The vagrant focus of Lars von Trier’s film The Idiots (1998) first finds Karin (Bodil Jorgensen) at a park: just a glimpse as she walks past the barker at a Wheel Of Chance; then a shot traveling with her as she rides in a carriage through the park, with open mien, to the theme of Saint-Saens’ The Swan (performed on harmonica, on location, as per the rules of Dogma (1)). These few shots seem at first so fleeting and uneventful as to defeat the purpose of establishing shots or sequences; but may sketch a terse portrait of her as the naif, the “simple heart”. Next we see her dining alone in the posh Søllerød Inn, pleading poverty to the imperious waiter (Jan Elle), and then biting into her crust of bread, like a Chaplin gamine, when she first encounters the spass of the idiot-group of the title. Across the dining room she sees Stoffer (Jens Albinus) resist feeding by his “minder” Susanne (Louise Hassing) and throw his plate of food to the floor, while Henrik (Troels Lyby) sits weeping over his food – a foreshadowing of spastic waste, and luxurious spilling-out, to follow. Stoffer wanders the dining room, clasps Karin’s hand in mock-innocent attachment; and she is drawn into their band of ten, and their activity of acting the fool, or “spassing”.
But what exactly is “spass” and “spassing”, in The Idiots – how exactly is it manifested? Much hangs on the “exactly” of that question, on the demand for rigour and definition: Stoffer’s spassing-concept and his group founder on rigour and definition, within the story and from the point of view of a critical viewer. Spass slips the formal expectation of a conclusive attainment to something manifestly solid and lucid. The conclusion of the film in Karen’s spass is flung, maenadic, fleeting, “…almost a Nietzschean project of becoming as opposed to being” (2). Only an indefinite memory of her remains, in the talking-head interviews interspersed throughout the story. It is on the point of inexactitude, and with regard to the characteristic inexactitude and volatility of spass, that the positive meaning and power of the film rests – the means by which I am even able to discuss it in the first place.
The poet, playwright, actor and theorist Antonin Artaud begins his essay “The Theater and the Plague” with an anecdote of a certain Saint-Rémys, viceroy of Sardinia, and the premonitions of a contaminated ship and of imminent plague which strike him in 1720:
The [ship, the] Grand-Saint-Antoine, which passes within shouting range of Cagliari, in Sardinia, does not deposit the plague there, but the viceroy gathers certain emanations from it in a dream; for it cannot be denied that between the viceroy and the plague a palpable communication, however subtle, was established; and it is too easy and explains nothing to limit the communication of such a disease to contagion by simple contact (3).
Saint-Rémys averts the plague, in waking reality, by turning this ship away from port; and in these events Artaud divines a communication of disease to man without mediation of a physical vector, “without rats, without microbes, and without contact” (4), a contamination borne on the vehicle of its rumour. The spass of The Idiots is an example of this free exchange of factual imminence with prodromal infection: of Saint-Rémys’ policy with his premonition; of body and praxis with the implausible and unfounded. Factual matters, personal and general histories, all obscured under a sudden, roiling cloud of extended and ex-corporeal possibilities, the fluid matter of sub-pathologies and -etiologies: whence, the Plague? Exactly when, in time? What are the “rules” of the Plague? The intimations or precursors of disease – or prodromata – are as sufficient at the intimate level of infectious communication (the stage of Saint-Rémys’ dream) as at the level of epidemic, the grand stage of amplified symptom on which society’s sprawling host finds its apotheosis – common resolution or anarchy – even in its rending and bleeding-out.
Artaud perversely dispenses with both infectious agent and the vector that bears it, in casting his quasi-metaphysical model of plague-transmission back to a time predating modern epidemiology: to a time far before John Snow’s tracing the cholera epidemic in London to the Broad Street water pump, before Virchow’s germ theory, and Koch’s postulates – to arrive at a determined unknowing like that of King Philip VI’s Paris Consilium of 1348, which concluded that the source of the Plague was beyond human comprehension.
Unknowing-as-interdiction: Artaud doubts even the agency of the agent, the plague germ Yersinia pestis, and his doubt fades the living organism to a phantom, an inadequate idea, by comparison with the viceroy’s dream. Even at the gross level: the focused sign of the bubo becomes immaterial. The Idiots perversely moots the authority of the bubo, the physical mark of “Mongolism” and “handicap” and “retardation”, in this way. Where the idiot-commune meets the genuine item, whether true “Mongoloids” or in the character of the schizophrenic Josephine (Louise Mieritz), and where the exacting concerns of diagnosis and of clinical therapy are broached, the group (and by extension, the conceit of the film) is weakened. The kind of robust dialectical wrestling on which dramatic conflicts might otherwise be built, and characters defined, is replaced with weak and abortive exchanges; and concessions stand in place of justifications or statements of purpose.
