Jørgen Leth, Lars von Trier’s former mentor, made in 1967 a documentary short entitled Det perfekte menneske. Now Trier uses it for his own documentary—well, “his own,” except that Leth does most of the work again. Instructing his instructor, Trier challenges Leth to redo The Perfect Human in five different ways, observing rules—“obstructions”—that Trier commands as though he were Instructor-in-Chief-in-the-Heavenly-Skies. But artists are always restricted by rules, even impossible ones, as indeed we all are every day. The black-and-white original appears in snippets throughout the color film.
Leth’s first challenge is to remake the film in Cuba with no set. The principal obstacle is that each shot must be 12 or fewer frames—that is, a half-second or less. (“Satanic,” Trier later calls this restriction of his!) After each revision, the two men reunite so that we can see the result and Trier can tell Leth how well he has done and give him the next assignment. Leth is sent to an impoverished section of Bombay, where he dines lavishly in public. The object is to have Leth “empathize” rather than observe at a distance. Liberating him from the Cuba challenge, a long tracking shot follows Leth down a teeming street. “Not a mark has been left on you,” Trier says, referring to the first three filmlets.
Trier proves a charming, impish bully. We love impudent Lars—and so must Leth, to put up with all this.
Another obstruction has Leth making (with technical help) an animated film in Texas. “I hate cartoons!” both men agree. The result, Trier rightly opines, is beautiful.
Trier will make the last revision, with Leth reading from Trier’s script. The entire project has aimed at helping Leth, Trier claims. We half-believe him.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.