Home International CinemaEuropean CinemaDanish Cinema ‘The Idiots’: Improvisations & Explicit Sex in Lars von Trier ‘Group Effort’

‘The Idiots’: Improvisations & Explicit Sex in Lars von Trier ‘Group Effort’

The Idiots Lars von Trier
The Idiots by Lars von Trier.

The tenth and final “Vow of Chastity” from the Dogme ’95 manifesto states that “the director must not be credited.” That is because the films are made in a collective fashion and the manifesto recognizes how important each hand is to the birth of one film. That being said, Lars von Trier is the “director” of Idioterne / The Idiots, even if the credits maintain that it was made by a group.

The DVD I viewed didn’t have many features (Region 2, Tartan Video, 1.66:1). It includes a text copy of the Dogme ’95 Manifesto, the original theatrical trailer, filmographies, stills gallery, and a text on character analysis – nothing too exciting. But one feature I found to be quite interesting was a text copy of an interview (by Peter Øvig Knudsen) in which von Trier discusses his opinions about and methods for the film. (The interview can also be found online on the Dogme ’95 website.)

In the interview it is noted that von Trier spent only four days writing the script and never did a rewrite – or even a read-through – after finishing it. This, of course, led the actors and the crew to improvise many of the scenes, creating a natural feel and a fluidity that is not present in overwritten, hyperbolic scripts (Juno, for example).

According to von Trier, part of the meaning behind a Dogme film is to lose control – or rather, to share it. This type of filmmaking has in past years been successful (consider the films of John Cassavetes, notably Husbands) for it embraces the many levels of creativity that come together to form one genuine piece of both entertainment and art. In 1998, von Trier and company assembled to try their hands at that method.

Set in a posh neighborhood district of Søllerød, Denmark, The Idiots is the second film in von Trier’s Golden Hearts Trilogy (the others being Breaking the Waves [1996] and Dancer in the Dark [2000]), interspersing confession-style interviews with scenes from the last weeks of the “Idiots’” time together.

The filmmaking elements follow the Dogme manifesto, which states that camera work must be handheld, lighting must be natural to the location (if the lighting is too much of a problem, a lamp may be placed at the end of the camera), and music is not to be mixed into the film.

One of the first things that is heard in The Idiots is a simple harmonica sound which I immediately jotted down as being against the Dogme rules. However, I later learned in the interview that the harmonica they used was “the kind you could buy through Mickey Mouse Magazine in the old days, [we] simply installed the harmonica player where we had scenes with music.” (I should never have doubted one of the foundations of the Dogme movement.)

The “Idiots” of the title are a group of adults who for some reason or another are dissatisfied with their lives and, on a grander scale, with society in general. To offset their disappointment they have come together in an empty house (owned by the uncle of the group’s leader), to find their “inner idiots,” which means that they intentionally act as though they were developmentally disabled (dubbed as “spassing”) in social and private situations.

Thus, each character takes on an “idiot” persona that represents their own inner strengths and weaknesses. For instance, the leader of the group, Stoffer (Jens Albinus), acts mostly like a playful and happy child; the doctor of the group, Ped (Henrik Prip), places himself in a wheelchair, behaving with little acknowledgment of his surroundings and needing care when in this state.

When in public the group manipulates their new social status to their advantage, e.g., by getting out of fancy dinners by interrupting the other diners, by guilt-tripping rich neighbors into buying flimsily homemade Christmas decorations, and by generally taking the piss out of people. Yet, most of them do not consider their actions to be malicious. When they go out as a group, one person becomes the designated “Minder.” The “Minder” acts as the caretaker for the entire group, leading them through social situations.

The eleventh (and last) person to join the group is Karen (the beautifully talented Bodil Jørgensen, left), on whom The Idiots focuses from the beginning. Karen is a powerful energy throughout the film as she speaks her mind in a soft voice that hints at a dark, desperate woman. Karen is a mystery; she joined the group on a whim and stayed on because of personal grief. The closer-than-family group embraces her warmly.

