Sylvielin's Blog

The Perfect and the Insane : Interview with Jorgen Leth

Posted in Interviews with Filmmakers by sylvielin on May 3, 2010
(Interview realised by Sylvie Lin, in collaboration with Jady Long)

Jorgen Leth was Lars Von Trier’s teacher.(Image taken from the Chinese version of the interview published on ‘Film Appreciation’ journal(Taipei)).

“I always wanted a film to be as free as writing poetry. As free as opening the structure and opening to changes, to sudden chance and impacts. I think this film has these probabilities. It is very fresh in its structure. It’s not preconceived. It goes where it goes.”

—- Jorgen Leth (extract from the interview)

From the same time
by Jorgen Leth
(with kind permission of Jorgen Leth)

I take one sentence and put it after
the other one. I build up a sequence.
I love you, I’m smoking a cigarette.
I touch your face, twist your lip
out of shape and taste your food, the place
is a restaurant in Europe. From another
time I see the woman smoking a cigarette,
extreme closeup of the cigarette’s glow
like in a film by Godard. There shouldn’t
be many things in this piece.
The other day I saw the outermost room
in a museum on a slope at the sea.
The furniture out in the air, out among
the branches, early afternoon.
What was it she wanted to be?
Sometimes, she said, a cup of almond-tea
waiting to be drunk.
Sometimes oil, olive-oil,
to be spread out on a pan.
Sometimes a door in the morning
with a hole in the middle waiting
to be opened by white paper
and envelopes with stamps upon them.
It’s all from the same time.
It’s all from the same time.
It must be together.


It took about three years to finish “The Five Obstructions”. Whereas the film is an integrated form, actually you kind of worked back and forth, interacting with Lars Von Tiers at the same time. In the course of making the film, there were certainly some conflict, etc. Did you ever want to change your mind, or…? Do you think that in some way the process of making the film can be parallel to happening/performance art?

AnsYes. For me there is a lot of relevance to compare to performance art/happenings. I was very early inspired by artists like Andy Warhol, also a lot of this kind of collective art. I’ve always been interested in the process, and the creative process. I think this film is a wonderful opportunity to see a work in progress as the work itself. It was very open in the structure. I never knew where it’d go. This is an ideal for me. I’m also a poet. When you write poetry, you start in the upper left corner, and then you see what happens. I never plan where it goes. I never know where it goes. I see what happens. It’s my favorite concept to be open to whatever is happening. In that way, poetry is a very free form.
I always wanted a film could be as free as writing poetry. As free as opening the structure and opening to changes, to sudden chance and impacts. I think this film has these probabilities. It is very fresh in its structure. It’s not preconceived. It goes where it goes. You made sudden jumps which I didn’t really plan. Because in this film, the deal was to be totally honest . We didn’t script anything. I didn’t know what Lars was going to tell me. He probably didn’t know how I was going to answer him. It’s very related in that way to happenings and what you later call performance art. Absolutely. It is very satisfying for me to work that way.

You mentioned that your idea of filmmaking is to be as open as poetry writing, a free form. But in “The Five Obstructions”, Lars mentioned when you taught him in the film school, you mentioned the rules. In your point of view, what are the limits of filmmaking?

Ans : I like limits. I like rules. I like to make limitations for myself when I start to make a film. In a couple of films, I had decided that the camera cannot move, while in some films, I say, editing is not important; you just put it in what order the chance gives you. I like to make this kind of limitations. That’s what Lars is referring to. That’s what I always taught at film school: to have limitations; to make rules for yourself. To the contrary to the concept that when many young people come to film school and think that the more technique they get, the better the film becomes. But that’s untrue. It’s much more interesting to limit yourself. This goes back to a kind of concept of working within the basic elements of film: turning everything upside down.
From my very first film, I’ve always been obsessed with doing everything in a different way, and to question the basic elements, to say: what is image, what is sound, what is editing. In this film, I have the wonderful opportunity to create an innovative approach to using the storytelling and film language. I think what Lars refers to is crediting me for teaching this rules of game as a part of the influence on Dogma.

What is your opinion on Dogma and Lars’ films?

