Manderlay Directed by Lars von Trier
The second film in Danish director Lars von Triers American trilogy, Manderlay, is set in a mythical southern plantation where Grace and her gangster father find themselves after their departure from Dogville.
As in Dogville, von Trier places his actors within what is essentially a blueprint of a locale. He lays out a map of buildings and other areas on the floor of a huge, undecorated studio. The furniture and props in the room are real, but there are no walls to obscure activities within each defined area. Consequently, the audience sees whatever is happening all over town, seeing everything in the direction in which the cameras eye scans or focuses at a given moment.
When von Trier is filming, all actors are on the set at all times. In fact, even when theyre not directly in the shot, theyre required to be in character and engaged in their characters daily life. At any time, von Trier may shift focus to film something an actor is doing coincidentally in a remote corner of the set.
While on location, von Trier, cast and crew live together in one hotel. Everyone dines together. Off set, the ensemble is as tight and complex as it is during the filming.
Von Triers unusual methods, his stark shooting style and his characters extremely difficult and subtle social and moral dilemmas make his work singularly intriguing. His reputation as an artistic genius and iconoclast creates an intense buzz of curiosity about him.
Many of the questions about him concern his attitude towards the United States. His portrayal of America in Dogville and Manderlay is harsh and problematical, yet hes never stood on U.S. soil.
Id love to visit America, but I dont think Id survive several hours in a plane because Im severely claustrophobic, von Trier says.
MERIN: Do you hate America?
VON TRIER: Not at all. It would be stupid to hate part of the world. Ive met some Americans that I like very much, and some I dont. But thats the same anywhere. In my part of the worldDenmark and Swedentherere people who treasure anything American. They think if its American, its goodthey want American cars or whatever. Im not like that. Its difficult to describe my feelings, but I treasure America very much.
MERIN: What role does America play in Dogville and Manderlay?
VON TRIER: Not a big role, actuallyas big a role as it did in Bertolt Brechts work, maybe. For Brecht, America symbolized capitalism in its worst form. But it doesnt symbolize anything for me. Characters in my other films (not set in America) are as stupid and mean as they are in Dogville and Manderlay. For me, its more that America is a very exoticlike locations in the Rocky Mountains and the South. Im a big Steinbeck fanand, for me, America is more an atmosphere and feeling than an actual place. You could say Manderlay, deals with American problems. But thats just the films surface. The problems arent only American.
MERIN: Whos the films narrative voice?
VON TRIER: Probably me. Or what we call in film school the all-knowing person. Here, its this sarcastic person who leads us though the story. It was important to me that it was not an American voice.
MERIN: Whos the central character of Grace, symbolically?
VON TRIER: Graces the girl from Dogville. Shes Brechts Pirate Jennyborn into something she cant help with her gangster boss father.
But he, for some strange reason, seems to represent common senseespecially if you compare him to her.
Its funny, but when you write a script, you create charactersthen you try to defend them. You put yourself in their place and when one of them says something, you think well, yes, now I have to answer that.
Writing Manderlay, I started with the end of Dogville. Id had to make Grace change her mind at the end of Dogville, when she destroys the village. Its interesting what arguments these characters come up with for themselvesthats something that happens when you write.
MERIN: Do you start your writing process with a specific idea?
VON TRIER: These two films were inspired by literatureand I started with their endings.
MERIN: What literature?
VON TRIER: For Dogville, it was Pirate Jennys song about a girl working in a small hotel who imagines a ship that bombards the tow to rescue her from the poor life she has, and they ask her whos going to die, and she says everybody.
For Manderlay, its The Story of O, about a masochistic girl whos treated extremely badly and likes it. Masochism is this little vocation.
Then, its about a situation in the Caribbean where slaves were freed by law, but went back to their former master asking to be slaves again. He refusedbecause of the lawand they killed him. This story, I believe, has nothing to do with masochism, but with the fact that theyd nothing to eat, no way to survive and had been better off under the system of slavery. Its ironic.
MERIN: You show Grace driving from Dogville to Manderlay, but different actress appear in the films. Is Grace the same character?
VON TRIER: Manderlay was written for Nicole (Kidman, star of Dogville), but we couldnt wait a year and a half for her to be free to shoot it. So I changed the script to focus on another side of Grace. We purposely cast somebody younger and different (Bryce Dallas Howard) than Nicole. Grace is written as the same character, but its cartoonish in that she doesnt have memory of her past
MERIN: Do you mean that when Grace kills Wilma in Manderlay, she has no memory of having killed Paul Bettanys character in Dogville?
VON TRIER: Well, you always remember having killed Paul Bettany. But its a bit like TVthey forget theyve just saved the world from evil and do it all over again in the next episode. They dont seem to have much memoryor guilt.
MERIN: Youve said you find locations like the Rockies and South very exciting and exotic. Why have you distilled their reality into a barebones set?
VON TRIER: After writing Dogville, I was looking for a fulfilling way to do the film. I thought it might not really be Americatheres even a David Bowie song called This is not America. Its not America. I think thats easy to seesince the set is a black floor.
Its also that you, as a spectator, should work, too. I believe spectator co-work isnt as difficult as we might think. When youre a child you live in wonderful houses that dont existunder a chair is your wonderful house that you see and live in. I dont think thats difficult, but its something you benefit from.
I thought of Brechts workwhich isnt exactly the same as this, but requires stylized settings. My mother was crazy for Brecht and dragged me to the theater to see his plays. Im always looking for ideas that I believe are good for film.
I believe its is time for something like the black floorsince we can now present any fantasy on computers. After seeing Lord of the Rings all summer, I thought there must be another way of doing thisbecause I truly believe a dragon is more frightening if you dont see it. Which is why most horror films are made in darkness, right? In the first Alien, we were really scared because the monster was so small and you never see it. The more you see it, the less frightening it is. This is equivalent to that.
Also, Im trying to zoom in on actors, on characters. I cant explain exactly why I made the choice, but Im happy with it.
MERIN: What happens to Grace in the third film?
VON TRIER: Thats a good question. Its difficult for me to do things that look the same. I live for having stupid ideas about how things should look. I always change. So I have to find a way of ending this trilogy.
I must say I think Manderlay is a bit too concretethe film concentrates on the story too much, and the storys a bit too well told. Thats what I think now, but Im never happy about films when Ive just made them. So, better luck next time. But I havent figured it out yet.