Film: Doing it Dogme style

Thomas Vinterberg is Lars Von Trier's protege and the LFF's hot potato. His Festen is pure genius.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
He has the name of some hellfire Lutheran preacher and the Nordic good looks of a Bergman actor. But Thomas Vinterberg turns out to be a jolly cove. Playfulness comes easily to him, and it's the playfulness of an unconventional 29-year-old, raised on a commune to strum the guitar, not (you would have thought) to pay obeisance to the cranky Lars Von Trier's latest wheeze: the Dogme Filmmaking Charter.

In case you haven't heard, Dogme is a codification of a new film simplicity that's probably long overdue in the age of Titanic. In 1995, two years after graduating from film school in Denmark (with a student Oscar nomination already under his belt for Last Round), Vinterberg cemented his friendship with the grandaddy of Danish cinema by sitting down and writing a "vow of chastity" as they actually call it. They invented the 10 points of what a Dogme film had to be. Briefly, there was to be no artifice or adornment. It was to be as no frills as a Baltic kirk on a craggy hinterland of the Danish psyche. Von Trier was to be Abbot of this monastic vow.

The sweep of the hand-held video camera was to endure no lighting except natural lighting, no sound intrusions except the hum and thump of natural sound. The actors wear their own clothes, and the only props they may use are "natural" to the set. Finally, the director may not even credit his own name to the picture - as if the paw prints of a presiding genius would further sully the purity of the film.

These restrictions may indeed provoke a kind of purity, but they also evoke a kind of animal cunning in the director of Festen. No music? Get the actors to sing a lot. Only local props to be used? Find a big house with lots of them in situ. No director credit? Get yourself a walk-on role. Look closely at the taxi driver in Festen and you'll see Vinterberg doing his cameo.

Dogme wouldn't suit every director and every subject by a long chalk, but as I write there are already Dogme films by Americans and French directors going into production. And, as it happens, the Dogme restrictions suit Festen like a straitjacket does a lunatic. This is mainly because it comes across as some deranged family video (Vinterberg has noticed) that seems to convince people they have seen something that actually took place.

In Denmark people have fainted in cinemas, it is said, and in Cannes a woman TV journalist broke down in tears while she was interviewing him. The outing of a patriarch as an abuser of his own children during the triumphant heights of his sixtieth birthday party has to be seen to be believed. The chances are that you'll never again hear someone tapping a wine glass for a speech without your flesh crawling. It's a monstrously primitive genius of a movie.

"Doing a Dogme film is almost suicidal," remarks Vinterberg as he pours me some tea and casually lights a cigarette. "There are so many obstacles to overcome. You are deliberately making things difficult for yourself. But then you play with the obstacles and something happens. You find you are liberated from mediocrity."

If the press conference Vinterberg gave a few days after we met was anything to go by, people seem rather baffled by the idea of Dogme (despite the self-evident success of Festen) and actually suspect it might be some kind of gimmick. The Pythonesque Dogme logo of a sheep with an all-seeing eye nestling between its buttocks in rectal omniscience doesn't exactly help the case for wrist-slitting seriousness (following the sheep, geddit?). People were obsessed with whether Vinterberg broke any Dogme rules - implying, it seemed, that if he had he must be some kind of humbug. "Think you're better than us for being chaste, huh?" They were like teenagers cat-calling outside the nunnery walls.

Vinterberg was equally poised on both occasions I saw him. He acquitted himself well with his sceptics. "Dogme is partly deep seriousness, partly a game," he had told me as he told them. "We made up the rules in half an hour, laughing all the time. And yet they are meant seriously, almost solemnly. How far can you go with such simple means? It's so primitive, and that's the game."

There's a lot of the primitive forces in man on show in Festen: after all, monsters have stalked Scandinavian parties since the time of Beowulf. By all accounts the casting of Henning Moritzen, a legendary Danish actor, as the father and villain of the piece, was especially decimating to his home audience. The British casting equivalent would be someone like John Mills. "He's done 39 films in these charming roles and suddenly here he was at this character's birthday party, his eldest son standing up for the toast and accusing him of incest and abuse. That was very hard for the Danes to take."

The French, Vinterberg insists, are mislead in thinking his film is some kind of attack on the bourgeois. The accusing Hamlet-like son Michael (Thomas Bo Larson, a Vinterberg regular) is as committed to bourgeois life as is his father. "It is about Danish understatement, and the Danish love of humbleness, which is a bit oppressive," Vinterberg explains. "There are all these violent revelations in Festen and their reaction is oh, let's have the coffee now." The English, he says, are the same. "If I was to remake the film, it would be in England, as it seems you are bound by similar traditions. The class aspect is irrelevant because I think this story could happen anywhere. It could be a Ken Loach story."

Von Trier is, by all accounts, thrilled to bits by his protege's success. Vinterberg's genuflection before the great Abbot has gone down well. Like all good disciples, though, he has quarrelled with his master. "There was one shot in Festen when I wanted to use a special switch on the camera to slow and repeat the frames, and I rang him up and he gave me permission to use the switch. But then I got really angry with him when he wouldn't let me alter the volume levels of the sound we recorded during the takes, and I told him all the rules he had broken in his own films."

Vinterberg tells me he plans a special Dogme lunch with his Dogme pals in "a specially made hut on a former military site, wearing fur hats" and then he'll give the privations of the creed a good rest for the next movie. "No doubt I'll return to the monastery in the future," he says, stubbing out his cigarette, a twinkle in his eye, the very opposite of a monk - Lou Costello, perhaps, to Von Trier's Abbott.

`Festen' is scheduled for release on 5 March