By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood April 1, 2014 at 11:32AM
At the same time that the impish Lars von Trier is busy offending, affronting, provoking and outraging audiences with “Nymphomaniacs” I and II, Kino Lorber has chosen to re-release one of the films that got a lot of people excited about von Trier in the first place: “The Five Obstructions.”
Made from 2001-2002, released in 2003 and with co-director credits to von Trier and his older Danish compatriot Jorgen Leth, it’s a film based on a kind of exercise, which turns into conceit, which turns into a meditation on art and morality. Which turns into one of the best docs ever.
In 1967, Leth -- one of Denmark’s most respected documentarians -- made an ironically funny short film called “The Perfect Human." The film's "a little gem that we are now going to ruin,” von Trier says. At the outset of “The Five Obstructions,” Leth is assigned to remake his old film five times, and doing so burdened by the seemingly capricious demands set up by von Trier, all of which force the older director to rethink his story and his characters.
On the first go-round, for instance, Leth is told by von Trier that no edit can be longer than 12 frames. He must answer the questions posed in the original film. Oh yes, and he has to make it in Cuba. With no set.
He responds each time, of course, but in the process Leth is sent scurrying around the world, and his own mind, surmounting obstacles that make little obvious sense as explained here but which result in wildly creative acts of cinema. (“You look good Jorgen,” Von Trier says upon Leth’s initial return to Copenhagen, “that’s a bad sign…”). When von Trier sends Leth out a second time it’s with new marching orders: Make the film in the world’s most miserable place. But don’t show the place in the film. Include the meal featured in the original. But not the woman. Play the man yourself.
The way Leth gets around the von-Trierian dicta is masterful. It makes you fall in love all over again with film, and art, because as random as it sounds, it’s not: Both Von Trier and Leth are exploring the moral and aesthetic choices that confront filmmakers every day, which are made, or ignored, and which define the essence of films and filmmakers. What Leth produces en route to fulfilling his mandate is, not coincidentally, wonderful.
The Kino release due April 22 includes “The Perfect Human” of 1967 and a commentary by Leth, who has been rather quiet since his last doc, “The Erotic Man” met with a tepid reception. He is the longtime commentator on Danish TV during the Tour de France; one of his better-known films -- “A Sunday in Hell” -- is a chronicle of the grueling Paris-Roubiax bicycle race of 1976.