N 1967, a fledgling Danish filmmaker, Jorgen Leth, made a 13-minute short called “The Perfect Human.” Shot in cool, high-contrast black and white, the film was a mysterious mock-anthropological study of two supposedly perfect human specimens ? one male, one female ? who perform everyday acts like eating, sleeping and falling down while a stern narrator (Mr. Leth) describes their perfectly banal activities in the patient tone of a college lecturer. “The Perfect Human” is a tiny gem of alienation and misanthropy ? itself so perfect in its visual symmetry, precise editing and antiseptic surfaces that you almost want to hurl a clod of dirt at it, just to bring it down a notch or two.
Four years ago Mr. von Trier invited Mr. Leth to participate in the desecration of his own film. The notion was to take “The Perfect Human” and remake it five times, each time under a different set of arbitrarily imposed restrictions. One version, for example, would be made in Cuba, a country that Mr. Leth had never visited, and would contain no shots longer than 12 frames ? about half a second. Another version would be shot in “the worst place in the world,” chosen by Mr. von Trier ? it turned out to be the red-light district in Mumbai (the former Bombay). Another would be an animated cartoon, a form Mr. von Trier and Mr. Leth both profess to despise.
The results of this intricate and perverse game are on display in “The Five Obstructions,” a feature-length film that opens Wednesday at Film Forum in New York. Some critics have seen the film as the latest of the sadistic practical jokes that Mr. von Trier is said to enjoy springing on his collaborators.
“Sure, it was a provocation,” said Mr. Leth during a recent visit to New York from his home in Haiti. “When I said yes to this film, I was not naïve. I thought, well, it will be fun, and I am ready for it; but I was also sure that he would try to destabilize me in some way. I was not surprised by this. People say he is very sadistic, he’s very mean, and so on. But he’s a good player, and I thought it was a good game. It’s a game with a lot at stake, of course. My reputation, for instance.”
The film contains an unmistakable element of what Mr. Leth called “father-murder.” Mr. von Trier has often cited Mr. Leth’s films as a source of inspiration, and at the Danish national film school, Mr. Leth taught several of Mr. von Trier’s future collaborators in the Dogme 95 movement, among them Thomas Vinterberg (“The Celebration”), Lone Scherfig (“Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself”) and Susanne Bier (“Open Hearts”), though not Mr. von Trier himself. That fateful meeting took place elsewhere.
“He told me this story himself later, several times; in fact, he insists on telling me this story,” said Mr. Leth, with a wry smile. “I was a film programmer in the mid-70’s at the Danish Film Institute, when he was an intern with a job in the archive. Lars was watching `A Perfect Human’ in his spare time at an editing table. He saw it again and again, while he was also watching Carl Dreyer’s `Passion of Joan of Arc,’ which is my favorite film, too. He wanted to talk to me to explain something, and I never had time to talk to him. Now that comes back to haunt me. He never forgets such things. `Five Obstructions’ is Lars’s revenge.” (Mr. von Trier, who is shooting the sequel to “Dogville” in Sweden, wasn’t available for comment.)
Mr. von Trier is of course no stranger to arbitrary rules. The Dogme 95 movement was based on the notorious “Dogme Manifesto,” which, for example, forbids filmmakers to use lighting sources that are not in the frame. But neither is Mr. Leth: “I was obsessed with putting limits on myself, with saying `I can’t do this’ or `I must do that.’ It could be that the camera can’t move, which I’m still practicing in one of my latest films, `New Scenes From America.’ It’s like making a game out of making art. It made for a fresh attitude every time, so that I was not so tempted to repeat something that I knew too well already. I was always seeking to make it harder, to restrict my area of maneuver.”
Mr. Leth’s areas of maneuver have included poetry (he has published seven volumes), journalism (he worked for a time as a foreign correspondent for the Danish newspaper Politiken) and bicycle racing (a longtime fan, he is probably best known in Denmark for his annual live coverage of the Tour de France on television). A resident of Haiti since 1991, Mr. Leth was recently appointed Denmark’s honorary consul to the troubled country, which he continues to report on for Danish publications.
“Haiti has given me a lot,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about life in general and about myself in living there. You’re confronted with life and death every day.”
“The Five Obstructions” has an element of modernist literary experiment, like Georges Perec’s 1969 “La Disparition” (a French novel written without the use of the letter “e”) or Raymond Queneau’s 1947 “Exercises in Style,” in which a trivial anecdote is related in 99 different rhetorical fashions. The marvel of the film, though, is the way it transforms what might have been an idle intellectual joke into a surprisingly moving story of the friendship and mutual respect shared by the two men.
Near the end of the movie, it emerges that Mr. von Trier has cooked up this scheme in part to get Mr. Leth, who suffers from chronic depression, back on his feet and working again. Here, as in many of his own films, Mr. von Trier’s apparent cruelty turns out to contain a powerful dose of genuine feeling.
Mr. Leth said that “The Five Obstructions” helped Mr. von Trier too: “He’s famous for being arrogant and rejecting people, and there are a lot of myths about him. But I think this film does something for him, too, in the way of communicating a certain sensibility. I think maybe it made him more human, vis a vis the outside world.”
So, if “The Five Obstructions” was a game, who, in Mr. Leth’s opinion, was the winner? “I’ll leave that to the audience to decide,” he said. “But I’m happy with the result.”