The film is filled with set-pieces, all hilarious, of matches between the “straights” and the “crazies”; but spass lies very far beneath anything as plausible as that dichotomy: whether in the scene where Stoffer’s Uncle Svend (Erik Wedersoe) makes a surprise visit to his villa, only to witness the Søllerød follies (Axel [Knud Romer Jorgensen] hurling stones at the shed windows, and Jeppe [Nikolaj Lie Kaas] vacuuming the flagstones); or when a well-heeled prospective buyer of the place (Paprika Steen) comes by; or, following from that, a friendly visit from a member of the town council (Michael Moritzen), on a mission to bribe the group to relocate their “home”. In each instance, a set-piece which might draw out a theme instead trails off without much of a fight between the spassers and the representatives of workaday society (each of those cases ends with a visitor’s outrage and a car speeding back out of the drive).
After Artaud’s theatre of the Plague, the spass of The Idiots is the assumption of a disease: disease “mounted”, as a play is mounted. Stoffer’s institution of spass is an assumption in the manner of the Danse macabre, cast in the sprung, gesticulatory form of palsy and evocative of Saint Vitus, patron of dancers, actors, comedians, and mummers. And the idiots sequestered together in the villa form a variation on the brigata, the small society of storytellers in Boccaccio’s Decameron (1350), an “inverse exaltation”, as Foucault says of the historical segregation of lepers into lazar houses (5). Where the brigata was holed-up in isolation against the Plague, this band of idiots is isolated (in keeping with the etymology of “idiot”) in thrall to Stoffer’s narrowly-instituted plague, his proprietary epidemic.
Stoffer’s institution of spass is prodromal, cast in anticipation of disease, a premonitory assumption of the state of the future’s idiot person, as he conceives it. As Stoffer describes to Karin (in the locale of von Trier’s childhood forest, as he describes it in his production diary), “In the Stone Age, all the idiots died”; but the future will nourish idiocy. By Stoffer’s description, “playing the idiot” is a luxury, prospective rather than imminent or exigent; and, as he admits to Karen, cannot even be justified. The idiot utopia will rise as a condition like that of “the theater, i.e., an immediate gratuitousness provoking acts without use or profit”. Stoffer’s spoken rationale runs over images of Ped in his wheelchair with head lolling, and of Jeppe and Josephine sniffing leaves and moss together, ape-curious – a sequence evoking a Romantic idyll, yet somehow skirting it.
Stoffer is the broken-down vehicle of ideology in the film: he urges his theory, his vision, in fits, and then stalls. Spass mortifies the plausible whys and wherefores of the events of the film (just as Artaud’s doubt severs Yersin’s microscopy from the “spiritual physiognomy of a disease” (6)). After the flight with Karin from the Søllerød Inn, the idiot-group converges on the Rockwool insulation factory, in the sort of pointless, vaguely therapeutic “outing” the genuinely mentally-handicapped might be made to suffer (for whatever reason, one doesn’t usually grant them boredom). In the group’s van after the field trip to the plant, Karen meekly protests, when prompted her for her opinion, that the group is “poking fun” (by which she means “mocking”); and at this Stoffer snatches away the souvenir Rockwool caps some are wearing, and throws them out of the van window, declaring “They’re the ones who poke fun.” For explication, there is only the petulant look on his face – then a cutaway to the next scene.
The visit of genuine “Mongoloids” to the house, for a sort of picnic (a scene typically light of whys and wherefores) causes Stoffer to evoke eugenics, as he’s repulsed and angered by the devolution of spassers into sentimentalists: when Henrik runs to grab a camera to capture the occasion, Stoffer furiously throws out the non-sequitur, “Hey, let’s measure their skulls and gas them. It’s just a pity we can’t capture their genes on film” – as if to say that the registration on film of these verifiable “idiots” involves a precision antithetical to “playing the idiot”: the calipers and ledgers, the essentialism, of Nazi “medicine”. This group of shammers must of necessity concede defeat in the face of an exact and ontologically authoritative “idiocy”.