The Idiots then covers a few weeks of their lives as they move through public pools, parks, and bars, fighting with the Søllerød District Council and spassing out while eating caviar. As the new member, Karen tries to fit into their society, but she is resistant to the spassing. (No one, however, pushes her; there is never any pressure.) It is through her eyes that we see their behavior and their guidelines to being an “idiot.” Inhibitions that cannot be stifled are what separate the Idiots from all the rest.

Nothing seems to be too far out for the group; anything one wants to do is “a part of their inner idiot.” In one scene, Stoffer is awakened by a fellow member telling him of another “spasser” who is throwing bricks through the glass windows of the shed. Stoffer’s reply: “Sheds are bourgeois crap.”

That answer would be suitable, except that there is a visit from Stoffer’s uncle who owns, and wants to sell, the house they are living in for free. Therefore, Stoffer must quickly drop his doctrine and appeal to the bourgeois mentality. Such tension -a back-and-forth of desires and obligations – happens often. (Their “idiotic” behavior is counterbalanced by the interviews conducted after the group has abandoned the idea and each other.)

I have watched The Idiots a few times, and each time I’ve seen it I react a little differently. Sometimes I feel guilty for laughing, at other times I am compassionate toward their cause. Character development is so thorough that I feel I actually know those people, for von Trier’s filmmaking approach makes the viewer experience the characters’ ups and downs, their moments of loss and frustration.

The Idiots may seem lighthearted as it strips away societal behaviors to their simplest forms, allowing for truth to shine through, but then the sadness of reality creeps in. It does seem, as Karen suggests, that they are poking fun at people with real handicaps. For instance, I was emotionally involved with the characters when they were (unexpectedly) visited by a group of actual developmentally disabled people. The characters I had been laughing at for an hour or so struggled to cope with this confrontation – they stop putting on their act immediately and embrace the group of visitors. It was difficult to sit through that sequence as I questioned why I had been laughing until then; how I felt about the characters imitating those who were actually handicapped.

The Idiots is thus a paradox of a film and should be viewed with that in mind. The characters and the filmmakers both set out to lose control, and within these new territories find new boundaries and new windows which will eventually have to be smashed. For instance, whenever Stoffer is challenged about the meaning of their behavior he replies with some convincing rhetoric suggesting that in order to combat a “society that gets richer not happier” one has to become an “idiot” and that “being an idiot is a luxury.” The group believes that by triggering their inner “idiot” they will become enlightened and thus able to live an easier, more honest life. But as they get deeper into their project it becomes clear that the same social conventions are still with them. The need for acceptance, greed, love/lust, competition – all of these struggles are unavoidable.

The Idiots has gained a reputation for being controversial; the subject matter is seen as taboo while there is a “spassed-out,” sexually explicit orgy scene – elements that tend to make some people uneasy. But in my opinion, these things are not what gets audiences riled up. What is more personal to each viewer is the way they handle their emotional responses to seeing grown adults behave without inhibitions or concern for the consequences of their acts. Whether that incites laughter or sadness, many will surely feel uncomfortable because they will be incapable of justifying their reactions.

Expecting nothing but truth, The Idiots puts its audience in an uncomfortable position and holds them there until the last frame. The audience then becomes a part of the filmmaking process, joining the cast in “spassing out.” The “Minder” is the camera, the few glimpses of a microphone, or another cameraperson.

At its core The Idiots is about humanity, compassion, desperation, sadness. There are many humorous moments and sweet relationships, but ultimately the film shines a light on our inability to change, to lose control, or to delve deeper into ourselves. We will always be blocked – to some degree – by our own inhibitions, whatever they may be.

© Keith Waterfield

Idioterne / The Idiots (1998). Dir. / Scr.: Lars von Trier. Cast: Bodil Jørgensen, Jens Albinus, Anne Louise Hassing, Troels Lyby, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Louise Mieritz, Henrik Prip, Luis Mesonero, Knud Romer Jørgensen.

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