Lars von Trier (2003)
It’s completely insane. No edit more than twelve frames long—it’s totally destructive. What the hell does he expect me to do? He’s ruining it from the start.
SO DECLARES EXPERIMENTAL DANISH FILMMAKER and poet Jørgen Leth. Leth has agreed to remake The Perfect Human (1967), his elegant, minimalist short film of a man and a woman performing mundane tasks alone: shaving, tying a shoelace, applying lipstick, clipping nails, all in a white, unbounded room.
Leth’s remake experiment is the subject of The Five Obstructions (2003), a documentary by Danish filmmaker and mischievous provocateur Lars von Trier. More than any film I’ve seen it cuts to the heart of the creative process and offers desperately needed models for it. I strongly encourage the artists and filmmakers in my life to watch it, and when I am weary in vision I return to it again and again.
A cinematic game of artistic play, obstruction, and improvisation, The Five Obstructions invites us into a collaborative exercise between two old friends and master filmmakers. Von Trier, the younger, plays the traditional role of game master—keeper of rules and judge who scripts the adventure—while Leth, his former teacher and mentor, plays the role of lead actor who must follow von Trier’s rules.
It begins with the original version of The Perfect Human. Against long takes that closely observe the figure in a white, empty room with no apparent walls or floor, questions are asked in voiceover: “How does the perfect human lie down?” “What does the perfect human think?” Von Trier comments, “[The Perfect Human is] a little gem that we’re now going to ruin.” Leth must remake the film five times, each with different obstructions or constraints defined by von Trier, rising organically out of conversation between the two men.
The first obstruction requires Leth to remake the film using no more than twelve frames for each take. It uses no sets, is shot in Cuba, and offer answers to questions posed in the original film. Each obstruction is antithetical to Leth’s carefully nurtured style, but he has agreed in advance. Through sleepless nights and pre-dawn brooding, Leth’s authentic struggle with the first obstruction is captured onscreen in rare cinematic moments, and out of the “ruins” he makes a beautiful film.
Obstruction two must be shot in the most miserable place Leth can imagine (Bombay’s red light district), but the misery cannot be visible. Leth himself must replace the actor as the perfect human, remaking the sequence of eating an exquisite meal with crystal, silver, and wine. The result is haunting: solemn women and children pressed against a transparent screen look on while Leth eats, drinks, and sings and hums a little song: “Why is joy so whimsical? Why is happiness so brief?”
Since Leth makes the misery visible to us (it was to be evident only in his discomfort) he fails to follow the rules. He refuses von Trier’s “punishment” of remaking the film in Bombay because it gives him nightmares, so he’s offered the alternative of making it anywhere, freestyle. This is the third obstruction. The lack of parameters is detestable to Leth, who taught von Trier the necessity of rules in the first place. Continuing the disgust, the fourth remake must be a cartoon, a form despised by both filmmakers but beautifully and poignantly rendered by Leth. The last obstruction requires that von Trier make the film himself, out of previously shot footage, but Leth shall be credited as director.
Lars von Trier is known for his love of gift-giving, and this small documentary is packed with gifts. A model for creative renewal, it begins with a conversation that teases out hindrances to creative work. Out of the conversation each challenge arises. The pattern for creative renewal offered is: dialogue, challenge/obstruction, improvisation, and play. If I am really stuck, having only one go at a problem will not do, as the five remakes make clear. Blockage, I’ve come to understand, does not come from one source: it must be untangled, sorted into the strands of my particular style and techniques, my own distinct resistances and fears.
The film targets and confronts the style of the artist. Although film style is a combination of image and sound elements that create the unique texture of a body of work—mise en scène, cinematography, editing, and sound—Mette Hjort suggests there are additional acts of style that make our work stand out. They motivate or drive the texture of our work. Eventually, however, these acts that made our work unique in the beginning tend to degenerate into tired repetition. We wonder why no one is interested in our work anymore.
Von Trier targets these tired acts of style and obstructs one favored technique in each remake: version one, in Cuba, requires twelve frames, subverting the long take; version two, in Bombay, requires empathy, subverting the distanced observer; three, in Brussels, is free-form, subverting preferred rules; and four, the cartoon, makes use of disinclination, subverting motivation. Jørgen Leth’s re-creations astonish even him, and as we watch, a slow, beautiful transformation takes place on screen: he begins to laugh, to smile. I palpably experience with him the renewal of creativity and am awed by its power. I begin to understand that art flourishes when favored techniques and underlying acts of style are challenged and abandoned so that the artist sees the possibility of a wholly new creation. Enacting these practices reorients my mental schema and makes my creative process energizing and provocative, fecund and fun. Because of this film I live better as a creative person.
At the end of the film, von Trier knows the experiment has not been completely successful: he has given Leth truth in spades, but Leth is incapable of dealing at that level of authenticity. Nonetheless, the game was a gift freely offered, so Lars von Trier, for whom truth, sacrifice, and gift are key values, confesses his failure and grants Jørgen Leth the thing that means the most to him: the production of fresh, beautiful films placed on a world stage. Then von Trier lets go and walks away.
Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran is a writer, speaker, ordained pastor, and arts leader in Los Angeles. She directs the LA Film Studies Center and is a PhD candidate in religion and film at King’s College London.