Later in the film, Josephine’s father’s (Anders Hove) sudden visit to take her away from the group is enough to kill spassing. Her father comes suddenly up the drive, to sit at the table with the group, inscrutable behind his sunglasses (and a bit of business, with him stirring sugar into his tea, betrays a great rage), barely willing to argue the point. The challenge he represents, in the exact demands of Josephine’s diagnosis, the condition of her “mental illness”, and her lack of compliance, her failure to take her meds, must remain unanswered – must, again, be conceded by the group. At this point, one feels volatile spass leaking away, escaping from the hothouse of Stoffer’s commune and his theorising. Stoffer offers a challenge towards the group, when Josephine is gone and everyone is demoralised, when he asks: “What good is it if you can spass in Søllerød; but even that challenge is a cover for the vitiation of his concept. Spass has moved, and neither “out” nor “in” quite apply, the intimate circle of the commune could never hold it, anyway – again, as if an inverse of plague-siege, as if Poe’s Duke Prospero were to find that his dear guest the Red Death had escaped through the locked battlements and out into the world. This also brings to mind the anticlimax of The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise, 1971), when the scientists “lose” the prodigious plague-virus they’ve held onto, through most of the film, in their state-of-the-art facility – only to find it mutated, even benign, back in the wild. In this film, Stoffer feels his jealous hold on spass loosen, after the group has lost Josephine – were the idiots of the future to have been so at his behest? – exactly as von Trier himself felt his spass film project slip away from him, as he grouses in Jaspar Jargil’s production documentary The Humiliated (1998).
The themes of recalcitrance and resistance to will in spass shine far deeper into The Idiots than the theme of loss of control which von Trier seems to have taken to be a main theme and motivation, in conceiving and shooting the film. If the conclusion of the film in Karen’s spass is all-significant, as it seems, then the discharge of spass through her and into the wider world is the end to which the whole tends. And if this seems an ejaculation or voiding, that is not accidental: as Von Trier said in an interview of recalcitrant spass, “Idiocy is like hypnosis or ejaculation: if you want it, you can’t have it – and if you don’t want it, you can” (7). In spass, we’re considering something fugitive and resistant to will, to the willed elements of the medium and the mise-en-scène. Von Trier had certainly sought and exploited those determined elements of mise-en-scène, before – in The Elements of Crime (1984), and in Zentropa (1991), for instance – but in this case every part of the film militates against masterful and willful engineering of situations and themes. To attain to a proper pathology, to mime it “correctly”, to nudge up to verisimilitude – that would mean crafting up a proper mise-en-scène: that of, say, David and Lisa (Frank Perry, 1962), or of Dominick and Eugene (Robert Young, 1988) – but not of The Idiots.
The plague takes images that are dormant, a latent disorder, and suddenly extends them into the most extreme gestures; the theater also takes gestures and pushes them as far as they will go: like the plague it reforges the chain between what is and what is not, between the virtuality of the possible and what already exists in materialized nature (8).
The spass of The Idiots is a cinematic recrudescence of the Plague which “reforges the chain between what is and what is not, between the virtuality of the possible and what already exists in materialized nature”. And the idiot-performances of the film entail a prospective grasp, and embodiment, of idiocy in concept; generating symptoms dynamically, rather than explicating them or even working to create the ground for their explication.
The Idiots “languishes” in under-development – if it’s a diagnosis, a sound judgment of a consistent and psychologically plausible film that one requires. But the film suggests, through its example, that such under-development may be less failure than it is a “boasting”, in the terminology of sculpture: a rough, preliminary carving, a formal gesture in coarse grain that is in turn susceptible to an absent and finer resolution – the realisation of Stoffer’s absent idiot utopia, say; or the physiological condition of mental handicap; or the laws and administration of a commune – or the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) principle – or R.D. Laing’s “anti-psychiatry”. All of these principles reside in the ghost-realm of that finer “grain”. “Being an idiot”, says Stoffer to Karen in the forest, “is a luxury, but it is also a step forward”. What is a “boast”, after all, if not a forward-leaping and incipient gesture, without justification or present support? The idiot project (whether von Trier’s or Stoffer’s) evokes many finer-hewn, explicative gestures – but makes none.
