Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill had not yet visited the United States when they completed Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny). Luckily, they didn't let this deter them from pretending they had. Brecht's libretto, one of the most wild-eyed and unflattering portraits of this country ever put on stage, imagines a depraved boomtown in the American West ruled by gangsters, a sinkhole where justice is determined by the size of your wallet and the gravest sin is failing to pay your whiskey bill. (As an example of the show's crazy-quilt geography, "Alabama Song," famously covered by the Doors and David Bowie, seems to refer to a place somewhere in the Rockies.)
Soon after its 1930 premiere in Leipzig, Germany, avant-gardists embraced the opera as a radical fusion of music and theatre. Far too radical for the Nazis, it was quickly banned in 1933, prompting Brecht to later claim that he had been inspired less by tales of the Chicago mob than by the criminality of the brownshirts.
Many other Europeans have been blasé about insulting us without ever having crossed our borders. Franz Kafka wrote his satire Amerika but never saw America; and Jean-Luc Godard, whose films and writings over the last 45 years obsess about our international misdeeds and swelling cultural hegemony, has rarely set foot on U.S. soil.
So the Danish director Lars von Trier was in distinguished company when he announced plans to make a trilogy of films about the land of the free and the home of the brave despite having no firsthand knowledge of the place. He proudly admitted in interviews that he had not been here and did not intend to come. A provocateur on the set -- he has reportedly battled many of his actors -- von Trier also likes to bait the media, who have enhanced his enfant-terrible image by playing up his role in the neo-cinema-verité movement known as "Dogma 95."
Unluckily, this offensive-defensive strategy has not shielded him of late from American critics on the right and left who have denounced his newest work, Dogville, as "anti-American." Some have gone so far as to question his right to set it in the Rocky Mountains during the Depression on the grounds that, as one entertainment reporter bleated on CNN, "He's never even been here."
David Denby claimed in The New Yorker that "the movie is, of course, an attack on America -- its innocence, its conformity, its savagery -- though von Trier is interested not in the life of this country (he's never been here) but in the ways he can exploit European disdain for it." Charles Taylor in Salon trumped the anti-American charge by calling the film "anti-human."
There are plenty of good reasons to dislike Dogville. But its failure to picture small-town life in 1930s Colorado in a realistic or humane fashion is not a legitimate gripe. Not when, like Brecht's libretto, von Trier's depiction is so clearly preposterous -- and aimed more wickedly at unresolved issues of guilt and mass murder in Europe's past rather than our own.
For someone who expresses no desire to see the United States, the writer-director sure seems to have a thing about us. His first international hit, 1991's Zentropa, concerns an earnest young American man who goes to post-World War II Germany to help the country recover, only to find himself trapped in a labyrinth of intrigue. Like many innocents abroad, he is in way over his head, his foolish decency making him a pawn in the designs of malevolent Europeans and one wised-up American (B-movie legend and Godard veteran Eddie Constantine, as a CIA agent almost as sinister as the ex-Nazis).
Von Trier's oeuvre is a set of diabolical variations on innocence themes. Breaking the Waves, from 1996, is about a Christian-minded Scottish lass (played by Emily Watson) so in love with her paralyzed husband, a Danish oil worker (Stellan Skarsgard), that at his demented urging, she becomes the village floozy. Idiots, made for Danish TV in 1998, features a group of artistic types in a commune who venture into the city and pretend to be mentally retarded. It's a harsh piece of business that can be read as a parable about political correctness, about "normal" misconstruing "abnormal," or the emotional deviousness of acting.
