Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.
We’ve been carrying along with Danish director Lars von Trier’s increasingly divisive filmography, as his work broadens and becomes much more nebulous and complicated. That’s a joy for me, as I always have an embarrassing wealth of material to talk about, but it does often require deciding where I’m going to strike from just because his movies often contain so much material for so many differing interpretations. That’s always a good sign, I feel, but it’s a directorial acknowledgement of viewer subjectivity that makes it hard to pin down exactly what the man behind the camera might be going through.
Thankfully we have a movie that comes along to give us just that look, though it does so in a way that is purely von Trier: honesty wrapped in a game so complicated that when he tips his hand it barely feels like he conceeded anything at all. Let’s get right to it, since before we get to any sort of truth, we’ll first have to tackle
The Five Obstructions (2003)
Here’s a link to The Perfect Human, a 1967 short film by Jørgen Leth. I’m offering it to you because I feel it’s the price of entry into really talking about what The Five Obstructions is, and I don’t want to go on about what the short film covers at much length (for reasons we’ll get into). It’s short, and fairly watchable, if a little on the far side of arty. It’s also Lars von Trier’s favorite film from Leth, so von Trier invited the fellow Danish director to come and play a creative game with him, a challenge of minds of sorts. The game? Lars will create a set of pre-conditions for Leth to follow, and then send him off to remake The Perfect Human under those conditions. If he can do that five times, he will ‘win,’ and defeat the most infamous directorial sadist.
Each obstruction is laid out during conversations between von Trier and Leth where the two men chat about von Trier’s thoughts about Leth and his work as he attempts to figure out the kinds of limits that would defeat Leth utterly. For the sake of brevity, I’ll run down the list of the first four obstructions, and then we’ll come back and talk about the movies themselves and the final obstruction.
Obstruction 1: Leth is to travel to Cuba and shoot the film without a set, using local actors. Content-wise, he is to change the narration to answer the questions of the original film. Structurally, no shot is allowed to last more than 12 frames. Lars establishes this as an easy testing ground, outside of the editing limit, to break up Leth’s tendency towards static shot construction and rhetorical questioning.
Obstruction 2: Leth must travel to whatever he deems the most horrible place in the world, and cast himself in a version of The Perfect Human that focuses on the meal and excludes the woman, while not showing any of the actual ‘horrible place’ on screen. Lars posits that this will require Leth to confront humanity in a genuine way on camera without getting to rely upon the viewer sympathy of also seeing whatever this awful thing is.
Obstruction 3: After seeing the 2nd film and deeming it a failure (more on that later), von Trier decides to punish him by either making him do challenge 2 over again (initially destroying all of Leth’s enthusiasm for the game) or to remake The Perfect Human with no rules at all, with the justification that Leth’s arrogance needs to be curtailed by having no limits to try to rebel against. Leth chooses to take the free-form remake.
Obstruction 4: Lars von Trier, feeling defeat knocking at his door, decides to offer only one rule: his next remake has to be a cartoon. Knowing that Leth doesn’t like cartoons and has no idea how to go about making one, he figures this will be the ultimate stumbling block to Leth’s more traditional cinematic pretensions.
What’s most striking about this is how wildly different the films are. My favorite is by far the first one, a hyperkinetic, beautifully colorful version of the first film that looks almost stop motion because of the 12 frame limit. It makes heavy use of repetition and suggestion, reversed shots and strong composition to create something that feels very in tune with remix culture, a sort of youtube mashup version of the original, much more classically cinematic movie. It crackles with energy and feels like the fresh initial attempt of a man with boundless enthusiasm for his task, something that the other versions lack.
The second one is a bit of a cheat, and von Trier rightly calls him on it. Leth films himself eating the dinner in front of a street in the red light district of Bombay, but only partially obscures the squalor around him by setting up a semi-transparent plastic sheet attached to a frame behind him. The people, obviously impoverished and potentially starving but still curious about the foreigner and his camera, stand behind the sheet as he eats his meal. Not only is it him thumbing his nose at von Trier’s rules, but it misses the whole point of the exercise, which von Trier went out of his way to explain to him at length. But he seemed fairly bothered by the idea of doing it exactly the way von Trier wanted, and so he takes the out for the third obstruction.
This third one is by far the worst, a totally indulgent art house mess without the restrictions to force him to make interesting choices. Shot in Brussels, it’s a super-slick piece done mostly in split-screen, full of glamour and sexuality that the original film only barely touched on and even then in a more interesting manner. It feels really false, a lot of pretense wrapped in something that would make a nice perfume ad but is total death as an emotional piece. He doesn’t even seem particularly taken with it, and von Trier mostly accepts it as penance paid without commentary. The same is true of the cartoon, an idea that ends up panning out as kind of a half-success as Leth goes and gets footage he already shot rotoscoped instead of creating an original cartoon. It technically fulfills the goal, but it seems like a man who is nearly defeated by his tasks, tired of revisiting the same idea over and over again.
Which was ultimately the point all along. The fifth obstruction is something entirely different, a short film that is made up of the various clips of Leth as he underwent these tasks, set to Leth narrating a letter from him to Lars that von Trier wrote for him. It’s a weird double layer of false-hood, this final presentation of all the clips that we have seen in larger context before as Leth went ahead with his task of making these movies, but in it Lars puts into his mouth his own feelings of inadequacy and struggle, the idea that this obsession and the restrictions were put in place by von Trier mostly to try to subject someone else to the rigors he feels that he’s trapped in, to see if they can do better with a microcosm of his own career challenges.
There’s still two films before von Trier really goes all out with his depression movies, Antichrist and Melancholia, but in some ways this feels like the precursor to that. What the final obstruction is isn’t so much a tribute to Leth, but a final spin the coaches the entire film as a desperate gasp of Lars von Trier to try to justify his depression and self-destructive tendencies by trying to trigger them in another filmmaker. Leth, seemingly a much more even keeled director, manages to sidestep all of them, and all we’re left with is a defeated Lars von Trier, offering up this testament to the ability of his friend to do something that he couldn’t: get over himself.
And Lars doesn’t immediately run from this into trying to work out his issues on film, but this seems like the first step, an admittance that he has a problem with art and with creators. I think it’s interesting that he’s announced, though hasn’t produced, a Five Obstructions project with Martin Scorsese, where the two of them would tackle this idea again with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. It’s especially interesting because I feel Scorsese is in some ways an even more thematically obsessed director than von Trier, but far less self-loathing about his fixations. When he runs the gauntlet of the Mad Dane’s directorial demands, if he ever does, what will come out on the other side? Interesting experiments, to be sure, but can those two directors come together without one (or both, though I expect Scorsese is unflappable in his twilight years) being profoundly changed? We’ll see, I hope, and until then, The Five Obstructions stands as one of the most novel examinations of what it means to author a film, and what limitations can bring to creative works, a peek behind the philosophical curtain that even the most comprehensive movie documentaries fail to tackle.