Of Human Bondage: Dogme Godfather Braves an Obstruction Course

Lars von Trier is both revered and reviled for subjecting his characters—and, loosely speaking, his actors—to suffering and martyrdom, but never has he tortured one of his mentors on-screen. In the Venice and Toronto standout The Five Obstructions, von Trier proposes a collaboration with Jörgen Leth, the venerated Danish director of The Perfect Human (1967), a mock-anthropological short that drolly observes the titular young man as he performs such activities as eating, shaving, and jumping. The deal: Leth will helm five remakes of The Perfect Human according to conditions laid out by von Trier, who all but licks his chops as he lays out the stipulations. In the first round, Leth can only have 12 frames per edit; the second must be shot in "the most miserable place on earth" (Leth decides on Bombay's red-light district), and so on. "According to the rules of the game, I can only say yes," Leth told the Voice after the documentary screened in Venice. "If I say no, the film stops there. After that first day, I thought, He says he loves my film, but he's just asked me to commit suicide."

Leth and von Trier first crossed paths in the early '70s at the Danish Film Institute. "Lars was a young student who used all his spare time looking at films on an editing table," recalls Leth, who has directed some 40 shorts and features and now lives much of the year in Haiti. "He told me later that he used to watch The Perfect Human again and again on that table. He asked me, 'Didn't you know that I was adoring you?' " Leth's former students include von Trier's Dogme colleagues Thomas Vinterberg and Susanne Bier; the roots of their infamous "Vow of Chastity" can be traced back to Leth's work. "I prefer to have obstacles, self-imposed limitations that can radicalize the film language," says Leth, who is also a well-regarded poet and sports commentator in Denmark. His previous film, New Scenes From America, screened at this year's Sundance—where, during a seminar on Dogme, Vinterberg and Bier summoned Leth from the audience and called him "Papa," much to his delight.

Does Leth view The Five Obstructions as revenge on Papa? "There's a kind of sadism to it," says Leth. "I knew from the start that this would not be just an homage—he's trying to twist it, trying to get the worst out of me. He's a lovely person, and in our conversations he was always sweet and forthcoming, but behind that was the sting of diabolical evilness."

 
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