22 Jan 2014

Gravity’s Pull

by Peter Krämer and Rupert Read

Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2013)

The true miracle is not walking on water or walking on air, 
but simply walking on this earth - Tich Nhat Hanh

Let’s begin by acknowledging that Gravity is a very unusual Hollywood blockbuster (here's the trailer). Basically it is a story about a single character, cut off from the rest of humanity for most of the duration of the film. And this character is a woman (unlike Robinson Crusoe and his Hollywood descendants, including the character played by Tom Hanks in Cast Away, and the Robert Redford character in All is Lost). The film itself acknowledges that its focus on a female character is unusual. The character is called Ryan Stone because, she explains to mission commander Matthew Kowalski, her parents wanted a boy. In other words: the woman at the centre of this movie is taking up a place usually reserved for men. She may have been ‘unwanted’ - but there she is.

The fact that Ryan Stone is female is crucial for the story because it makes it possible for her once to have given birth to a child. She is (was) a mother. This allows the film to focus on the primary and most primal bond between two human beings - that between mother and child - and on the sense of loss that comes with the severance of that bond. At the same time, Gravity’s dialogue refers to our planet as ‘Mother Earth’, so that Stone, cut off from other people, appears as that Mother’s daughter who is herself about to be lost. We can go even further: Earth is a giant rock in space, and the woman at the centre of this story is a ‘stone’ circling around it (and if she were to die up there, she would, after a while, be as inert and cold as stone). This intimate character study and the spectacular space adventure are thus presented in close parallel with each other.

Let’s take a look at the character study first. Ryan Stone’s daughter Sarah died in an accident when she was four years old, and Stone has never been able to process that loss. In some ways her life has been suspended ever since (could we say that she has almost turned to stone?) She says that since Sarah’s death her life has consisted of nothing but work (as a doctor in a hospital) and driving from and to work (while listening to music - never talk - which fills the void surrounding her).

On two occasions during the film (in conversation with Kowalski at the beginning and in a monologue towards the end) Stone states explicitly that she does not have any intimate bonds with anyone. There appears to be no boyfriend, nor does she seem to be close to the father of her child. She does not mention her parents or any siblings - presumably because the former are dead and there aren’t any of the latter (or, if there are, she isn’t close to them). Nor does she appear to have any friends. Perhaps she intentionally keeps her distance from people because she does not want to experience another devastating loss.

Now, what better way could there be to keep one’s distance from other people than to go into space? Indeed, Stone hints at this motivation when she responds to Kowalski’s question what she likes most about space with ‘silence’ - that is, one presumes, the absence of the noises made by human beings (rather than the absence of the sounds of the natural world, although, as we will see, on some level she might long for the absolute silence of death). Of course, at this point, there is no silence, because she is talking to Kowalski, and even when he is silent, the tinny music he listens to can be heard. There is a tension, then, between Stone’s desire for silence (she isn’t keen, early in the film, on Kowalski’s constant verbal burbling) and her need nevertheless for verbal communication (and perhaps music). The need for verbal communication – for connection with others – is something that becomes clearer as the action of the film proceeds.

Intriguingly, there might be a parallel to this in Kowalski’s entire story: he is a raconteur in space, relaying tales about life on Earth, which revolve around failed human connections (an ex-wife who cheated on him, a Mardi Gras date that is over before it even begins). His ambition in life is to go on the longest space walk in history, floating around the Earth all on his own. And he gets to realise this ambition. The circumstances are tragic, but also slightly ambiguous: He has saved Stone after a terrible accident in space, and she ends up holding on to a tether that prevents him from spinning off into space - and death. He argues that she won’t be able to pull him in because her own ties to the space shuttle are too tenuous; instead he will pull her with him into space - unless he severs their bond, which he does very quickly, indeed possibly almost eagerly. Is this just a noble sacrifice, or does it also have a tacit semi-suicidal dimension?

Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2013)

In any case, it is a crucial moment. Ryan Stone may have gone to space to keep her distance from people and to find silence; if that is the case, she gets more than she bargained for. The accident in space cuts off all communication with Earth and kills all crewmembers of the space shuttle except for her and Kowalski - who now leaves her behind (although he will be able to speak with her for a little while longer). At the same time, Kowalski’s almost-eager noble sacrifice points to his willingness to cut his links with humanity for good - and to die all alone. Importantly, Stone refuses for a while to accept his apparently inevitable loss.

The film does not fill in all the psychological details, but it does suggest that space - and eventually death - is a void that some people, especially those who have lost loved ones, may want to escape into so as to prevent further suffering arising from their bonds to others. Stone herself suggests this when she later imagines Kowalski’s magical return which, in a powerfully-filmed scene that one experiences largely from Stone’s point of view, is not initially signalled as her fantasy but is eventually revealed to be just that. In this fantasy, Kowalski gently accuses her of wanting an easy way out of life’s struggles by giving up the fight to survive, instead peacefully going to sleep until she is poisoned by carbon monoxide. This is indeed what Stone is trying to do - but it is also, one might say, what Kowalski has already done.[i]

Stone’s will to live is revived by her fantasy of Kowalski’s return. On some level, perhaps, this fantasy establishes the kind of link to another person, which, she says, she no longer has on Earth. She feels connected to Kowalski who (in her fantasy) knows her well enough to identify her wish to die and who cares about her enough to confront her about it so as to change her mind. At the same time, of course, this very fantasy ensures that, at least in her mind, in her soul, Kowalski is still alive; death is not the end. (We will return to this point.)

Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2013)

Not coincidentally, we think, her last words to him (to the person she remembers) concern her daughter; she asks him to look out for her in the afterlife. Earlier on she seemed to believe that only death could re-unite her with Sarah, but perhaps now she knows that her daughter is with her, just like Kowalski, as long as she can imagine her. Some of the dialogue in this sequence (which is in fact the monologue of a woman who secretly wants to talk herself out of committing suicide) might be claimed to be all too clichéd - but the central idea seems valid, and indeed deep: We can accept the loss of loved ones better if we think that, because we have shared so much with them, they do live on in us, which in turn gives us a reason to go on.

Later on, Stone is reminded of such bonds when she establishes radio contact with a man on Earth - not someone from the space centre in Houston, as she had hoped, but a radio amateur who speaks in a language unknown to her, but manages to communicate something important anyway by bringing a dog’s voice to the microphone and then (closer still) a baby. Stone is (ambiguously, tenuously) delighted when she hears him singing to the baby, perhaps because it reminds her of her singing to Sarah and also her having been sung to by her own parents. This temporarily renews her sense of human interconnectedness and perhaps undergirds her decision, after an internal struggle, to struggle on.

Gravity, then, deals with grief. And here our argument is supported by the wonderful fact that the Latin root of our word grief is the same as that for our word gravity. ‘Gravis’ is the common root of gravity, heaviness, and grief. Grief and gravity, in our historical subconscious, are the same thing: the grave, the heavy, that pulls us down and grounds us. Grief, we would argue, centrally concerns a refusal to allow that the world no longer includes the dead person.[ii] Both phenomenologically (i.e. in terms of our lived experience) and logically (i.e. conceptually), grief is the pain of a ruptured life-world. Grief is the lived refusal to accept that someone important has been taken from us. For when that person was a constitutive element of our world, an over-hasty acceptance of their exit would mean that we were not really denizens of that world, but merely observers of it, merely passing through rather than living, inhabiting.

Grief is rational, for it is rational to have a world, and to care about those in it. Indeed, we would suggest that grief is essential to our humanity. One would have to be some kind of inhuman monster, and/or disabled in a profound way, not to feel grief under appropriate circumstances. However, grief can be pathological if it becomes permanent, turning into depression. Stone is letting go of that depression, at last, when she overcomes her desire for death and realises that, due to their shared experiences, their influence, their values, her daughter (and also Kowalski) lives on in her. Thus, grief - and Gravity - is a forceful reminder of the ‘fact’ (that is deeper than any mere fact) that we are not separate from another, but always connected, even beyond death. (In this sense, to vary William Faulkner: The dead aren’t dead. They’re not even past.)  The film is thus about accepting (inter)dependency, rather than striving for independence (this striving being so closely associated with American culture). Interdependence - and none more so than the relationship between mother and child - makes us vulnerable but it also ensures that we live on in each other.

Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2013)

Gravity adds another dimension to its renunciation of depression and its plea for life, which is to emphasise and make palpable the sheer excitement life can generate. Right from the beginning of the film, we find ourselves moving around in space high above the Earth, enjoying breathtaking vistas but also soon experiencing extreme danger and utterly disorienting movement. Initially, the film’s largely computer generated imagery creates the illusion of a camera’s continuous movement around spacecraft and bodies, and also into the very positions from which characters view the world around them (such subjective point of views being signalled by the clouding of space helmets which partially obstructs our vision). The deployment of director Alfonso Cuaron’s trademark ultra-long tracking- and panning-shots in Gravity is a technical tour de force, which may draw attention to its own virtuosity, but also adds to the film’s thematic concern with the connectedness of inside and outside, character study and space adventure. (Later on, conventional - and less noticeable - editing, moving from objective to subjective shots, achieves the same effect.)

In any case, spectacular views of Earth and space, and rapid camera movement provide us viewers with (the illusion of) a visceral experience, especially when watching the film in 3D. As first Kowalski and then much later Stone says: ‘It’s a hell of a ride!’ ‘Ride’ here initially refers to space travel, but, more generally, to human life - and also to the film we are watching. In other words, the film takes us on a ride, which is meant to remind us of the thrill of being alive. This continues for most of the story, which moves from exterior space to the interiors of various spacecraft until, finally, Stone plunges back to Earth in a small capsule.

Before we get to this point, the film examines the ambiguities of space exploration. Stone is in space because a device she developed for use in hospitals can also be used in the Hubble space telescope that, we are told, is designed to reach out to, and gather information from, ‘the edge of the universe’. Thus, exploring and healing the human body is connected to the exploration of the whole universe; looking inward and looking outward are two sides of the same coin.

The film never mentions the physical exploration of outer space - manned and unmanned spacecraft escaping Earth’s gravity altogether so as to go to the Moon and beyond. This is part of its much-greater realism than most of its predecessors as to the nature of life in space – which is likely to be virtually impossible for healthy human beings for periods longer than a few months, or at most years. Instead, in this film, people and their craft remain in Earth’s orbit, which provides them with spectacular views of the planet’s surface. Indeed, Kowalski’s last words - while drifting off to his death in space - concern the beauty of Earth and thus, it is implied, of life, and they are spoken precisely so as to give Stone a reason to go on. He speaks of the beauty of the sun shining on the Ganges in the hope that this great, glorious, grave beauty, together with Earth’s gravity, will pull Stone home.

However, the view from space has another dimension. Where there is night on Earth, the artificial light resulting from human habitation looks like a slow burning fire destroying everything in its way (like lava flowing off a volcano). In a tradition going back to the first widely disseminated pictures of the Earth in space (notably the ones known as ‘Earthrise’ and ‘Blue Marble’ from the late 1960s and early 1970s), seeing the globe reveals both its beauty and its vulnerability.

"The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth" - Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, Apollo 8.  'Earthrise', 1968, NASA 
Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2013)
'Blue Marble', Apollo 17, 1972. Harrison Schmitt/Nasa

At the same time, near-Earth space is shown to be a new habitat for humans, who fill it up with various spacecraft. Two permanent space stations (an international one and a Chinese one) are pioneering outposts of humanity, with, possibly, significant waves of human migration to follow so that we might imagine that, like all the continents of Earth before, space as well may be colonised. Yet, this, and more generally the human use, the ‘development’, of space, is by no means unproblematic, because with human habitation comes environmental destruction (through new forms of pollution) - even in space.

When a Russian rocket destroys one of the Russians’ own satellites (a spy satellite with sensitive technology it would seem), a chain reaction is triggered, whereby debris from the first satellite slams into other spacecraft creating more debris etc. This (a realistic potential scenario) is the cause of the accident that kills all members of the space mission Stone belongs to - and also leads to the abandonment of the two space stations she flies to in search of an escape capsule. With accumulating space debris forever circling the Earth, humanity’s colonisation of near-Earth space has already begun to cancel itself out.

In this context, the film’s title takes on a range of meanings. Most banally, one might say, the story concerns a serious, ‘grave’ situation - Stone finding herself stranded in space as the lone survivor of an accident. The ‘gravity’ of this situation is intensified precisely by the fact that any outside help would now have to overcome the pull of Earth’s gravity so as to join her in orbit - and by the fact that space debris is held in the very same orbit by Earth’s gravity. Even if it was not extremely difficult to send a rocket to her rescue, such a rescue mission would be almost impossible due to the dangerous debris circling the Earth.

We can also note that Stone herself is circling the planet at great speed, so that the centrifugal force created by her movement balances the pull of Earth’s gravity, creating the experience of weightlessness. Complementing the pervasive imagery of tethers - tenuous, yet vital links between people or between people and spacecraft -, Stone’s floating in space is the result precisely of being tethered to Earth by the planet’s gravity. Rather than drifting off into empty space, she continues to be connected to Mother Earth by a kind of ethereal umbilical cord.

When she finally manages to find a spacecraft with which to return from her orbit to the planet’s surface, gravity is a potentially deadly force. Gravity accelerates the plunging capsule so much that it almost burns in the atmosphere - and yet it is only the pull of gravity that can bring her home. And here we are reminded of the trauma Stone has been trying to escape from: Her daughter played at school and fell down, gravity (together with her own momentum) pulling her to the ground with such force that she broke her neck. At the end of the film, then, we are reminded of the deadliness of gravity - and also of the fact that it is the basis of our lives. This reiterates, on another, global level, the central point we have made before: The film’s focus on grief serves to emphasise the fact that humans are dependent on each other, which makes them both profoundly vulnerable and indestructible. Similarly, the film’s focus on gravity expresses our dependency on the Earth - it ties us, sometimes pulls us, down, and also gives us life as well as a kind of material afterlife, because eventually our bodies become earth.

Now, Stone’s return to Earth is presented in archetypal imagery. She confronts the four basic elements of old: the air of the atmosphere, the fire that almost burns her capsule, the water of the sea into which the capsule falls, and the earth she crawls on to afterwards. There is also the eerie vision of what appears to be virgin land, untouched by human habitation, a kind of paradise which Stone is allowed to (re)enter – while the radio messages on the soundtrack have assured us that she is not in fact alone, that human company is on the way. Gravity thus depicts both the continuity of human connections and the promise of a new beginning, not just for Stone but also, perhaps, for humankind.[iii] The film emphasises the fact that she has to come very close to death before she can step on the Earth again; to be born again, first one has to die. As soon as she opens the capsule, it fills with water and sinks, and when she escapes from it, her space suit fills with water as well, dragging her down (Stone is indeed sinking like a stone). The technological devices that have protected her in space (capsule and suit) have to be abandoned for survival and a new beginning to become possible.

It is only after she has come very close to death for the second time that Stone can finally make her way back to the surface and to land. In retrospect, the capsule filling with water and the sea appear both as death traps and as wombs from which she is born again, her movement echoing the development of life on Earth - from water to land, and, on land, from crawling to walking. Indeed, the film includes a reminder of this development by briefly focusing on a frog swimming upwards, like its amphibian ancestors that were the first to make the transition from water to land (and whose descendants are proving the most vulnerable of all to anthropogenic extinction). Another reminder of broader developments is Stone’s passionate embrace of mud, the mud that provided living space for the first creatures to emerge from the sea. She says ‘Thank you’, looking down into the mud. Perhaps she is addressing a divine entity she believes in, or, possibly, the people who helped her get to this point (especially Kowalski, also the nameless radio amateur), or even the gravity that pulled her down, or, most likely, the Earth itself, producing this gravity, and its fertile soil (earth) that is here represented by this mud.

Finally, there is Stone’s struggle to get back on her feet (once again echoing untold millions of years of evolution). At the very end of the film, it takes every effort for her to stand up, finally towering majestically above the camera (which stays on the ground, looking up to her). It is hard to stand up and walk, as hard as it has been for Stone to overcome depression and return to life, return to the Earth. It is hard to accept and to cope with the pull. And it is wonderful.

Importantly, this final shot contains a reminder of the presence of the camera - similar to the breath clouding helmets in earlier point-of-view-shots and to reflections and refractions of light on the camera’s lens in numerous other shots. Here it is mud and water which has been splashed onto the lens by Stone’s movements. As the camera is positioned on the ground, we can say that the dirt on the lens reminds us of its - and our - immersion in and reliance on mud, the same mud that Stone clawed into and cherished after having extracted herself from the water.

Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2013)

It also reminds us of course of the very existence of the camera and the fact that we are watching a movie. Thus, it is equivalent to the direct looks at the camera in the last frames of the action in both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Avatar (two films we have previously written about for the ThinkingFilmCollective). Both films revolve centrally, like Gravity, around the idea of re-birth (an astronaut being reborn as a Star Child, a human being reborn as a Na'vi) and around the need, and the possibility, to gain a new perspective on the world we live in (on): The Star Child gazes at the Earth before it turns towards the camera, and Jake Sully abandons his human body so as to be able to live permanently in the (for humans so hostile) environment of Pandora. When they both stare at the camera and, through it, at us, the films remind us that what is at stake in these stories is our perspective as well. Are we willing to see the world anew? And what might we be willing to do as a consequence of our new perspective? Might we, for instance. decide not to give up on the challenges we face today? We are talking now about us as individuals, us as part perhaps of a movement – and us as a species. Gravity ‘s ending addresses us in the same way, serving like that of 2001 and Avatar as a call to action.

Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón (2013)
The ‘alienation effect’ of the mud hitting the camera is, we would suggest, the film’s final invitation to its viewers to heed its call, to think about what is offered in the experience of the film, to be reminded, in Wittgenstein’s sense, of what one utterly knows but can be persuaded by ideology to forget: in this case, that life on Earth is so worth saving, and that (for the foreseeable future) life for us is only possible on or near Earth. Thus the film seeks to transform us by returning us to life, to the awareness of the wonder of this life, and to the ‘fact’ (that is once again greater than any mere fact) that being alive is a gift not to be discarded. For Gravity’s space adventure ends with a renewed appreciation of many of the fundamentals of life on Earth - breathable air, fertile soil which is also the ground we can walk on, as well as great bodies of water that first nurtured life on this planet, and just as importantly, the human interconnectedness which sustains us. The space adventure in the film here stands in for the film itself, Stone’s journey representing that of every viewer: We let ourselves be taken into space by the film so as to return from this journey, just like Stone, with a renewed appreciation of our everyday surroundings, knowing them, and knowing our way about in them, perhaps, for the first time. In other words: The film is not a means of escape from our world; even when we appear to float in (its) space, we are tethered to our regular lives, not least by the pull of gravity we experience in our seats in the auditorium (and by the proximity of other people sharing our experience). Gravity is a constant reminder of our utterly-essential connection to the Earth (and to each other) - as is Gravity.

[i] All of this is somewhat reminiscent of the harrowing Ray Bradbury story 'No Particular Night or Morning' from The Illustrated Man. Here a man suffers terrible loss on Earth and goes into space to disconnect himself from everything that could produce further pain, eventually denying the very existence of the past and of ever more aspects of the present, including his own body, which he experienced as extremely vulnerable when a meteor hit the spaceship; in the end he drifts into empty space in his space suit, accepting only the existence of his own mind. The difference is that Bradbury’s story is very much a meditation on scepticism as to other minds (or solipsism) as a disastrous philosophical challenge, whereas Gravity is interested in solipsism only as an (un-)ethical, self-protective temptation. The difference between 'No particular Night or Morning' and Gravity then is the difference between something that can be lived only at the cost of psychosis and something that can be lived more easily – at the cost of neurosis. It is the difference that Stanley Cavell famously describes as the difference between madness and tragedy. Gravity is interested in the latter, in depression, separateness, and the temptation to retreat from life, from the vulnerability that comes with one’s inevitable attachment to others. At the same time, Gravity replays many aspects of 2001: A Space Odyssey: the dead astronaut Frank Poole’s body drifting away into space; the tenacity with which the lone survivor of the Jupiter mission, David Bowman, clings to life and eventually is able to return home, after he is reborn, from his death bed, as a Star Child; and much else. In particular it is worth noting that the curve of the astronauts’ helmets in Gravity echoes the curve of the Star Child’s protective cocoon, and that in some shots Stone adopts a foetal position and slowly spins around like the foetal Star Child in 2001.
[ii] See Read’s examination of ‘The logic of grief’, forthcoming.
[iii] Once more, echoes of 2001 here.

11 Jan 2014

Liberal Guilt in Dogville and Manderlay

by Emma Bell

Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005), dir. Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay formed the first two segments of a planned trilogy of ‘USA Films’, the third of which (Washington) has not yet been realised. The films tell the story of Grace - a fiercely moral gangster’s daughter who tries to radically reorganise the wretched conditions of the poor people she comes into contact with, yet with tragic consequences. In Dogville she willingly becomes an indentured labourer for a deeply impoverished town that initially protects her from gangsters, and in Manderlay she tries to liberate plantation workers still bonded into slavery. 

We can think about Dogville and Manderlay as working through political and moral problems that face the left in the West; and it is very probable that they are not, as so many have claimed, ‘anti-American’. This thinkingfilmcollective piece hopefully makes a good case for interpreting the films as critiques of European - particularly leftist and liberal - moral ideals, and for a therapeutic reading of the film as exposing the paradoxical pains of ressentiment - or liberal guilt. The piece is based on interviews I did with von Trier and Danish photographer Jacob Holdt, with whom von Trier collaborated on the photomontages that end the USA films. The interviews went into much depth about von Trier’s work on America as a ‘metaphor’ and on Holdt’s ideas about ‘liberal guilt’.

Lars von Trier and Jacob Holdt

Dogville and Manderlay can be analysed separately, as critiques of liberal guilt and the aftermath of slavery respectively. But as a moral critique they are contingent. This is because together the films explore the development of an individual’s moral ideal as effected by her socio-political circumstances – in this instance, ostensibly ‘democratic’ systems of power. Moreover, it is a moral idea that has profound political resonance in that Grace’s moral struggle is at the nexus of the individual and the collective. I think the films deeply problematize liberal morality, and this is evident through two basic concepts that explicate the moral paradoxes von Trier’s USA films.  The first is Nietzsche’s ideas of the slave-morality of ressentiment, and the second is on the dangers of liberal guilt. What follows is divided into two parts – the first is on ressentiment and focuses mainly on Dogville, the second is on Liberal guilt and focuses on Manderlay and Jacob Holdt's anti-racism photowork, American Pictures. Helpfully, von Trier’s quasi-autobiographical film was a self-satirising comedy entitled Erik Nietzsche: the Early Years - ‘Erik Nietzsche’ being a pseudonym von Trier has used since film school. I think that von Trier’s USA films are peppered with images of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality, and that they unflatteringly reflect liberal politics. The films can be seen as a painful interrogation of liberal humanism and as a gradual working through of what Nietzsche identified as a morality of ressentiment underpinning liberal guilt.

Firstly, though, there arises the issue of to what extent, if at all, are the films political? Manderlay was controversial long before its release. A Lars von Trier film about slavery was bound to provoke nervous anticipation, and political groups started to protest about it even as it was in production. Originally, the film featured a deeply upsetting scene showing the slaughter of a live donkey – presumably the ex-slaves slaughtered the animal as famine set in. This scene prompted actor Phillip C Reilly to quit and animal rights groups to campaign to have the scene withdrawn. Von Trier conceded because he didn’t want the politics of animal rights issues to obscure the film’s political message. So what is this message?

When I interviewed von Trier about Manderlay, I told him that I wanted to talk about the political themes in his recent films. He looked distraught: "Oh shit! That sounds dangerous…!" he said. I was confused because the publicity campaign for Manderlay allowed no such qualms and broadcast that the film is an allegorical critique of the Bush administration and the conflict in Iraq. This declaration prompted angry reactions against the ‘anti-American’ attitude of his recent films - from the tough-justice meted out to the immigrant Selma in Dancer in the Dark and the rise and fall of Grace in Dogville and Manderlay, his films scandalised morally righteous American critics while provoking countless valuable column inches. The USA trilogy informed by Holdt’s work is unmistakably critical of America’s aggressive foreign policies, specifically its enforcement in Iraq and Afghanistan – strongly supported by British government as well as the governments of other countries - of what is apparently democracy. And conspicuous scare quotes in the film's publicity material suggested that Manderlay is a critical allegory of enforced regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet von Trier told me that that there are other very important factors that problematize this anti-American interpretation. I asked him whether this is really what the film is about - whether anti-American intervention in the middle-east is the film’s political message that he was so keen to make known. He said, “you can see [Manderlay] like that, but it was written before Iraq. So, no, it can’t be. But I believe that’s the way [my producer] Peter [Aalbaek-Jensen] thinks it should be sold. No, I do not object to the fact that you can see that in it, but why make a film that would do just that? I would never make a film like that. And it was written before we shot Dogville, actually." 

As a rule, Dogville and Manderlay are labelled as straightforwardly ‘anti-American’ political screeds - a liberal European’s resentment of American capitalism and American imperialism. This political reading is not so problematic: the films are set in America and feature typically Yankee characters such as gangsters, molls, hicks, and plantation owners; in vertiginous overhead shots, characters scurry across a vast map of the USA, neatly tessellated into states referred to as ‘hunting grounds’; and the finale credits of photo-montages are set, rather heavy-handedly, to David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’. In the montages, Danish photographer Jacob Holdt’s pictures from the 1970s are juxtaposed to Dorothea Lange’s iconoclastic images of depression-era America – the same period in which the USA films are set. These are scandalising photographs of young America’s urban poor sinking wide-eyed into squalid demise without a liberal welfare state. These photographs make powerfully apparent that economic inequality is the rational exploitation of need. The photographs seem more like images from war-torn and developing countries, and shatter America’s public image of equality, prosperity, and self-sufficiency. Overall, the image of America is of the cruelty of the American Dream's victim-blaming myths of opportunity, equality, and community.

