In The Five Obstructions (Leth & von Trier, 2003) Lars von Trier challenges his mentor and fellow filmmaker Jørgen Leth to remake his film, The Perfect Human (Leth, 1967) five different ways, with five different sets of restrictions.
Leth’s short film, The Perfect Human, is a visually minimalist film which analyses ‘the perfect human’ in a detached, anthropological yet amusing way…
One of von Trier’s favourite films, it’s clear that he idolized Leth and maybe still does. It seems that von Trier, in setting his former mentor these challenges, is attempting to expose Leth’s inner workings, so that he might glean a better understanding of how to emulate his idol’s greatness.
Von Trier’s challenge that Leth remake his film in five different ways is intriguing. But Leth’s thoughts on shooting documentaries are also fascinating. He believes strongly in a distance and a detachment from the subject, describing his process when filming documentaries as waiting and observing. This technique is something which von Trier wants to shake him out of:
Von Trier explains that he finds Leth’s documentaries a tad too cerebral and detached for their own good. His obstructions were specifically designed to break Leth down, to put him in touch with his deepest emotions … Leth goes on to explain that his documentaries are detached for a reason. “I’m an observer, not a participant. I hate documentaries that bring all the answers with them.” (Brooks, 2003)
I found Leth’s work in recreating and reinterpreting the same concept (if not exactly the same footage) fascinating to watch, and it’s incredible how each obstruction has its own distinct emotional aura; each is a very different piece from any of the others. And yet there’s a synergy to them, links that go beyond their common foundation.
It seems that von Trier isn’t the only one learning from the experience. Leth too uses what he learns in his earlier obstructions to inform the ones that follow. This is most obvious in obstruction 4, in which Leth reused footage and techniques from all of his previous versions to create the cartoon incarnation of his story.
Leth’s use of repetition and layering within and between all of his versions of The Perfect Human is absorbing to watch, but more than that, it’s a reference to the repetition of making the same film over and over again, within the films themselves. And one of my favourite techniques was the jump cutting in obstruction 1 which is necessitated by von Trier’s rule of a 12 frame maximum shot length. Leth initially hates this restriction when von Trier first suggests it, describing it as totally destructive. Yet by the end of filming his mind is changed completely, “the twelve frames were a gift (Leth & von Trier, 2003)”.
This concept of turning obstructions into advantages is one of the most important themes of the film. Leth and von Trier discuss it at one point when von Trier offers Leth the chance to make his film in any way that he wants, but Leth retorts that he’d rather have something to hang on to. The idea that complete control is a disadvantage rather than a benefit also appears when von Trier commands Leth to recreate his film as a cartoon; he believes that Leth will fail precisely because animation allows him to control every aspect of the film. Instead of stunting Leth, von Trier’s restrictions seem to free him, giving him the ability to focus on what he can control and finding creative ways to work within the obstructions.
But von Trier isn’t always convinced that Leth has stuck to the restrictions imposed upon him, getting annoyed that Leth sometimes interprets them in the loosest possible sense. It seems that the restrictions don’t just inspire creativity by negating the paralysis that comes with complete freedom, but also by inspiring rebellion.
The complete release of control comes with the fifth and final obstruction. Von Trier demands that Leth accept directorial credit for a film made entirely by von Trier, created from footage of the process of making the preceding four versions. Leth must also read a narration written by von Trier, but again credited as being the work of Leth himself. In this way the final obstruction becomes the entire film itself as von Trier layers films within a film within a film, mirroring the layering and repetition used by his subject in a final homage.
Brooks, X., (2003), The pupil’s revenge, London: The Guardian, Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2003/nov/07/features.xanbrooks [Accessed on 16 May 2016]
Leth, J., (1967), The Perfect Human, Laterna Film
Leth, J. & von Trier, L., (2003), The Five Obstructions, Almaz Film Productions S.A.,