|Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005), dir. Lars von Trier|
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|
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."
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|
|The novel practice of 'voting' to see if Grace can stay in Dogville (2003), dir. Lars von Trier|
|Grace 'pulling her weight' as obligated slave labour in Dogville (2003), dir. Lars von Trier|
|Graces chats with apple farmer Chuck in Dogville (2003), dir. Lars von Trier|
|Graces argues politics with 'The Big Man' in Dogville (2003), dir. Lars von Trier|
|Dogville (2003), dir. Lars von Trier|
|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.
|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.
|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 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].