“THE HARDBOILED OLD MEN with hearts of stone must die,” Lars von Trier declared in his first manifesto, twenty years ago, fresh from film school and ready to launch a Nordic nouvelle vague by killing the Father—or fathers, Ingmar Bergman in particular. Among the ancients the enfant terrible had in mind to vanquish was perhaps his professor and mentor, Danish icon Jørgen Leth, a poet, novelist, diplomat, and filmmaker whose poetic documentaries form the antonym of von Trier’s aggressive aesthetic. Nursing a grudge for two decades after Leth supposedly snubbed him in the hallway of the Danish Film Institute, von Trier recently got his revenge with The Five Obstructions (which received its US premiere at Sundance in January). Though they sound like a digestive disorder or Maoist economic plan, the “Obstructions”—a perverse variation on Dogme—are a program designed to test the elder director and reveal the limitations of his precisionist vision and technique.
The collaborative documentary that Leth and von Trier made about this undertaking makes one cringe, and then cry. It begins as wicked comedy, von Trier selecting his favorite Leth film, the classic 1967 experimental documentary The Perfect Human, which he claims to have seen over twenty times, as the material to be subjected to his “five obstructions.” A malevolent taskmaster, von Trier challenges the curiously game Leth to remake the film five times, under a prescribed set of “diabolical” impediments that deliberately cut against the grain of Leth’s sensibility. Fond of the long, observational take, he is first assigned to make the film in shots lasting no longer than twelve frames. (“It’ll be a spastic film!” Leth moans.) Leth’s liberal, anthropological decency is tested when the booze-swilling imp von Trier assigns him to stage the film’s famous dinner scene—fish and Chablis served at a lavish table—in the “most miserable place” he can find on earth. And, repelled by the very idea of cartoons, Leth is forced to refashion his beautiful little film as “a crap cartoon.”
In skull cut and stubble, von Trier comes off as a puffy monk, ensconced in cozy Danish digs while the imperturbable, silver-maned Leth trots the globe from Bombay to Brussels, determined to overcome the escalating obstacles and maintain his dignity. The aesthetic duel is played out as oedipal revenge play; as witty “deconstruction” of the filmmaking process; and as psychodrama, with Leth in the masochistic role of He Who Gets Slapped. Each time Leth triumphs, returning with a sexily syncopated remake from Havana that uses the twelve-frame rule to its staccato advantage, for instance, or a hauntingly animated version that combines Kentridge-style tracings with the rotoscoping of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life.
In the film’s final sequence and ultimate obstruction, the opposite roles the two melancholy Danes have played throughout—sadist/masochist; observer/participant; teacher/student; analyst/analysand—collapse into one as von Trier attempts a last gambit to skewer Leth’s cautious nature and ends up exposing his own vulnerability instead. “Look how he falls. This is how he falls,” the narration from The Perfect Human intones, but just who is falling, has fallen, is the riddle with which this suddenly sad, inexplicably moving film leaves us.
This piece originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of Artforum.