The film that prompted von Trier to undertake his American trilogy, Dancer in the Dark, is another study in naïvete. Ostensibly set in a hardscrabble Washington state town in 1964, it tells of a poor Czech immigrant mother and factory worker (played by Bjork) who escapes her grim lot by dreaming of Hollywood musicals. Oozing with the pathos of Émile Zola and Theodore Dreiser -- Bjork ends up on the gallows for a crime she didn't commit, and is going blind to boot -- the film is von Trier's update of Dennis Potter, whose BBC television dramas in the 1970s and '80s featured bleak characters opening their repressed souls by bursting into periodic song. Potter owed more than a little to the alienation techniques of the Brecht-Weill musicals. Dancer in the Dark also served notice that von Trier, an author of the Dogma 95 manifesto, was anything but dogmatic about its aesthetic precepts, which called for handheld cameras and location shooting while proscribing the use of filters, special lighting, props, superfluous violence, and prerecorded sound.
With Dogville, his break from Dogma 95 is complete. The opening overhead view of the "town," which is nothing but a set of white outlines and a few props on an otherwise barren soundstage, violates a slew of Dogma 95's naturalistic theses in one shot. Divided into nine chapters, with an arch voiceover by John Hurt, Dogville is pure artifice.
The plot is an archetype: A stranger comes to town. That stranger is Grace, played by Nicole Kidman at her most bewitching. On the run from someone unseen but fearfully violent, she seeks shelter in the tiny mining town of Dogville. The 15 inhabitants, whose individual stories are related during the film, are at first suspicious of Grace but then welcoming as they discover that she needs their help and is thus helpless. Although they protest that there is nothing she can do for them -- she has no money and so agrees to work off her debt -- they are soon exploiting her in every way, as companion, slave labor, and, finally, prostitute.
Grace's ostensible advocate with the populace is the town's young intellectual, Tom Edison (Paul Bettany). A frustrated novelist and philosopher, he is smitten with Grace, who keeps him at an appreciative distance while planning her escape, with or without him. But while professing high-mindedness, he also helps to enslave her. Like so many male-female relationships in von Trier's movies, this one makes no rational sense.
Still, as you wait for the characters to fall off the tightrope he has put them on, the tension is exquisite. It's only in the last 45 minutes of this three-hour marathon that Dogville stumbles under the weight of its own elaborate conceit. (Readers who don't wish to know what happens should stop here.)
It turns out that the gangster pursuing Grace is her father (James Caan), and that she ran away to maintain her independence. Huh? After he drives up with his henchman and rescues her, they squabble in his limousine over "who is more arrogant" and what to do with the people of Dogville for their mistreatment of her. He convinces her that the town should be torched and the people machine-gunned. Grace puts a bullet in the head of Tom Edison herself.
Given that what happens is a kind of Final Solution, the dialogue in these final scenes can only be seen as grotesquely trivial and morally repugnant, which is why the outcry against von Trier is both dead-on and wide of the mark.
No event in American history comes to mind while watching this saga. It is instead Europe's dubious past that seems more faithfully refracted. The Jewish refugees who sought to be hidden by French and Polish -- and Danish -- families from the Germans were often blackmailed by their "protectors." The Nazis were gangsters who leveled entire towns on a whim, when one of their officers was killed (Reinhard Heydrich) or merely insulted. And the Third-World Gastarbeiter who today do the scut work for so many northern European families were at first unwelcome and are now an indispensable labor force.
Like Godard, von Trier is more surrealist joker than social critic. He can't ground himself in firsthand experience of America, and so his hyperbolic statements are based on our movies (The Grapes of Wrath, They Live by Night) and our plays (Our Town) and our media. The attacks on von Trier, no doubt, have confirmed his stated beliefs that we are a nation of pious moralists. This judgment isn't fair to his critics, and the film's gravest faults are aesthetic, not political. Still, the outcry may be a sign of how jumpy we have become about perceived slights from anyone not in the coalition of the willing. Even if Dogville is no more a reflection of America than Mahagonny, many critics are clearly in no mood to take lip from a smug European.
When David Bowie's "Young Americans" erupts over the closing credits of Dogville, with its yearning lyrics about Mustangs and Caddies, music from the ghetto, youth and sex, I was sure that I heard von Trier's own internal conflicts about an imaginary place he both loves and at times abhors. We've all been there, young and old, Americans and Europeans alike, even if hasn't been here.