The boasting implausibility of The Idiots – its lack of psychological depth, self-examination, and ideological consistency – is by design: Mogens Rukov of the National Film School of Denmark, a collaborator on the script for this film and general consultant to the Dogma filmmakers, described his discussion with von Trier on this point:
We [i.e., Rukov and von Trier] discussed, among other things, what the reason was that these people wanted to play idiots. We couldn’t figure it out, but we discovered that it was okay not to know. Then we talked about the interviews and we agreed that they shouldn’t be too clever. The characters shouldn’t start becoming psychologically clever about themselvesÖ (9)
– Nor, indeed, does a “psychologically clever” reception of the film pay dividends. As Artaud says, “it is too easy and explains nothing…” The characters in the film are roughly hewn, recalcitrant; and not very susceptible to coherent and subtle readings. With regard to character development and explication, von Trier’s technique in the interview segments is very telling (and faithful to the discussions with Rukov): von Trier as interviewer challenges the actors, as themselves (facing his camera without makeup, costume, or context), to draw in some detail the personal motivations and histories he has not provided in the script.
Herbert Blau touches on aspects of spass, in speaking of Robert Wilson’s theatre-piece The Life and Times of Josef Stalin:
In Wilson, the structure of brain damage as it enters the structure of performance is another thing altogether, the immanence of another reality, neither an expressive misconstruction nor a mere fiction, but what-it-is, the actuality of another presence displacing the expectancies of performance, and in the estranging language of that presence instituting another mode of discourse (10).
Wilson’s piece was catalysed, and dynamically conducted, by the presence of a true aphasic, a non-performer, among an able-minded and studied cast of actors. Spass in The Idiots is something of an “immanence of another reality”, an intermission of studied and preconceived performance and even of cinematic practice and form. One may substitute “spass” where Blau speaks of “the structure of brain damage”, to describe the entrance or even infiltration of one form of performance into another. And “brain damage” is here an intermission of the arc of the dramaturgy anathematised by Dogma, which “institutes another mode of discourse”. Intermission of cinema’s dramaturgy in all its aspects, in its poetry – i.e., its melismata, its flow – as much as in its science – i.e., the reproducibility of a performer’s gestures and intonations across takes and scenes, on film.
This intermission, though rising from within a performance (and though not rooted in the authoritative reality-source of Wilson’s aphasic performer) is charged with the momentousness of something which rises when something else has been halted – as when Karen’s spass rises up in the “real”, domestic world, redoubled, once the idiot commune itself has dissolved. Spass is an intermission of the dramaturgical arc in an actor’s purposeful, mindful, nuanced, and responsive gesture.
Spass is a property of performance which springs from the scenario, but which the scenario cannot bear or contain – it is essentially an adventitious and competing scenario. A good example of this is the scene in which Katrine masquerades as a corporate ad client and spasses during Axel’s pitch for the food product “Barnemad”: the scene plays as if leading to a comic denouement, but instead peters out in the burbling and drooling of Katrine’s spass – a scenario to which the other characters, significantly, never address themselves (save Axel, who is visibly mortified). The resolve of the actors’ gestures, the betrayal of motivation and of will through gesture, is ceded to spass, in the fugitive susceptibility of the spasser, but also even in the dimmed responsiveness of the “straight man” of the scenario.
Artaud draws a Plague which is at all levels an insurrection of society’s constituents, from blood and organs up to the high level of the polity and its administration (even the preemptive act of Saint-Remys, which issues as a prodrome of the Plague), reified as a body in its feverish readjustments. The mechanical, autonomous, and “lower” functions drive spass in The Idiots: tumescence, for instance, is a figure of that constituent-insurrection in this film, the “summons of the lymph” (11) Artaud describes. During a group outing to the pool, spass-Stoffer trails after Susanne into the women’s shower; and as she bathes him under the shower he stands nude, smiling insipidly and without a bit of shame, sporting a hard-on. Later in the film, after Stoffer’s breakdown, the group throws a spontaneous birthday party for him. Spass-Stoffer calls for a “gang bang” as the party-game of choice; and as the actors simulate fucking, von Trier plants a faceless couple of stand-ins among them, fucking for real. As he says in his production diary:
Öboth the stiff dick and the penetration – which I hope to get with the help of some stand-ins – are important to me and not just childish, as they might seem to be. They’re important to me, both because they give the film a roughness which it needs, and maybe a dangerousness too (12)…
And this “dangerousness” seems to me to be the plague of spass which “catches” along the network of autonomous bodily functions, hydraulic transits of blood effected below will and persona.
