Thursday, April 01, 2010

Dogged Democracy: Manderlay and The Redeemer’s Dilemma

As usual, Lars von Trier’s Manderlay (DK/SE/NL/FR/DE/UK, 2005), the second film of his American trilogy which opened with Dogville (DK/SE/NO/FI/UK/FR/DE/NL, 2003) and is announced to close with Wasington[i], has given cause to much anger, disappointment, confusion and controversy. Von Trier’s presumed anti-Americanism plays a great part in the annoyance about these films. According to one critic, Manderlay is “simply another subversive spectacle” made with no other intention than “to siphon off the glamour and excitement of American culture,” while another called the film “a crude Soviet view of American history.”[ii] The New York Times did not appreciate the ‘derision and moral arrogance of a snide European intellectual thumbing his nose at American barbarism” with a “deeply misanthropic, anti-American film [that] insists that the United States is ruled by crooks and gangsters and cursed by the legacy of slavery whose poison has seeped to its very core.”[iii] Grace’s attempts to open up the hearts and minds of the slaves in Manderlay for freedom and democracy have been interpreted as an allegory of the US invasion of Iraq, whereas her incapacity to deal efficiently with a natural disaster like a dust storm has been seen as an allusion to the US government’s handling of hurricane Katrina. For those offended by Von Trier’s alleged anti-Americanism, it may come as a small comfort that he didn’t picture a very uplifting image of the Old Continent either in the three films that became known as his Europe trilogy consisting of Forbrydelsenselement/The Element of Crime (DK, 1984), Epidemic (DK, 1987), and Europa (DK/SE/FR/DE/CH, 1991)..

Probably because Von Trier’s predilection for organizing his films into trilogies made him set Dogville, Manderlay, and the projected Wasington apart as an “American trilogy,” and also because both Dogville and Manderlay evolve around the do-good gangster daughter Grace and both films are shot on similar stages with the plans of the sites and the names of streets and buildings chalked on the floor, this combination of Brechtian distanciation techniques and the choice of American places as settings for these film’s stories has blinded critics for the similarities and continuities with Von Trier’s earlier films.

His film Dancer in the Dark (DK/DE/NL/IT/US/UK/FR/SE/FI/IS/NO, 2000), together with Breaking the Waves (DK/SE/NO/IS/FR/NL, 1996) and Idioterne/The Idiots (DK/SE/FR/NL/IT, 1998) part of the “Golden Heart” trilogy, is also set in the United States and has as its protagonist a rather naive do-good immigrant woman, Selma (played by Björk). As a musical it is no less unrealistic as the staged dramas of Dogville and Manderlay, and in spite of being adorned with song and dance, its story is no less grim than the narratives of the latter films. It could just as well have beeen part of the America series. The other two films of the Golden Heart trilogy, though both set in Europe, deal with female protagonists who face a fate that is very similar to that of Grace in Dogvile and those of the male protagonists of the Europe trilogy. Von Trier’s eight feature films can easily be grouped along other lines.[iv]

This is not to deny that there Dogville and Manderlay are closely connected. The narrator’s voice-over introduces the latter explicitly as a sequel of the former, both films share the same protagonist, both films are staged in a similar theatrical fashion, and, of course, both films are set in the United States in the era of the Great Depression. But instead of following Von Trier’s own rather arbitrary grouping of his films it might be prove worthwhile to discuss Dogville and Manderlay in the context of Von Trier’s other films. After all, the America of Dogville and Manderlay is no less fictional and no more ‘historical’ than postwar Europe in The Element of Crime and Europa. More generally, Von Trier’s films need to be discussed in the framework of his approach to film laid down in the Dogma 95 Manifesto. In this manifesto, Von Trier (his co-writers all confirm that the Manifesto was Von Trier’s idea) defines film making as a rule bound practice, that is, for Von Trier the practice of film making is like a game. His films are best understood accordingly. Game theory - of the mathematical and economic sort, that is - might have more to say about his films than classical film theory and naratology.[v]

Von Trier’s Game Cinema

The Dogme 95 Manifesto, which Von Trier launched in 1995 in Paris at the conference “Cinema in its Second Century,” came with a “Vow of Chastity” which contained ten rules for the aspiring Dogma filmmaker that circumscribe practices the filmmaker is allowed or forbidden to employ during shooting and post-production. Among other things, they forbid the filmmaker to bring props or costumes to the set, to use special lighting, or to record sound separately from the images, to add special effects during post-production, and prescribe the use of a handheld camera.[vi]

