Jørgen Leth has always lived by his own rules—he’s a poet, a journalist, a filmmaker and a sports commentator, as well as Denmark’s Honorary Consul in Haiti. His talents may be diverse, but in his films he’s single-minded and uncompromising. From his early documentaries on perfection (The Perfect Human, 1967), life (Good and Evil, 1975), bicycle racing (A Sunday in Hell, 1976) and love (Notes on Love, 1989), Leth has worked with a set of strictly observed principles that he lays out for himself at the beginning of each project. It’s a technique that inspired Denmark’s most important group of filmmakers, the Dogme movement.
Earlier this year, Dogme directors Søren Vinterberg (The Celebration, 1998) and Susanne Bier (Open Hearts, 2002) affectionately labeled Leth their “papa” in a seminar on Dogme. Lars von Trier, the author of the Dogme manifesto, has paid homage to his former teacher in a much more mischievous fashion. He proposed a collaboration with Leth: the two would watch and discuss Leth’s classic short The Perfect Human, and then Leth would set out to remake his own film five times, with Trier imposing increasingly difficult “obstructions” for each remake. Trier’s documentary of the process, a film called The Five Obstructions, interweaves footage of the filmmakers’ interactions with Leth’s remakes and excerpts from the original Perfect Human. The obstructions, one of which requires the film to be shot in Cuba, another in the red-light district of Bombay (according to Leth, “hell on earth”), are designed to induce humiliation and failure, releasing what Trier calls Leth’s “inner Munch scream,” but Trier’s mentor manages to use each obstruction to his advantage, creating works of astonishing breadth and imagination. At one point Trier tells Leth he hasn’t suffered enough, so he must make a “crap cartoon” because “I know you hate cartoons, and I don’t like them either.” But Leth remains game, and The Five Obstructions plays out between the two directors like a tennis match that is not about winning but about observing the rules. The fifth obstruction forces Leth to narrate a voiceover to Trier’s edited footage of the entire process, and to take credit as writer and director of Trier’s film. Trier’s final assertion of dominance over Leth, however, turns out to be an incredibly moving, profound and poetic tribute to and acknowledgement of his mentor.
Most of Jørgen Leth’s time is spent outside his native Denmark. He lives in Haiti and has filmed and toured worldwide with his 40-some shorts, documentaries and features (his previous film, New Scenes from America, showed at Sundance this year). Still, his fame is greatest in Denmark, where his particular aesthetic sensibility has inspired an entire generation of internationally acclaimed Danish filmmakers. The Five Obstructions, which opened in New York at the Film Forum on May 26, promises to extend that influence.
Anne Mette Lundtofte In The Five Obstructions you put yourself into the hands of a director who is renowned for torturing his lead actors. In one of the first scenes, you say that Lars Von Trier’s proposal—to remake your early film, The Perfect Human, five times, observing a set of rules or restrictions that he places in your way—is a “total destruction” of the original idea of your work. Why would you agree to submit yourself to such a treatment?
Jørgen Leth Because I thought it would be a challenge. I know that Lars respects my work, as I respect him and his work. When he proposed that we make a film together, I thought it would be a lot of fun. But I’m not naive, and I wasn’t naive going into the project. I knew he could be devious, even evil, so I knew that it wasn’t going to be all fun and games. It was a mixed experience. . . . He tells me that he admires my work and loves the original version of The Perfect Human, and then the first thing he asks me to do in the film is to deconstruct it completely. That’s a shocking proposition. Anyway, it was within the rules we’d set up for our project, so I had to accept his challenge. We had other rules—we had to be brutally honest with each other; it all had to be spontaneous; nothing could be scripted or prepared in any way. Not at any point in the filming process did I know beforehand what his rules for my remakes would be, and not at any point did he know in advance what my responses to his challenges were. In this way, my responses were also a challenge to him.
AML There’s a whole genre of documentaries about the making of films. One of the best, in my opinion, is Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams, about Werner Herzog’s making of Fitzcarraldo, with Herzog’s antihero Klaus Kinski in the main role. The film documents the torturous relationship between director and actor—a relationship that eventually drives them both mad: at one point in the film we see Herzog wave a gun around, threatening to kill Kinski. A more recent example is Lost in La Mancha, which documents Terry Gilliam’s disastrous attempt to film Don Quixote—here the lead actor falls off his horse in the first week of filming and is unable to continue. Even though The Five Obstructions shares certain aspects with these documentaries, it is also a very different film. First, it’s about a remake of a film, and, second, the obstacles you meet as a director are all invented. Isn’t it a perverse premise for a documentary?
