The Apprentice

A filmmaker faces down Lars von Trier--and his own failings

Like the beak-sporting spooks hurling lit bowling balls at each other in Mad magazine's "Spy vs. Spy," Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier create an iconic death match in The Five Obstructions, a mock-documentary that finds the two filmmakers devising elaborate ways to destroy one another--and resist that destruction--with fiendish cunning. The trenchcoat-clad operatives in Antonio Prohias's Mad cartoon somehow manage to appear in one episode after another even though they've suffered what looks like scorched-earth annihilation; so, too, the filmmakers.

"Lars considered it therapy," recalls the Danish Leth by phone from a New York hotel. "It was genuinely a wicked thing--an indefensible thing."

In The Five Obstructions, von Trier plays what one hopes is a fictionally enhanced version of his "real self": a preening sadist who sits in his office swilling vodka shots and eating caviar ("On bone china, please...") while concocting devilish torments for his elder colleague, whom he forces to remake a 40-year-old short film--five times over. Each revision of Leth's shapely, almost inhumanely elegant film "The Perfect Human" represents an impossible obstacle over which the lesser known artist must leap by placing a lifeline call to his own reserves of invention, obstinacy, and irrational instinct. The project allows the indeterminately genuine von Trier to simultaneously salute, massage, and shatter the mind of a father figure: One early "obstruction" has the taskmaster insisting that Leth remove "The Perfect Human" from its crisp, studio-bound, Life magazine aesthetic and immerse it in the shit and corpse-rot of the real world--more specifically, the "worst place in the world."

Who's the man? Jørgen Leth (and Others) in 'The Five Obstructions'
Koch Lorber Films
Who's the man? Jørgen Leth (and Others) in 'The Five Obstructions'

"I know Lars didn't want us to use those scrims," says Leth of his Calcutta remake's masterstroke: Leth, portraying the Perfect Human with fiendish irony, sits at a fancy dinner table heaped with delights while India's impoverished appear to look on. It's a who's-inside-and-who's-outside-the-zoo? moment, saved from intolerable cruelty by the single line of plastic that separates the Indians from the Perfect Human--allowing them, in the movie, to be both there and not there in the same image.

"[Lars] wanted us to have a direct confrontation," Leth sighs. "But I wouldn't, couldn't do it. The piece has so much more impact because of the double presence of the extras."

A handsome, sixtyish elder statesman of Denmark, Leth has spent many of his recent years in Haiti--a half-home he had just left, fortuitously, to do promotion for The Five Obstructions, right as Haiti had erupted once again into violence. "The United States absolutely should have intervened in this country," he insists, his voice sounding agitated for the first time in our conversation. "People outside have no concept of the degree of corruption here."

In a society surrounded on all sides by the worship of Aristide, how is it possible for Leth to view the popular support for a highly flawed leader from...well, such a Calcutta banquetlike remove? Was von Trier correct in suggesting that the elder director's emotional distance--like that of another recent documentary subject, The Fog of War's Robert McNamara--was untraversable?

"I don't quite know," answers Leth. "Did I change? I really think that Lars is the one who changed as a result [of the film]. I think it's fair to say that we're seeing the dawn of a humanistic von Trier."

Scripted or not, The Five Obstructions ends with a profoundly moving, heartfelt confession from the director of Dogville--an apology placed, pointedly, in the mouth of Jørgen Leth. Has Leth himself seen a positive result of the harrowing and humbling experience?

"I have been trying to get a new movie off the ground--a movie that is a series of erotic tales," he reports. "The success of The Five Obstructions will certainly help with that. But in terms of some kind of learning or breakthrough of the sort that Lars talks about in the film, it hasn't taken place yet. It may eventually."

 
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