February 17, 2014

A Brief Explanation of the Controversial Film Movement Dogme 95 by Co-Creator Lars von Trier

Dogme 95When you think of a film movement, what comes to mind? Political/social rebellion? Self-expression? Freedom? Rarely will someone say "strict and rigid rules", but that is indeed the structure put in place by Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg when they formed Dogme 95. A controversial, but influential movement, Dogme 95 gave birth to some incredibly important films, like Festen and Idioterne. If you'd like to learn more about Dogme, what better way to learn about it than from one of its founders. Watch director Sophie Fiennes' short documentary Lars from 1-10, and find out how less freedom could mean more creative films.

Von Trier and Vinterberg started Dogme 95 in 1995 with this idea in mind: to return to "traditional values of story, acting, and theme, and excluding the use of elaborate special effects or technology." At that time, big budget Hollywood films were reigning supreme, and von Trier and Vinterberg wanted to show that budgets don't define quality. Similar to Dogme 95, movements such as Italian Neorealism and French New Wave had certain political implications, but where post-WWII Italian filmmakers, as well as post-Trente Glorieuses French filmmakers zigged, Dogme 95 filmmakers zagged. While Italian and French filmmakers embraced creative freedom, Dogme 95 wrote their manifesto and imposed a set of ten rules known as the "vow of chastity":

  1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
  2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot.)
  3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
  4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
  5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
  6. The film must not contain superficial action. (Murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
  7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now).
  8. Genre movies are not acceptable.
  9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm.
  10. The director must not be credited.

But why? Why would anyone want to do this? Why these rules? How did the first filmmakers decide on which rules would produce the most desired effect? Von Trier describes it well in the documentary below:

Dogme 95 ended in 2005 once its founders decided that the Vow was producing formulaic films, but its initial effects can't be denied. Sometimes giving yourself complete freedom means arresting your creativity with unlimited possibilities. But, you put that creativity inside a box -- it'll find a way to break free.

What do you think of Dogme 95? Would you ever try imposing a set of rules like this on yourself? Let us know in the comments below.

[via The Seventh ArtThe Playlist]

Your Comment

27 Comments

I was told from a guy from India many years ago that having an "anything goes" situation doesn't produce the best art. He compared classical Indian music and Jazz where they improvise but there is still a "raga" or "riff" that they improv within. I remember kd lang saying in the early '80s that earlier when she had done performance art, it wasn't so much fun because everything was allowed so she got back into country music with all it's traditions and limitations and found that it was really fun and creative to mess with it.
So, yes, it results in better art and more interesting creativity when there are parameters that you bounce against and mess with.

February 17, 2014 at 11:20PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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"Best art" is a tricky term and is subjective! And every Lars von Trier fan knows he broke those same "rules" in more movies from that era than he admitted. That said, what needs to be taken from some of the films from this movement, is that u don't need the best equipment to produce a masterpiece

February 18, 2014 at 12:08AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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thadon calico

@thadon calico "Masterpiece" is also a tricky term and subjective - although neither "art" nor "masterpiece" HAS to be subjective.

February 18, 2014 at 2:23PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Eric

cinematography masterpiece is generally understood by cinematographers

story masterpiece is generally understood by screenwriters

set design masterpiece is generally understood by set designers

"art'" is a broad term, usually referring to a distinct craft...masterpiece refers to skill level which could be apply to any art...i cant understand why someone would attempt to compare both terms unless they vividly pride themselves in displaying lack of understanding. One word (masterpiece) could be used to accurately describe the quality of the other (art). In my sentence, i prefixed the idea of "equipment." That should register what version of masterpiece I'm referring to

February 19, 2014 at 9:25AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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thadon calico

I have these rules (well similar ones, that is) every time I turn on the camera. It's called filming with Zero budget.

February 17, 2014 at 11:43PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Agreed, Thatguywhofilmsstuff - I think in filmmaking that a great deal of fluff, bloat, and unnecessary elements are directly correlated to a big budget. That is to say, if you don't have the cash, you literally can't afford the superfluous elements associated with an overblown production. I've seen some really entertaining no-budget films - almost as many of those as I've seen multi-million dollar films that were only so-so at best.

February 18, 2014 at 12:11AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Kalaab

hehehe ;)

February 18, 2014 at 2:36AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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The film of his that I think came closest to adhering to these ideals, (that I have seen) is "The Idiots" (1998).

February 18, 2014 at 12:10AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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moebius22

I'm normally not one to post negative stuff but a lot of this seems very pretentious to me. Maybe it has something to do with not really liking Von Trier's films but it just seems like the effort to force in "realism" is every bit as artificial as a film that doesn't follow these rules at all. While I understand that limitations are sometimes necessary in the creation of great art, it should be elements from the outside of the artist that imposes them and never the artist his/herself. This is the equivalent of a boxer thinking a boxing match is only pure with no referee, no gloves, and then with a hand tied behind their back. But once again, that's just my take on it. If someone else gets something of value out of the movement, then great.

February 18, 2014 at 1:26AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Coty

*impose

February 18, 2014 at 1:27AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Coty

I think your analogy is backwards. Playing by the rules set forth before the activity would be more like having a ref, wearing gloves, and limiting the players to an enclosed space (the ring). If you've ever played a game in "god mode," then you would understand how quickly it loses appeal.