These rules are not motivated by content or subject matter, as, for instance, André Bazin’s recommendation of the use of in-depth photography was motivated by the desire to preserve the spatiotemporal continuity of a filmed event.[vii] The rules are impediments because they prohibit the filmmaker to use the most habitual and efficient skills and techniques of the profession. Rather, they force the filmmaker to develop new skills and techniques to work around the prohibitions imposed by the rules, just like a soccer player must develop special skills to cope with the rule that forbids to touch a ball with the hands. And just as the special skills of a soccer player are rather useless outside the pitch, the rules laid down in the Dogma 95 Manifesto are only meaningful in the game of Dogma 95 filmmaking. Von Trier and the other founders of Dogma 95 each made only one film according to the rules of the Manifesto only to change them for other rules for their next films. As game rules, the rules themselves are arbitrary and interchangeable: if one gets tired or bored of the game, one can simply start to play another game, as Von Trier himself did after (and before) The Idiots.

However, the rules of the Dogma 95 Manifesto are arbitrary but not meaningless, although their meaning is quite different from their usual interpretation as an injunction to documentary realism and the treatment of contemporary subjects. But as the Dogma films of the founders of the movement convincingly demonstrate, it is very well possible to enact historical dramas and fictional characters with objects found at the location of shooting. In Dogme#3 - Mifunes Sidste Sang/Mifunes Last Song (Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, DK/SE, 1999) Kersten enacts for his younger brother Rud the Japanese warrior Mifune with an armor improvised out of pans and utensils he had found in a kitchen, and in Dogme#4-The King Is Alive (Kristian Levring, Se/DK/US, 2000) a group of tourists stranded in the desert decide to stage Shakespeare’s King Lear with props they find at the site and in the light of the blazing sun.

The purpose of the ban on props, sets, and costumes is not some notion of intensified realism, but to replace the prevailing notion of representation with ideas that are more current in games and new media: simulation and model building. In film, a scene is usually conceived of as a verisimilar re-enactment of a unique event as it supposedly occurred in a historical or fictional reality. A scene must “look” like the event it represents, and must be “directed”, that is, planned and choreographed, in such a way that the position of the camera offers the dramaturgically most effective view on it. A simulation, on the other hand, is not aimed at a meticulous reconstruction of already past events, but at soliciting the behaviors of a system under various actual, possible, and even impossible conditions. For a simulation a visual resemblance with the system it models is not necessary and often even disturbing because it distracts from its relevant properties.[viii] The behaviors of the simulation model are not known in advance and cannot be “directed”: the experimenter just “feeds” the model with variable parameters and then sees what happens. The purpose of a simulation is, moreover, not the reconstruction of a singular event, but rather the charting of a system’s “state space,” i.e. the space of all possible configurations it can attain.[ix]

The rules of the Dogma 95 Manifesto envision this sort of simulation. The ban on props, sets and costumes is aimed at “shearing away detail”, “the very essence of model building.”[x] The rejection of “predictable dramaturgy” and the renouncement of “taste” and the status of “artist” point in the same direction: the filmmaker is not an “author” but an experimenter who observes the behaviors of models. The camera must “follow” the action, instead of the action being organized and directed towards the camera. In the editing shots from various takes of various executions of an action under varied parameters (e.g., mood), are “sampled” to the effect that instead of creating a seeming continuity, the flagrant discontinuity of the shots reveals that each execution is only one possible “state” out of the infinitely many “states” the same event could have attained. The “whole” that emerges from this editing is not a singular actualized state, but rather the infinite virtual state space of the possible configurations open the event could have settled into.[xi] Dogma’s “realism” aims at opening up a virtual and mental space rather than a physical and palpable reality.

Von Trier deploys other strategies to open up virtual worlds in his films as well. It is not difficult to recognize a strategy of “shearing away detail” in the scarce settings of Dogville and Manderlay. Although the theatrical staging in both these films has often been associated with Brechtian alienation techniques, they do not serve the pedagogical purpose of making the spectator aware of the artificiality of cinema. A good indication for that is that critics often mention these techniques in passing but do not seem to experience them as intrusive upon their engagement with the worlds and characters of these films. The sparse sets rather solicit the spectators to fill in the gaps with projections of images from their memories of the vast number of films, photographs, records, stories, news paper reports, advertisements, tv programs, magazines that constitute a collective cultural image of America. The photographic sequences that conclude these films are there to confirm the virtual worlds the spectator conjured up in the preceding projection time.

