RETRO REVIEW: The Five Obstructions (2003 – Documentary)

Release Poster – Zentropa

The following is a review of The Five Obstructions.

The Five Obstructions is a Danish documentary about a very particular friendship between directors. Danish auteur Lars Von Trier is a big fan of Jørgen Leth — a Danish director — and his 1967 Danish short film The Perfect Human — a very literal examination of a couple. So, Lars Von Trier has this idea — what if we took this gem of a short film and absolutely ruined it? Made a mess of it. 

This is an experimentation between friends and colleagues wherein a devilish taskmaster — Lars Von Trier — tries to humble his tortured subject — Jørgen Leth — by forcing him to remake one of his greatest works five different times under certain restrictions. Every time Leth has to remake the film, Von Trier has set up these obstructions that are meant to act as stumbling blocks for Leth in remaking his short film.

These obstructions can be as simple but difficult as remaking the short film as a cartoon — even though Leth dislikes cartoons and has no interest in learning that type of filmmaking — and as difficult as restricting each shot to last no longer than twelve frames.

You would expect these sort of mind-numbingly difficult obstructions coming from the mind of someone like Lars Von Trier, what you may be surprised to learn is how versatile and talented Jørgen Leth is. Leth does a good job of handling whatever Von Trier throws at him, much to the dismay of the Danish auteur who is desperate for Leth — as weird as it sounds — to make something bad.

This type of documentary obviously will not appeal to everyone. This is a documentary purely for filmmakers and cinephiles. It is an interesting experiment put forth by one of the most controversial auteurs out there and gone through by someone unfamiliar to non-Scandinavian modern audiences. Jørgen Leth proves to be the right man for the job of remaking his own work, but perhaps not capable of giving Von Trier exactly what he wants — his ambitions won’t let him.

It is a uniquely interesting documentary that manages to make every inch of the creative process and the behind-the-scenes work absolutely thrilling. I have quite frankly never seen anything like it. It is a film student’s wet dream — an auteur challenging another filmmaker’s ability to overcome truly destructive stumbling blocks.

The Five Obstructions is an example of a fascinating but perverse attempt at cinematic assisted suicide, where a true auteur mad man intentionally seeks to cripple the product of a director he looks up to. Yet the film goes to show that the most creative minds can make wonders out of even the greatest obstacles, because limitations inspire.

Von Trier seeks to inspire Leth by acts of directorial torture, but, at other times, Von Trier is characterized by a certain sense of dastardliness, in that he not only seeks to inspire — but also wants to undress the the man behind The Perfect Human. Expose the perfect human for all to see. Does Von Trier ever succeed? You’ll have to see for yourself. I couldn’t look away.

9.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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