Namibia, one of the most sparsely populated countries on Earth, offers visitors apparently endless vistas of nothingness, strewn with diamonds — a curiously appropriate location for the process of discovery required by Dogme 95 devotee Kristian Levring.
Levring, an overgrown bear of a man, was one of four Danish friends who came up with the Dogme concept, the “back to basics” school of low-budget filmmaking led by the brilliant, Prozac-chomping director Lars von Trier.
Levring has set about the task in impressive style, choosing to film a story about a bunch of lost tourists rehearsing King Lear while facing death in a ghost town set among the most fabulous diamond fields in the world. It is perhaps a measure of Levring’s pursuit of the aesthetic that the latter detail, a publicist’s dream, is ignored in the story line.
Instead, make-up artists tend to an international cast of distinguished, but shivering actors, smearing their faces with local grease and the sands of the Namib desert in preparation for the shooting of the final scene of The King is Alive. Such details will please disciples of Dogme 95, which demands that followers should use only materials found on location.
Levring insists he has been true to the commandments of Dogme 95. The canon that thou shalt film on 35mm has been side-stepped by the planned transfer to that format (one of the pleasures of Dogme 95 is that it is not too dogmatic) and it has been shot with three handheld digital cameras, which means the cameras film the performance, rather than the actors performing for the camera.
Levring insisted on filming chronologically to intensify dramatic development. And, sensitive to the importance of sound and the Dogme 95 ban on post-production additions, he used
16-track recording equipment that enabled him to mike all the actors.
The gruelling conditions, demands of Dogme and ensemble nature of the production add up to quite a challenge for actors, which explains why Levring was bombarded with appeals for parts when word of the project got around. He has gathered a rich bouquet of talent, which includes Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Bradley, Brion James, Janet McTeer and South African Vusi Kunene. Judging by the enthusiasm of the cast after six weeks of shooting in one of the most inhospitable corners of the globe, the effort has been worth it.
Bradley, who enjoys a reputation as the actors’ actor on the English stage, says of the experience: “It’s been more than I expected in many ways. Having seen the Dogme films — before I knew I was doing this — I was amazed by the flow of the story and the naturalness of the acting and how people seemed very relaxed in front of the camera. And that has been my experience now … There is a chance for the creative side to develop.
“You’re not in a straitjacket; it’s like theatre, because your emotional energy is always on the go, you’re always on.”
James describes the experience as the most exhilarating since his part in Altman’s The Player. “I see the Dogme rules more as challenges than restrictions,” he says. “They are not restrictions, because actually they free us.”
Levring confirms this: “Many of them have said to me in the past few days that they will find it very difficult to go back and work in the normal way.”
The actors have been strutting and fretting their stuff in Kolmanskop, a turn-of-the-century town perched on the edge of the Namib desert, a few kilometres from the small port of Luderitz.
It was shut down in 1951 in one of the depressions the diamond industry suffered before admen hired by the De Beers corporation made the fortuitous discovery that the gems were a girl’s best friend. Maintained half-heartedly as a museum (the crew had to dig the town’s hospital out of the sand for the actors’ dressing rooms), Kolmanskop is part of the sper gebied — a forbidden area in which diamonds are so plentiful, littering the sands, that it has been made an offence to leave the roads, for fear that passers-by will pocket the shiny stones and bring down the world’s most outrageously profitable cartel.
In The King is Alive it is simply somewhere-in-Africa, an abandoned town into which bus driver Moses blunders after his mutinous passengers persuade him to turn the vehicle around — an experiment that brings home the fact that his precious compass has been stuck for the past 800km.
After discovering to their horror that their cellphones do not work and they are out of fuel, the only survivalist among them heads off bravely into the desert in search of help. Before departing, he tells them to husband their food and water and to keep their spirits up.
They make do with an ancient store of tinned carrots and morning dew, but the task of keeping their spirits up defeats them.
An actor-turned-script doctor among them persuades the company to pass the time by preparing a performance of Lear, painstakingly writing out the text from memory (if some people can remember entire telephone directories from A to Z, why not a Shakespeare play, Levring has him rationalise, a touch unfairly to the Bard). Gradually the plot of the tragedy interweaves with the rising racial and sexual tensions within the group.
The inspiration for The King is Alive came to Levring from an English friend living in a small town in California’s Mojave desert who stages Shakespeare evenings using locals for actors. The Dane was saving it as a subject for a documentary when the “Dogme thing” came up and he decided to adapt it into a feature. “It was a Dogme idea, really,” he points out. “It was about putting on a play with nothing.”
A commercial filmmaker based in London, Levring is a first-time director who came to Dogme 95 through friendships struck up at the Danish Film School with Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, director of Festen.
Given the strident reception his predecessors received, Levring’s production is awaited with interest. Von Trier’s The Idiots was variously described as a masterpiece and “a grotesque offence against the human condition” (all grist to the mill for the director of the highly acclaimed Breaking the Waves: the “Von” was reputedly bestowed upon him by his fellows at film school in tribute to his joyful arrogance).
Vinterberg’s Festen won the special jury prize at Cannes, and the third member of the group, Sorn Kragh-Jacobsen, took the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin festival with Mifune.
Whether or not he emulates them, Levring has set about the challenge with some shrewdness. The King is Alive is the only one of the four made outside Copenhagen and the only one in English. At $2,7-million, it is not particularly low budget.
The money was raised by the Dutch producer Patricia Kruijer in the United States after Levring had turned down two other backers by his insistence on retaining the right to make the final cut. In addition to Shakespeare, he drafted in the young Danish writer, Anders Thomas Jensen, to help with the script. At 26 Jensen already had three Academy award nominations behind him.
He is particularly happy about the effect of filming digitally. “I think I’ve gained more than I have lost, which was very much a surprise to me, because I come from the 35mm tradition. You lose something in the quality of the image, but you win that by the mobility of the cameras, which is a great thing for the actors.
“It is a very joyful way of shooting. My film is very much about pain and suffering, but the whole process of doing it was very joyful. It was wonderful working with these actors in this way. It has been for all of us a big adventure.”
And with that the Danish bear shambled off heedlessly through the diamond-strewn sands of the Namib desert to Luderitz airport, with an extraordinary 140 hours of footage in his suitcases — the very picture of Dogme in the making.