Elsewhere, von Trier has said that Manderlay is not an allegory of the occupation of Iraq as economic colonialism and self-interested nation-building: “I think that might be true” he said “that there is a parallel [between Manderlay and Iraq] but I don't consider [nation-building] an originally American problem, it's originally a European problem” [i]And he also related the USA films to his earlier work on European history: "about the political side of [the films]: I don’t think that there is such a big difference in the films now from what I’ve done earlier" - referring to the ‘Europe Trilogy’ films of 1980’s films, namely The Element of Crime, Epidemic, and Europa/Zentropa. These films disinter Europe’s unhappy memories and challenge the idea that post-war Europe is a straightforward situation of freedom. In this sense, one might see the diegetic space of the films as the work of a forensic pathologist – the sets marked out rather as the absent body and the weapons are described in chalk by police at a crime scene. The films, then, might be unsolved crimes.

At this point, it’s important to bear in mind that the content of the USA films is in many ways a product of their neo-Brechtian form. Von Trier told me emphatically that his idiosyncratic use of such stylistics  are not intended to enhance the content of the films. Rather it is the other way around. “The style of the film” he said, “is something much more than just the servant of the content, or a character, or some theme the film might contain… the content that could be the moral or political whatever … [but for me] the form comes before the content … It is difficult to divide, of course, form and content. But I am just objecting to this idea that you have some content then you make a form that pleases the content. That is the wrong way.”

So, how is a film like Manderlay a product of a desire to make a quasi-Brechtian film? Brecht’s depression era and gangster ridden America of impoverished workers, corrupt officials and ruthless gangsters is comparable to the milieu of Dogville and Manderlay such that that one can safely assume that von Trier’s form has dictated similar alienation effects and similar politically critical ideas. In an age where self-consciously political films are increasingly seen as dangerously unmarketable, von Trier’s USA films are a brave unification of form and content. Some of Brecht’s most famous plays are set in a similar sort of figurative and noir-esque America. But when Brecht set plays like The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui in 1930s America, he was targeting European political problems. Von Trier’s films have never been popular in the USA. In part his desire to solicit American stars like Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, James Caan, Willem Defoe, and Ben Gazara were a bid to break the American art-house market. But the main and faithful audience of von Trier films is predominantly European. In a quasi-Brechtian von Trier film, then, the European art house filmgoer could very well be faced with an unpleasant demoralisation of a sense of moral superiority over the USA. 

Brechtian theatre is, of course, designed to encourage audiences to see reflected on stage their own political condition and beliefs through techniques of epic theatre, alienation, and other verfremdungseffekts [distanciation effects]. But von Trier did not want the form of the films to alienate us in the sense that we do not identify with the characters, or have any emotional response to them: “compared to Bertolt Brecht” he said, “I am very decadent! [Brecht] had all these theories about why theatre should look this way, and I don’t. He somehow wanted people not to be emotional about things, right? And that’s why he took out all the natural elements. At least that’s how I understand it. But I want to be emotional. That’s maybe not the right word, but I want things [in my films] to be alive, even though they are in this stark surrounding. I take it more as an obstacle, and as a way to make emotional things even stronger. Maybe that’s what [Brecht] also wanted to do. But he also wanted to take away all sentimentality, and that is not my scope.” It is von Trier’s scope, then, to provoke in the audience very strong and often uncomfortable feelings.

Brechtian staging in Dogville (2003), dir. Lars von Trier

Von Trier agreed that this idea of questioning European liberal values is significant in the USA films: “the deeper conflicts in the films are not something that is especially American. It is something that is from right where you are yourself.” All in all, though, he told me, his films are political in the sense that they challenge his own left wing political ideals: “All I can say is that my technique is to go where it hurts, somehow. And of course that goes for memories and history. The way I see people and things is through my upbringing as left-wing cultural radical humanist. But no matter where you are, there are a number of questions that can be raised that hurt. That is the only explanation. But on the other hand, what I have actually tried in all my films, also the old ones, is to challenge myself and my beliefs. That’s the technique.”

So Dogville and Manderlay are not straightforwardly 'anti-American'. The tagline for Dogville, after all, is ‘a little town not far from here…’ If the films are political, I think it is by showing how democracy and ideals of freedom fail in an economically and racially unequal society predicated on myths of democracy, freedom, equality, and self-preservation. Dogville and Manderlay, then, can be said to explore the ways in which moral liberalism and enforced democracy might, in pious forms, lead to exploitation and dictatorial vengeance. Dogville explores the idea that power and cruelty are mutually reinforcing and the interdependence of charity and exploitation, credit and debt, cruelty and revenge. With Tom’s encouragement, Grace makes a social and personal experiment out of her desperate situation. She tests out her political ideals such that, rather than Dogville, it is her own compassion, her stoicism, left-wing clemency, and faith in moral integrity, that are on trial.

These are not, it seems to me, films about democracy in the sense of the individualistic capitalist idea of democracy. Rather, the democratic processes attempted in Dogville and Manderlay are collectives. Certainly, In Dogville the people are in individual business enterprises – in glassmaking, apple trading, and merchandising. However, it seems that the democratic freedom of individualistic economic struggle is partly to blame for the people’s poverty, and their need for what the philosopher Tom Edison calls ‘moral re-armament’. In fact, in Dogville, the townsfolk actually can’t vote, and their dubious commercial practices – one might say immoral business ethics – and economics are, it is inferred, a result of their poverty and their political powerlessness. Tom tells us that the Hensons grind cheap glasses to try to make them look expensive so they can sell them for more than they are worth. Ma Ginger has cornered the market in goods: she overprices her goods to make a profit by exploiting the fact that people are too poor to leave. In Dogville, people can’t afford to be democratic, as Tom tells us, they "used to leave to go vote, but since [the state imposed] the registration fee [to vote]  about a day’s wage for these people, they don’t feel the democratic need anymore."

The novel practice of 'voting' to see if Grace can stay in Dogville (2003), dir. Lars von Trier
So, the moral political law in Dogville is dictated by economics and the unfreedom of the capitalistic democratic process: people’s moral behaviour is compromised by powerlessness and poverty. The potentiality for ruthless competition and even lawlessness are, in a deeply impoverished and desperate society. This is why Grace’s moralistic sacrifice is  - as a needy and desperate refugee she is – in Nietzschean terms – a debtor whose moral obligation to her creditors is the basis of her moral behaviour. Tom, for example, critiques Dogville for not being a community – for suffering as individuals and not pulling together for the common good.

The moral laws of Dogville, then, are those intended to keep poverty and at bay. The laws take the form of a collective moral political process tested out in experiments with labour, welfare, and collective rule. At first, elections seem a good way of ensuring moral social agency through democratic collective action. Her labour is exploited as she is forced to earn her keep. She can stay only if she ‘offers’ to work far too hard and for free. Her self-sacrificing kindness and vulnerability make her a scapegoat for good folks’ moral shortcomings.  She believes the more she sacrifices herself and the harder she works, the more she will be accepted and valued. But her immigrant zeal is commandeered by the foot soldiers of the democratic capitalist ideal. The harder she works, the more contempt Dogville has for her, and the harder she is made to work. She does not strike back because she pities her abusers; the poor can’t help being opportunistic and cruel, she decides, because poverty leaves them morally bankrupt. Her goodness will be the moral rearmament Tom promised.

Grace 'pulling her weight' as obligated slave labour in Dogville (2003), dir. Lars von Trier

Economic outsiders and immigrants are a recurrent theme in von Trier’s work: the minor character ‘Miguel’ in The Idiots is seeking asylum in Denmark when he falls in with the politically satirical radical commune of idiots. In Dancer in the Dark, Björk played an immigrant caught in the poverty trap and forcibly criminalised for her desperation. Grace is herself a kind of refugee dependent on the kindness of strangers. I asked von Trier if Dogville’s abuse of Grace can be fairly through of as is an allegory of the refugee’s need for protection as causing vulnerability to exploitation? "It’s true" he said: “I agree…being an immigrant or being a refugee was very important in my family since my father and my mother both escaped to Sweden during the Second World War in a life or death situation. So, the whole thing about what you do with people who come to you fleeing from somewhere bad has always been very important in my family.”

