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Dancer In The Dark: Corruption Within the American Government

Updated on July 2, 2013

The political messages which are shown in films today act to persuade audience members to observe and judge different governments. By using film as a medium to expose political injustices, filmmakers play a vital role in shaping peoples minds. In the film Dancer in the Dark, directed by Lars von Trier, Trier tells the story of a broken down woman who obeys the laws of a system that eventually betrays her. The theft of Selma’s money can be shown as a representation of the taxation system used in the American government.

For many Americans living in the United States, the goal of citizens is to live out the American dream by working hard. In Dancer in the Dark, Trier shows the fantasy of what happens when a person works hard for a living and saves up money only to have it stolen by the government. In the film, Selma Jezkova (Bjork), is a factory-working mother who spends her daily life constantly saving for her son’s eye surgery. Just when she has saved up enough money to prevent her son from becoming blind like her, an officer named Bill Houston, (David Morse) takes her money. Trier points out to viewers that people who earn their money through hard labor get essentially “robbed” by government due to fees and taxes.

In the history of America there have been both financial booms and downturns. America ultimately functions as a system where cash can be borrowed, traded, or earned. Dancer in the Dark explores the misuse of America’s budget and economic issues. In the film, officer Bill steals a large sum of money from his tenant, Selma, in order to sustain his wife’s happiness and their way of living. Since Trier places Bill in a government position, he makes it a point for the audience to see the corrupt system of how not only government steals from its hard workers, but also what the government does with the money it receives. When Bill says to Selma, “I have no money, all the money I inherited is gone…Linda spends and I cant say no to her”. In essence, Trier wants audiences to question whether or not government spends the money it receives from their citizens wisely. Since Bill’s intention to steal is to only sustain his wife’s happiness, compared to Selma’s noble cause of saving her son, Trier shows the harsh reality of government stealing money in order to fund operations which are not needed by the majority of the people.

Scandals and cover-ups have always been a part of history and America is no exception. In a film such as Dancer in the Dark, Trier dives into the harsh reality of how American run government can kill off their own citizens to protect the image that America represents. This can be shown in the scene when Selma realizes Bill has stolen her money. Choosing to confront Bill for her money back, she is instantly attacked verbally by the wife, who accuses her of trying to have an affair with Bill. “I know everything Selma…Bill told me” Selma then responds saying “I don’t understand, what do you know?” the wife then finishes by saying “That you came onto him…that you asked him into your trailer”. In this situation the audience is supposed to associate Bill as the government, who tries to cover-up a mistake by not only lying to his wife about being broke, but also that he has taken Selma’s money. Trier takes his scandal further when Bill is shot by Selma accidentally. On one hand Bill tells Selma to end his life, however when his wife enters the room he shouts at her to call the police. This action only perpetuates the lie to cover up Bill’s mistakes, while leaving Selma to deal with the consequences of his actions. Trier ultimately leaves Selma as a martyr for other people’s crimes by the end of the film as a representation of scandals that America has faced.

In almost all forms of media, murderers are depicted as evil and cold blooded. However, the truth behind killing cannot be placed into just black and white categories, especially when the reasons for killing vary. Through filmmaking, Trier establishes a dilemma in which audience members must decide whether or not Selma is guilty of the murder she commits. The killing sequence that Trier projects onto the audience is shown in a sickening manner, one which forces audience members to both sympathize for Selma and feel agony for Bill at the same time. This is due to the fact that during the murder, Trier focuses on medium close-up shots that interchange between Selma and Bill. It is through the effect of the camera that audience members are forced right into the crime, making audience members feel as though they are a helpless witness’s to the murder that is happening in front of them. The end sequence shows guilt and remorse as Selma is in shock and crying over the unnecessary death of Bill. Trier uses these same emotions that take hold of Selma to take hold of the audience as well. It is with these emotions that Trier effectively makes the audience sympathize with Selma for her crime.

Catching criminals in a world where violence and corruption exists is a daunting task. The heroes that are portrayed in newspapers and television are good law abiding citizens and government officials. Dancer in the Dark disrupts this fantastical view of capturing criminals by turning the heroes into villains. Trier does this by creating a trap, which Selma falls into. Driven by her love of music, Selma is shown in a scene accompanied by her boyfriend to her low budget play rehearsal. Already alerted to the fact that Selma is a murder, the stage director manipulates Selma’s enjoyment of music in order to stall her until the police arrive. During the scene audience members await the inevitable capture of Selma, who is unaware of the danger that she is in. When Selma says to the director “I, I should really be going” she then gets up to leave, the director responds by saying “I think we can do your scene”. In most of cinema, audience members are pleased when someone noble stalls the murderer until help arrives, however Trier uses the emotions of sympathy that are already established to make the audience hate the music director for reporting Selma and then stalling her so she can’t escape.

The law system for judging criminals on crimes has been viewed by several Americans as a just and fair system that favors both parties equally. Dancer in the Dark makes a point to dispute the judicial system as unbalanced and a stacked system. During Selma’s trial, the prosecution is shown as a powerful man who talks about Selma’s history and brings facts to jury. While the prosecution is shown destroying Selma’s credibility of being forced to commit murder, her defense attorney is not shown in any scenes backing up her credibility. The odds are also notably stacked against her as well. Due to gender, culture and economical factors Selma is stuck in the worst situation. In her trial the prosecution attacks her cultural background and accuses her of communist ties. Like when the prosecution is talking to the jury he says, “yet somewhat romantic certainly communistic woman…”. This only makes her seem that much more guilty. Her gender also fails to help her credibility because the wife accuses Selma of sleeping with her husband. The last problem that Selma chooses not to overcome is her choice of having a better attorney at the cost of losing the money for her son’s eye operation. In the end, Selma is left with nothing but an unfair trial in which she is judged unfairly due to a system that Trier shows as a system full of flaws, which are exploited by those who are lucky enough to come from a certain background.

The death sentence that is carried in some parts of America is considered a serious punishment, reserved for the worst criminals. Having Selma sentenced for death at the end of the film is symbolic because it represents a lack of understanding. The understanding that Trier presents is that the United States is just as evil because they murder people. Not only does Trier show the government murdering Selma at the end of the film, but also effectively shows the U.S. as a tyrant. During the film Selma is shown as constantly worn down by work, both at the factory and being a mother for her son. Her only escape from reality is from her fantasy of being in a musical. During the several sequences of music being played the colors around her are saturated, however each time the music ends she is brought back into the reality, which is de-saturated. The contrast of colors between the two realities suggests that her music is her true freedom and then the reality, which she lives in, is communistic and oppresses her creativity and ability to live. At the end when she sings her last song, she gets cut off before finishing. This ultimately shows the U.S. government silencing people who speak out, while also showing them as a political monster who murder their own people.

Through the use of cinematic techniques and powerful acting, Trier produces a film of hope and tragedy. It is a masterpiece, which centers on the taxation and economic monster that plagues the hard working American class. However, some view Trier’s film as breaking the rules that his standards are based on. According to Jan Simons “Dogme95 Manifesto does not champion aesthetic or thematic preferences and does not promote political causes or ideologies” (1). While Trier may not obey the all the rules of Dogme95, he shows his viewers what is important, that corruption exists in even the most powerful and seemingly great governments around the world. His message that is shown throughout Dancer in the Dark is to question how much power government should have. For in the end he reminds his viewers that death can still happen to those who are truly innocent and that social factors can and will determine a person’s chance of survival.


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      7 years ago

      Awesome review, it helped with my film assignment...Thanks!!


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