February 18, 2014 at 2:59PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Christian Anderson

Yeah, I think that works better as an analogy. The idea of Dogme 95 just rubs me the wrong way from a creative standpoint. I can see it working as an artistic exercise but not much else. Once again, that's just me.

February 18, 2014 at 3:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Coty

Dogma was a funny thing... It gave birth to both good and bad. So in that way it doesn't differentiate itself that much from anything else. But you have to take two things into account.
First that Lars is a bit off... I cant remember what it is he suffers from, but in his case it almost feels like a gift because he is so good to tap into it.
The second... A variation of what has been said: the absentation of limitations is the enemy of creativity.

Transformers is a good example of when too much of a good thing ruins the show.

February 18, 2014 at 1:32AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Dogme95 probably as important as DaDa.

The influence can be seen in frugalwave flicks http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=frugalwave

February 18, 2014 at 3:58AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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I've recently worked on a Dogma 95 film in Brazil, with Italian director Gian Vitorio Balde, one of the creators of Dogma movement.
It was done following all the "rules" of Dogma, and is been released soon.
It's called "Il Cielo Sopra di Me" (The Sky Above Me)
http://www.ilcielosopradime.it/en.html

February 18, 2014 at 9:16AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Dogma95 was created by Danish directors….

I can't find your guy on this list: http://da.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogme95

February 18, 2014 at 2:31PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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I think it was/is an interesting concept.

I never knew about the last rule, though. I haven't watched the linked video. Perhaps the rationalization is explained there. Ironically, Dogma seems to elevate the role of the director and draw attention to directors who choose to follow the "vows".

February 18, 2014 at 3:53PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Tom

Rule 9: The film format must be Academy 35 mm.

Does that mean the aspect ratio? Or it should be shot on film/celluloid? In either case I thought Dogme 95 was synonymous with cheap DV cameras.

BTW, a great book that delves pretty deep into the history of Dogme 95 is Digital Babylon by Shari Roman.

February 18, 2014 at 5:58PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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earnestreply

Ha ha! That was my biggest problem with Dogme 95...I've always been a film snob...this was the first rule that most Dogme 95 films throw out and have to make a confession about.

February 21, 2014 at 8:36PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Daniel Mimura

I like the ideas of all of these artistic movements. Mainly Italian Neo-realist and French New Wave, and some of the films that come out of them really are amazing to watch, but not always. Placing rules and restrictions I feel always helps to be more creative. It's like trying to disarm a bomb, and you have :60 seconds, what can you think of!

February 19, 2014 at 4:53PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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zac

I love the idea of creative limitation and try to use it as a way of helping me make decisions. It's the difference between the novice poet who wastes paper, time and ink writing 14 pages of undisciplined free-form verse about nothing in particular, versus the master poet who produces a haiku that changes your life.

February 21, 2014 at 5:08AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Nicholas Cameron

Please don't take this wrong, I love your posts...Joe Marine's too...but I think you and Joe Marine should use the word "controversial" more judiciously.

You say it, but don't back it up or talk about why it's controversial. It's like writing in the passive voice...I think you tend to say it about things that might be unpopular with certain people. Just because people are divided about whether to not they like something hardly makes it controversial.

February 21, 2014 at 8:44PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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Daniel Mimura

Dogme was very controversial, for a whole number of reasons from the content of the films to the way Trier and Vinterberg announced the movement at Cannes…

This is a timely article(thanks V Renee) with the release of Nymphomaniac, which i saw last night and is just another of Von Triers masterpieces. It is also one of his most personal films i feel, from the love of Tarkovsky to his playful humor and his somewhat childish perspective on femininity and sexuality. It is, as Lars once said about dogme 95 itself, both deadly serious and at the same time ridiculous.

February 23, 2014 at 1:32PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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andy

"Deadly serious and at the same time ridiculous,"…that's Nordic cinema in a nutshell! Bo Widerberg's "Elvira Madigan" exemplifies that completely. (If you've never seen it, SEE IT! Probably the most heartbreaking freeze frame in cinematic history.

February 23, 2014 at 2:26PM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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V Renée
Nights & Weekends Editor
Writer/Director

I have been using a clip from this documentary in my No Budget Film School class for the past nine years, to illustrate the idea that you have to embrace your limitations. A number of great films were made using these rules, notably "The Celebration", but filmmakers at that time got the lesson all wrong. They thought that those rules--the rules from the Vow of Chastity--were the secret weapon to creating great art. But Von Trier makes it clear in the film that their rules were somewhat arbitrary. It was having rules in general that made the difference. Having limitations when you work forces you to use your imagination. So, what I teach in my class is to forget their specific rules and replace them with your own rules, based on your own limitations. All of us, especially no-budget filmmakers, have limitations. But when we start thinking of them as rules to live by rather than restrictions to suffer from, we start to get creative and the energy from that process is everything.

February 24, 2014 at 4:11AM, Edited September 4, 11:45AM

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People's disagreeing over something is literally what controversial means

April 8, 2014 at 10:17AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Laurathit

While those specific limitations don't personally appeal to me, I definitely believe in the theory that limitations breed creativity. For instance, I think that the actual issue with all the CGI Hollywood uses is not the quality of the CGI, but the fact that it allows directors to get lazy and shoot whatever they want knowing that a team of FX artists can composite monsters and explosions into shaky footage of any angle. Practical effects enforce limits on what kind of footage you can shoot, and the result is more thought-out, deliberate cinematography.

July 14, 2016 at 1:45PM

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