘Here I am, this is what I do, I’m a very good cook.’ It’s a kind of bravado – a very forward, almost aggressive way of marketing yourself.”
What about von Trier’s alma mater, the Danish Film School? Is Dogme’s influence still strong? “We’re worlds apart,” laughs 26-year-old student Jesper Fink in the cafeteria. “The majority of directors here have other idols: Coppola or Scorsese for example.” But von Trier’s drive, if not his doctrine, is already the stuff of legend. “I think students are mostly inspired by the stories of his time in the school,” says Fink. “That he was completely impossible to work with, always wanted to have his way. Not everyone does that – but they’re thinking about it. Everybody knows about Lars von Trier.”
PATRICK KINGSLEY is the author of How To Be Danish and an award winning foreign correspondent, working for The New York Times and formerly for The Times.
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This article has also been published in The Guardian.