- Dogville Characterized by The Grapes of Wrath:European Identity Construction through American Genre Conventions
Dogville's (Lars von Trier, DK, 2003) widely recognized anti-Americanism is most apparent in the end credits, a montage of documentary photographs of American deprivation, accompanied by David Bowie's "Young Americans." American critics have reacted strongly to the film and to the credits' photomontage. Many photographs are of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the time frame of Dogville's story. The Farm Security Administration's photographs in Dogville's credit sequence particularly recall another fiction film set in the Depression years, The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, US, 1940), based on John Steinbeck's novel—both Steinbeck and Ford were inspired by the FSA photos. A closer look at the FSA pictures and a specific analysis of some crucial scenes in The Grapes of Wrath may help to explain what it is about Dogville's European outlook on America that is so disturbing for Americans. More significantly, a closer look at The Grapes of Wrath helps to focus on Dogville's "Europeaness."
Both Dogville and The Grapes of Wrath are critical about the narrow mindedness of local communities, notoriously unable to deal with the arrival of refugees into the relative quiet of their own circle. The Grapes of Wrath explicitly depicts the fate of Oklahoman victims of capitalist agricultural reform, and ultimately legitimizes Roosevelt's New Deal federal policies overcoming regional protectionism. Dogville allegorizes the contemporary plight of economic refugees and political asylum seekers and ultimately represents the revengeful consequences of misunderstanding the intruder's motives for fleeing. The Grapes of Wrath is a road movie depicting the construction of identity of the American people, a newly created self-invention in a settler society. Dogville, on the other hand, with its dead-end community, may metonymically depict the [End Page 79] disintegration of American identity, but at least also presents us with the reluctance of Europeans to overcome their own nation-state confines.
Dogville's Credit Sequence
Dogville the DVD includes coverage of the press conferences in Cannes 2003 and other PR materials. The film's production notes and von Trier's ironic statements about the legitimacy of his judgments as an outsider regarding American mores, both in Dogville and in his media-hyped performances at the Cannes film festival, have generated attention beyond the scope of film journalism. The production notes and the Cannes events relate Dogville to Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, US, 1942). In von Trier's own words:
I went to Cannes with Dancer in the Dark, and I was criticized by some American journalists for making a film about the USA without ever having been there. This provoked me because, as far as I can recall, they never went to Casablanca when they made Casablanca . . . Although I must say, I am better informed about the USA than the people who made Casablanca were about Casablanca.1
Hollywood never really bothered about the actual Casablanca before releasing Curtiz's Casablanca in 1942, so why should von Trier be required to check whether or not his depiction of small-town America would be an accurate representation of moral crisis during the Depression of the 1930s? This jester-like gesture, of course, was meant as a provocation, and it should not be taken all too seriously as an argument qualifying von Trier for moral judgment or political criticism. And of course, Casablanca has not been canonized because of its accurate representation of Casablanca, but because it is recognized as a great Hollywood studio film. Even though representations may appear to be questioned here, then, representational accuracy is not von Trier's major issue. Not that accuracy is beyond von Trier's interest; his concern for a narrative, voiceover solution to the fact that there are no elms in the Rocky Mountains and thus no elms on Elm Street in Dogville proves otherwise. But then again, Elms are not important for moral judgment, American appropriations of the so-called universal human condition are.
To be sure, relating Dogville to Casablanca based on the premise that both films are poorly informed caricatures of far-away societies would not amount to anything substantial...