The Five Obstructions
The premise of The Five Obstructions is simple, elegant, and gloriously artificial. A pupil gives his teacher under-any-circumstances-difficult assignments with absurd conditions, and the mentor complies — with no agreed-upon goal beyond the completion of the tasks.
The student is a cold, unforgiving, and crafty bastard with ulterior motives — he seems to relish being a sadist — while the teacher is kindly, agreeable, and eager-to-please.
These exercises aren’t technically a contest, but they do represent a battle of wills. The pupil is trying to draw something out of his hero through these “obstructions,” yet the instructor resists, instead focusing his energy on completing the tasks artfully and meaningfully.
That the entire enterprise is intellectually fascinating is to be expected, but The Five Obstructions manages to achieve an authenticity and depth that is startling. Through the assignments and their completion, the movie emerges as a portrait of a submissive relationship that’s not at all one-sided; each party struggles to learn what makes the other tick, and the dominated uses the tools of expression available to him to subvert the oppression of the tyrant. The movie speaks eloquently, if indirectly, to the intersection of art and humanity.
The student/antagonist in this case is the notorious aesthete Lars von Trier, the agitating filmmaker behind Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville. The victim is Jørgen Leth, a Danish director who works primarily in Haiti.
Von Trier was never actually Leth’s student, but he was influenced by his work, particularly the short film The Perfect Human from 1967. As Leth explained in an interview:
“[Von Trier] was an intern at the Danish Film Institute archive, and I was a programmer/editor at the same place. And that’s when he was looking at The Perfect Human on an editing table again and again, and he wanted to talk to me about it. But I snubbed him. I never talked to him. So I think that’s coming back to me now.”
Because of von Trier’s fondness for The Perfect Human, he enlists Leth to re-make it, with bizarre conditions. Obstruction one: Shoot the movie in Cuba, with no shot longer than 12 frames (half a second), and without sets. Obstruction four: Make The Perfect Human as a cartoon.
The Five Obstructions is, on its surface, a 90-minute introduction to formal aspects of movies that most people rarely think about. von Trier is altering the film grammar with which Leth can work, and it’s like asking an author to re-write his novel 35 years later using something other than his natural, instinctive tongue. When von Trier calls for 12-frame shots, he’s essentially asking Leth to use a language he’s barely familiar with — something so frenetic that it makes deliriously edited music videos look austere.
The elder filmmaker complains that the resultant film will be “spastic,” and it is, but it’s also entrancing and brilliant in its own seizure-inducing way. These variations on The Perfect Human — all compelling — illustrate how much formal elements affect the essence of a work. For while Leth is working from the model of The Perfect Human, each film is clearly distinct from the source material.
The original short is a vivid, evocative, but dry existential exploration — dreamlike, detached, and without a narrative. von Trier’s instructions are intentionally maddening; the Dogme 95 leader says that the best version of The Perfect Human is the first one, so why force Leth to make it again (and again, and again, and again ... )? His goal seems to be to venerate the original by trivializing it through nonsensical rules.
Von Trier isn’t interested in good cinema; with each obstruction he says he expects the result to be crap. He says he views these exercises as therapy, and argues that Leth’s problem is the distance he maintains between himself and his material. So for the second obstruction, he sends Leth to a place of deprivation, forces him to observe it, requires that the filmmaker be the central character in the movie, and forbids him from showing the conditions of this hell.
And it is in this second film that Leth shows both his vulnerability and his strength. He thinks he’ll need valium to face the poverty of Bombay’s red-light district, but he triumphantly completes his task; sitting in front of an opaque screen in the middle of a street, wearing a tuxedo and slowly eating an elegant meal, his face is impassive, unaffected by the destitute people watching him dine.
The composition suggests the Last Supper, except that the content represents a reversal of salvation; the figure at the center — the Divine — is physically separated from the rest of the people, ignoring them, eating while they’re hungry, and perhaps even savoring their misery.
Von Trier is furious at the film. For one thing, Leth has not obeyed the instructions, strictly speaking, because the people of Bombay are visible behind the screen. It’s immaterial to von Trier that Leth has beautifully captured the spirit of the obstruction, literally turning his back to the horrors he’s seen. But what seems to anger von Trier the most is that Leth didn’t crumble, and completed the film without, apparently, making a human connection to the suffering around him.
So the younger filmmaker gives Leth what is surely the hardest assignment: For the third obstruction, he is to re-make The Perfect Human with no rules whatsoever.
Throughout the ordeal, Leth is, after initial protests, extremely pliant, doing whatever von Trier asks, however silly or illogical. Yet although he earnestly tries to follow Lars’ directions, he never abides by their underlying intent. Von Trier is vocal about wanting to break Leth, to use these arbitrary constraints to splinter his extreme professionalism.
But because he’s such a professional, Leth takes the obstructions at face value, using them exclusively as filmmaking challenges, not the intended assaults on his spirit or his ethics. And his pride demands that he make good movies, even though von Trier doesn’t care if they suck. Quality is, in fact, the one pressure von Trier never puts on Leth’s shoulders.
It’s a tug-of-war between the two men, with von Trier trying to dig into Leth’s psyche and Leth working for cinema. Leth refuses to soil his original movie with blasphemous copies. He demands that the new works respect the old. And he never gives von Trier what he truly wants: the cracked veneer of the filmmaker.