When Lars von Trier drafted his fellow Danish filmmaker Jørgen Leth into the grand cinematic experiment that became The Five Obstructions, von Trier saw it—or at least framed it—as a bit of spiritual and aesthetic rehabilitation for an old friend who’d gotten soft. A legendary artist and poet in Denmark, Leth had been living the life of a well-to-do, globe-hopping celebrity when von Trier got a hold of him, and challenged Leth to remake his beloved 1967 avant-garde short “The Perfect Human” five times, using rules and restrictions set by von Trier. The resulting 2003 documentary about the project ended up doing as much for von Trier’s reputation as Leth’s. After years of riling up the international film community with his boasts, pronouncements, and provocations, von Trier in The Five Obstructions appeared much more playful and approachable: an impish artist just trying to improve himself and others.
The original “The Perfect Human” stars Claus Nissen as an ordinary guy who gets dressed and undressed, shaves, eats, sings, jumps, admires a woman, and thinks out loud about the ways in which he could be better. Shot in black-and-white on a mostly blank stage, “The Perfect Human” is humorous and gently existential, raising questions about what it means to be alive, to be civilized, and to be “perfect.” At the start of The Five Obstructions, von Trier calls Leth’s film “a little gem that we are now going to ruin,” and openly declares his intention to force Leth to make a piece of crap, so the outwardly aloof older filmmaker will stop seeming so removed from the world.
Over the course of roughly two years, von Trier sent Leth around the world with arcane instructions that he hoped would damage both “The Perfect Human” and Leth. He sent Leth to Cuba and told him to make a film where no shot could run more than 12 frames. He sent Leth to Bombay’s red-light district, but ordered him to keep all the misery out of the frame. And in what von Trier assumed would be the most challenging “obstruction,” he had Leth remake “The Perfect Human” as a cartoon. In each case, Leth rose to the occasion, finding the limitations perversely liberating. (Leth had the hardest time when von Trier ordered him to remake “The Perfect Human” with no rules.) As The Five Obstructions rolls on, von Trier gets more and more frustrated with Leth’s stubborn triumph over the true purpose of the project: to shake Leth’s confidence.
As a piece of filmmaking, the documentary The Five Obstructions is nowhere near as artful as Leth’s films-within-the-film. This larger movie is just a straightforward record of what happened, cutting together the original “The Perfect Human,” the remakes, the on-set footage of Leth at work, and the bitter-but-good-natured postmortems between Leth and von Trier—all lined up chronologically. But the reason The Five Obstructions lingers as an essential part of von Trier’s filmography—even more so than Leth’s, really—is because it reveals so much about why von Trier has worked the way he has in the past, with artificial “Dogme 95” rules and the like. It’s never been about publicity stunts, or about positioning himself as a pretentious artiste. It’s more that von Trier always wants to make something great, and knows the only way he can do that is to force himself to become spontaneously inspired, filming what’s in front of him at the moment. And like all friendly zealots, von Trier needs the validation of other people following his lead.
The DVD includes the original short in full, which ideally should be watched before the main feature, since a lot of “The Perfect Human” never makes it into The Five Obstructions. (It would’ve been nice if each of the “obstructions” had also been included in full as well, as standalone selections.) But the big extra on the disc is a Leth commentary track, in the form of conversation between Leth and an interviewer. The commentary frequently drops away, but whenever Leth’s asked a question about what’s on the screen, he offers added insight into the push-pull between himself and von Trier, and how Leth approached the project as a game, while von Trier approached it as a way to get his friend to confront his weaknesses.