Von Trier deployed this strategy less conspicuously in Dancer in the Dark, which is set in a bland and almost nondescript town which could be situated anywhere in the Midwest and anytime in the fifties or sixties. The spectator is invited to follow the example of the nearly blind Selma who imagines the dance scenes from the musicals she goes to see in the local cinema on the basis of the verbal and tactile descriptions by her friend Kathy (Katherine Deneuve) together with her memories of movies she saw in her youth in Czechoslovakia. In these “American” films Von Trier makes his spectators perform the work he executed himself in his European trilogy where he constructed an entirely virtual Europe literally “written with light” and built out of physically impossible spatiotemporal relationships that could only be brought into existence with cinematographic means. Especially in Europa, “Europe” was rendered with images taken from a comprehensive catalogue of European films, styles, genres, movements, themes and motives. Von Trier called this method the “Kafka method”, since Kafka wrote his novels about America on the basis of information from his uncle. Von Trier too constructed the worlds of both his European and American films by using the “indirect evidence” stored in the audience’s collective cultural memories.[xii] These virtual and literally “imaginary” worlds are as loosely related to the real historical continents as the worlds of games like Close Combat (Atomic Games, 1996-2005) are to the actual battles of World War II.

If these virtual worlds are only remotely related to their historical referents, it might make more sense to see if they can be treated in the same way as game worlds. For a game designer, the particular visual appearances of characters, objects, and environments of a game are just a matter of dressing up or “coloring” of the rules and algorithms that specify the game.[xiii] What if one were to perform a sort of reverse engineering on the Von Trier’s films to see what models might underly their “colorings?”

Dad’s Law: TIT-FOR-TAT

If one looks beyond the great diversity of settings, perods, styles, and characters one discovers that Von Trier tells the same story over and over again: a stranger enters an unknown territory where he (the protagonists of the Europe trilogy) or she (all others) has to find out the rules and intentions that govern the behavior of its inhabitants. They all put trust and faith in their new companions, but all wind up abandoned, abused, maltreated, exploited, and even dead. The only exception is Grace, who takes a terrible revenge on the “good and honest” people of Dogville and manages to escape from Manderlay.[xiv] Von Trier’s heroes and heroines seem to have only one choice: perish or punish.

The problem Von Trier’s protagonists face is what has become the staple of game theory, “The Prisoner’s Dilemma”: is cooperation possible in an environment where everybody else pursues their own interests?[xv] In the Prisoner’s Dilemma - itself a story invented to “color” an abstract logical problem[xvi] - two men arrested by the police on suspicion of a serious crime, e.g. a bank robbery, are interrogated separately without means to communicate with one another. They are offered the following choices: if both confess, they will be sentenced to five years in prison; if neither confesses, they will both be sent to jail for one year for a lesser offense, e.g. illegal possession of arms; if one of them confesses while the other does not, the former will be granted immunity and the latter will be sentenced to ten years in prison. The best choice each player can make individually is to confess (defection), because this guarantees that the player will not end up with the severest penalty while it keeps open the possibility of the highest reward, immunity. Cooperation (not confessing), on the other hand, makes it tempting for the other player to defect and to leave the loyal player with the “sucker’s payoff.” Although mutual cooperation yields a higher payoff than mutual defection, defection is each player’s best response to whatever choice the other player makes.[xvii]

The predicament of Von Trier’s protagonists is sad proofs this game theoretical insight: by choosing a strategy of cooperation they expose themselves to ruthless exploitation by the other players in their new surroundings and - again except for Grace - wind up with the “suckers payoff” and perish.[xviii] But if cooperation is not very wise, then why do Von Trier’s protagonists persist in choosing a nice strategy? In order to answer this question, one should look at Von Trier’s as iterations in an infinitely repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma game. In such a game, the payoff for mutual cooperation is in the long run much higher than the reward for mutual defection. But in the short run the temptation of defection remains, and since one never knows whether one is dealing with a “nice” or a “mean” player, the problem for a cooperative player is how to avoid exploitation by the other player. In a computer tournament organized by Robert Axelrod economists, social scientists, mathematicians and computer scientists were invited to submit strategies for an infinitely repeated prisoner’s dilemma in which each strategy played each other strategy. The winner turned out to be a remarkably simple strategy that started with offering cooperation and in every next turn did what the other player did when it was his turn to move. The success of this strategy, known as TIT-FOR-TAT, shows that in a population of unknown players it is wise to start with offering cooperation, since there is always a possibility that the other player is a nice player (or follows a TIT-FOR-TAT strategy, too) and nice players thrive much better in the long run.