Ans : I think Dogma has been an important movement; it has given a lot of inspirations to a generation of filmmakers in many other countries. They came out with a very strong statement about the kind of ‘poor’ film, a film limited to certain very strict rules. That’s very healthy. ‘Poor’ is like to say ‘no money’ and ’stop for a moment, and see what you can do’. I always felt that rules were liberating, that you became more free. Some very good films came out of Dogma and it inspires other filmmakers.
About Lars’ films, I don’t like, for instance, Dancing in the Dark where his tendency to calculation and to play on people’s emotions like melodrama becomes too obvious. I like Dogville Breaking the Waves, Epidemic and especially Kingdom. I think that’s his best work. But I think he has a tendency to calculate and sometimes that backfires on the temperature of the work and the work becomes too cold.
In THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS, I think he’s very playful. I’m grateful for his invitation to a risky game. He’s trying to corner and destabilize me, and I’m answering and responding. In the beginning, I’m aware that he has tendency to be evil or devious. But I’m playing with that. I never doubted that I would be able to come up with response to his challenges.

You talk about that limit can be liberating and you accepted this risky game. In “The Five Obstructions”, you also talk about that you encounter the state of mind close to breakdown, because you were confronting some challenge you didn’t want to face before. So the whole process of making the film is also like self-discovery, very deep into yourself as well Lars’ self.

Ans : I agree. I don’t agree this term ‘therapy’, but definitely, when you are true to yourself and try your best to put yourself at stake, to risk your own reputation and to test your ability of dealing with really testing situations, like Bombai, then there are certainly some marks of truth in such situation; you learn something about yourself. That’s basic element in all life : to put yourself at risk, to take chances and to try to explore the possibilities with the question. In this film, I think the basic learning process is that the more difficult a task you make for yourself, the better result you can achieve, because you are really trying your best.

In the fifth episode of “The Five Obstructions”, you were reading the narration written by Lars. Were the images edited by you or by Lars?

Ans : By my editor. I totally trust my editor. It’s my crew who is doing the film, not Lars’ crew. Neither Lars nor me has seen it before it’s finished. Neither of us wanted to see it in advance. I think I couldn’t see it because it was about myself. In this situation, I’m told I couldn’t interfere, because this was Lars’ film. It’s up to him to see if he wants to interfere the editing or not. This was the tricky part of the 5th obstruction. He wants to credit me as a director of that part while I’m not. You know this is the game he plays.
And he wants me to read the text written in a very tricky way. That’s as if me writing the letter to him. Of course in the beginning I thought this is a mind game. It would be very difficult for the public to understand this. That’s what I thought first. Later I think it’s a very touching and emotional part of the film. He’s revealing a lot about himself, doing a kind of mental striptease in that text and admitting his vulnerability… I think, basically, that’s where people see that he’s more human.

The 5th section is really surprising because Lars wanted to put you in this obstruction to make you reveal yourself or your human side, but at last it’s himself. It’s like an interesting reversion.

Ans : It’s a fantastic reversion. It’s a very tricky, wonderful text, and full of surprise. I didn’t expect so much of it when I read it, but when I see it afterwards, I think it’s a really wonderful epilogue to the film.

At first, it’s like a tricky game. At last, it’s like a confession.

Ans : Exactly. That’s what I called mental striptease.

In the 2nd episode, you were the actor acting the role of the original “The Perfect Human” whereas originally you were the director directing the actor. Also, in the 2nd episode, it’s again similar to a kind of action or performance art. Do you think you surpass the original actor in any way, or there’s any difference in between?

Ans : I don’t know. It’s Lars’ choice. He wants me to be exposed directly to this conflict of miserable and perfect, direct in the situation. He really wanted for breakdown or something like that. Yet I can’t refuse. That’s in the rules of the film.
I am a poet and in a way also participate in performances earlier, so it’s not impossible for me to accept that. I understand why he gives this to me. It’s absolutely a correct choice for him to put me there, hoping to see the marks of what’s happening, maybe a breakdown, maybe sensitive reaction, etc. I’m very nervous for the situation.The only thing I can do is to perform as controlled as I can. And I really risked that the surroundings would interrupt the scene anytime. I’m very aware of the risk. If the scene would be interrupted, I would have to accept that also as part of the film. In that way, I feel like performing artist.

Do you think in any way, “The Five Obstructions” deconstructs “The Perfect Human”?