This centrifugal whirling-away of constituents from the center of coherent persona is made physical, in The Idiots, through incontinence: through drooling, the hurlements of “retarded” speech, pissing, and food-spitting and -flinging. The rending of the integral body of the persona evokes the Dionysian tendency within Greek tragic drama as Nietzsche describes it (and the countervailing, Apollonian strain), in his early work The Birth of Tragedy (1872): In this context, spass is traced by what Nietzsche, citing Schopenhauer (13), describes as the “collapse” of the principium individuationis, the principle of individuation, under the Dionysian tendency. In The Idiots, the Dionysian is the principle that limns the personal dissolution in spass – the sprung postures and pulled faces; the unarticulated, unformed sounds – in a mode of performance assumed by the actor as a suspension of the playing of a plausible, discreet, and well-defined role. The Dionysian dissolution of individuation is the exceeding of the canonic, delimited, and measurable – even “clinical” – entity of the individual persona.
Food-spassing in The Idiots is a figure of the exceeding of the principium individuationis, a luxurious bypassing of guided, individual alimentation – the gratuitous spilling-out of the sacrificial offering. Six thousand kroners’ worth of real Iranian caviar, smeared and dribbled and flung across the table by the spassers, is transformed into the object of spass, and the neatly packaged and precious commodity is torn and thrown apart like the object of a Dionysian orgy. And Karen’s objection to the food-spass – that the cost was so great, and that people are starving – is met only with Stoffer’s perverse denial, his finger to his temple: “No – there aren’t. That’s the trick.” In the zone of orgiastic spass, conditions support the sacrifice, the all-out expenditure – and not what Derrida calls (in speaking of the forces against which Artaud cast his Theater of Cruelty) “the economy of repetition – the economy of truth” (14).
Incontinence also rises in the strange, basically unsimulated scene of spass-Jeppe’s humiliation (after being abandoned by his minder Stoffer), at the hands of a few biker-types in a pub toilet: as if to force Jeppe out of his sham-spass, one heavy holds his penis while the other bullies him to piss. The actor’s being compelled to piss under such circumstances captures perfectly the notion of resistance to will as an obligation of spass.
The Dionysian principle in spass asserts itself most strongly at the end of the film, where Karen functions, manifestly, as something of a ritual vehicle: Spass ultimately means Karen’s ceding her familial identity to Stoffer’s challenge, to his spass-ethos. By the complex dynamics of mass-disease, the bout of spass has passed over the group, and has left only reminiscences and ratiocinations. Karen’s spass, after the fact, is “recrudescence” in a nutshell. The persona of Karen, only vaguely sketched for us, is left in pieces, as she is torn, as maenad, by her own spass. (The absent, finer grain of the scene carries her on a Nora-to-Miss Julie trajectory.) The sober interviews with the spassers which precede the scene function in the capacity of chorus, giving witness to Karen’s transfiguration.
A note on the availability of The Idiots on video: in the U.S., the commercial release (USA Films) is a loser on all fronts, as the film has been censored and – even worse – consigned to VHS. For a complete version with English subtitles, the Region 0 PAL DVD released in the UK by Tartan Video is instead recommended.
- See Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, “Dogme 95 (The Dogme Manifesto)”, accessed September 2004.
- Ove Christensen, “Spastic Aesthetics – The Idiots”, POV, no. 10, December 2000, p. 45.
- Antonin Artaud, “The Theater and the Plague”, trans. Mary Caroline Richards, in Artaud, The Theater and Its Double, Grove Press, New York, 1958, p. 17. My emphasis.
- Artaud, p. 23.
- Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History Of Insanity In the Age Of Reason, trans. Richard Seaver, Vintage Books, New York, 1988, p. 6.
- Artaud, p. 22.
- Peter Øvig Knudsen, “The Man Who Would Give Up Control”, Lars von Trier: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2003, p. 5.
- Artaud, p. 28.
- Per Munch, “The Dogma Doctor: Interview With Mogens Rukov” trans. Mikael Colville-Andersen, Politiken, March 14, 1999.
- Herbert Blau, Blooded Thought: Occasions of Theater, Performing Arts Journal Publications, New York, 1982, p. 44.
- Artaud, p. 27.
- Lars von Trier, “The Idiots: A Film Diary (Extracts)”, trans. Peter Holm-Jensen, Pretext, autumn 2001, p. 7.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth Of Tragedy, trans. Douglas Smith, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, p. 22.
- Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, Routledge, London, 1978, p. 246.