Against Empathy: On the righteous anti-humanity of Lars Von Trier's 'Dogville'
Von Trier's immigration allegory squares up to society's destructive impulses.
“[Von Trier’s] dislike of the United States (which he has never visited, since he is afraid of airplanes) is so palpable that it flies beyond criticism into the realm of derangement.” — Roger Ebert on Dogville
“Von Trier's Dogville caused a great stir at last year’s Cannes Film Festival with charges that the Depression-era fable, set in a rural town in the Colorado Rockies, was anti-American. It is. But anti-Americanism is a small matter when a movie is anti-human.” — Charles Taylor on Dogville
Roger Ebert famously likened the movies to “a machine that generates empathy,” as the great ones allow us “to live in somebody’s else life for a while.” The implication is that movies can open you up to the range of experiences outside your own, possibly making you a better person. And that’s probably true in the aggregate, because it becomes more difficult to see people as The Other when you understand their circumstances and their rationale so intimately, and learn you share a common humanity. It’s perhaps only natural that we attach value to filmmakers who are humanists, and make it their mission to seek out the redeeming qualities of even the coarsest souls, revealing characters of unexpected dimensionality. That’s when the empathy machine is really chugging along.
But I’m not in the mood for that shit right now, so I’m writing about Dogville.
Dogville is not about generating empathy, but about rendering judgment. There’s a narrowness inherent in that project, because the director, Lars Von Trier, is spending three hours showing us that the citizens of a small town in the Rocky Mountains are less human and decent than we might imagine them to be—and less than they might imagine, too. Storytellers who condemn their characters are called “misanthropes,” but I’m not sure Von Trier, a provocateur and scamp of the first order, would reject the label or understand it as describing an artistic shortcoming on his part. Ditto the “anti-American” tag attached to Dogville or his previous film, 2000’s Dancer in the Dark, or his subsequent film, 2005’s Manderlay, which ended the proposed “America trilogy” that Dogville kicked off one title short. Yet for all the outrage they stirred from critics hungry for empathy, there’s power in these films, especially compared to the work of directors who favor stories of hope and redemption. He’s one of the few filmmakers willing to ask some tough rhetorical questions: What if we’re destructive and corruptible? What if we fail to live up to the lofty ideals we set for ourselves? What if we’re unwilling to treat actual people with the empathy we so readily extend in a movie theater?
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For people of a certain political persuasion—which is to say, mine—the recent spate of Supreme Court decisions, culminating in the reversal of Roe v. Wade, has made the pessimism of a film like Dogville seem more inviting and true, even righteous. Perhaps the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said (and Barack Obama often repeated), but it’s currently bending backwards, away from progress, and may ultimately look more pretzel-shaped should it ever loop around again. Dogville isn’t about any of the cases on the current Court’s docket, but an immigration allegory that broadens out into a critique of how America treats the less fortunate in their time of greatest need. It’s bad news for your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, suggesting that American ideals of equality and justice are subject to baser nativist instincts.
Perhaps as a response to critics who rejected his depiction of the Pacific Northwest in Dancer in the Dark—as Ebert correctly sniped, Von Trier's afraid of flying and has never visited the U.S.—the director boldly conceived Dogville as a Brechtian experiment. The town of Dogville, an isolated village near an abandoned silver mine, is rendered mostly as a painted outline on a bare stage, with labels written over locations like roads (Elm St. is the main drag), homes of major characters, and settings like “GOOSEBERRY BUSHES” or “THE OLD LADY’S BENCH.” Life doesn’t seem like it would be easy for the 15 or so residents under ordinary circumstances, but it’s especially difficult when the film opens, during the Great Depression. Chuck (Stellan Skarsgård), the most foul-tempered of the bunch, rages over the town dog getting a bone that still had meat on it.
Unfolding in nine chapters and a prologue, all drolly narrated by John Hurt, Dogville sets the table with an introduction to the “good honest folks” of its sinister Our Town and the idealistic young writer who vows to encourage his neighbors’ better angels. His name is Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany)—a name that puts too fine a point on the America allegory, frankly—and he likes to call meetings to wax philosophical about morality. (Perhaps the most persuasive evidence of the townspeople’s generosity in the film is that they continue to show up.) “I think there’s a lot this country has forgotten,” Tom says while calling on a “gift” that might allow them to demonstrate their collective goodwill.
