Idiots, The (1998): Von Trier’s Dogme Film

“The Idiots,” Lars von Trier’s first Dogme film, challenges viewers with its political and artistic agenda, encouraging them to reexamine their own social mores and cinema habits of seeking desire and pleasure.

By 1998, Von Trier had already achieved international fame with the noirish black-and-white tale “Europa” (1991) and commercial success and notoriety with “Breaking the Waves” (1996), which dealt with the controversial issues of disability, sex and impotence, and displaced voyeurism

As is known, The Dogme manifesto negates the use of artificial lighting, special effects, costumes and elaborate camera movement, instead aiming to achieve the highest possible immediacy in filmmaking.


On one level, “The Idiots” is a study in embarrassment and a disturbing attack on our concepts of normality and civilization. A group of young middle-class people, disenchanted with the facile nature of the society they live in, retreat to a country house, where they play at being “spasses” (physically and mentally retarded).

The strength of the film largely depends on the group’s confrontation with the straight world.  Much of the action is uncomfortable, even embarrassing to watch—but we keep on watching.

Two damaged characters, Jeppe and Christina, emerge from the spassing gangbang to experience tenderness and adult relation for the first time in their lives.  Some sequences, particularly a visit to the swimming pool and a scene where a group of Hell’s Angels help Jeppe go to the toilet are very moving.

Von Trier goes for the kind of humanism and dignity rarely seen on film, but he doesn’t disappoint when it comes to his known fondness for using shock for its own sake.  In “The Idiots,” apart from the central controversial subject, we are confronted with actual sexual intercourse, and graphic depiction of hard-on penetration.  The prospect of orgy brings out our voyeuristic instincts, as does the tribe’s  idiotic behavior.

Stylistically, the film deliberately looks as if it were poorly made, with grainy shots out of focus and characters looking straight at the camera, but it’s all part of the filmmaker’s larger scheme. 
Characteristically of von Trier, i
n the first scenes, we don’t know that the “spassing” is just an act. 

Likely to divide film critics and viewers, “The Idiots” reaffirms Lars von Trier’s position as one of the most consistently intriguing filmmakers working in world cinema today.  One of the problems with von Trier is that he often alienates many viewers before they even view his film.  To his credit, he never tells viewers how to feel about his characters, and at times it appears that he both endorses and criticizes the behavior on display.