By The Very Reverend Archimandrite John Panteleimon Manoussakis
Lars von Trier’s Dogville offers us an alternative interpretation to the mystery of the incarnation than what Christianity has traditionally come to understand in Christ’s humanization. Instead of the possibility of salvation, Dogville suggests Christ’s incarnation as the possibility of a universal condemnation. The story of God-becoming-man remains more or less the same; yet the conclusion reached is radically different. It is for this reason that we could say, without any exaggeration, that Dogville’s revision of the Gospel, by turning the “good news” of Christianity into a message of destruction, constitutes a masterful and perhaps the most serious threat articulated against Christianity up to today—all the more so, since it does so by following, as faithfully as possible, the main theological tenets of the incarnation.
Dogville seems to be a witty anagram for “Godville”—the village of God. The fact, however, that the letters are put in reverse order might also indicate a God-less town. The only church in Dogville, a mission house, has never had a priest or a service. As Tom Edison Jr. says, “we can be spiritual without singing or reading from the Bible.” In fact, the Mission House serves only as the location of his morally edifying lectures. If there is any religion in Dogville, that is only a religion “within the limits of reason alone.” Dogville, nevertheless, could also allude to “Moses,” the dog in Dogville, the only creature that survives the town’s utter destruction; perhaps further evidence that religion here is limited only to the form of the moral imperative as in the Mosaic law. At the end of the film, Grace’s father refers to the inhabitants of Dogville as “dogs” that “lick their own vomit” (alluding to 2 Peter 2:22). The device employed by the director, such that in Dogville everything and everyone is always visible, since the walls of the houses and quite everything else is, in the eyes of the viewer, transparent, suggests a point of view that could be afforded only by God. The people of the village make a living by gathering and selling apples. The allusion here seems to be to the apple in the Garden of Eden—Dogville is an Edenic, post-lapsarian, town: living on temptation and living out temptation.
In that village, Grace appears as if she had fallen from heavens. The narrator says that Grace has come to Dogville as “a generous gift”—in fact, her name, Grace, means a gift (in theological language, grace is given as God’s gift). Upon her mysterious arrival, she is recognized only by Moses, whose bark indicated that he was “face to face with a force to be taken seriously.” The first thing that Grace does upon her arrival is to steal Moses’ bone, a suggestion, perhaps, of how the coming of grace signaled the passing of the Mosaic law. Grace herself says that she has “no family, only a father.” A father, she adds, whose face she has seen. She is the only one who has seen her Father’s face. Grace leaves the “city” where she was with her Father, and she comes to Dogville only to be treated as a slave. In the language of the Scripture: “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:6-8). The music more closely associated with Grace’s arrival—as well as a sequence of other important moments in Grace’s life in Dogville—is always the same: the opening phrase from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Vivaldi’s setting of Psalm 127 (Nisi Dominus). Both pieces betrayed the unmistakably religious, even liturgical, overtones that underlie the narration of Grace’s passion-story, namely the exploitation and abuse she suffered at the hands of the “good people” of Dogville.
The first person that Grace meets in Dogville is Tom Edison Jr. His name of course is suggestive. He becomes Grace’s supporter, advocate, and liaison with the village. Tom sees Grace’s arrival as a unique opportunity for a pedagogical “illustration” for Dogville’s need to learn how to receive and to accept. Tom Edison is something of a moral teacher for the town, a writer who never wrote anything except “great and small?” He is, in other words, a thinker who did not go further than the paradox and, therefore, unable, as we shall see, to understand the paradox that Grace is. His first words in the film are about what is “useful.” We hear him speaking in a series of clichés (e.g., “it is the soil that gave us all life”) that suggest a thought constrained by naturalism. But above all, he is a rationalist. He reasons about everything to the point that he is unable to act, like Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play, even when a course of action becomes urgent and necessary. He is in love with Grace, if, indeed, he is capable of loving, yet he is unable to let Grace know of his feelings. In fact, the storyline of Dogville suggests that he is unable to love Grace (the particular person), for he values too much the universal, his own ideas. He watches silently as Grace is abused by each and every of his fellow citizens, unable to act, since he can only think. The only action he finally undertakes, as soon as he realizes that Grace poses a danger for his “moral mission” and “career” as a writer and thinker, is to betray Grace.
It is him who also comes up with the idea of Grace making her “gifts” available to the families of Dogville as a way of assimilating Grace in the everyday life of Dogville. So, Grace—according to Tom’s plan—begins working for one hour for each of the eight families that live in Dogville. That amounts to a regular eight-hour workload per day. It is ironic, however, that Grace should perform chores that the people of Dogville, as they admit, don’t “need.” In return, Grace is to receive wages—thereby, inscribing the gratuitous “grace” of Grace into an economy that turns gifts freely given into products or services. It is the law of the marketplace that prevails here: a quid pro quo. At the end, her presence in Dogville becomes “more costly,” as Tom Edison puts it, speaking “from a business perspective” and, therefore, she has to work twice as much earning half the pay. Grace becomes the eyes to the blind man in the village, the leg to the crippled, and an extra pair of hands for everyone.