This is what Von Trier’s protagonists do but unfortunately they only encounter grim players. Bess in Breaking The Waves introduces another nice player, Jan, in the community of grim players on her isle, but an accident makes him involuntarily defect and leave her unprotected in the community of mean players. Grace in Dogville accepts the “quid-pro-quo” deal with the people of Dogville proposed to her by wanna-be writer Tom, offering to do chores in exchange for a safe heaven, only to find herself exploited and abused. Eventually her father comes to her rescue and instructs her about the necessity of a TIT-FOR-TAT rule of behavior in a world of selfish players. Only then she retaliates defection with defection thus conforming to what may be called “Dad’s Law.”

Von Trier’s films arrive at the same conclusion as Axelrod’s computer tournament. From a game theoretical perspective, the different settings and episodes of Von Trier’s films are just as many different “colorings” of the same “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game. In this series of iterations, Grace is the first of Von Trier’s protagonists to learn that TIT-FOR-TAT is the only viable strategy in a world populated with mean players. Selma in Dancer in the Dark is the only other character to come close to that realization. After her neighbor, landlord, and local sheriff Bill has robbed her of the money she had saved for the eye operation of her sun, Bill makes her kill him and thus forces her to retaliate his defection. Selma is then sentenced to death and executed, as prescribed by Dad’s Law, but since she managed to hand her savings to the doctor who will operate her sun’s eyes, she doesn’t end up with the “sucker’s payoff” but gets “the reward for mutual defection.” From Bess in Breaking the Waves via Selma to Grace in Dogville Von Trier’s protagonists go through a learning process in which they gradually learn to come to terms with the harsh but only viable rule of TIT-FOR-TAT.

How does Manderlay fit in this game? At first sight Manderlay is a repetition of the previous iterations of the game: as in Dogville, Grace leaves her father and enters against his advise the unknown world of Manderlay, where she starts a search for other nice players to help her overthrow the regime of Mam’s Law. She fails and eventually flees from Manderlay, abandoned by her father and chased by the inhabitants of Manderlay. Hasn’t Grace learned anything after all?

Mam’s Law: A Dogged Social Contract

There are striking differences between Manderlay and Dogville (and Von Trier’s other films) as well. To begin with, contrary to Von Trier’s other protagonists, including Grace in Dogville, Grace is invited, if not urged, to enter Manderlay by one of its inhabitants. Moreover, Grace is not forced into a humble and humiliating position of dependency on the inhabitants of her new environment, but she puts herself in charge of the plantation after Mam’s death. From this position, she tries to redeem the inhabitants of Manderlay from slavery by introducing freedom and democracy. Her attempts fail because the former slaves stubbornly stick to Mam’s Law and even vote for Grace’s installment as Mam’s successor. Grace nearly falls victim to the democratic rules she tried to introduce when she almost sees herself forced to occupy the very position she tried to abolish. In the end she meets out the whipping to Timothy she intervened to prevent in the beginning of the film. In the final shot she is seen in a bird’s eye view fleeing over the map of the USA away from Manderlay, chased by the inhabitants of the plantation and abandoned by her father. It looks as if she winds up like Karen in The Idiots, betrayed by the members of the community she had become part of and abandoned by her family.

Grace’s self-imposed mission to redeem the slaves of Manderlay seems to have failed because she didn’t find another player who shared her ideals: her campaign for free and democratic cooperation falters on a similar sort of narrow-minded defection she had encountered among the “good and honest people” of Dogville.[xix] But maybe the specific “coloring” of this iteration of the game, cast in an opposition of slavery and freedom, distracts from what actually is at stake. It might be wise to follow the rules of Dogma 95 and “shear away details.” Let’s take the purpose of the Brechtian alienation techniques seriously and take our distances from the the represented world in order to uncover the model underlying it.

To start with, the film presents a clear spatial division: there is the vast space of America, represented from a bird’s eye view by a white map with only the borders and the names of the States printed on it, and a drawing of the Statue of Liberty at New York’s place on the map (and the meaning of liberty is the central theme of the movie). The only moving objects visible in this space are four dots that appear to be the motorcade of Grace’s father, his gangsters and Grace herself who travel from the Rocky Mountains to Alabama where they will happen on Manderlay. Grace’s father and his gang are the only persons in this film to occupy this vast and undifferentiated space, which makes it safe to say that in this film this space is dominated by Grace’s father, who represents Dad’s Law, i.e., TIT-FOR-TAT as the only viable strategy in a world populated with “mean players.” (Grace’s father is not exempt from this law, since his business has been taken over by his competitors while he was in Dogville). That this “America” is the space of Dad’s law is confirmed by the few other representatives of this space like the entertainer Doctor Hector whose profession as a card cheater makes him literally a “mean player.” It is also the space where Timothy, in Manderlay known as a “proud” African from Munsi descent who doesn’t drink or gamble, turns out not to be the “proud” African from Munsi descent who refrains from drinking and gambling as he is known in Manderlay, but an “eye pleasing” Mansi who (ab)uses alcohol and gambles with money stolen from the Manderlay community.

