The Five Obstructions

Mette Hjort*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Chapter in book/report/conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

    1 Citation (Scopus)


    Released in 2003, to considerable critical acclaim, The Five Obstructions (De fem benspænd) is a coauthored avant-gardist work that has intrigued philosophers on account of its philosophical dimensions. The Five Obstructions began as an e-mail invitation, issued by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier to his former teacher and mentor, the older, quite accomplished, yet far less well-known filmmaker, Jørgen Leth. The invitation, more specifically, was to participate in a cinematic game, with general parameters established in advance and further rules to be unilaterally produced by Trier (while interacting with Leth) in the course of the game. The general parameters dictated that Leth would remake his celebrated twelve-minute modernist nonfiction film from 1967, The Perfect Human (Det perfekte menneske) five times, following obstructive rules laid down by von Trier. The aim of the rules, it was clear from the start, would be to trip up and thwart Leth, as the term “obstruction” itself suggests. While von Trier’s e-mail says nothing about the ultimate purpose of the proposed collaborative project (although it does envisage a scenario that would generate “the most fun”), Leth’s positive response points to a rationale having to do with creativity: I can see an interesting development between film one and six, the route around the obstacles, the conversations, I’m sure we’ll get a lot out of this. It is exciting. I look forward to your obstructions. I really like the idea of having to change, adjust, and reduce according to given conditions in the process. (DFI 2002: 31) The idea of undertaking a collaborative project was first discussed by von Trier and Leth during the celebratory launch of a new Zentropa subsidiary devoted to nonfiction filmmaking, Zentropa Real. As is the case with many of von Trier’s initiatives, the establishing of Zentropa Real in 2000 was marked by manifesto-like statements, in this case not only by von Trier himself, but also by Leth, Børge Høst, and Toger Seidenfaden. Von Trier’s pronouncements introduce a concept of “defocus,” the point being to learn how to set aside “simple patterns,” “solutions chosen in advance,” and routine “techniques” in order somehow to reach and rediscover life that has not, as the director puts it, been “drain[ed of] life” (DFI 2002). The thrust of von Trier’s text, as was the case with the Dogme manifesto in 1995, is polemical, the target here being “journalists,” and the media more generally, who “kneel before the altar of sharpness, draining life out of life in the process” (DFI 2002), an admittedly ambiguous phrase. Much as in the case of Dogme 95, where dominant conventions were opposed to authenticity and truth, the point seems to be to point to the distorting role of practices that have become the norm. While Leth recently claimed that von Trier’s concept of “defocus” played no decisive role in the making of The Five Obstructions, the manifesto’s insistence on a search for “something between fiction and fact” does in fact have a direct bearing on the collaborative film. As Leth himself admits, the aim throughout was to work “exactly on the border between fiction and non-fiction” (Hjort 2008a: 147). For present purposes, suffice it to note that The Five Obstructions is framed by manifesto-like statements inviting reflection on the nature of fiction and nonfiction filmmaking, which reflection is further supported by many of the features of the collaborative film itself. This aspect of the film has not been lost on film critics, with Mark Jenkins pointing out, for example, that The Five Obstructions “contains much film-theory perversity” (2004). As we shall see, The Five Obstructions is a work that itself explores thoughts about, and thus prompts critical thinking about, a remarkable number of aesthetic and cinematic issues, including creativity and its conditions of possibility, style, and authorship. I shall return to these and other issues in a moment, in the context of a survey of the philosophical analyses to which The Five Obstructions has given rise, to date. A recurrent worry in discussions focusing on film’s possible philosophical dimensions is the thought, attributed to an imaginary skeptic by Noël Carroll, that “the moving image trades in a single case, and one case is not enough to warrant the sort of general claims that are the stuff of philosophy” (2006: 175). One of the unique features of The Five Obstructions is that this film thwarts the single-case approach of much filmmaking and effectively creates the conditions under which an inductive, and philosophical, process of thinking can emerge. Let us look a little closer at the various elements that make up The Five Obstructions. In this film, for which von Trier and Leth are jointly credited as directors, the viewer sees a series of excerpts from Leth’s original film; the remakes in full, each lasting about five minutes and referencing a particular segment of the original film; scenes documenting the interaction between von Trier and Leth, von Trier’s assessment of Leth’s remakes, and von Trier’s formulation of the various obstructive rules; and scenes documenting Leth’s making of the remakes. The obstructive rules, many of them unwittingly suggested by Leth’s casual and initially trusting expression of preferences, are as follows: • Obstruction 1: "12 frames; answers; Cuba; no set” - That is, Leth is to remake The Perfect Human in Cuba, and without a set; takes are to be limited to twelve frames; and the questions articulated in the original film’s voice-over narration are to be answered.

    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film
    EditorsPaisley Livingston, Carl Plantinga
    Place of PublicationLondon
    Number of pages10
    ISBN (Electronic)9780203879320
    ISBN (Print)9780415771665, 9780415493949
    Publication statusPublished - 17 Oct 2008

    Publication series

    NameRoutledge Philosophy Companions

    Scopus Subject Areas

    • Arts and Humanities(all)


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