The film can also be seen as a sharp attack on the moral panic surrounding multiculturalism and race relations in Europe. Recent right-wing and neo-conservative politics have been on the rise in Europe for some time. In the UK, for example, the far-right part the BNP has been gaining power and popularity for the last few years. And, like many Danes, many other Europeans are reacted very strongly to the asylum seekers and immigrants, and to the inclusion of Eastern European countries into the EU. Denmark has set very strict restrictions on immigration, much to von Trier’s disgust: “It’s a very bad sign to send to the world” he said “Denmark is still this comparatively rich country where people do not normally starve to death. In a way, it’s very spoilt to have this attitude towards strangers. But it’s one thing towards strangers; it’s another thing towards refugees. You must always be very hospitable. That was very important to my father. He saw that, in the way country treated refugees, you can see what their moral standards are. Not towards its own vulnerable people, but towards people in need coming from outside …foreigners are not necessary. Maybe you could say that they are necessary for the moral life of the country. But they are not necessary for the state. They are not necessary.”

Around the time of the film’s European release in February 2006, controversy and backlash about allegedly Islamaphobic cartoons of the prophet Mohammed printed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten. This scandal reframed the film as yet another example of unhelpfully provocative Danish arrogance about the rights of Europeans to exert unrestrained freedom of speech. In an interview in the Manderlay Pressbook , von Trier said: “Racism has reared its ugly face in Denmark [so the film] is also about things in Denmark, perhaps”[ii].  Migrants to Europe can be feared and abused like Grace, and they have been treated with suspicion and contempt, because of, and not in spite of their perceived willingness and need to work. Their use value as a cheap and exploitable labour force is tolerated, even encouraged, and sometimes used to justify to the public their presence in ‘our’ country. In contemporary Europe, asylum seekers and immigrants habitually provoke the same kind of moral panic that Grace’s arrival triggers in Dogville; they are used and abused in ways similar fashion to the ruthless treatment of Grace, being coerced and often forced into multiple and menial low paid jobs as well as sex work in order to justify their presence as an economic burden. While immigrant zeal is a threat to the aspirations of nationals, the perceived willingness to undertake low-wage, menial labour is tolerated, encouraged even, when it validates the immigrant’s unsolicited shelter in ‘our town’, encouraging people to work harder for the accolades of prosperity, equality, and freedom that compose the classless liberal ideals of freedom, respectability and social welfare.

If Dogville is critical of American ideology, then it is by showing how economic compensates for a lack of stands in for democracy in economically unequal society. In fact, his films increasingly seem to express simultaneous melancholy and resentment about liberal morality and leftist hopes. Grace’s abuse at the hands of poverty-stricken people and their aggressive need to preserve themselves only serve to confirm the predator ideology of her gangster fathers. When her belief in the essential goodness of the virtuous poor is destroyed, it shatters an important aspect of her humanist liberal ideals in that she decides to use her power and to change society by force.

Grace’s vulnerability makes her a scapegoat for the good folk of Dogville’s moral shortcomings and an exploitable slave for their deep-rooted political powerlessness, bitterness and ambition. This can be well explored by turning to Nietzsche’s ideas of ressentiment and the liberal moral ideal. What is ressentiment? Firstly, it’s a very strongly held moral ideal that finds its social expression in moral suffering. The difference between Nietzschean ressentiment and mere resentment is that ressentiment has an ambivalent heart. Ressentiment describes a reaction to unequal relationships of power. The word is derived from resentir and ressentement­, both meaning a strongly held sense of woundedness and injustice that have no means of outward expression – it is an anger intensified by a sense of powerlessness. But the feeling-strongly of resentir also means actually expending such overwhelming feelings, often in reactionary internalized aggression and compensatory moral suffering. Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment also has two meanings. He used the ambiguous French ‘ressentiment’, rather than German words like Verstimmung (irritation) or groll (rancour/pain/spite) to describe a double movement of reactive violence and the psychological internalization of such violence in excessive guilt.

Ressentiment, for Nietzsche, describes a moral idea that reacts to inequality by enslaving itself to the value of suffering. When Nietzsche’s resentir compares those who suffer to those who do not appear to suffer, a relationship of cause and effect is assumed. This gives suffering a meaning as well as a target for its feeling-strongly. Ressentiment goes beyond mere jealously and becomes desperate conviction that inequality will end only when those who do not suffer are shamed into capitulation. Freedom, power, and cheerfulness, then, seem immoral; those who do not suffer become needful objects of confrontation. The resentir thinks something like: “those who suffer are powerless; those who do not suffer are powerful and cause suffering; so the powerful are bad and the powerless are good; I want to be good so I freely choose to be powerless; In this way, I shall put an end to suffering.” For Nietzsche, this is the ‘slave’ or ‘ascetic’ morality that ‘only those who suffer are good, only the poor, the powerless, the lowly’[iii]. A ‘slave morality’ is deliberated self-negation in reactionary suffering. It’s opposite – the noble morality is not necessarily the will to have power over others; but the slave morality invariable is the will to have power, not only over others, but over oneself. It is the perversion of a will to change society and those who rule over it.

We can see this most obviously in the way in which Grace causes herself to suffer in Dogville, by the way that she condemns herself for both having power and for reacting to desperation by stealing a bone. The town philosopher, Tom Edison, immediately sees Grace’s vulnerability and need as an opportunity for moral-re-armament. He thinks to himself: “She could have kept her vulnerability to herself, but she had elected to give herself up to him at random. As….Yes….a gift. Generous, very generous”. He offers her some of his bread so that she doesn’t have to steal the bone. The bone was anyway mistakenly given to Moses the watchdog who was supposed to be kept hungry so he would stay vicious. This already is an allegory of the anger of destitution. As a morality of ressentiment, Grace thinks that those who suffer are – and should be - morally virtuous. So she refuses Tom’s bread: "I can't, I don't deserve that bread! I stole that bone, I haven't stolen anything before. So now, now I have to punish myself. I was raised to be arrogant, so I had to teach myself these things." As in ressentiment, she condemns herself for being immoral. She thinks that she can rid herself of guilt by choosing to suffer. As though suffering itself were a moralistic act of atonement. Her downfall comes when she refuses to extend these moral ideals to others by condemning the poor of Dogville.

Graces chats with apple farmer Chuck in Dogville (2003), dir. Lars von Trier

In terms of contemporary politics, Grace's moral dilemma take the form of the refugee’s debt to her sanctuary, illustrated in a dialectic of indigent suffering, need, and exploitation. Grace is a political fugitive, an economic migrant whose vulnerability and illegality is easily exploited by the destitute citizens of Dogville. Migrants to Europe are feared and abused like Grace, and they have been treated with suspicion and contempt, because of, and not in spite of their perceived willingness and need to work. Their use value as a cheap and exploitable labour force is tolerated, even encouraged, and sometimes used to justify their presence, encouraged even. Social inequality forces people to work harder for the accolades of prosperity, equality, and freedom that compose the classless democratic dream of freedom, respectability and social mobility through capitalistic endeavour.

The logic of ressentiment is a strategy of revenge against whatever or whoever is assumed to cause suffering. For Grace, her revenge is against her father’s and his gangster morality that takes no pity on the poor and exploits anyone for not fighting back. But ressentiment is only imaginary revenge in that the only person who suffers is the moralist himself or herself. Grace’s weakness is her generosity and her compulsion to moral instruction, they know she will not protest because she pities them. They see in her the possibility of financial embetterment, as well as a scapegoat for their sense of powerlessness – a have-nots vengeance against a trapped have. She is enslaved in a dialectic of charity and exploitation, debt and credit that intuits ressentiment in the high Nietzschean style. As with ressentiment, Grace wilfully enslaves herself the illusory consolation of ‘goodness’ in compensation for powerlessness and anger because of it. But when her gangster father appears, she is confronted with her unwitting complicity in her fate. Paraphrasing Nietzsche, perhaps, Grace argues that "dogs cannot be punished for doing what it is in their nature to do" and, accordingly, she cannot punish the impotent, ignorant townsfolk for exploiting her. Grace changes her mind when her father reminds her that dogs must be trained to be good by discipline and punishment and - implicitly - that she was 'trained' to be a gangster but rebelled by her own free will. 

