The Five Obstructions, perhaps one of von Trier’s most optimistic movies, answers that question with the idea that making art–and in this case, films–might hold the key to surviving this world with one’s honor intact. The setup of the movie is that von Trier challenges the filmmaker Jorgen Leth to remake his classic 1967 film “The Perfect Human.” Not only to remake it, but remake it five different times and each time he will be faced with a set of obstructions that von Trier will impose. So, for example, the first obstruction contains the parameter that each shot can only last for 12 frames before moving to a different shot. For those of you who can count film frames, that’s 1/2 second worth of shot before moving to another shot. In the forth obstruction, Leth is required to make a cartoon version, despite his hatred of animation. The rotoscoped version that he puts together with the aid of Randy Cole (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly) is gorgeous, one of my favorites of the obstructions.
What is amazing about this movie is the reminder to all artists, that obstacles, obstructions, strictures, and other such limitations can be incredibly productive, driving the artists to reach new heights of creativity than he/she would otherwise reach. With each set of obstructions (and that word choice is important, as it could just as easily have been “limitations” or “rules”), Leth is at first appalled, clueless as to how he will surmount the challenges that von Trier sets out. But quickly the viewer sees Leth’s mind begin to work, finding ways around, above, under, and through each set of obstructions. The film should be required viewing for all artists and is an inspiring film. I would also argue that this is von Trier’s answer to the problem of being human: we must be true to ourselves and our art regardless of the obstructions in our way. Such as path does not guarantee happiness, but it does ensure a measure of honor, of freedom. I also think that “art” can be applied broadly here, to include the art of living, of being a friend or a lover, the art of family, or the art of politics. This is not simply a message that we should all be “true to ourselves.” Rather, that the answer to the guilt of being human is to create.
This helps explain the tragic structure of Dogville. In the end, it is both Tom’s inability to create, his need to experiment in life rather than sitting down to the hard work of writing, as well as Faith’s choice of destruction that cement the tragedy into place. Before I go further, I must note that Dogville is both an intensely disturbing and technically brilliant film. On the disturbing side, the film is brutal, forcing the viewer to look at images of power and abuse that are not graphic, at least not in relation to any number of other films, but that carry a moral weight that von Trier wields like a cudgel, hitting us in the gut and the heart over and over again. This is not a movie for fun or even enjoyment. Watch it only when you are able to deal with an utterly human, but utterly caustic vision of life.
On the technical side, von Trier uses the barest of settings and shot entirely on a sound-stage, this is a kind of Our Town for movies: the houses are drawn out on the stage, there are a few architectural elements (a church bell, some bushes, and some of the interior bits and pieces of the houses), but everything is, for the most part, quite literally sketched in. But the film stands up to the technique and I, for one, quickly lost sight of the “trick” of it all and became engrossed within the characters and the story. However, there is always a slight remove, or, rather, there are times when the staging does make itself apparent and you are pulled away from identifying with the characters and are able to reflect on their actions from a slight distance. In a sense, the viewer’s position matches Tom’s position: setting forces in motion, judging people and events, but never really becoming a part of it all.
The fact that Tom is a writer who plans great novels and even greater receptions of those novels but who has never written anything, is not inconsequential. I would suggest that it is the cornerstone of von Trier’s argument. Beyond the story of rape and revenge, of innocence and power; beyond the violence and the brutality that people are capable of committing upon one another, the story is set in motion by Tom. While he is an apparently likeable character, he is also sadistic, impotent, inhumanly ethical, and humanly hypocritica man. Much has been made of Nicole Kidman’s role in this film and the brutality she suffers. Less has been made of the brutality she inflicts. What I admire about this film the most is that it offers up a vision of revenge, of retribution and then refuses to condone or criticize this act. However, looking past this one film, and keeping in mind The Five Obstructions, Faith’s decision at the end is suspect because it is a purely destructive act.
This is where we get into some gender problems with von Trier that I’m not really ready to go into beyond the briefest of glosses. Of the films I have seen, women are most likely to be the agents of destruction. Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa) sets the bomb in Zentropa, Medea kills her children, Faith orders the slaughter of the town. Even in Dancer, Selma is responsible, no matter how justified, for killing a man. This is not a facile suggestion that von Trier is sexist or misogynistic. And I would need to see some of his other films as well as reviewing the ones I’ve seen to make a coherent argument about his gender politics. However, I didn’t want to leave this essay without at least mentioning the potential problem of his representation of women.
In conclusion, I wouldn’t recommend his films, except for The Five Obstructions, to everyone. If you want to challenge yourself with films that expose the wet and bloody viscera of the human psyche, if you want to watch a master filmmaker at work, or if you want to be made to genuinely feel something while watching a movie, then Lars von Trier won’t disappoint.