Dogville - Lars von Trier - map - overview - soundstage - Elm Street

2003, directed by Lars von Trier

The title of Dogville is easy enough to pass off. The town has to be named something, and it’s probably just as well that it doesn’t sound like any real place. Still it’s a strange name, and we ought at least to question it. Its reason is spelled out three minutes into the prologue, when we first see the dog’s house in close-up. The word “DOG” is stenciled there, but it’s shown upside-down, as if to suggest the name “God”. Dogville is not a work of theology, but like von Trier’s other films it says a lot about how humans, and Americans in particular, love to play God, whether judging their neighbors, deciding who lives and dies, or wielding power on the global stage. The same idea is expressed in the word “arrogant” which the characters use frequently, although that doesn’t capture the weight of the offense quite like the phrase “playing God”. Showing the name upside-down and backwards captures some of the perversity that Dogville will find in Americans’ behavior.

The portrait of the United States in Dogville is similar to that of von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. Both show a society all too eager to judge and to punish, even with death. One of the keys to Dancer in the Dark is an excerpt from a Busby Berkeley musical number where the camera takes an overhead “God’s eye view” of dancers arranged geometrically on a stage. The unconventional staging of Dogville takes Berkeley’s technique a few steps further, building a God’s eye view into the entire film. The set is reduced to a few props on a platform where each house, street, and landscape feature is outlined and labeled in white lines like an architect’s floor plan. The set-up is a constant reminder that everything is designed to be viewed from above, and although the action usually requires the camera to stoop to a human level, we’re still privileged, in a god-like manner, to spy on private lives through invisible walls. The set design also reminds us how artificial any movie’s god-like perspective is, as we’re so often invited, unlike life, to judge the people we watch.

Dogville - Lars von Trier - Nicole Kidman - Paul Bettany - Grace - Thomas Edison, Jr.

In a typical Hollywood genre film, it’s expected that viewers will judge the characters quickly, and if the judgment proves faulty later on it’s usually intended as a plot twist. However, anyone watching Dogville who feels like a “fine judge of character”, as the old doctor Thomas Edison, Sr. fancies himself, will be sorely disadvantaged. The citizens of Dogville are no more nor less than ordinary Americans, capable of kindness and affability but predisposed to acting like little deities. If you stopped the movie in its middle chapter, at the communal Fourth of July picnic, everyone would look kind and likable, but by the end they all look like monsters. Whether they’re good or bad people is not the point; there’s more to be gained by understanding than by judging, and the movie goes a long way toward helping us understand.

It’s easy to show autocrats playing God, but von Trier’s movies reveal how seemingly well-intentioned ordinary people, the atoms of a democracy, make the same error. Dogville‘s male lead, Thomas Edison, Jr., comes across as the epitome of reasonable, altruistic liberalism, but the seeds of his failure show early. For starters, his name comes from a supremely arrogant historical figure, a famous American inventor who, like God’s first act in scripture, created light. Tom periodically preaches to the villagers in the mission house, poorly concealing his wish for superiority behind a guise of moral edification. When he begins to fall for Grace, the narrator tells us his emotion is sparked by a newfound sense of mastery over the opposite sex. When he agrees to shelter Grace from the gangsters, he immediately ponders how to win his neighbors’ approval for her, knowing well how quickly they will judge her in any case.

Dogville - Lars von Trier - Cleo King - Shauna Shim - Jeremy Davies - Stellan Skarsgård - Harriet Andersson - Blair Brown - Ben Gazzara - Chloë Sevigny - Olivia - June - Mr. Henson - Chuck - Gloria - Mrs. Henson - Jack McKay - Liz Henson

Tom’s father is typical of Dogville. Tom informs us that Olivia and June, the black mother and daughter next door to the Edisons, were there as a token of his father’s “broad-mindedness” as if he couldn’t simply welcome them like normal neighbors without expecting to be seen as a great benefactor. The way everyone in Dogville excuses their crimes, like they’re invoking some divine right, also smacks of playing God. Ben is the most transparent of them, constantly invoking the “freight industry” to justify all kinds of inhumanity as if the words were omnipotent. The fact that the dog is named Moses suggests that people in Dogville imagine themselves, like the biblical Moses, in direct communication with a divine being.

