The success of The Five Obstructions depends almost distressingly on the audience’s cheeky sense of bad faith toward Lars von Trier (the myth, as opposed to the man, given that he wears his auteurist authoritarianism in the same manner of the Stroheim from whom he stole his bogus “Von”). And in that sense, the film contains von Trier’s most persona-clarifying performance since he more or less told the 1991 Cannes Festival jury to fuck off after his Europa went home with a runner-up citation instead of the Palme d’Or. Nestling in that woozy territory between documentary and essay-film whimsy, the film’s central conceit is that von Trier has concocted a diabolical challenge to artistically bind his fellow Dane filmmaking idol Jørgen. Von Trier, portrayed with total self-awareness as the impudent, brash, fiery bad boy of today’s art cinema, shaking conventions as he would apple trees (provided the apples were really festival prizes), tells Leth that he wants him to deign the chance to remake his 1967 short The Perfect Human (shown in clips throughout Obstructions, we take von Trier at his word when he calls it “the perfect film”). Not just one simple remake, but one broken into five pieces, each segment submitting to a barrage of limitations. For example, the first chunk can only be composed of takes that last no longer than 12 frames—for fun, listen to the arrogant film students in your audience, the same ones who will guffaw without inhibition at each Von Trier meta-reference, lean toward their plebe companions to inform them breathlessly, “That’s only a half-second!”
Between each challenge, the two meet up again, screen Leth’s latest piece of homework, and exchange notes (as well as shit-eating grins). As each challenge comes back in Leth’s favor (with the notable exception of the 3rd obstruction, where von Trier cruelly gives Leth total freedom, resulting in a ponderous, pretentious mess), the film’s carefully laid artifice becomes, at least on the surface, a fascinating statement on the nature of the artistic thought process, a testament to Leth’s undying sense of can-do. Far more cunningly, it’s also an underhanded apologia for von Trier’s own ruthless approach to filmmaking. Desperate situations call for desperate measures, and so when Leth manages to turn every obstacle into an opportunity to break the rules (and, thereby facing von Trier/status quo’s castigations of “you made a great film, but not the one I wanted; I want you to make a bad film”), it’s not difficult to weigh Leth’s cat-who-ate-the-canary self-satisfaction to von Trier’s own uncompromising recent life and times. (Even Dogville, which somehow managed to garner acclaim that’s relatively universal, against the odds of its context, has been somewhat more coldly received in Europe than in the States.)
This role-playing viewpoint is a heady proposal, but the film’s winningly obtuse execution invites highly interpretive audience involvement. In fact, the film’s seemingly obvious and embarrassingly tidy denouement, in which von Trier splices together a corny montage of Leth-at-work footage and forces Leth to read a letter in the first person that von Trier essentially writes to himself (and then makes him take director’s credit despite being totally von Trier’s work), is as likely to inspire passionate and divisive opinions as those of von Trier’s own films. Is von Trier simply forcing Leth to talk the whole undertaking down to the level of fifth-graders in one final fit of pique? Or is it meant, after spending an entire film struggling to connect with the art-house majority on their own terms (a claim I think is easily bolstered by the film’s extraordinarily warm reception at the screening I attended), to finally sever for once and for all his own obligations to audience acceptance by showing the fundamental mawkishness that can develop if an artist gets too chummy with an audience that loves and respects him?
The Five Obstructions is a 2003 Danishdocumentary film directed by Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth. The film is conceived as a documentary, but incorporates lengthy sections of experimental films produced by the filmmakers. The premise is that von Trier has created a challenge for his friend and mentor, Jørgen Leth, another renowned filmmaker. von Trier's favorite film is Leth's The Perfect Human (1967), and von Trier gives Leth the task of remakingThe Perfect Human five times, each time with a different "obstruction" (or obstacle) imposed by von Trier.
It has been said that "[b]oth this film and Dogville show a more mature von Trier, one who is more aware of and accountable to the full implications of the torture, suffering and victimization he has employed in his films, especially in exploring how easily those who victimize others in the name of righteousness become victims [of] their own self-righteousness."
- Leth must remake the film in Cuba, with no set, and with no shot lasting longer than twelve frames, and he must answer the questions posed in the original film; Leth successfully completes this task.
- Leth must remake the film in the worst place in the world but not show that place onscreen; additionally, Leth must himself play the role of "the man." The meal must be included, but the woman is not to be included. Leth remakes the film in the red light district of Mumbai, only partially hiding it behind a translucent screen.
- Because Leth failed to complete the second task perfectly, von Trier punishes him, telling him to either remake the film in any way he chooses, or else to repeat it again with the second obstruction in Mumbai. Leth chooses the first option and remakes the film in Brussels, using split-screen effects.
- Leth must remake the film as a cartoon. He does so with the aid of Bob Sabiston, a specialist in rotoscoping, who creates animated versions of shots from the previous films. As such the final product is technically an animation but not a cartoon. Nevertheless, von Trier considers the task to be completed successfully.
- The fifth obstruction is that von Trier has already made the fifth version, but it must be credited as Leth's, and Leth must read a voice-over narration, ostensibly from his own perspective but in fact one written by von Trier.
Collaboration with Martin Scorsese
In 2010 Variety reported rumors that, Lars von Trier, Martin Scorsese, and Robert De Niro planned to work on a remake of Scorsese's film Taxi Driver with the film made with same restrictions as were used in The Five Obstructions. In 2014 Paul Schrader, the screenwriter for Taxi Driver said that it was not being made. He said, "It was a terrible idea" and "in Marty's mind, it never was something that should be done."
The Five Obstructions received strongly positive reviews from critics. It holds a 79/100 on Metacritic, and Rotten Tomatoes reports 88% approval among 59 critics. It was later voted one of the 30 best films of the 2000s in a poll for Sight & Sound.