JL In a way I was actually thankful that Lars was so mean and pushed me so far, because it forced me to be innovative. It’s like any kind of game: you have to take the rules seriously, otherwise it’s no fun at all. So when he came up with some really difficult obstructions, I had to go beyond myself in my responses. I took it very seriously, and I did things in my work that I would otherwise never have done. For instance, I would never have done a film with 12-frame edits only, as he instructs me to do in the first of his obstructions. You might say that the whole project was an attempt on his part to humiliate me, and I knew from the beginning that I took a risk entering into this project—I risked my own reputation, for starters! It would all be very embarrassing had I not been able to live up to his challenges. But I do think I rise to the occasion, finding a way that is not just a way out, but a way to use the obstruction to make an interesting film. You say that the film is about a remake, but it isn’t really. It’s first and foremost about the creative process of filmmaking. The discussions Lars and I have are a very integrated part of the whole project. In that sense, The Five Obstructions is a documentary about the creative process.
AML You’re both directors, and a great part of the film is about you, as directors, discussing the rules of the game. But at the same time you’re not only a director in this documentary, you’re also an actor who has to execute Lars von Trier’s will. On his set.
JL Yeah, yeah. That was an interesting experience. He did want to treat me like one of his actors, that’s true, but I’m not that easy to work with. Or maybe I am, I don’t know. The interesting thing about this project was that I never knew where it was leading me. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the beauty of art, really—that you don’t know where it will take you. It’s like writing a poem. When I write I never know where I’m going. I only know that I started it. And I’m a very curious person; I like to be taken places I don’t know. It’s a miracle the best of times, and the same goes for filmmaking. I’m applying the same philosophy to my film work. I like to put myself into situations where I lack control from the beginning. That way things happen, they come out of the blue by the sheer chemistry of the situation. And this is the real definition of what’s happening in The Five Obstructions. Lars is the same, and then he’s not. At some point we were talking about the issue of control and not having control, and we both agreed that the beauty of the film was that neither of us knew where it was going. But at the same time Lars is a control freak. He wants to control other people, to set the rules and maneuver them, and in the film I’m no doubt giving myself up to this manipulation—and even to humiliation, you might say. But I did it voluntarily, because I wanted to see what would happen.
AML At one point in the film Lars von Trier gives you what I would imagine to be any documentary maker’s worst nightmare: he asks you to go reshoot the film elsewhere after you’ve just spent months finishing it in Bombay, which was part of the second obstruction. As it turns out, though, the most difficult “restriction” for you is when Trier gives you absolutely free reign—that is, no restrictions at all. Why does artistic freedom constitute the ultimate penalty for you?
JL I’m used to working with formalist rules. In my own work I like to challenge myself with restrictions. For example, I’ll make it a rule not to use the camera in this or that way. It might sound paradoxical, but for me that constitutes freedom: to be able to create something within a certain frame. When I had to respond to Lars’s requirement that I must produce a film with no formal restrictions, I really didn’t know where to go. I felt desperate. I was discussing with my son how I could get started on a film with no rules, and we started talking about my poetry throughout the years, where there are elements of mystery and sex consistently present. I have always loved film noir, and these themes, which I had explored in my poetry through a recurring figure motivated by his inner dark side, provided a wonderful inspiration for The Five Obstructions. It proved very interesting that I could find in my own writing the reminder of an idea that I had always been interested in but had never been close to investigating in film. So I remade The Perfect Human as a film noir. For me it was a very playful solution to the obstruction.
AML Artistic freedom, in fact, gave you the opportunity to create something that you hadn’t been able to achieve using your usual technique of self-imposed formal restrictions.
JL Exactly. It gave me the opportunity to do something I’d always wanted to do.
AML And you had to break your own rules in order to do it.
AML In the film, von Trier says he “chastises you with your own aesthetic principles,” and he believes you will get to a point of some psychological breakthrough through a breakdown of control and confidence if you fail to meet the challenges he puts your way. That’s his particular technique, I believe. But it seems to me that what he wants from you is a spastic performance like the ones he incited from his actors in The Idiots, where a group of adults try to connect with their “inner idiot” by posing as mentally retarded. In the film, the members of the group act out in public, believing that they’re rejecting the normality and conformity of society. But you’re not a spastic kind of person.
