In 1967 Danish documentary filmmaker Jorgen Leth made a film called The Perfect Human
, a sort of anthropological study on the perfect human – both a man and a woman who are ethnic Danes who eat, shave dance, and move accompanied by a soundtrack of a clarinet. The study was 13 minutes long.
Nearly 35 years later, Lars Von Trier asked his former teacher to remake his experimental black and white film by applying five special rules. Each rule in The Five Obstructions
is an arbitrary mix of perfections that are perfect for Lars Von Trier. We are familiar with his dogme rules for film, such as no guns, no props, no sets, with stories based on the here and now. One way Von Trier rationalized the dogme rules was that such spendthrift ideas allowed European film to compete with big budget Hollywood films. There is no such spin-off for The Five Obstructions
but it does give you some insight into how many choices are available to a filmmaker - and that there is no one ultimate formula for moviemaking.
The five rules for remaking the film five times are curiously entitled 'obstructions'. This 90-minute film is about how to get Jorgen Leth to rethink his earlier film, and the obstacles become a kind of puzzle or maze, which both confound and amuse the veteran filmmaker. Leth becomes the documentarian and his thoughts are shared with us in voice over. No shot
is to be longer than 12 seconds which is then cut. He also has to ad a cartoon to the film which both he and Von Trier despise.
The film is to be set in Cuba not Denmark. Leth who lives in Haiti, must also do a voiceover over to the film, scripted by someone else for another film but that features Leth. Ultimately the film then engages Leth in a dialogue with Von Trier about the rules, and how they work and don’t work, supposedly to make the perfect film. This time, Leth plays the perfect human and Von Trier is the perfect director. Amusing, clever inventive you might say. What is amazing though is that the raw material is a 13 minute film, a little under a quarter of an hour going through five remakes for a 90 minute documentary. In the end it is not clear that we learn much about the filmmaking process. The Five Obstructions
allow us to witness a dialogue between two filmmakers from different time periods but its really Von Trier pressing veteran Leth against the wall who fortunately is good humored about it.
If you are not a Lars Von Trier fan, you may find this all contrived and pointless. To experience shots lasting 12 seconds you can turn on MTV. The manipulation of documentary material where the voice over concerns an entirely different film brings into question the relationship of sound and image. But beyond that the film serves as a documentary of remakes and the leftovers of the process. I suggest that Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy
be remade in this fashion: no shot over 12 seconds –to put an and to all the 'perfect warring' -- and the lines that that 'perfect man' that perfect Greek Brad Pitt delivers should come from Tootsie
. As far as a far off set, its already filmed in Malta and Mexico instead of Greece. Maybe von Trier is on to something after all.
© 2004 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 6/04
The Five Obstructions
Denmark - 2003