Nietzsche understood that the excessively moral conscience is produced not through self-sacrifice but through the will to power. Grace has ensnared her own instinct for freedom, and the moral ideal of freedom she lives by, in the idealist trap of ressentiment. She is torn between her father’s gangstertorial diktat and her liberal humanist compassion. Empowered by a sort of Faustian pact with father, Grace sees the supercilious, self-refuting and arrogant righteousness at the heart of her moral stoicism. She forgave Dogville its cruelty only because she thought them too poor and ignorant to be answerable to her own moral standards. In doing so, she became enslaved as a selfless gift of ‘moral rearmament’. Romanticizing suffering was a futile means of trying to effect social change; such ressentiment perverts the moral piety it cherished. Grace is not an escape from ressentiment, but a coming-to-awareness of it without martyring oneself to force others to be good. Ressentiment is always vengeful, but it takes itself as the object of violence. When she relinquishes her moral suffering, Grace uncovers an abscess of vengeful violence that she releases on the people she tried to help. She does not escape ressentiment, as Nietzsche said one could not. But she understands it. Then she changes her mind. She comes to awareness of ressentiment’s vengeful benevolence and then takes literal revenge. She does not move entirely beyond ressentiment but she does stop despising herself and sacrificing herself for it. While one wants to cheer her on for overcoming the martyr’s ressentiment, it is not unequivocal that vengeful fury is the only alternative. Graces’ revolting conscience is an image of the morally frustrated liberal turning against themselves before becoming tyrants of the even less fortunate. What should have happened is that they actively turn against the political system that ultimately causes suffering.

In Dogville, Grace’s moral ideal of equality and of not taking power over others leads her to run away from her father’s powerful gangsters. He is trying to force her to take power over others and she chooses not to. But more than that, she chooses to be powerless. She runs from power, and protests the very idea of power over others. Yet her supremely moral act is to relinquish power entirely – when at the mercy of other powerless people she acts by not acting, by not protesting. Her moral law, then, does not apply to the powerless. She believes that the lowly are not to blame for immoral acts and that, as a powerful and privileged woman, she can help them by the gift of passivity and benevolence. But her morality of passive charity fails utterly exactly because she chooses to be powerless, such that people in fact do take power over her. Unlike her gangster father, she initially forgives them. This is perhaps because the power inflicted on her by the people of Dogville is a grotesque amplification of their own state of powerlessness - a kind of displaced vengeance is caused by her own choice to be powerless as a moral act. vengeance for their powerlessness. So Grace’s vengeance is borne of her moral ideal of suffering and of the virues of non-intervention. Really, her morality is a will to violence that has already condemned violence as immoral. Moreover, ressentiment is entirely rational; its ‘perversion of morality’ can be found 'in the very effects and affect that gives rise to and fuel ressentiment' - i.e.: social inequality[iv].

Ressentiment, Nietzsche tells us, is self-defeating in that it actively obscures social and political critique in its over-determination of moral suffering. Dogville’s key scene comes when, arguing the philosophy of liberalism with her gangster father, Grace’s morality is transformed from suffering martyr to vengeful angel. Her father, ‘The Big Man’, dismisses as ‘arrogant’ both Grace’s sympathetic conscience and her magnanimous belief in social accountability. Grace argues that dogs cannot be punished for their natures, and so she cannot punish the impoverished townsfolk of Dogville for exploiting her like a slave:

The Big Man: You don’t pass judgement, because you sympathise with them. A deprived childhood and a homicide really isn’t necessarily a homicide, right? The only thing you can blame is circumstances. Rapists and murderers may be victims, according to you. I call them dogs, and if they’re lapping up their own vomit the only way to stop them is with the lash…

Graces argues politics with 'The Big Man' in Dogville (2003), dir. Lars von Trier

The Big Man goes on to discredit Grace's refusal to bestow upon the people of Dogville the same ethic of personal responsibility with which she constantly berates herself; Grace exonerates their wickedness because of her ‘arrogant’ notion that nobody can possibly attain her high ethical principles. Dogs, muses Grace, "only obey their own nature. So why shouldn’t we forgive them?" Her father retorts that "dogs can be taught many useful things, but not if we forgive them every time they obey their own nature." Grace can be merciful, but morally she owes Dogville the right to be treated equally; she should maintain her own standards and treat the townsfolk as she would treat herself, giving them the right and responsibility of accountability for their actions. Grace prevaricates before reasoning that, by taking the mantle of power that underlies Nietzsche slave-morality. She uses her newly righteous power to "make this world at little better" and ensure that what happened to her cannot happen again; she yanks the leash hard, delivering Dogville a sound and unforgettable beating: she murders her tormentors and razes it to the ground. 

Dogville (2003), dir. Lars von Trier

Grace’s morality switches not to self-sacrifice but to a queasy equality of judgement – to the idea that her moral laws are not just applicable to those who have power but who choose not to use it by choosing to suffer. I trying to understand why the poor abused her, and with the aim of making sure it does not happen again, she changes her mind and decides that personal responsibility is not a privilege of economic security and class position. Through a coming to awareness of the inequality of her moral ideals, she comes to awareness of a profound and righteous resentment. This resentment brings her to a new moral agency – she comes to see that destroying Dogville could be in itself a moral act. In order to do this, she accepts the lawless form of power. To be moral, she has to be immoral. She has to relinquish her own moral ideals. Yet, in Manderlay, her moral disillusionment will lead her not to passivity and self-sacrifice but to intervention – ‘liberation, whether they want it or not’. As Nietzsche had it, ressentiment’s underlying anger forges irresolvable internal struggle and self-sacrifice that changes nothing. Were freedom really desired, that power ought to be outwardly directed. It is plausible, then, that ressentiment explains the moral preconditions of the interrogation of liberal humanism that we see in Manderlay.

Manderlay is in many ways a inferior film to Dogville - the cast seem too self-conscious, the script is clanging and histrionic, and Bryce Dallas Howard simply could not bring the voiceless intensity to the role of Grace that Nicole Kidman did. Nonetheless, the ideas expressed by the film are equally as devastating as in Dogville, and the film deserves critical recognition for its skewering of the dialectical destruction of unfettered liberal guilt. In Manderlay, Grace’s experience in Dogville incite her to use her power to do good. She decides to forcibly intervene in slavery. Manderlay's Grace is a spirited idealist with whom one sympathizes as her genuinely benevolent imposition of liberal democracy end up in dictatorial ferocity because, as von Trier has said, "it’s impossible to impose democracy by force. Every other system of government is easier to enforce [than democracy]"[v]. Idealists, von Trier has it, are unwittingly bondsmen in that they feel morally compelled to force their way of thinking on other people – especially people who live in undemocratic or perhaps even dictatorial regimes. In doing so, political idealists run the risk of trapping people into new moral laws which are, for Nietzsche –as I hope to convey - another kind of un-freedom. If people do not free themselves, they are – by definition unfree, and therefore vulnerable to being forced into political and social systems they may not want, or which – as in Manderlay – do not protect them from oppression, inequality, or danger. These films are, for the most part about is a spirited moral idealist who cannot understand why her compassionate imposition of democracy fails. Again, the people she is trying to help should be grateful – as the people of Dogville were desperate, as she herself was, the people of Manderlay are slaves, as she was. She feels guilty and she thinks she has the power to compensate black for what photographer Jacob Holdt has called ‘internalised racism’. In Manderlay, Grace believes it her duty as a middle-class white woman to compensate black people for the brutality of slavery: “We brought them here and we abused them and made them what they are.” This sense of liberal responsibility is touches on deep political concerns in Jacob Holdt’s work.

Manderlay is a reworking of Jacob Holdt’s American Pictures photo diaries. In the 1970s, Holdt was a middle-class Danish drop-out who chose to become a vagabond in the most deprived areas of America. Holdt responds to the poverty surrounding him with an urge to document it – to make the world see what was happening in prosperous democracies. Holdt’s involvement with the development of Manderlay was more extensive than is widely known; he was not only involved in creating the photo montages that close the USA films, but was very much involved in the progression of the narrative. Lars was very inspired by Holdt’s theories of ‘mental slavery’ and ‘internalized racism’. He was especially drawn to Holdt’s photographs of black workers in peonage in the deep South – the first offered to the and which still goes on today all over the world. When he returned to Denmark, he began giving lecture tours and showing the pictures all over the world. He wanted to raise awareness about the lasting effects of slavery and about ongoing racism in the west. In American Pictures, Holdt writes much about ‘internalised racism’ in which oppressed people begin to despise themselves because they resort to desperate, sometimes criminal measures to survive. And because they live in a country where they are allegedly free and where there are opportunities for all. They blame themselves for their oppression. Holdt told me about his work on Manderlay and why it was an important film for him:

Jacob Holdt: [Lars von] Trier asked me to photograph some pictures for him for [the film] Dear Wendy from a ghetto in America after which I helped him doing research on a good location for the movie. They wanted my photos so they could build up an exact American town up in Film city. Therefore we had a meeting in [his studios at] Zentropa at which he told me that his wife, Bente, was a great admirer of me, since she is a child care worker. Pedagogues use my shown all the time in their schools. Bente therefore suggested Lars that he should see American Pictures and we agreed to do a private showing for him and other Zentropa employees.

