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Breaking More Than The Waves: Dogme Meets Documentary in 'The Five Obstructions'

By Kevin Lewis

Jorgen Leth in Bombay, remaking his 1967 short 'The Perfect Human,' the inspiration for Leth and Lars von Trier's 'The Five Obstructions.' Photo: Dan Holmbero.

The Five Obstructions turns the concept of documentary on its ear, then spins it around. Though billed as a documentary, The Five Obstructions is a film whose meaning is in subtext rather than in what is visible. The premise is the humiliation by a former student, Danish director Lars von Trier, of his esteemed teacher, documentary filmmaker Jǿrgen Leth, by having his mentor remake his classic short, The Perfect Human (1967)—five ways from hell, according to von Trier's rules. This highbrow challenge, gamely accepted by Leth, is a pretext to the film's greater themes—a meeting between two major figures of Danish cinema, their personal relationship to filmmaking and creativity, and the impact of the Danish national character on them.

Why this challenge? Von Trier, who had seen The Perfect Human over 40 times, wanted to deconstruct his teacher. However, it is the filmed conversation between them which established impossible ground rules that makes The Five Obstructions one of the most original, hilarious films in recent years. And Leth and von Trier viewed this artistic meeting as a journey through each other's minds.

Leth, 66, has taught at least three generations of Danish filmmakers—including von Trier—at the Danish Film School in Copenhagen as well as the State Studiocenter in Oslo, Norway. In the United States, he has lectured at, among others, Harvard, UCLA and University of California at Berkeley. Because of his outstanding documentaries, the Danish government has awarded him a lifelong grant to make films, and the Queen of Denmark named him Honorary Consul to Haiti, where he has lived on and off since 1991. His documentary Haiti Untitled won the Golden Plaque at the 1996 Chicago International Film Festival. As well as being a filmmaker, Leth is a jazz critic, art critic and poet.

Von Trier, 48, graduated from the Danish Film School in 1983. His breakthrough film was The Element of Crime (1984), and his audacious style found many adherents both in Denmark and abroad. He earned top awards at the Cannes Film Festival for Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000).

There is arguably a third figure in the collaboration, a Dane from an earlier generation: Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968), considered to be the greatest director in Danish cinema. Dreyer was passed over by the artistically moribund Danish film industry after World War I, and like Benjamin Christensen and Asta Nielsen, he made films in other countries. Dreyer, Leth says, "is a more important filmmaker than [Ingmar] Bergman." Ironically, Dreyer was only able to work in Denmark making state-commissioned documentaries in the 1940s.

Leth clearly sees the impact of Dreyer on the films of von Trier, who, it is said, dunks a script of Dreyer's on the first day of shooting a film. Von Trier achieved some rough justice for Dreyer by directing Dreyer's screenplay of Medea (from the play by Euripides) for Danish television in 1988. Though Leth admits that he never discussed it with von Trier, he sees the parallels between what he calls the "melting down" of Maria Falconetti's titular character in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and the melting down of the characters portrayed by Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves (1996), Björk in Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Nicole Kidman in Dogville (2003).

Leth also was the victim of indifference in Denmark. "I was a festival favorite with my earlier films, and then later in Denmark," he recalls. But that works both ways because Leth says, "I haven't been that much inspired by Danish art." In the 1960s, he was stimulated by the work of such American icons as painter/filmmaker Andy Warhol, photographer/filmmaker Robert Frank and composer John Cage as well as by the French/Swiss New Wave director Jean Luc Godard. Godard was, for Leth, "as much inspired by other arts than filmmaking. That's very much the case for me. I feel more connected to other artists—painters, sculptors."

He surmises that the artist was unappreciated in Denmark because of social pressure. In Denmark, he says, the attitude is "you should never feel that you are more than anybody. I call it a sense of mediocrity; mediocrity is the highest ideal." However, the positive side to this quality is the ironic and satirical sense of Danish humor, which "gives a playful tone in our conversations. We always make fun of things and always try to puncture pomposity." Things are changing, according to Leth. "There is a growing sense among Danes that this approach is a thorn in our [side]." But the fact that Dreyer was not able to make the films he wanted to make in Denmark was "a big loss for Danish culture," Leth believes.

Can Dogme 95, the declaration of filmmaking principles announced by von Trier and a few of his Danish colleagues in typical irreverent fashion at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, be viewed as a reaction to the mediocrity of which Leth speaks? Leth admits that he had never thought of it in that way before but realizes there is a certain truth in it. "There was a certain sentiment or arrogance in the launching of Dogme because it is artistically against any rationale," he says. "It was a reaction against how things have to be mainstream and stupid and boring and [how to] make something totally fresh."

Dogme 95 represents to Leth and van Trier a taking back of film to its basic principles, a concept which was always there, especially in the glory days of Nördisk in the first two decades of film history when Danish films were emulated. Dogme 95 was actually launched as a reaction to cosmetic cinema, movies that employed special effects and computerized sets. According to the Dogme 95 Vow of Chastity ( ), films must be shot on location, and without props, other than those at the location; the sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa; the camera must be hand-held; the film must be in color; special lighting, optical work and filters are forbidden; murders and weapons must not occur because all the action should be based in reality; the action of the film is in the present; genre movies are forbidden; the film must be in 35mm film format; the director must not be credited; and the director must not consider himself an artist.