Soon, however, things change. Every single person abuses Grace, either physically (labor, rape), or psychologically (blackmailing, accusations, threats, etc.). Ultimately, Dogville will turn Grace, this heaven-sent gift, into a slave and a prostitute. As the film progresses we witness how the town of Dogville, a symbol of whole of humanity, commits one after another despicable acts of mistrust, greed, and hypocrisy. At the end, the village has appropriated Grace; they have turned a gift into a property that they now own and refuse to let go. She cannot escape Dogville. She becomes, quite literally, a slave and a prisoner of the “good people” of Dogville.
This seems to be the central question of the film: are the people of Dogville good after all? In the first town-meeting they boast saying that they are “good people,” “knowing each other,” “caring for human beings.” In addition to Tom (the rationalist and moralist), we meet Vera with seven children, all of whom bear pagan names; she is an enlightened humanist (on the blackboard in her house one reads the words “Eros→Psyche”) who, however, is capable of afflicting the cruelest punishment on Grace. We also meet her hard-working husband; the cheerful black cleaning lady with her crippled daughter; the good housekeeper; the naively religious adherent and so on. All simple, average, everyday people, as it would seem. And yet, if Dogville has a point this seems to be that, given the chance, poor people, people in need and misery can be—in fact, they will be—as mean and vicious as any other. That goodness is nowhere to be found—neither in the moralist, nor in the humanist, not even in the child. Each one of them (and in them we all recognize ourselves) becomes the very face of evil. Of course, they are evil in a very “humane” way for they reason—is rational evil less evil?—and provide excuses for themselves.
“The Final Illustration” (or, Grace’s Judgment Day): so far Grace has had “the rare talent of looking ahead and only ahead.” Her future-oriented outlook, one could indeed say, her eschatological understanding of the people and the town, enables her to see in the gooseberry bushes the fruit that they will bear “come summer.” When Tom Edison Jr. introduced his fellow citizens to Grace, he appends each of his introductions with a negative comment. In the eyes of the moralist we are all obviously lacking. It is only Grace who can see them under a forgiving light. The people of Dogville, however, thinking that they could solve their problem with Grace by calling the gangsters and handing her to them, bring upon themselves what they could have never expected. Grace meets her Father again who now asks her to return “home” and be “like her Father,” “sharing his power” and becoming “conspirator” (or “co-spirator”). Grace accuses her Father of being arrogant, for it is him after all that “passes judgment.” The Father argues that it is rather Grace who, in her mercy, exemplifies arrogance for, in refusing to judge them (“they are human beings,” as she observes with a compassion that sets her apart from the human nature), considers herself a standard that cannot be imitated. “Would she have not done the same like them, had she lived under the same circumstance?” she asks herself. Well, the matter of fact is that she has lived with them, like one of them, in the very same circumstances, if not worse, and she didn’t act like one of them. The town undergoes another of these so telling tiny changes of light only now in favor of a present bereft of any future: “suddenly, you couldn’t see the berry that will be there one day but only the thorn that was there right now…” At this very point, the logic of the incarnation takes an unpredictable turn—if humans can be judged (and indeed, they must), it is precisely because of the incarnation, because God became human and therefore humans have no excuse anymore for their behavior. It is the humanity of Grace that enables her to condemn them—and us—to utter annihilation. Every citizen of Dogville is violently killed and the village itself burnt to the ground.
True enough, Grace as a Christ-figure is understood primarily in moral than ontological terms and so Dogville reads like more than a gospel written by Kant or Jefferson. Nevertheless, von Trier’s cinematic interpretation of Christianity poses for us the crucial question of the difference between salvation and condemnation. Had the incarnation not taken place, one could have retorted that God could not pass judgment on humanity (does he, after all, know what it means to be a finite, mortal being?). Now, however, that God became man and dwelt among us, a human being in every respect—how could we hope to escape judgment, that is, how could we not be found lacking when compared to him?
Dogville’s distorted Christology rests upon a messianic figure (Grace) who is without mediation: unlike the Jesus of the Gospels, Grace is not born in Dogville; she has no mother to connect her with the human race and with the history of that race; she does not grow old—rather, she comes, or better yet, she appears (the risk of Docetism) in Dogville without any real connection to its citizens. She dwells in the town and among them, yet she remains other than them, an otherness unmediated and radical. Grace is a Christ without flesh and without history. Dogville tells the story of how the implication of such a messianic figure cannot be anything else than, necessarily, a necessary condemnation. Lars von Trier’s Dogville reminds us that the subterranean connection between Kant’s morality and sadism might be, indeed, inescapable.
The Very Reverend Archimandrite John Panteleimon Manoussakis is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA), and the co-editor of the Journal for Continental Philosophy of Religion (Brill). He is the author of God After Metaphysics: A Theological Aesthetic (Indiana, 2007, translated into Russian and Romanian), For The Unity of All (Cascade, 2015, translated into Italian), and the editor of six volumes. He has published over thirty articles in English, Greek, Italian, French, Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and Ukrainian. The analysis of Dogville is based on his most recent book The Ethics of Time (Bloomsbury, 2017).