Afterwards Lars got the idea to use my pictures in the end of Dogville which he was just then finishing. But over the summer he was thinking a lot about two themes in my show – “the continuing mental slavery of blacks” and “internalized racism”. So when I later that year was sitting in Zentropa cutting my pictures into Dogville he kept running into the cutting room saying: “Jacob, Jacob, I have to talk to you. I want to make American Pictures as a comedy”.

After three meetings with me about “internalized racism” he said: “Ok, Jacob, now I go home to write the manuscript.” Only 3 days later he sent me an email with the finished manuscript to Manderlay in which I felt he expressed all my ideas better than I had myself been able to express them through 25 years of workshops.

Jacob Holdt, American Pictures (1985)

Manderlay overtly tackles race politics, civil rights, and political reform. It was considered so inflammatory in the USA that few black actors would go near it. Danny Glover initially turned down his part, objecting to the film’s overpoweringly white point of view, but eventually signed on because so few films tackle the subject at all. Far from being saintly or heroic, the black characters in Manderlay solicit their own oppression, preferring the certainties of enslavement to the dubious freedom of a morally destitute and undeniably racist America.

Glover wanted to show the horrendous oppression that faced newly freed slaves in America, as well as the hypocrisies of the American constitution, founded over the issue of slavery following the civil war and in anticipation of the burgeoning industrial capitalist state. Liberated slaves found free America to be hostile and antagonistic. And anti-discrimination legislations were exploited more by newly founded corporations than by black workers. The film’s denouement points to the economic and political reality of post-Civil war era America as starkly contradiction of the more generally accepted ideal of emancipation. It’s about the reality of reconstruction in which life actually did become a lot worse for many blacks after abolition and liberation.

Holdt initially conceived of his book as an attack on Denmark and as a warning to European liberals about what happens when you try to create an ideal of economic freedom in a racially segregated society. Holdt responded to racism and the on-going slavery of black people with a strong sense of liberal-guilt. He felt guilty for poverty but also because he felt compelled to document poverty. Holdt despised the aesthetics of pity that uses the suffering of others to embolden political indignation and moral righteousness. Sanctimoniously political art is radical. Liberals, he says, can be "the buffer troops of capitalism who absorb any critique of the system and distort and avert it by constantly raising it to the level of art [and] saccharine sentimentality"[vi]. 

Jacob Holdt, American Pictures (1985)

Can we see von Trier as a similarly leftist, 'anti-art' artist? Well, his well stated liberal politics express a great faith in anti-realism as well as in solidarity, collective power and ownership. This is reflected in projects such as Dogma’95, 100Cameras, The Advance Party, Filmbyen, The Five Obstructions, and other collaborative ventures and in the - albeit heavily scrutinised - spirit de corps of his films, such as satirical leftist-critique The Idiots. He seems to enthusiastically advocate collaboration, yet the ideal of collective power and egalitarianism is, he says, a thing of the past. And that, for him, is a sad state of affairs. While he works in collaborative venture, he is also a very purposeful auteur whose collective projects are an important defining facet of his oeuvre. And, as in the case of Dogma ‘95, his distinctive signature form is what actually defines the form that the collective project will take. "[It] is the same problem as the problem of democracy" he bemoaned “80% of Danes are too stupid for democracy, right? Because they think something else, or because they don’t agree with me! I would love to work in a community but I haven’t found others that would be stupid enough to do what I think is right! The will for this collective idea, nobody really seems to have it these days.” Von Trier explained the basic political premise of Manderlay thus: "it’s impossible to impose democracy by force. Every other system of government is easier to enforce than democracy. You can say a lot of nasty things about Bush, but don’t you think his heart is in it and he believes in what he is doing?" What on earth does this say about democracy? Similar tensions between the law of democracy and the individuals who enforce it are, of course, the dominant theme of Manderlay.

This seems to me be more of a liberal, one might say a left-wing model of democracy, rather than the more individualistic and economic self-sufficiency model offered by western countries. In Manderlay, the model of democracy is perhaps more obviously socialist : the plantation will be run without salaried workers – it will be a collective with communal ownership, shared labour,  and equality of provisions. In Manderlay, the will of individual is subject to the will of the equal majority: rule by the people for the people. This results in a different kind of unfreedom in that the individual is still subject to laws. Should the individual’s will disagree with the majority, they will be forcibly curtailed. This is the kind of freedom offered to Manderlay’s ex-slaves to combat deep racial and economic problems. Democracy – or, rather the kind of democracy we are offered in Dogville and Manderlay, is, it is strongly inferred, logically and inevitably immoral.  Democracy, one might think, is benevolent laws to ensure the moral quietude of all member s of society for the good of all. The social, then, is the consequence of failed moral ideals. In Manderlay, the social machine Grace wants to manufacture is borne of the disappointment of her moral ideal.

Ressentiment is not just a morality, it is a politics. Ressentiment is political when it becomes the basis for an enforced  collective such as that imposed upon Manderlay. Indeed, it needs to be collective to have any kind of social expression. The moral and democratic collectives that Grace tries to set up in Manderlay seems to me to be redolent of the concept of liberal guilt. Holdt’s diaries, on which the film is based, often express this idea of liberal-guilt and what might be called leftist self-loathing. Holdt notes that any attempt to represent the suffering of others is neutralized by its being ‘art’ or, worse, as ‘outsider art.’ In the USA Trilogy, von Trier reproduces such these themes as well as shocking episodes from Holdt’s book of starving and destitute black people still, in the 1970’s, picking cotton, bonded as debt slaves in peonage. The modern system of indentured labour replicates the democracy in Manderlay that renders black shareholders dependent on white Grace. Criticizing the liberals’ approbation of genuine suffering is not to devalue a desire for social change, it is to question Grace’s assumption that suffering could be the basis of an ethic.

Like Grace’s willingness to suffer, liberal guilt can be understood in terms of a morality of ressentiment. The instinct for freedom is felt to be immoral in that those considered free are not ‘all instincts which are not discharged outwardly turn inwards[viii]. This is the unhappy consciousness of leftist guilt. Nietzsche’s central idea of the ‘will to power’ is not compromised by the idea of moral guilt In fact, ressentiment is will to power and even subjection is will. Liberal guilt is contingent on a sense of moral wrongness and injustice, yet it becomes a kind of cruelty that embattles its own ideas of freedom. If those who are free cause suffering, then being free is immoral. The political dynamic she places her faith in, then is collective democracy in the form of a co-op. What Manderlay grapples with is the idea that moral law and enforcing moral law are necessary preconditions of a democratic collective. In Nietzschean terms, enforcing equality through punitive laws is driven by a slave-morality of ressentiment. According to Nietzsche, the formation of a community of masks liberal guilt in that ‘the individual’s dissatisfaction with himself is overridden by his delight at the prosperity of the community’[ix].

Grace is profoundly guilt about the situation of the slaves at Manderlay. believes it her moral duty to compensate and liberate violently displaced slaves: “We brought them here and we abused them and made them what they are.” She turns Manderlay into a democratic co-op where reluctant ex-slaves are taught to organise themselves and vote on important issues. She forces them to be free and take control of the financial security of Manderlay. But no-one is really in control and Grace increasingly bullies them into voting on what she thinks is important. They are soon starving and mutinous – they blame Grace for their terrible situation. She turns to ‘Mam’s Law’ because it is what the people understand and because it worked in the past. It worked because Wilhelm wrote it to keep the blacks safe. The rules ensured that they always had a roof over their head and food in their bellies without having to suffer the insurmountable difficulties of finding work outside the plantation gates. They had already been liberated and faced the terrors of unfreedom in an impoverished and unequal land where they will never really be free. They chose slavery over poverty. They do not want to vote on their own future as they have already taken control of their own fate. They want benign dictatorship. They vote not to be democratic. So Grace is enslaved in the role of un-free dictator. Her slave-morality led her to be the new Mam, forced to take control in a role in which she has not control whatsoever. Grace’s will outlaw domination by forcing people to be free - rehearses the slave-morality of ressentiment.  In her liberal guilt and her pity, Grace allows herself to become a slave to the suffering of people who cannot survive in the kind of democracy that thrives on inequality.

