Suppose that more than 30 years ago you made a short film called The Perfect Human, which has come to be regarded as a bit of a classic. Now, an upstart film director and controversialist who claims to be a fan comes to you with an interesting proposal. He wants you to remake the film five times, but to keep it interesting each time you will be under a different set of rules and restrictions. You're not sure what his objective is. Perhaps he wants to humiliate you, to force you to make a bad film, or to remove all artifice and strip you bare. Perhaps he wants to pay homage and give you a chance to restate your genius. All you know is that you are not going to give up, and, no matter how stupid his requirements, you are going to create five little masterpieces of cinema.
This is the scenario behind the inventive Danish documentary feature The Five Obstructions (De fem benspænd, 2003). The central characters are distinguished Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth (b. 1937) and his younger and more infamous countryman Lars von Trier (b. 1956). Leth directed The Perfect Human (Der Perfekte Menneske) in 1967; in this 13 minute long black and white film, a man and a woman are scrutinised in a faux-documentary, pseudo-anthropological style by an unseen narrator voiced by Leth. Since then Leth has spent much of his time suffering from depression and living on Haiti, as well as working as a sportscaster and continuing to make films. Lars von Trier is a director known for pranks and games, as co-formulator of the list of restrictions that formed the basis of Dogme 95, and as the maker of some of the most controversial movies of recent years: The Idiots, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville.
Von Trier comes up with a series of ideas of how to challenge Leth as a filmmaker, by demanding he remakes the film with no sets or as a cartoon or with Leth playing the lead role; these rules, a list of do's and dont's, are called "obstructions", a name wich is also applied to each short film which results. Leth travels the world to film the different segments, banished to Cuba or going to Bombay (Mumbai) when von Trier tells him to find the most miserable place in the world to film in. Much of the film is von Trier and Leth discussing the obstructions and arguing over Leth's adherence to the rules, as well as footage of Leth making the films. As Leth triumphs over the early obstructions, von Trier gets more extreme, trying desperately to drive him to the limit. When Leth breaks one restriction, von Trier must think up a suitable punishment. This verbal and creative conflict between the two gives the film a strong narrative thread as it spurs on Leth in an increasingly determined and confident pursuit of glory.
This narrative impetus is important; you might expect something which remakes the same film five times to be boring, but the film shrewdly avoids this. The short films we see are around five minutes in length, and remake different parts of The Perfect Human, often in a very loose fashion. The films are generally excellent or at least very interesting, with the exception of the third (which looks like a television commercial for luxury cars), but are also tied together by the directors' informed and witty debate, by Leth's struggles to turn the obstructions into films, and by extracts from the original The Perfect Human. And, like many of von Trier's films the ending is unexpectedly moving.
The Five Obstructions reveals a great deal about both directors, being a considerable tribute to Leth and an ambiguous portrayal of the mischief-making von Trier. The idea of pushing actors and characters to extremes is common in von Trier's work and in this film the director discusses his technique of forcing people to make interesting mistakes. The film demonstrates that while Trier likes to toy with people, he ultimately has the greatest of respect for courage, passion, dignity, and art. But if von Trier fails in his mischievous goal of forcing Leth to slip up, he succeeds in showing the older director's greatness: Leth triumphs, beating the obstructions every time, exploring new areas, and showing keen observation. Leth's affectation of a detached, scientific position is scrutinised, as von Trier tries to force him closer to his subjects; Leth's adventures in Bombay show that filming among squalor may add artistic value and resonance but does not remove the gap between the man behind the camera and the people in front of it.
This is a film which has much to say about filmmaking and creativity. It makes a powerful demonstration the importance of playfulness and arbitrariness in creativity; this idea may be not terribly surprising but is powerfully illustrated, and it is noteworthy that the film made with the fewest restrictions is the worst. The result is a movie that is funny, intelligent, incisive, emotionally moving, and full of artistry. I only wish they had included Leth's original film in its entirety; perhaps they will in the DVD.
Title: The Five Obstructions (De fem benspænd)
Director: Jørgen Leth, Lars von Trier
Screenplay: Lars von Trier, Jørgen Leth
Cinematographer: Dan Holmberg
Editor: Camilla Skousen
, Morten Højbjerg
Sound: Hans Møller
Producer: Carsten Holst
Production companies: Zentropa Real
, Wajnbrosse Productions
, Almaz Film Productions
, Panic Productions
Finance: Danish Film Institute
, DR Drama
, Nordic Film & TV Fund
, Swedish Film Institute
, YLE TV1
, Channel 4
Country of origin: Denmark
Running time: 90 minutes in the subtitled version (the original Danish release was 100 minutes)
Film and audio: 35mm, 16:9, Colour, Dolby SR
Actors: Claus Nissen (in clips from the 1967 original), Maiken Algren (in clips from the 1967 original), Daniel Hernandez Rodriguez, Jacqueline Arenal, Vivian Rosa, Jørgen Leth, Patrick Bauchau, Alexandra Vandernoot, Marie Dejaer, Pascal Perez, Meschell Perez, Bent Christensen, Anders Hove, Charlotte Seiling, Jan Nowicki, Stina Ekblad (most play unnamed characters, so there is no attempt to define them here)
The five obstructions (the short films)
Obstruction #1. The Perfect Human: Cuba.
Leth is required to film in Cuba
which he has never visited; use no sets; no edit
longer than 12 frames
(half a second); and answer the questions which he posed in the original film. The result is jittery but interesting, with a charismatic Cuban male lead in Daniel Hernandez Rodriguez. He uses the 12-frame restriction to good effect with lots of small cuts and zooms and rapid montages, as well as certain sequences where he appears to have cut from one shot to another identical shot or between the same still image with different illumination.
Obstruction #2: The Perfect Human: Bombay. Here von Trier attempts to reduce Leth's distance from the subject of The Perfect Human by insisting he make it in the most miserable place Leth can think of yet showing nothing of the misery; having Leth play the perfect man; and including the feast scene from the movie. Leth consumes a banquet before a crowd of desperately poor locals, which might be offensive or crudely satirical in another context but here is a brilliantly contradictory image.
Obstruction #3: The Perfect Human: Brussels. Leth is given the greatest obstruction of all, to remake the film with no restrictions. The result has the aura of a glossy, sophisticated thriller with shiny black cars and glamorous wealthy characters, but less charm than the other versions.
Obstruction #4: The Perfect Human: Cartoon. Leth is told to make it as animation, a style which both directors claim to hate. The film is made by Flat Black Films in Austin, Texas, and is a stunning piece of fluid computer animation, which includes rotoscoped scenes from some of Leth's other films.
Obstruction #5: The Perfect Human: Avedøre, Denmark. For this Leth will not direct, with von Trier taking over, but Leth will still be credited as director (perhaps a nod to the Dogme rule that directors should not be credited); Leth's role is to read a voice-over written by von Trier. The resulting film uses images of Leth already shot for the documentary, with Leth's voice describing what he imagines von Trier would say to him; since the script is by von Trier his imaginings might be rather accurate. Or they might not. This allows von Trier to concede defeat and express his regard for Jørgen Leth. The result might not stand as a short film outside of the documentary, but nonetheless makes a wonderful conclusion to the project.
Anton Bitel. "The Five Obstructions". Movie Gazette. http://www.movie-gazette.com/cinereviews/549
Danish Film Institute. "The Five Obstructions". DFI website. http://www.dfi.dk/dfi/english/shortfilms/obstructions.htm
Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/
"The Duellists: The Five Obstructions". Tederick.com. http://www.tederick.com/reviews/five_obstructions.html