To watch Lars von Trier’s The Idiots is to see a dead dog rise and howl at the moon. The dog is a century’s worth of Dadaists, avant-garde theater troupes and convention-hating communards–cliques that no longer hound present-day society, unless they’re jolted into jerky, artificial motion. Von Trier, playing Dr. Frankenstein of the Dogs, patched together one such animal and made it yip when he assembled the Dogma ’95 group of filmmakers. (In a gesture that combined irony with nostalgia, Dogma even issued a manifesto.) The Idiots–a 1998 film that is now being released in the United States–takes as its subject another such group, this one wholly fictional. They are a disorganization of youngish people living as squatters in an affluent suburb of Copenhagen, who devote themselves to upsetting bourgeois propriety by “spassing”: pretending to be mentally retarded.
Suiting style to matter, von Trier narrates the story like an idiot. The characters initially lack families, jobs, hobbies, educations, sexual relationships or access to a calendar. The camera, which is itself a kind of idiot, records nothing about these people except immediate data: physiognomies, clothes and names. It’s only at the very end of the movie that we learn how many days have passed. It’s only then that we discover what any “normal” film would have told us right away: the back story of the point-of-view character.
Her name is Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), and when first seen she is at a carnival, watching the Wheel of Fortune spin. She smiles a lot–sweetly, simply, joylessly–as if resigned to the wheel’s decisions. Her eyes, dark and sunken, develop deeper creases with every grin. Her clothes–a loose, puke-green sweater, worn over a floral-print pillowcase of a dress–hang from her body like an apology, addressed to the world at large.
We don’t know how Karen reached this state, only that she’s been reduced to dining alone in restaurants where waiters feel free to insult her. It’s at this point that she encounters her first Idiots, led by lanky, white-blond Stoffer (Jens Albinus), whose long face is composed of a bottle-opener nose over rubber-band lips. He’s having a high time in the restaurant, using these caricaturist’s features for the purpose of drooling, rolling his head and “being friendly” to diners who wish he’d go away. Karen alone won’t shrink from him. Without knowing he’s putting on an act, she holds his hand and so, inadvertently, gets swept away with the group.
In effect, she’s joined an acting company, as The Idiots soon makes clear. After an excursion, the troupe reviews its performance, with Stoffer arrogating to himself the post of director. (“Jeppe stank. He wasn’t in the moment. Did you think he was in the moment?” “I don’t know, I was trying to feel it for myself.”) As if this weren’t enough, the film occasionally exposes its own tools, allowing a boom mike to drop into the picture or letting one camera operator catch another at work. Not that the camera operators work well. Crowingly crude in look, The Idiots is a mess of jostling frames, on-the-fly pans and unadjusted exposures. The most “artless” technique, signifying raw-life documentary, records the antics of fictional characters; the fictional characters meanwhile demonstrate what’s being done by real actors, right before your eyes.
It’s canny of von Trier to have us follow Karen into this maze. Pleasant-looking rather than attractive, on the cusp between youth and middle age, she’s the perfect middling figure, always well-meaning and common-sensical. Aren’t we all? So, in effect, she’s like an audience member, put up on the screen among the actors. Through her, we’re attracted to Stoffer and the other Idiots; through her, we’re repulsed by them; and through her, we experience the breakdown between art and life, or rather the breakdown of life.
Attraction: On Karen’s first excursion, the Idiots take advantage of one of those free educational tours that factories offer. The tour guide, in the manner of corporate spokespersons, talks down to his public, and the Idiots get their revenge by being even dumber than anticipated. Here, at the start of the film, the satirical target is clear and the aim precise. These scenes would make a cow laugh.
Repulsion: Like Karen, you will perhaps feel that the characters are not just “searching for their inner idiot,” in the manner of actors digging for that core of authenticity. They’re making fun of damaged and defenseless people. As if to manifest your objection, von Trier contrives a visit to the Idiots by people who really are retarded. Fiction comes face to face with truth. Squirm away.