The Five Obstructions used two types of shooting formats: Arriflex Super-16 for the conversations and location shooting and DV Cam for the "obstructions." Mixing video and film gives the finished film "a different texture," Leth says.

And what of Leth's own "meltdown" in the hands of von Trier? "I know he has a devious mind," Leth says. "I was prepared to have fun but also to be teased and to have to respond to some, maybe mean tactic, but I liked that situation." But, he adds, "I was risking my reputation at any moment with this film. There was no way I could make a cheap solution to any of these things. He knew in advance that I would always try to find an artistically satisfying solution. That made me feel very alert; I had to be very innovative to answer his challenges. So I liked the whole process."

For the first obstruction, shot in Cuba, von Trier demanded the impossible. He forced Leth to hold no shot longer than 12 frames (roughly half-a-second long). He emulated the jump-cut editing of Godard to create a seamless technique. "Lars, who knows my work and knows what I like, attacks the thing that I like most in films—long scenes, long shots. He says he saw my film 40 times, it's been important to him. Then the first thing he wants to do is deconstruct it totally and do something that I would never do—cut it up like that."

In the second obstruction, set in the red light district of Mumbai—selected because von Trier asked Leth what he considered to be the most miserable place on Earth—Leth, the egalitarian Dane, sat shamefaced in a tuxedo (just like Claus Nissen in The Perfect Human ) eating a gourmet meal before the hungry populace, with only a scrim between them. Von Trier filmed the set-up beforehand, and one of the most memorable shots is a t-shirted Leth walking toward the table with the faces of poverty watching him. "If I had been interrupted in my meal, that would have been the story," he maintains. Leth made arrangements for police protection beforehand, which he admits would have been refused had the police understood the nature of the situation. "I was aware that I was playing on a very thin line there." A friend with connections put the police on the payroll. But the populace did not sabotage the film. Von Trier, however, was displeased that Leth brought a rich texture, instead of rawness, to this episode.

One of the cheap solutions, which von Trier thought would defeat Leth, was the segment produced as a cartoon—the fourth obstruction. Both von Trier and Leth hate cartoons, and von Trier poisoned the well further by telling Leth that it would be "crap." Though Leth didn't have a solution, he was smart enough to enlist Texas-based animator Bob Sabiston, who had worked on Richard Lanklater's seminal Waking Life (2001), to assist him. The result was a triumph, evocative of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. "I am happy with the result when I saw it," Leth admits. "In a way I am thankful for having been forced to work with something that I wouldn't have touched otherwise."

Leth found the third variation, for which von Trier gave him no rules to follow, to be the hardest. But that segment also gave Leth the opportunity to create a film noir set in Brussels. Leth credits his son, Asger Leth, who was first assistant director, second unit director and photographer, with helping him find solutions in the Brussels episode.

Leth is particularly proud that he had a positive attitude about the Five Obstructions concept. "Instead of being submissive, instead of giving up and trying to get it done in an easy way, I thought it was very interesting to solve it," Leth reflects. "That was satisfying artistically for me. I am thankful to Lars for having pushed me. The bigger the challenges...the more difficult, the better the film can eventually be."

Leth reveals that von Trier told him off-camera, "'I'm not going to give you any more technical obstructions because you are just using them to your own advantage,' which I took to be an off-hand compliment." Perhaps he discovered his flexibility and innovation through his artistic simplicity. "I always wanted to get back to basic elements in film language," he continues. "I have always been drawn to simplify, and to work with simple elements in the image itself. But also within the film to work with basic elements: image, sound, editing and questioning how to use it and sometimes to turn the whole thing upside down."

"I have been obsessed with playing with the elements of filming from the beginning," he maintains. "And I am fairly pleased with myself that I have continued being experimental to this day. I have never liked to repeat something that I knew all too well how to do. I always sought challenges, and this film is a perfect means to go further with this to explore and find new innovative ways to play with the elements of film to tell stories with. "

The experience of making The Five Obstructions transformed both filmmakers. Though Leth is warm and empathetic in person, he prefers his films to be clinical and divorced from normal surroundings. He applied these principles to his landmark documentary, Life in Denmark (1971), and viewed his role at the time as a "narrating machine." Ironically, von Trier liberated these two natures, which makes The Five Obstructions a warmer, more sensuous work than either of them has produced before.

"I was very touched by Lars' text for the fifth [obstruction]," Leth notes. "He is revealing a lot about himself, and he also emphasizes that honesty is the basic rule of film, the honesty between us as professionals. I learned again something that I thought I knew: the more difficult you make the challenge, the more inspired you can be. I hope he learned something, too: this notion that breaking down might not always be a solution to finding the truth. We are dealing with new ways of telling a story, but also new ways of handling some kind of truth, trying to deal with reality with new aesthetic strategies. "


Kevin Lewis  is a contributing editor to International Documentary and has written for DGA Magazine and Editors Guild Magazine.