Opposite the space of Dad’s law is the space of Manderlay ruled by Mam’s Law. As the owner of the Manderlay plantation Mam has kept her workers in slavery for seventy years after its abolishment. She apparently rules by fencing off her workers from the outside world and by arbitrarily meeting out corporeal punishment, as Grace learns when she is asked to intervene in the whipping of Timothy. His wife Victoria tells Grace that Timothy is unjustly accused of possessing a bottle of whine which was “just put in his cabin to have something to punish him for” (exactly what Grace will arrange at the end of the film). But Mam’s law turns out to be a bit more complicated. Mam herself is an old, sick and dying woman, whose power does not reside in her whip and weapons (“a shotgun and an old pistol”) or the fences and gates around Manderlay (“we could easily climb over them with a ladder”, as Wilhelm will explain), but in a book in which “Mam’s Law” is laid down. Apart from some “bizarre and vicious regulations” this book contains a “psychological” classification of the workers of Manderlay into categories like “a clowning nigger,” “a hitting nigger,” “losing niggers,” “a talking nigger,” “a weeping nigger,” “pleasing niggers,” “crazy niggers,” “proudy niggers,” that is, a system of “bondage, even through psychology” as the voice-over narrator puts it.

As Wilhelm will later explain to Grace,these categories are based on the observation of these individuals’ “patterns of behavior”: the inhabitants of Manderlay are subjected to a system that is designed to fit them. And Mam’s Law is also protective and beneficiary: it makes sure that each worker does the work that suits his or her skills, talents, and character and that each worker gets rewarded accordingly. Mam’s Law, as Wilhelm explains to Grace, “is for the good of everyone.” Mam’s law does not need to be enforced with violence nor does its existence need to “brought into the open” as Grace initially intends to, since the inhabitants of Manderlay all know about the existence the book and have voluntarily accepted the rule of Mam’s law.

To Grace’s great surprise Mam’s law was not written by Mam but by Wilhelm, the community’s elder. Mam’s power is like that of a constitutional monarch: it is entirely symbolic and rests literally on the book she keeps under her mattress and that was written by a representative of the community she presides over. Even if Grace would have burned this book, as Mam requests on her death bed, the system would have remained in place since it is no less than a social contract, eventually even democratically voted for by the community which thinks it is, as Wilhelm says, “as relevant as it ever was.” Instead of enforcing her law on the inhabitants of Manderlay, Mam’s authority itself was derived from the social contract codified by Wilhelm’s book.[xx]

Freedom or Fairness?

A social contract is “the set of common understandings that allow the citizens of a society to coordinate their efforts” and in this it can only succeed if behavior is coordinated on an equilibrium that should meet the requirements of stability, efficiency, and fairness.[xxi] TIT-FOR-TAT, Dad’s law, assures a stable social contract, because if all other members of society stick to this rule, nobody can do better by deviating from it. It is, however, not necessarily efficient because it favors mutual defection although mutual cooperation is a more rewarding strategy. Since nice players only stay nice as long as they know that defection will immediately be retaliated, mutual cooperation is not a stable equilibrium. As all protagonists of Von Trier’s movies, including Grace in Dogville, learned, in a population of mean players a single nice player is doomed to perish. Dad’s law, then, is a social contract which creates stability, but it is not efficient (most of the time, players only receive the award for mutual defection) and not fair either (nice players get ruthlessly exploited and end up with the “sucker’s payoff”). It is, however, as the prominent presence of the Statue of Liberty on the map of the USA already suggested, libertarian, because it leaves the players free in their strategic choices assuming that the players’ interactions will eventually settle on an equilibrium state. In more contemporary political terms, this social contract represents the unfettered reign of “free” market forces neo-conservatives dreams of. In game theoretical terms, this is called an egalitarian social contract.[xxii]

Mam’s law, on the other hand, exemplifies a so-called utilitarian social contract. It is based on “psychological” classification system - an almost Foucaultian formalization of knowledge embodied by and extracted from this social body - which serves to divide labor and food, duties and rewards to each member of the community according to his or her abilities. The system ascribes “utilities” to each member of the community, and divides responsibilities and rewards, rights and obligations accordingly. This system is efficient and fair, because it makes sure everybody contributes to the “common good” according to his or her abilities and everybody gets their proportional share of the common good. It is, however, not stable because the members of the community will always be tempted to put their own self-interests above those of the community and cheat on the fairness norms laid down in the social contract. In Manderlay this weakness is demonstrated by Wilma, who steals the mule meat the community had put aside for sick little Claire, or when most of Manderlay’s workers start spending more time at mending of their own dwellings and neglect their work on the “common” land.