JL No, I’m not.
AML And you don’t seem to believe in the idea of spazzing out.
JL No. I don’t believe in that at all. I think it’s romantic of Lars to believe that somehow something pure and unspoiled will rise from a psychological breakdown, from a point of emotional exhaustion.
AML He wants to push you over the edge.
JL And I’m very much into pushing things over the edge, pushing the limits of filmmaking, of documentary making. I think we have a common ambition in that sense, and I think it was best accomplished in the idea of the second challenge in The Five Obstructions. He sent me to, by my own definition, the most miserable place on earth—the red-light district in Bombay—to reshoot The Perfect Human with myself in the lead role as the Perfect Man. He wanted to see how I would react when exposed to extreme misery. Whether I could maintain what he regards as my façade. He wanted me to break down, of course, but I didn’t.
AML You’re of one piece throughout the film.
JL I have an instinct for performing, and that’s what I do when I make films. What Lars is questioning here is my method—the way I deal with or depict reality, by imposing rules and making art out of it. The intention of his film is to see me go from the “perfect” to the “human” by undoing the underlying system structuring The Perfect Human: the ascetic backdrops, the controlled narration, the long takes. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that I’m obsessed with exactly that crossover from perfection to humanity. But I explore it in another way—namely, by working with the distance and limitations that I see as the inherent condition of art. In Bombay, we were shooting the scene from the film that depicts how the Perfect Man eats. I was wearing my best tuxedo and was seated at a table with a luxurious dinner set in front of me: a Chablis, a delicious fish, all silver utensils and fine china. I was seated right in the middle of this street lined with brothels. I had erected a transparent screen that no one could pass through behind the table, framing me and separating my reality from the reality of the street. Behind the screen you see women and children, a lot of colors, a lot of life. I’m well aware of the elegance of this scene, which is what Lars later noted as one of the problems with it: I was prepared for the entire set to break down, people could have torn it down or mobbed the street, but I never came close to breaking down. Keeping distance is a technique, and I’m aware of its emotional costs. I’m very well aware of that. But I think it’s an illusion to think that there’s a deeper and a more true source beneath the way I work—a source that can only be reached by breaking down the technique. It’s romantic, and I don’t believe in it.
AML Might this suggest a difference, even a generation gap, in particular between you and Lars von Trier but also between you and the Dogme movement, which you are often cited to have fathered?
JL There’s definitely a gap between me and the Dogme movement. But they’ve also been influenced a lot by my work, as you can clearly see in the films. I’m pleased with that, as I taught a couple of them in film school and often used my own work as teaching material. Lars always credited me with this, and he clearly does so in The Five Obstructions. So of course I’m flattered. But I myself would never be part of a brotherhood. That’s all long gone. In my younger days I was involved with a group of Danish avant-garde artists, but now it doesn’t appeal to me to be a subscriber to any collective set of rules. I want to make my own rules, and I want to go even further than the Dogme members do. I think there’s something very good, very important in this movement. When I taught in film school I always said that it was important not to get seduced by new technical equipment and possibilities; it becomes easy to think that the more effects you use, the more technical knowledge that you have, the more means to use them in a film, the better the film becomes. I believe in slimming down, getting down to the basic rules, the basic grammar, of filmmaking. What is a sound? What is an image? What does it mean to expose raw film to light? These are the questions I like to ask myself.
AML How do you explore this in your documentaries, which is the genre you mostly work in?
JL I’ve always been driven by curiosity and fascination. That’s what keeps me going as a filmmaker. I don’t like documentaries that take their own answers as their premise. They basically go out and find inspiration for their own arguments, their own prejudice. My documentaries are not like that. They are examples of a more curious, a more explorative attitude toward the whole idea of filming. My drive in my films is to understand, and that’s what makes them different from traditional documentaries of the BBC kind, which are all a product of knowing everything too well, knowing too much. These days I’m curious to know more about the materials of filmmaking. I like to mix video and film and work with the contrast between the two textures. It’s a sensual thing, and it’s a simple thing. But I’m interested in the simple things. That’s also why I’m so fascinated by Haiti.
AML Yes, it’s a very odd choice for a Danish documentary maker to choose to live in Haiti.