Slavery in Manderlay (2005), dir. Lars von Trier 

Wendy Brown’s contemporary reading of ressentiment is that it finds its expression exactly in liberal guilt. Brown reconfigures leftist ressentiment by showing how it operates on the moral pain of failure underlying what Walter Benjamin called ‘left-melancholy’ – a stubborn attachment to a failed ideal as well as to mourning its loss. The celebration of those who suffer might keep the fires of hope alive. Liberal guilt is imagines freedom to be dependent on social democracy: ‘Left melancholy’, according to Benjamin, is the bitter onetime radical’s sadness at the failed hope of a political ideal. According to Brown, this enacts a politics of ressentiment that is always doomed to failure. Like ressentiment, left-melancholy is sustained by compensatory suffering, self-limitation, and self-reproach of the kind that drives Grace in Manderlay - Vengeance and violence only ever crouch beneath Grace’s political morals – what Brown might call ‘a politics of recrimination and rancour … a tendency to reproach power rather than aspire to it, to disdain freedom rather than to practice it’[x]. Left-melancholy is ‘attached more to a particular political analysis or ideal—even to the failure of that ideal—than to seizing possibilities for radical change in the present’[xi].

Grace seems, on the surface, to transcend vulgar self-interest by feeling guilty and taking responsibility for the suffering and the moral failings of others. Liberal guilt is politically injurious in that it glorifies suffering and inculcates guilt that does not reach those who actually do have political power. Liberal guilt seems to covet power – as Grace takes the power she has to try to do good. Self-induced guilt is depends on social change to release it from suffering. It is passive. The liberal guilt that seems to drive Grace’s moral impulse is, as Brown tells us, forged in vengeful anger that hides in Manderlay seems to be a coming to awareness of the destructiveness of paternalistic guilt and of the violence of moralistic piety. It is to realise ressentiment’s self-imposed insistence on the moral superiority of the powerlessness.

In the slave-morality, liberals actually aspire to outsiderness, but cannot transcend the guilt of being bohemian, white, and middle-class. Their rage against the immorality of the powerful is, as it is for Grace, self-loathing. AS Nietzsche put it: ‘the ‘idealists’ and ‘beautiful souls,’ are all decadents’[xii]. For brown, leftist guilt is ‘blind to any way of changing society in a meaningful way’ because it chooses guilt and accountability instead of solidarity: ‘the language of recognition becomes the language of unfreedom’[xiii]. Guilt is a substitute for equality in that, as Holdt emphasised to me, it is paternalistic and does nothing to equalise the balance of power between marginalised people and the dominant social force, and it does nothing to bring people together. As Brown puts it, leftist guilt ‘re-inscribes incapacity, powerlessness, and rejection’[xiv]. Does contemporary liberal politics really seem resentful to von Trier? After all, his films often explore political and ethical problems in a left-ish stance. “Well”, he told me, “I felt like an idiot!” The political part of the work is a desire, not to destroy, but to challenge and rejuvenate leftist ideals.

The democratic ideal that is demoralised in Manderlay is a struggle to unforget the pain that drives Grace’s caricature of leftist morality. In my opinion, von Trier’s USA films, and especially Grace, reflect the leftist and the liberal European who (rightly) condemn American conservatism, but who do so in an attitude of moral superiority and political self-certainty. Grace is partly a cynical image of leftist guilt - the privileged daughter of a powerful family who refuses to rule over the seemingly powerless by exerting immoral social control. Her family signifies that power is taken through immoral acts. Grace is radicalised by liberal guilt at her station in life. Her leftist rebellion is her refusal to use her social privilege and financial muscle and instead makes herself indigent. She takes on a consolatory and excessively subordinate role in excess of her actions. She seeks to help others with her power and places her faith in the moral promises of liberal democracy. Grace’s morality is social and political. She places her trust in democracy, clemency, and moral integrity. von Trier’s targets are racists as well as supercilious or resentfully disillusioned leftists. Expecting, perhaps, a dark satire on American conservatism, the leftist cinema goer of the ‘USA films’ is hit smartly in the face by their own cartoon. As an allegory of moral conceit, von Trier’s The Idiots and USA Trilogy expose the self-defeating strategy of ressentiment. Ressentiment’s self-defeating nature, its moral over-investment in suffering, yields only irresolvable discontent.

Grace imposes the law of freedom in Manderlay (2005), dir. Lars von Trier

Left-melancholy stagnates into terminal irony, caustic nostalgia, and imagined losses. An aesthetics of ressentiment is pseudo-catharsis; protest folded back onto its own piteous shame, fuelled by revenge fantasies of the intractably impotent. Backed into a corner, the liberal moviegoer might be tempted to throw away ‘the fragment to which he had attached his hopes’[xv]. For A.O. Scott, the leftist guilt that pervaded contemporary leftist art-house films such as The Idiots, Dogville, Manderlay, Moodysson's Together, Bertolucci's The Dreamers, or Haneke's Caché, might have an unhelpfully consolatory purpose and ‘a salutary effect, since the discomfort they provoke, even when it takes the form of defensive anger, is an antidote to the soothing reassurance that we find elsewhere. Any masochistic embrace of art that tries to hit us where we found strength can provide its own perverse form of comfort. Feeling bad about oneself, feeling guilty, can be a way of affirming one’s goodness, a sign of moral virtue and political concern that costs nothing more than the price of a ticket’[xvi]. To be consoled in this way by art, to capitulate to leftist self-loathing and throw up one’s hands in defeat, would be to fall back again into the mire of ressentiment - to take oneself and one’s hopes as objects of hatred and ridicule. Thereby, one fails to effect any change at all except in one’s sense of political rightness and will to participate in political life – a sort of embarrassment of the will. Leftist art is reduced to attacking leftism and leftist audiences per se. Again, Nietzsche already warned us of this: ‘he who despises himself nonetheless esteems himself thereby as a despiser’[xvii].

In condemning America, the liberal movie goer of Dogville and Manderlay has already entered the game of ressentiment, have already failed to be political and has decided that it is futile to try to affect change. What, then, is the way out of ressentiment that does not depend on paternalistic moral excess? The remedial work of the USA films is to confront the disappointment of an incontrovertible moral ideal, and the angry sadness that fuels it, and understand the misdirected violence of powerlessness that ought to be directed at the political system.

Von Trier’s USA films are in many ways a means of somewhat reconciling leftist self-loathing by facing up to the anger and violence that are dispersed in liberal guilt and in undemocratic moral force. We see Grace’s liberal morality change as she faces and tries to change different social systems of democracy and freedom. Grace’s targets are first her aristocratic gangster class, then herself, then the working classes, then the meddling philosopher, then slave owners, then willing slaves, then, finally, politicians (the title of the unrealised third film, Washington, strongly implied that Grace would eventually exert her resentments on the so-called democratic political system that affects the social real she struggled to make good. The film was likely not made due to Manderlay's failings both artistically and financially). Despite its flaws, Manderlay's philosophical critique remains valid in the context of Dogville. Grace's moral ideal is disillusioned, yet her desire to change society is not. Marx himself wrote that disillusionment is the happy end to the state of unproductive labouring under falsified beliefs. Relinquishing the consolations of ressentiment ought not to lead to nihilism or resignation. Disillusionment is a good thing: disillusionment liberates one to ‘think, act, and fashion his reality as a man who has lost his illusions and regained his reason’[xviii]. Perhaps, as von Trier has joked, his greatest work will be called ‘The Happy Ending…’

[i] www.indiewire.com/article/lars_von_trier_chats_with_new_york_audiences_virtually_speaking
[iii] Nietzsche (1887 rpt. 1994) On the Genealogy of Morality, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, I:§8, p.19
[iv] Morelli, Elizabeth (1998) Rationality and Ressentiment, 20th World Congress of Philosophy, University of Boston: Paideia Archive
[vi] Holdt, Jacob, 1985, American Pictures: A Personal Journey Through the American Underclass, Denmark: American Pictures Foundation, p.165-7
[vii] Ibid
[viii] Nietzsche, op.cit., II:§16, p.61
[ix] Ibid, III:§18, p.106; I: §19, p.7
[x] Brown, Wendy (1995) States of Injury: Power and Freedom in late Modernity, Princeton: Princeton UP, p.55
[xi] Brown, Wendy (1999) “Resisting Left-Melancholy”, in: Boundary, v.2:26.3, Fall 1999, p.20
[xii] Nietzsche, “ Nietzsche contra Wagner” in (1887 rpt. 1974) The Gay Science, New York: Vintage, IV:§370, p.328, n.120
[xiii] Brown, 1995, p.65-6
[xiv] Ibid, p.69
[xv] Bürger, Peter (1974) Theory of the Avant-Garde, Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, p.xlix, n2
[xvi] Scott, A.O. (2005) “Discreet Masochism of the Bourgeoise”, in: The New York Times
[xvii] Nietzsche (1886 rpt. 1973) Beyond Good and Evil, Harmondsworth: Penguin, IV: §78
[xviii] Marx, Karl (1843-4) “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”, cit. Bürger, op cit. p.9