This utilitarian social contract therefore needs an external power to enforce and police it, which is why the community of Manderlay needs the authority of Mam and later votes for Grace as her successor. The utilitarian social contract is “not free” - as Grace rebukes Wilhelm’s explanation of Mam’s law - because it requires the power of a “nurturing” authority who knows what is best for its subjects. [xxiii] Mam’s law, for instance, prohibits alcohol and forbids the possession of cash money to keep Manderlay’s workers away from the vices of drinking and gambling. The utilitarian social contract, then, is not free, but it is protective and “caring.” This “matronizing” social contract underlies regimes from corporatism and fascist dictatorships to the communist ideal state, and is nowadays probably best exemplified by the European welfare state. Is not the latter not often criticized for “enslaving” its citizens by making them dependent on social security, national health care systems, minimum wages, and other forms of state supplied support or legally enforced social provisions?[xxiv]

Dad’s law and Mam’s law, then, are two models of social contracts similar to ones one finds in textbooks on game theory or in the thought experiments of moral philosophers like John Rawls and John Harsanyi.[xxv] Like these models, both models Manderlay are idealized and abstract sich all detail has been “sheared away.” Neither of these models is to be found in the pure and brutal, and hence caricatural form as they are presented in Manderlay (or in scientific and philosophical textbooks) in the real world, not in the United States nor in the former Soviet Union or anywhere in Europe. To visualize these models, Von Trier “colors” them with tropes, taken from the stock of contemporary cultural memory and imagination, “gangsterdom” as the incarnation of the free market economy and “slavery” as the icon for dependency on a nurturing state. Manderlay is not about America, nor is it about America’s legacy of slavery: Manderlay is a model simulation of two opposite forms of a social contract, for which images of gangsters and slaves serve as vivid personifications. The models themselves are not tied to any country or continent in particular. The opposition between the American Democrats and Republicans has, for instance, been described as an opposition between the model of the “nurturing parent” and that of the “strict father,” after the collapse of communism the economy of the former Soviet Union was ruled by the Russian mafia, whereas the nurturing state is most typically exemplified by the European welfare state, often criticized for “enslaving” its citizens by addicting them to, and in some Eastern European former communist parties were democratically re-elected in government by a population who feared the effects of globalization, deregulation, privatization and in general the free market forces.

Ironically, once one understands that Manderlay presents a model simulation, it immediately becomes clear that the film, though not referring to real, historical phenomena, is nevertheless not that far removed from real world developments either (as is usually case the with simulations). The only thing that is really amazing is that after half a century of Cold War and its aftermath, these models were not recognized in Von Trier’s film.

Daughter’s Law?

How do the politics of Grace fit into all this? Initially Grace seems to take distance from her father. According to the narrator Grace and her father had taken up “their legendary discord” and Grace had become “somewhat weary of her unbearably overweening daddy.” Grace tells her father twice that “he wouldn’t have dared to speak like that if mother still would have been alive,” suggesting that she leans more towards “mam’s site” than to “dad’s.” However, in Dogville she accepted Dad’s instruction about the necessity of TIT-FOR-TAT, she enters Manderlay determined to overthrow Mam’s law, and she takes five of her father’s gangsters with her to assist her with her operation. For Grace there is apparently no contradiction between her father’s methods and the freedom and democracy she wants to introduce into Manderlay.

Rather, the freedom and democracy Grace promotes are the political and institutional side of Dad’s law. Not coincidentally, the topic of the first session of the democracy course Grace obliges the workers of Manderlay to attend is how to settle a dispute over private property. After the death of little Claire the community members unanimously vote for the execution of Wilma who they hold responsible: apparently, democracy fosters the application of the logic of TIT-FOR-TAT and Grace obliges by killing Wilma personally. Grace’s attempts to introduce freedom and democracy destabilize the community rather than liberate it. Her decision to let the workers take down the trees of the Old Lady’s Garden to use the wood for the mending of their houses deprives the plantation of its protection against the annual dust storms. The Old Lady’s Garden wasn’t there for the private pleasures of Mam after all, and Grace’s choice to let the private interests of the inhabitants prevail over Mam’s rules and prohibitions turns out to be detrimental for the common good. For lack of food, everybody is forced to eat “dirt” which was strictly forbidden under Mam’s law.[xxvi] This episode shows in a nutshell how Grace’s overruling of Mam’s law leaves Manderlay’s inhabitants unprotected against the unleashed forces in the outside world. Grace thus destabilizes the social contract of Mam’s law, and introduces the inefficiency (loss of the harvest, the eating of “dirt,”) and unfairness (Wilma’s capital punishment) of Dad’s law into Manderlay.