If Thomas Edison, Sr. personifies the arrogance of the would-be creator, then the “Jr.” in his son’s name marks him as a would-be junior deity. His domain, the mission house, is Dogville’s center of communal life, giving him the pretense of authority. This house of worship, however, is not the strict Calvinist church of Breaking the Waves. It’s closer to the liberalism of a Quaker meeting house or a modern Episcopal church, yet it’s recognizably a homemade religion, which means two things – first, it’s typical of much of American spirituality; and second, it’s founded on the presumption that anyone can channel the voice of God.

Dogville - Lars von Trier - Nicole Kidman - Grace - church - meeting house - Elm Street - soundstage

The citizens of Dogville may all be disposed to playing God, but the most instructive is Nicole Kidman’s character, Grace. It’s clear, at least by the final chapter, that she had run away from her gangster father precisely because she wished to avoid playing God. Her father wants her to inherit his power, and she can think of nothing more repugnant, even preferring the abuse of her hosts in Dogville. After being exploited, raped, shackled, and betrayed, she still resists taking her vengeance – yet in the end she finally does. When she justifies her decision, claiming she wants “to make the world a little better”, we shouldn’t need to watch the gangsters kill baby Achilles to realize that she has embraced a power that humans have no right to exercise. She thinks that she owes it, as the narrator tells us, “to the human being that was Grace herself.” Why use the words “human being” if not to reassure herself that she’s not trying to act like a god?

Why she flips is the key question in Dogville. Grace changes her mind immediately after the moon peeks through the clouds, casting a harsh light that exposes all the little faults of Dogville, but blaming the moonlight is hardly satisfying. Like the other natural phenomena of Dogville – the mountain sunset, a snowfall, the air filled with cottony seeds – these shifts of light always reflect collective emotional states. There must be something else precipitating her change.

Dogville - Lars von Trier - Nicole Kidman - Grace - moonlight - ending

Right before the moon shines on Dogville, Grace steps out of the car and surveys the frightened faces looking at her. She tells herself they had done the best they could under their circumstances, and that she probably would have done the same. What the movie hopes we’ll see is that even such a positive judgment is still playing God. Once we tell ourselves that we can know who is good, we open the door to condemning those in whom we’re unable to find goodness. It’s fine to give people the benefit of the doubt, to like them and to love them, but we can hardly pretend to hold god-like knowledge without it cutting both ways. Western religions have long regarded this knowledge of good and evil as the original sin, and the apple orchard in Dogville hints at this meaning. The same goes for the other characters. In the third chapter when they unanimously vote to accept Grace, most viewers will look favorably on them as Martha tolls the bell fifteen times and we see each of their warmest expressions in sequence – but it’s already a sign of trouble that they’re called upon to judge her at all.

Dogville - Lars von Trier - Nicole Kidman - Grace - apples - crates - truck

The closing credits are set to David Bowie’s song “Young Americans”. Dogville singles out the United States as a country particularly prone to playing God. It’s unique among modern democracies both in its frequent use of the death penalty and in its incarceration rate, which the movie alludes to from time to time when the characters hear the construction of a penitentiary in the valley below. Dogville was made while the United States was beginning its long war in Afghanistan and preparing to invade Iraq, and too few Americans appreciated that both they and their enemies were playing God, judging each other and justifying themselves the same way Grace and the citizens of Dogville do, trapping each other in a cycle of reprisals.


Day of Wrath – Use of words to play God; allusions to Garden of Eden via apple tree

Psycho – Point from director’s earlier film amplified for clarity

Dancer in the Dark – God’s-eye view; predisposition of Americans to playing God

The Boss of It All – Story about how people unsuspectingly play God

Melancholia – Dog named Moses, horse named Abraham