“This is how the perfect human falls”: The Five Obstructions (2003)

dir. Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier is a sadist, this much I know. He’s notorious in the film community as someone who loves misery and ugliness, and this documentary serves as further proof. Where others would worship their idols, he sets out to challenge (and sometimes even punish) his. He wants to see them go through hell just for the sake of showing his idol’s humanity. He scares me and I love him for it.

“A good perversion to cultivate” (Leth)

From what I’ve gathered, Jørgen Leth’s ‘The Perfect Human’ claims that the perfect human sees or experiences no limitations. This serves as a paradox to what von Trier is trying to achieve with his documentary. He asks Leth to recreate his own film but with several obstructions — limitations. So if the original film serves as the perfect version of all the subsequent films, the question then becomes: Can the remake of a perfect film still be considered perfect even if it is not true to its essence?

“It’s totally destructive. He’s ruining it from the start.” (Leth)

Lars von Trier fails and he falls hard. He gives torturous filmmaking rules for the first obstruction, notable editing-wise, where he restricts Leth from having any single edit that lasts longer than 12 frames. One would think that this would completely ruin the end product. The resulting film, however, is a breath of fresh air. It’s an editing nightmare full of life. The film itself is frenetic and vibrant, and the obstruction which was supposed to hinder acts as an advantage. What once was seemingly a detached piece of art feels much more human now that it’s attached to a location (Cuba). For this film, Leth has gained the upperhand.

“I want to banalize you… We may be able to do so by finding things that hurt.” (von Trier)

For the second short film, von Trier seemingly wants to humanize Leth. Based on ‘The Perfect Human’ and on the other things that Leth has said (ex. “I isolate places and things that I want to examine precisely”), there is a certain detachment to Leth’s filmmaking. Lars von Trier wants Leth to film a movie in the most miserable place on earth but to not show any of it on camera. From what I think, I believe that von Trier is trying to get some of that misery to affect Leth and is hoping that it bleeds into the movie through innovative nuances. Leth, however, remains unaffected.

There’s a small interaction in this movie which made me laugh the first time that I saw it and I can’t stop thinking about it whenever I’m reminded of this movie:

Leth: [talking about the 4th film] I am very pleased with it. [von Trier’s face falls]

“Lars von Trier has this romantic notion that I’ll be so affected by being placed in a situation where a social drama is going on beside you. He wants to quantify how much it rubs off, how much it affects me. Will it be visible? Will it be quantifiable? But I think it’s pure romanticism.” (Leth)

Being directors, both of these men seem hyper aware of the camera. They may be in front of it for the most part of the documentary, but in some ways they are still directing how the film turns out. Both of them are incredibly dramatic with their words, which is why I’ve decided to collect a lot of their quotes and include them here. They want to be in control of the situation because that’s what they’re used to. They want to be in charge of how they are perceived through the lends because this is what they know the audience sees. Their job is to frame reality and as a result, they too become characters in their own documentary.

“He serves hard and we return hard as nails. That’s the way it is.” (Leth)

It’s clear that von Trier holds Leth to high standards. What differentiates him from other ordinary fans though is that he too is an accomplished filmmaker. He plays the same game as Leth. Throughout this entire project, it is von Trier who dictates what to do and Leth must follow. It’s an interesting role reversal and it produces a great collaboration between the two.

“Here there are no limits. Here there is nothing.”

Leth overcomes the next two films and produces stunning outputs. Even his hatred for animation couldn’t falter the creativity of the fourth film. Each of his new films remain truthful to their thesis and yet all of them feel new and reinvigorated. Leth is clearly a master at work and at times it feels like von Trier is experiencing more obstructions than he is, which is why I understand von Trier’s choice for the last film.

von Trier has complete control over the final film and knowing Leth, this isn’t an easy decision. This is the man who refused complete artistic freedom over his own film saying, “I’d rather have something to hang onto”. By having his name attached to a film he has no say in, that just might be one of the biggest subtle obstructions in filmmaking there is.

“You wanted to make me human but that’s what I am!”

Nevertheless, he pushes through. And by doing so, he winds the game against von Trier. Going by Leth’s film, the perfect human is someone who has no limitations. Bringing this further, we can say that the perfect human has no limitations because of his ability to overcome them. Throughout this process, he is perfect because he does this while staying true to his version of humanity. von Trier knows this which is why he ends the movie accepting his defeat. He repeats a clip of Leth falling to the ground,

“This is how the perfect human falls.”


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