Grace, then, acts like the “liberating forces of capitalism” as described by Marx and Engels in “The Communist Manifesto” that “burst asunder” the “feudal relations of property” that became “fetters” to “the already developed productive forces.”[xxvii] Capital, after all, needs “free labor”, that is, a labor force that is not tied to land, property, ownership or other obligations but is “freely” disposable and dispensable. This explains the reluctance of the inhabitants of Manderlay to give up Mam’s law for Dad’s law. Confronted with the choice between an egalitarian social contract and a utilitarian one, they prefer the latter, because under Dad’s law they will have nothing to offer but cooperation: under Dad’s law they will be “free” from possessions, obligations, and rights, as assured under Mam’s law, and they will be forced to accept any “quid-pro-quo” deal offered to them, just as Grace herself was forced to in Dogville. Under Dad’s law this means that they too, like Grace and all other protagonists of Von Trier’s previous films, will be exposed to the most despicable and ruthless forms of abuse, maltreatment and murder, as demonstrated by the fate of Burt who left his wife on the plantation for a white girl and is at the end of the film seen hanging from a tree, killed by the company of the woman he put his trust in, and the sequence of photographs with which Manderlay ends. Under Dad’s law, freedom as symbolized by the Statue of Liberty means “freely disposable” for exploitation and abuse.

There seems to be as little room between the evil of Dad’s law and the lesser evil of Mam’s law for a Daughter’s Law as in Von Trier’s imaginary “Europe” and “America.”


To discuss Manderlay in terms of democracy versus slavery or to interpret it as a belated Danish “J’accuse,” an indictment of the maltreatment of the Afro-Americans in the nine-teen-thirties or to see it as proof of Von Trier’s incorrigible anti-Americanism is to miss the point of this film (and the other films by Von Trier). The film itself already contains a number of indications that it should not be taken literally: it’s style is another example of the model-building Von Trier has practiced since the launch of the Dogma 95 Manifesto; the Brechtian alienation techniques invite the spectator to take a critical distance from the film’s referential illusion; and Wilhelm suggests that Grace, who can only read “the prolongation of slavery” and “a recipe for oppression and humiliation” in Mam’s law that she has “been reading it with the wrong spectacles.”

For those familiar with Von Trier’s earlier films about the immediate post-war Europe it must be clear that “reading” Manderlay as a film about slavery or even about America is indeed “reading it with the wrong spectacles.” His films do not refer to historical periods and geographically identifiable countries, but rather to the images, myths, and narratives “Europe” and “America” have come to stand for in contemporary - mainly cinematographic - culture. Von Trier uses these cultural icons and symbols to “color” the models he builds with his films. As I have argued elsewhere, these films up to Manderlay are all iterations of a single game: together they form an infinitely repeated game of “The Prisoner’s Dilemma.”[xxviii] Apparently it takes Von Trier’s protagonists eight iterations to find out that a consistently and ruthlessly followed strategy of TIT-FOR-TAT is the only viable strategy in a world populated by mean players.

In Manderlay Von Trier raises the stakes: this film does not pit one nice player against a population of mean players, but two social contracts, one based on a strategy of voluntary defection, and the other based on forced cooperation. The egalitarian social contract - Dad’s law - is the model of the free market and free enterprise, for which the United States of America have become the paramount symbol, whereas the utilitarian social contract - Mam’s law - underpins the “mothering” state nowadays (still) best exemplified by the European welfare state .

But this drives home the point that a historical or referential reading of Manderlay is besides the point. Manderlay obviously does not stage a conflict between “America” and “Europe”, but rather between two models of social contracts colored by mythical, or if you prefer, caricatural images that circulate in contemporary, predominantly cinematographic visual culture: gangsterdom for a (neo - conservative) free market economy and slavery for a (liberal) welfare state. The models that are pitted against each other, however, are as abstract and idealized as you will find them in a text book on game theory or in the thought experiments of moral philosophers like John Rawls and John Harsanyi. And who would take them to task for historical accuracy?

[i] According to the Internet Movie Data Base, Wasington is “still on the back burner of Lars von Trier,” and not scheduled for release before 2009., accessed on Oct. 15, 2007.

[ii] Peter Bradshaw, “Manderlay,” in The Guardian, March 3, 2006,,,1721653,00.html, accessed on Oct. 15, 2007; Philip French, “Manderlay,” in The Observer, March 5, 2006,,,1723665,00.html, accessed on Oct. 15, 2007.

