> Volume 6 > Number 18


Lars von Trier
Jørgen Leth

Jørgen Leth
Lars von Trier

Release: 26 May 04

The Five Obstructions


“For solitude sometimes is best society,
And short retirement urges sweet return.”
--John Milton, Paradise Lost

The devilish grin Lars von Trier gives Jørgen Leth as he plots out the latest abstraction, err, obstruction to tackle is one that has long been a watermark on von Trier’s career. Here’s a man who’s entire life seems to be the musings of a misogynist artist waxing poetically on the ills of America and capitalism. His Dogville earlier this year was the toast of art houses because it was the audacious, in-your-face affront to Bush doctrine foreign relations and the American Way that many people, still energized by the Democratic presidential campaign, were waiting for.

Regardless of his politics, though, his films are universally impossible to sit through. This is not because they are bad -- on the contrary, of nearly a dozen films, only one, The Idiots, falls short of genius -- but because they are built around the discomfort the director wants to create in the audience so his insidious machinations can take affect. He’s the only sadist filmmaker other than Michael Haneke to deserve being simultaneously celebrated and hated for his masterworks.

The Five Obstructions, the first documentary directed by the oft-documented von Trier, seems to be of the same mold. The director has called in his friend and mentor Leth to Zentropa, the Danish Disneyland for misanthropes. Having learned much of his trade from Leth, with particular devotion to the 1967 experimental short film The Perfect Human, von Trier wants to toy with Leth by getting the man to remake The Perfect Human five times, each version with its own series of rules to evidently provoke Leth to stumble along the way.

Leth, I should note, is an important figure in Danish cinema, but one who has been dormant for decades. Resigned to doing commentary on Danish TV, the man who was his country’s answer to Chantal Akerman is a blip on the cinematic radar these days. Even if the pretense for his return is in the form of a controlled disaster, the return is legendary. His student recognizes this, and, as the film begins to make clear, is provoked by the inherent need for a reintroduction of Leth to cinema, a reunion fortuitous to both.

I won’t divulge any of the obstructions von Trier devises for Leth since that is part of the good humor in scenes between the two men as they consider Leth’s last remake and prepare for the next. I will say, however, that what Leth does with each obstruction, some of which seem impossible to overcome, is testament to what von Trier already knows: that Jørgen Leth is capable of any of the rules von Trier puts across. He even makes a film within a genre that both men hate, but both agree to the artistry of Leth’s final product.

The Five Obstructions offers one of the most intelligent dissertations on the student-teacher relationship, and on the vitality of the forgotten artists of the past. Lars von Trier has already chiseled his name into the film history books by being pugnacious, audacious, and, by some accounts, insane. With The Five Obstructions, he shows that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and that the inscription in von Trier’s entry will be shared

©2004, David Perry,, 30 April 2004