When I heard that we were going to watch a movie actually made in the 21st century, I was excited—I felt like the best films I could relate to and understand were more modern films. The Five Obstructions is a documentary film directed by Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth. It follows the two directors as von Trier challenges Leth to remake his own famous short film, the 1967 The Perfect Human. Each remake, however, was accompanied by an obstruction or obstacle set by von Trier. Though many people have viewed The Five Obstructions as a game of one-upmanship, I chose to view it as a film that examined the friendship of the two directors. One that showed how one friend challenges another to better his skill and widen his own way of thinking. The roles between a mentor and his protégé have suddenly switched—von Trier was now guiding Leth as he starts his film anew.
I think that the challenges were something that they both enjoyed doing. It was an opportunity for something different than the typical, almost routine films they would normally do. Leth did it not because he had to, but maybe because he wanted to. He needed a challenge. We can tell from the original film that Leth had a style of filming: classical, simple, and rather minimalist. But von Trier challenges this through his obstructions with a different cinematography, with a loud, disorderly, and almost uncontrollable setting, with Leth in front of the camera rather than behind it, and with Leth using a new and modern technology, which he had no experience with at all. Even von Trier was evidently not giving Leth these obstructions just for fun—he was critical of them, as we can see when he fails Leth in the second obstruction. Von Trier knew what he wanted from Leth without giving it away. We know that these challenges work when, after completing the first obstruction, Leth was grateful for the obstruction, stating: “the 12 frames were like a gift.” The two brilliant filmmakers knew that there was always more to improve or change about any project, for even a film called ‘The Perfect Human’ was no perfect film.
The Five Obstructions was definitely a more modern film compared to what we have been watching, but we can still use the things we have seen in this film to understand the older films in terms of what goes on behind the camera, or rather, in the head of a filmmaker. Long, silent shots, similar to the ones used from The Perfect Human, seem to be common in many of the 60s films we have watched in class. The Perfect Human even reminded me of the style of Persona, with its black and white film, and silent and strange aura. The documentary also used a lot of dialogue, which I enjoyed. Although, the film was a bit repetitive, I didn’t mind so much because there was also something new and different with every remake.
Overall, the film was a challenge of creativity. A challenge to test our own limits, and to go beyond our first impression. The film was a literal work of art, with how it showed the process and thinking that went behind making a film. The result of the fourth obstruction was my favorite. It turned The Perfect Human into a contemporary piece of art. Leth was a perfect example of one of the greatest challenges of filmmaking: working with what you have and making it better than what was expected.