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  • Von Trier’s Cinematic Games
  • Jan Simons (bio)

The Dogme95: Filmmaking as Game

In Jørgen Leth's De Fem Benspænd [The Five I bstructions] (2003), director Lars von Trier demonstrates his well-known predilection for games. The film chronicles Leth's shooting of his unconventional remake of his 1967 documentary, Det perfekte menneske [The Perfect Man], during which Von Trier subjects the director to the same shooting procedures he has always followed.1 For each of his own films, Von Trier has produced a manifesto or set of "production notes"—principles and rules he and his crew must following during the production. For Von Trier, "The Rules," more commonly known as the "Vow of Chastity," which are part of the Dogme95 Manifesto, are nothing exceptional, just "business as usual."2

These rules have generally been interpreted as a call to realism, since they forbid the use of any prop, light, or sound that the filmmaker does not find at the location. This seems to obligate him (the Dogme95 directors formed an all-male brotherhood) to record a pristine, unadorned, unmanipulated reality. Moreover, since the director is not allowed to adjust the set in any way, these rules seem to force the Dogme95 filmmaker to focus on contemporary issues and themes. However, the rules themselves are remarkably silent about themes, topics, and subject matter, just as they are silent about the specific stylistic devices a filmmaker might employ. Unlike most manifestos in film history, the Dogme95 Manifesto does not champion aesthetic or thematic preferences and does not promote political causes or ideologies. The rules of this manifesto are literally only concerned with film production, the making of film: they circumscribe what the filmmaker is and is not allowed to do on the set.

More important than the particular practices they prescribe or forbid, the Dogme95 Manifesto redefines filmmaking as a rule-bound practice or, to be more precise, as a game. Like the rules of a game, they deprive players of the possibility to execute tasks in the most usual, conventional, convenient, and often most efficient way, and force them instead to develop skills and strategies that would be cumbersome and quite useless in everyday circumstances. Being able to deliver a ball over a long distance by kicking it is a highly valued skill in a game of soccer, but hardly of use anywhere else. Filmmakers normally use artificial lighting, decorate sets, dress their actors in costumes, and add and remove sounds and visual effects in postproduction. However, within the game of filmmaking defined by the Dogme95 Manifesto, filmmakers must discover new and inventive ways to circumvent the obstacles posed by the rules (which sometimes means rediscovering old tricks and techniques to achieve special effects). As in any game, the rules are not only prohibitive but also productive; there are advantages to imposing limitations, and this was the whole point of the Dogme95 Manifesto [End Page 3] (Juul 55). As Von Trier and Vinterberg state in the "Frequently Asked Questions" section on the official Dogme95 Website (, "These unusual production circumstances, gives (sic) both restriction and freedom to the director, who is forced to be creative. You eliminate the possibility to 'save' a horrible, not functioning scene with underlying music or voice-over. You have to come up with creative solutions to get, for example, music into your film." In Dogme95 films, one can find numerous examples of filmmaker's circumventing the rules and abiding by them at the same time. For instance, in Mifune's Last Song (1999), directed by Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, the main character, Kersten (Anders W. Bertelsen), enacts the role of the Japanese warrior Mifune for his mentally handicapped little brother, Rud (Jesper Ashold), by fabricating a Japanese knight's armor out of pans, pan lids, knives, and spoons he finds in the kitchen. In The King is Alive (Denmark 2000), directed by Kristian Levring, a group of tourists get stuck in the desert and decide to practice Shakespeare's King Lear, using the blaring sun and objects and fabrics they find in the deserted farm as light, props, and costumes. This is Dogme95 in actu.

The Dogme95 rule-based filmmaking practice...


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