That gift arrives in the form of Grace Mulligan (Nicole Kidman), a glamorous but desperate woman on the run from gangsters. Tom believes that sheltering Grace is the right thing to do, but the residents are not immediately convinced that she’s worth taking into their community. As a compromise, Tom arranges for a two-week trial period in which Grace offers her labor to everyone in town. After a little resistance, the citizens acquiesce, and soon Grace is working hour-long shifts around Dogville—tending to Tom’s father (Philip Baker Hall) and the blind Jack McKay (Ben Gazzara), looking after the children of Chuck and Vera (Patricia Clarkson), hauling apples with Ben (Željko Ivanek), working at the general store run by Ma Ginger (Lauren Bacall) and her daughter Liz (Chloë Sevigny), etc.
The arrangement initially works out well. A vote is called after the trial period and everyone, even holdouts like Chuck, agree that she should stay. She even gets her own place and a pittance that she spends on acquiring each of the seven figurines on the window display in Ma Ginger’s store, the symbolic rewards of her hard labor. But when the police come through town posting “Wanted” signs with her picture on them, the increasing risk of protecting her changes the terms. Not only must she work harder, she can be exploited in other ways, too: Old Jack doesn’t have to be as subtle about touching her knee, and the other men, starting with Chuck, understand that they can have their way with her, too. What recourse does she have?
Though the cruelty visited upon Grace is extreme in a very Von Trier way—not unlike the marital devotion that leads to sexual exploitation in Breaking the Waves—the power dynamics here suggest the experiences of undocumented immigrants and so many others who are desperate in real life. How can Grace say “no” to a job, even if it’s humiliating and pays poorly and offers no time off? Where can she go for recourse for sexual assault when she doesn’t officially exist in this place? That she’s a woman receiving this vile attention from the town’s men makes her even more of a pariah, treated to puritanical shame before getting chained up and enslaved. Even the high-minded Tom, who says he loves her and seems to mean it, can’t work up the courage to defend her. His precious morality comes with a cost he’s unwilling to pay.
Again, none of these developments seem that out of line with the immigrant experience, at least insofar as the undocumented have no equal access to labor and justice, and the pathway to citizenship can be long, murky, and fiendishly conditional. But Von Trier’s darkest assertion in Dogville is how Grace’s hosts become her oppressors: Tom is hopeful that the townspeople will use this opportunity, the “gift” of her arrival, to reveal their good natures during a difficult time, but the situation proves more like a moral stress test that they’re doomed to fail. Rather than inspire the town’s support, Grace’s increasingly compromised circumstances become a reason to exploit her further. That’s an essential marker of Von Trier’s pessimism about society: He believes we’re more Darwinian than our consciences and ideals would seem to allow. If that’s “anti-human,” so be it. The proof is in the nativist pudding.
A three-hour dialectic on a bare stage sounds gruelingly austere—and some critics were indeed bored by the film—but Dogville crackles with deadpan wit and moments of extraordinary visual invention. Beyond the absurd effect of knocks on invisible doors or the pen for invisible barking “DOG,” the literal transparency of a town where violations happen in plain sight remains potent. (When Chuck rapes Grace, Von Trier cuts to a long shot where residents are quietly going about their business as it happens in the background.) WhenTom and Grace pay Ben $10 to smuggle her out of town in his truck, Von Trier makes the blanket hiding her transparent, too, foreshadowing the terrible revelation that everyone knows about her attempted deception.
The perverse fantasy of Dogville is that Grace isn’t the helpless outsider she appears to be, but the daughter of a gangster. She’s like Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, an heiress impetuously striking out on her own, only Tom Edison doesn’t turn out to be as sturdy as Clark Gable, and the world outside daddy’s Cadillac isn’t as friendly as she might have imagined it to be. When Grace makes the decision to raze the town and kill all the residents—one family with a ruthlessness that recalls Von Trier’s little-seen (but excellent) version of Medea—it speaks to the “burn it down” mentality that any of us can feel when the basic institutions of government (like, ahem, The Supreme Court) fail us. Von Trier is calling for the end of the American experiment. And in this moment, on June 29, 2022, I say good riddance.
Highly recommend Jacob Holdt's "American Pictures," which contains all the photographs used in the end roll and captures a lot of what von Trier says here. A Dane hitchhiked through the states in the 70s and took pictures of the worst poverty he saw (and also wrote very humanizing portraits of the country's victims). Was formative for understanding the USA in my 20s.
i watched this on an iPod classic while i was packaging books at work, and it was still a really, really rough time.
(also, can i confess that Ebert's "empathy" quote always rings a little self-congratulatory to me? movies can generate empathy, but it's a fleeting, complicated feeling that's often as much about assimilating differences into the illusion of commonality as it is about instilling appreciation and respect for others--that's not even a bad thing, but these days, i get defensive about the art that needs to accomplish a concrete social good, rather than just it existing and giving pleasure and texture to life being enough.)