JL Of course it’s an odd choice, and everyone asks me why I have chosen to be there. The more horrors they hear about Haiti, the more this question comes up. But I’m perverted enough—in the Lars von Trier sense of the word—to appreciate having lived through the recent political disturbances there. I feel that I’ve learned more about life in Haiti than anywhere else, and I’ve learned more about myself by living in this place. I’m an observer, and I’m grateful to have been a witness to what has happened in Haiti. The Haitian history is full of tragic comedy. I’ve been there for many years and I’ve seen the country through many of its dramatic crises, but this is one of the worst. Aristide is a criminal, and in my opinion the U.S. should have come down on him much harder and much sooner. He pretends to have been elected democratically, but that is a lie. He should have been deposed long ago, and as the Haitian people couldn’t do it themselves, someone should have helped them. But the U.S. was too laid back, supporting the idea that as a democratically elected president he had the right to stay his term. This is a nice democratic thought, but that’s not the way things work in Haiti.
AML And you were reporting from Haiti this last winter?
JL I was reporting for Danish television and the Danish paper Politiken. I was passionately involved in the political situation there, and I believe I helped by reporting my observations from the inside. That’s what you can do when you live in a country like Haiti—you can make a contribution toward others’ understanding of a country that has been plagued by its own rulers by trying to let people know about what is really going on.
AML You’re a documentary maker, you’re a reporter, and you are also a sports commentator. What do all these different angles on the world have in common?
JL They are all driven by the urge to understand what is going on. To understand, and to explain what you see, and to be educated and informed by what is taking place in front of you. I see all of these things as a great drama, a theater where certain characters take shape and a plot evolves. It’s the same in the world of sports. In my documentaries about bicycle races, you see the various cyclists take on different qualities and human virtues as if on a great stage. In the race, they’re not just fighting against each other but also measuring themselves against the history of the race and other legendary performances of the past.
AML You’ve collaborated with a lot of artists, most recently with the musician John Cale, who wrote the score for your 2001 film New Scenes from America. You also worked with Andy Warhol in 66 Scenes From America . How has your experience with artists from other fields than your own differed from your experience with Lars von Trier?
JL One of the things that’s really fascinating to me is working across the arts. Andy Warhol has been a great inspiration for me. So has Duchamp and John Cage. I often get inspired by painters and sculptors rather than by other filmmakers, perhaps because the history of film has been delayed in comparison with that of the other arts. Perhaps because film in America is considered a show business—which is fine, a lot of great films have come out of this commercial condition—but the way I work, I’m mostly inspired by art and poetry. I consider myself part of a generation that has tried to explore how to move outside film into other arts both for inspiration and for opening up to another way of thinking, another philosophy, really. It has been quite natural for me to seek collaborations with artists like John Cale. I found John Cale because some very good friends of mine led me to him, but also because I was looking for this kind of sensibility. Warhol had been so meaningful to me that I wanted the new film about America to have somebody who represented that same kind of sensibility. It couldn’t have been more natural than one from Warhol’s own group of people: John Cale became a very obvious choice. He agreed because the way I suggested our collaboration was interesting to him. I don’t use composers as illustrators. I’m not looking for dramatic emphasis, like Hitchcock did in his work, for example—and he used it to great effect—because I’m curious to know what happens when sound and image do not fit together. I mean, sound for me has always been separate from the image. Sometimes in my films the music is even scored in contrast to the image, or in contrast to the narration. I hate when the music simply illustrates the image, explaining the obvious. That’s why I didn’t show John Cale my film before he wrote the score for it. I gave him some key words and asked in return for a few pieces, fragments, not a complete composition. I wanted his music and my film to be guided by chance. I like to be guided by chance, which is a shocking thing for a filmmaker to say. As a breed they are usually control freaks—Lars von Trier is not alone in that—but I do like to leave room for chance. I filmed New Scenes From America in September 2001 and left New York on September 10. It’s not a film about September 11, but the disastrous events of that day of course penetrate the whole film, color it in a certain way. But that wasn’t intended on my part.
AML It was beyond your control.
JL Everything is beyond my control.
—Anne Mette Lundtofte is a New York-based cultural critic for the Danish newspaper Politiken. The translator of various contemporary Danish poets into English, she has been involved in the organization of numerous bilingual poetry readings and has worked as a consultant for Grand Street and the New Yorker.