[iii] Stephen Holden, “Manderlay: An America Where Gangsters Free Slaves Not Keen for Liberation,” in The New York Times, January 27, 2006,, accessed ok Oct. 15, 2007.

[iv] His latest feature film, Direktøren for det hele/The Boss Of It All (DK/SE/IS/IT/NO/FI/DE, 2006) is not included in this number, because Von Trier himself did not take this project all too seriously.

[v] Jan Simons, Playing The Waves: Lars von Trier’s Game Cinema (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007).

[vi] The “Dogma 95 Manifesto” is published on the official Dogma 95 website, (accessed on Oct. 17, 2007).

[vii] André Bazin, What Is Cinema? Essays Selected and Translated by Hugh Gray (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2004).

[viii] See Gonzalo Frasca, “Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology,” in Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (eds.), The Video Game Theory Reader, New York and London: Routledge, 2003, 223.

[ix] See John Holland, Emergence: From Chaos to Order (Cambridge, Ma: Perseus Books, 1998), 34.

[x] Holland, Emergence: From Chaos to Order, 24.

[xi] For a more elaborate discussion of the aesthetics of virtual realism, see Simons, Playing The Waves: Lars von Trier’s Game Cinema; Jan Simons, “Von Trier’s Cinematic Games,” Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Spring 2008). See also Jack Stevenson, Lars von Trier (London: BFI Publishing, 2002).

[xii] This “Kafka”-method is explicitly demonstrated in Epidemic, in which filmmaker Lars (Lars von Trier) and scriptwriter Niels (Niels Vørsel) write a story about a plague epidemic on the basis of archival material, but Niels also confesses that he maintains a correspondence with a girl in Atlantic City because seeing Bob Rafelson’s King of Marvin Gardens (US, 1972) made him want to know more about that town but he is too lazy to travel there by himself. As is well known, Von Trier doesn’t like to travel himself, and he has never been in the USA. See Simons, 115.

[xiii] Greg Costikyan, “I Have No Words & I Must Design,” in Interactive Fantasy#2, 1994,, accessed on Oct. 18, 2007.

[xiv] The only other exception is Doctor Mesmer in the embedded story in Epidemic. In almost all respects this story mirrors symmetrically all other stories: instead of entering a strange environment Mesmers leaves his familiar city, and instead of being abused by the inhabitants of his new environment he goes out to cure the plague-infested population of the country side. Mesmer’s salvation is consistent with these structural mutations. The other exceptional figure is Bess in Manderlay, since she is an inhabitant of the isle as well. She has, however, a history of mental illness and is regarded by the other inhabitants as the village’s fool. She is thus a stranger in her own community.

[xv] Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic Books, 1984, 9.

[xvi] Only after this story’s invention by Albert W. Tucker the problem underlying it rose to fame. See Brian Skyrms, Evolution of the Social Contract (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 48-49.

[xvii] Mutual defection corresponds to what is called a Nash equilibrium. This equilibrium is reached when each player’s move is the best response to the other player’s move and no player can improve his or her payoff by choosing an alternative strategy.

[xviii] For a more elaborate analysis see Simons, 188-196.

[xix] See Wim Staat, “Dogville Characterized by The Grapes of Wrath: European Identity Construction Through American Genre Convention,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, 48.1 (Spring 2007): 79-96.

[xx] As mathematician and economist Ken Binmore writes, “Nor are popes, presidents, kings, judges, or the police exempt from the social contract of the society in which they officiate Far from enforcing the social contract, they derive what they have from a social convention which says that ordinary citizens should accept their direction.” Binmore, Natural Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 3.

[xxi] Binmore, Natural Justice, 3-5. An equilibrium that is not stable would not hold for long; an equilibrium that is not sufficiently efficient cannot compete with more efficient equilibria, and an equilibrium that would be experienced as unfair encourages defection and cheating.

[xxii] Binmore, 188.

[xxiii] See George Lakoff, Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 108.

[xxiv] See for instance Theodore Dalrymple, Life At The Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 2001).

[xxv] John Harsanyi, Rational Behavior and Bargaining Equilibrium in Games and Social Situations (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univerity Press, 1977); John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1972).

[xxvi] This is a variation of “The Tragedy of the Commons,” the overgrazing of common land because each farmer individually tries to get a maximal benefit by grazing as many animals as possible. This is a classical example of an inefficient equilibrium (under an egalitarian social contract). See Binmore, 7.

[xxvii] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto” (Paris, 1848),, accessed on Oct. 25, 2007.

[xxviii] Simons, Playing the Waves: Lars von Trier’s Cinematic Games, 188-196.