In this century, few directors have provoked, shocked, and captivated audiences like Lars von Trier. People who have watched Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, or Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 & 2 are very unlikely to forget these films whether they loved or hated them. For a filmmaker who has specialized in crafting highly memorable and, in some cases, indelible on-screen moments, Lars von Trier himself can’t forget The Perfect Human, Jørgen Leth’s 1967 short film. The Five Obstructions, the documentary that tracks von Trier’s disciplined efforts to push Leth to re-examine and re-create The Perfect Human again and again with new limitations, serves as a revealing and intimate look at filmmaking, a portrait of an artist struggling against depression, and an unorthodox lesson in the redemptive power of a friend’s love.
The Five Obstructions opens with von Trier and Leth sitting down to watch The Perfect Human before they decide on restrictions for making a new version of the film. As they begin to debrief the film and create challenges for the next iteration, von Trier unleashes an almost wicked glee as he conjures up seemingly absurd rules for the new film. By the end of the brief meeting the two men agree that Leth’s next rendering of The Perfect Human must contain edits no longer than twelve frames, take place in Cuba (a country Leth had never visited before), answer the questions posed in the first version, and use no sets. Leth, who was in his mid-sixties during filming, staggers out of the initial meeting appearing stunned and befuddled at the amount of work ahead of him. Von Trier, who was in his mid-forties as this all transpired, counters Leth’s weary patience with a reassuringly firm confidence in the process of this project. Despite von Trier’s self-described “satanic” behavior in developing the successive courses of complications, the younger director consistently demonstrates affection and respect for the man he calls his “hero.” Upon returning from Cuba, Leth comes across as both rejuvenated and proud of his solutions to von Trier’s invented problems. Both men watch The Perfect Human: Cuba together and express how impressed they are with the result, but feelings of contentment pass quickly as von Trier begins the work of generating a new set of hurdles for Leth to clear for the next edition of The Perfect Human. Yes, this process occurs four more times and each time, von Trier’s motivation for engaging Leth in this endeavor becomes more apparent. The dynamic between von Trier and Leth pushes deeply into a special brand of pedantry. Once the pupil, von Trier reverses the student/teacher dynamic as he nudges, admonishes, and goads his mentor. As the film progresses, von Trier and Leth allow the audience sit in on a master class in which a former student challenges his teacher to unlearn the considerable skills he has gained over a lifetime in order to explore the still untapped potential within him.
A sense of love and a spirit of experiential learning flow through all stages of The Five Obstructions. I saw this film on the recommendation of a good friend who stated, “You should watch this. It reminds me of your relationship with your dad.” At first I was a little confused by the comparison, but it didn’t take long for me to see connections. My father was a teacher and I grew up with him telling me stories about an influential teacher from his youth. My father never forgot the time this teacher, Gladys Metcalf, explained to him, “You’re an ‘A’ student doing ‘B’ work and that’s why you’re making a ‘C’ in this class.” Society has developed many norms for guiding the young through their development, but there are few templates for mentoring our mentors. Lars von Trier reminds me of Gladys Metcalf in this film and reaffirms the value of asking more from people who we trust are able to accomplish more. The Five Obstructions rewards those who are familiar with von Trier’s feature films as well as those who know nothing of his work by sharing a compelling story about someone who won’t allow his friend and mentor to give up and fade away.