Breakdown: Like Dadaists and guerrilla-theater performers, the Idiots despise the fourth wall. At least Stoffer despises it. For him, the ultimate test is to “spass” not before strangers but with people who really matter to you. I don’t think I’m detracting from the impact of The Idiots when I reveal that Karen alone is willing to take this risk. By the time she does, several other characters have given us glimpses of their lives outside the group–glimpses that seem to dissolve the illusion, so that the character fades from the story. But only Karen leads us back from the Idiots’ suburban retreat to a fully realized social world, where her situation is at once mundane and wretched. Only she challenges—-
What? Who or what does Karen challenge at the end? Herself? Her family? You? The conventions of bourgeois life? The conventions of antibourgeois art? I can’t detract from the impact of The Idiots because I can’t give a single answer to the question. The film ends with an emotional pileup far more brutal and abrupt than the earlier, imbecilic “gang rape” that has earned The Idiots notoriety (and a set of digitized Band-Aids for the American release). And what’s most curious about this climax is that its force comes from fiction, which has at last taken over. The documentary impulse–or perhaps documentary pretense, in this case–breaks down, and life erupts.
Go ahead, laugh. Squirm. Hear the dead dog howl.
Unseen in the United States since 1987, and never seen here before in a completely subtitled print, Marcel Ophuls’s great documentary The Sorrow and the Pity is being re-released by Milestone Film. I shouldn’t have to say more; your copy of The Nation should now be on the floor, and you should be heading toward the nearest theater showing the film. (In New York City, that would be Film Forum, May 12-25.) But thirteen years is a long time in the movie world, and twenty-nine (the number of years since the premiere) is an eternity. I will intrude to explain this much:
Ophuls made the film, a “chronicle of a French city under the Occupation,” in the wake of May 1968. The conservative, established powers of French state and society, under the leadership of de Gaulle’s party, had just reasserted themselves, basing their moral authority, as always, on the myth of Gaullist heroism during the Occupation. The response of Ophuls and his fellow filmmakers was to secure financing from Swiss and German television–French television declined to back the project–and explode the myth, by taking a thorough look at resistance and collaboration during World War II.
The Sorrow and the Pity was therefore a portrait of present-day France, as much as it was an investigation of historic events. This aspect of the film, its contemporaneity, has now been lost to us. We cannot respond as did people in 1971, when the word dropped that then-President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing had been a self-deluded acolyte of Marshal Pétain. Nor can we experience the exultation or outrage of audiences back then, when they heard Denis Rake–a former British agent in occupied France–explain almost unwillingly that workers and Communists had given tremendous support to the Resistance, but that the bourgeoisie had been, well, apathetic.
That much is lost. What remains is a grand, astonishingly comprehensive document, recorded with unfailing persistence and intelligence. Ophuls detailed the full range of French responses to Nazism, as experienced primarily by people in the town of Clermont-Ferrand. That was the first, and most invaluable, level of his achievement. Nobody else managed to get all these characters on camera.
At the top were figures such as former Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France, former British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, Resistance leader (and Libération publisher) Emmanuel D’Astier de la Vigerie and Christian de la Mazière, an aristocrat who fought with the Nazis in the Charlemagne Division and later recalled how much fun Paris had been during the Occupation. Those at the bottom included Resistance fighters (and farmers) Alexis and Louis Grave, high school teachers Danton and Dionnet (who recalled doing nothing when a fellow teacher, a Jew, was dismissed) and movie theater owner Pierre le Calvez, who was still upset, when interviewed, that German troops had been attacked on their way to his show.
The Sorrow and the Pity brings you all these people; and it also brings you the newsreels of the period. The film is full of old footage; and one shock that hasn’t faded is Ophuls’s use of the Nazis’ propaganda. He kept finding small, damning particles of truth within their structure of lies. In the context of a film, what could be more awful than the revelation that Nazi “documentarians,” to even a slight degree, were right?
There is still more, of course–not least of which is the framing interview, shot with terrible irony at a wedding banquet, where the paterfamilias was a plump and happy former Nazi. I leave you with that image, and with the renewed urging to watch The Sorrow and the Pity. It runs 270 minutes, and you need to see them all.