The first position is perhaps the one most closely tied to the theme of the stranger and the migrant, and here I want to focus on what one might call the Tony Blair-Gerhard Schroeder "enlightened" view on immigration, that is the social-liberal one, which maintains that altogether, immigration is a good thing, and that Europe, and in particular Britain or Germany, have to honor their obligations and responsibilities of asylum. Thus, they make distinction between different kinds of immigrants, legal and illegal, asylum seekers and economic mi grants. Among the latter, more distinctions are made with respect to skilled and unskilled ones, and then further distinctions operate, regarding whether the immigrants come from countries that have family values which make all the members economically productive and upwardly mobile, such as the Chinese and the Indians, and those that keep their women indoors and illiterate, and raise their male children in the patriarchal code of macho-masculinity. This vision of distinctions and differentiations, of filters and safeguards, appears as one of the ways the European Union is trying to steer towards a consensus, which it is hoped can lead to legislation or at least to a unified immigration policy.10
Such an apparently rational, enlightened and consensus-building strategy, I think, finds itself explored, tested - and finally found wanting - in a film by Lars von Trier which attracted a good deal of critical attention, even if it was not a box office success, Dogville shot in English, and with international Hollywood star Nicole Kidman in the leading role. Here a stranger, Grace, who is being persecuted and threatened with her life, is taken in by a young man in a remote and self-contained village community. Grace makes herself useful, indeed even indispensable, but after a while, her selflessness and goodness provoke the villagers into trying anything on her they think they can get away with. Knowing they can blackmail her, the villagers do what they think serves their own survival. As one perceptive reviewer noted: "The film is focused on an evocation of the independence, privacy, small-mindedness and suspicion of a town's residents, and how they are first charmed and liberated by the thoughtful, and pretty, but needy young woman who makes herself useful through babysitting, gardening, tending a handicapped girl, and spending time with a reclusive blind man. The town's citizens reveal themselves as capable of acceptance, joy, and respect for others, but when they learn more about Grace's relationship to the outside world, they become much more demanding of her, to the point of brutality, degradation, and imprisonment."11
However, one can also argue that rather then being petty and small-minded, the villagers show a remarkable community spirit, closing ranks, for instance, or turning a blind eye, when it is a matter of realizing individual advantages (sex, money), which are tolerated, but only insofar as they do not endanger community cohesion. Thus, Ben brings Grace back into the village after taking her money and having sex with her; hence Tom is lying to Grace about how he got the money and to his father about who took the money. Both act pragmatically within the terms of a certain social contract, extending the villager's self-protective shield of disavowal, and thus keeping the public secret, as it were. However, this enlightened self-interest is in the end found wanting. The spectator tends to side with Grace - which is to say, with her father and his brutal gangster methods - when they assert that certain ways of behaving are just not good enough, irrespective of the "real-politik" and its pragmatism. Because of the
American accents and a montage of American Depression photographs, Lars von Trier has been accused of anti-Americanism.12 Yet as Von Trier himself pointed out, the film was made under the impact of the 2001 Danish elections, when a right-wing anti-immigrant party won 24 percent of the popular vote, obliging the mainstream center parties to come to an agreement with the populist right. Thus, Dogville makes as much sense if read as an allegory or parable not so much of the stranger, but as a model of the ideal immigrant. Preternatu-rally good, resourceful, adaptable and skilled, she finds herself not only exploited while at the same time becoming the scapegoat and bogeyman, but the hosts - in this case the villagers - by always setting new conditions and making further distinctions around Grace's right to stay, effectively undermine their own ability to act with any moral authority. Von Trier seems to suggest that a community looking for the pragmatic consensus, in the end betrays itself, if it is not at the same time guided by fundamental or non-negotiable principles: "Culture may be what we make of our daily habits and basic social relationships, the ways in which we wake, wash, eat, work, play, and sleep; but civilization, which requires knowledge and organization, is more than the handling of necessities and simple doings—civilization is the result of choices that are willed into being."13
My point is not that Dogville is "about" Europe's immigration practices or that it specifically critiques either the rural backwardness become cliché in a certain image of 1930s America (which is its historical reference point), or a kind of social Darwinism to which the liberal market economies of the West seem to subscribe. Rather, the film, in its abstractions and schematism, disengages a certain logic of self and other, the community and the stranger which becomes a tool to think with, especially given the mise-en-scène which dispenses with locations other than a stage set, whose spaces are mostly delineated with chalk marks, and whose boundaries are at once imaginary and real, invisible and brutally enforced. Here, too, space is doubly occupied, insofar as the spectator is forced to superimpose not so much a "realistic" decor on the bare planks, but a different cognitive mapping of what constitutes inside and out, exclusion and inclusion, and even to ponder how an act of inclusion and co-option can be a form of exclusion, if the other's singularity is covered or occupied by fantasy projections.
Was this article helpful?