Dogville, a film by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, is supposed to be an anti-American movie, the director’s own coy denials notwithstanding. Perhaps inadvertently, however, von Trier’s film actually says more about human nature, and even more about international politics.
The film depicts a tiny town in the Rockies that treats a young woman seeking refuge with increasing depravity. Grace, played brilliantly by Nicole Kidman, is running from gangsters. The town decides to give her two weeks to win them over, which she does by tailoring odd jobs to the needs of each of the 15 Dogvillians.
All goes well until a policeman puts up a “missing” poster with Grace’s picture on it, which induces the residents to demand more from her, and again when he returns with a “wanted” poster accusing her of crimes the people know she did not commit.
The town’s exploitation of Grace’s predicament escalates to grotesque levels, culminating in a sweet, if equally extreme, twist that I won’t reveal so as not to spoil the surprise.
“The entire point of Dogville is that von Trier has judged America, found it wanting and therefore deserving of immediate annihilation,” Todd McCarthy pronounced in Variety. Indeed it is obvious from the setting, the choice of David Bowie’s song “Young Americans” that runs with disturbing Depression-era photos during the credits, and the fact that this is the first of a trilogy called US and A, that McCarthy is right about the target of von Trier’s animus.
But what struck me was how effectively von Trier illustrates a disturbing facet of human nature: the corollary of the adage that power corrupts is that weakness is exploited, and absolute weakness is exploited absolutely.
In the film, the grudging altruism initially shown by the townspeople is gradually transformed into Grace’s enslavement and worse, as her reliance upon them for protection from the outside world grows. There is no reason to believe that Americans could act this way, but if they could, so could anyone anywhere. This is the process by which the Jews were dehumanized in Nazi Germany–the gradual stripping of rights and power, accompanied by the increasing normalcy of depravity.
In a moral world, greater weakness should evoke greater mercy. In Dogville, and in the real world, it often evokes the opposite.
If this is true within communities and societies, it is even more true on the international level, where law and morality are largely a strained fiction. While von Trier may be trying to illustrate the deformities of capitalism and of American power, his allegory best fits the plight of the Jew in history and of Israel today.
Even as Grace sank into von Trier’s idea of American hell, she retained a secret weapon that made her potentially much stronger than her tormentors. She landed in her predicament in the first place because she voluntarily disarmed herself of the power derived from her gangster connections, because she was morally disgusted by that world.
Israel, similarly, has tried to dissociate itself from its own power in Sisyphean pursuit of the world’s sympathies. Maybe if we pretend we are weaker than the Palestinians, we seem to think to ourselves, the world will see our side of the story.
Eventually, Grace concludes that sparing Dogville her moral judgment was itself not particularly moral, and that inflicting her judgment was even worth joining the gangster world that she had sacrificed so much to escape, and yet suddenly seemed less repulsive.
America is not a gangster world, but the “international community” is. This does not mean that Israel should throw its morality out the window. It means that Israel must act by its own moral standards instead of fruitlessly attempting to meet the distorted standards applied by the world. We must not say, as some ministers have, that the route of the security fence should be changed because the world will oppose us. This is like Grace submitting to increasing depredations because if she does not, she will be kicked out of the community that is sheltering her.
The problem with this strategy is that the price of “protection” goes up as the protection itself goes down. At some point, you have to stand up and resist. You’ll take heat, but you’ll be treated better and attacked less.
Three times–the preemptive attack in 1967, the destruction of Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, and Operation Defensive Shield in 2002–Israel concluded that it must use its power and take the heat. In retrospect, each action brought critical relief and saved many lives.
Building the fence is the least that we must do, despite international opposition, but probably is not enough to reverse the terrible lesson that absorbing three years of suicide terrorism has taught. So long as we continue to be under Palestinian attack, regardless of how successfully we can defend ourselves, we cannot avoid the question of regime change on the Palestinian side. If we do not, we are complicit in depriving ourselves of self-respect, and are confirming that we are the only nation without the right to live in peace.
–Saul Singer is editorial-page editor of the Jerusalem Post. He is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel’s Struggle & the World After 9/11. This piece first appeared in the Jerusalem Post and is reprinted with permission.