Ans : Yes. That’s what Lars wants. I think he’s more calculating than me yet I can guess his motives. Many interesting things in this cocktail come from his idea to do this film, and his choice of material. You could psycho-analyze this : what is his role? Maybe he’s a fa(r)ther murderer; an attempted fa(r)ther murder is an Oedipus complex in a way. And he’s very conscious of what he’s doing. He admits that he has respect and admires my early work. He’s not holding back on his admiration of respect. But still at the same time, maybe exactly because of that, he wants to tear it down if I’m trying to analyze what he’s doing. It’s complicated but I think that’s very interesting and dramatic. I cannot think if he really wants me to breakdown, to deconstruct me totally, or he expects me to come up with adequate, complete artistically fulfilled responses. I don’t know. I don’t ask him afterwards. I just act within the frame of the film. We have this discussion in the film, not outside. So everything is inside the film.
So I have to keep my part of the deal. And I don’t really know what he expected, and if he’s satisfied. But after the whole film was finished, he said he’s very happy with it. He said ‘it’s your film, Jorgen’. It’s impossible to know what he expected and hoped for.
I believe that he hope for, as I did, to make a good film. But if I had submitted myself to some of the terms of this story that he’s doing, then it’d not have been a good film. It’s my self preservation, it’s my pride or whatever, it’s my decision to do good film, a film defined for me satisfying for myself, that makes it the film. If I have submitted myself…. as he wants me to do, to breakdown,… to my opinion, it’d not have been a good film.
I could also feel that in the process, I felt that I have to defend the possibility of doing a really good film. I feel that’s why I refused to go back to Bombai. Because I feel if I was to go back there, I was losing, and that’d be ridiculous. And I felt that I’d lose one opportunity, one obstruction, and I didn’t want to do that. At that time, I was committed to myself to completing the film in the way you feel it’s going to be good & interesting.

When you made “The Perfect Human”, you had certain idea about how you wanted to make the film and represent the subject. With “The Five Obstructions”, you remake the original film into five sections. Do you think the remade version will somehow affect the uniqueness of the original film?

Ans : What I’m really interested in is the idea of remake and recycling, an idea that is not totally new for me. I like to recycle. In that way I feel more close to painting, to art, than to filmmaking. I like to return to motives, and see if I can get a different depth in the same motive. I like to go back, and I feel satisfied and proud that “The Perfect Human” has such a substance that I could play with. So I’m not worried at all about the delusion of the originals. That’s just s thing to play with. I’m only satisfied to that the original film has such a substance that it doesn’t suffer by being recycled, played with and deconstructed. I like deconstruction. I think it’s interesting. New things come out of it. The variations are then become part of the whole.
To further the notion of painting : it moves me and touches my heart to see Picasso return to one single motif hundreds times. Like in his high age, he’s eternally repeating the motif of the artist himself, working, observing or painting the model, a woman. He could paint this hundreds of times without repeating himself. I think for me it’s the ultimate that you can still find a motif so revolting to get back to, and to find new meaning.
This was clear when I did “New Scenes from America” some years ago, when I did the impossible act of going back to the “66 Scenes” and to exactly the same places, and in some cases, looking at the same people again. Sometimes it’s very risky business because the first film was declared a classic. So why would I go back and try to remake ? I felt it was really on the edge, but it was rewarding because I felt there was new reflections to get from the same motif, in the same way a painter gets back to a motif. In the arts, it’s absolutely an accepted practice that painter goes back to the motif. I’m seeing this tendency in my own films. You can see it within “The Five Obstructions” where the same things are recycled, the same dialogue, the same scene with the jackets, smoking cigarettes, very simple acts. I’m not interested in a lot of story-telling but in simple acts which I express, expressive. That’s the resemblance to the artists’ working.

Do you think this kind of remake, here “The Five Obstructions”, can be seen as post-modernist, whereas “The Perfect Human” can be seen as modernist?

Ans :laughI wouldn’t label like this. I think “The Perfect Human” was definitely a very modern work when it came out, because it was a film made in an empty room. There was no story line. It was like an observation of life. It was definitely very modern. It was more related to my poetry than my other films. I made it also in a reaction to the conventions of the documentaries films as I said before. I wanted to have a pure kind of language. I was inspired by commercials and publicity films, which are sometimes working with the isolation of objects and persons in an empty space. So this was very conscious for me. I think it could be called modernist. But what I did with the variations and remakes, I don’t know. Maybe it could be correctly termed as postmodernism. But it doesn’t really make sense for me that…

Among all the films you made, many are kind of anthropological, like documentaries of certain people, portraits, or certain situation. But in these films, you always tried to experiment with certain element.

Ans : I always try to do something different from film to film, of course. But with the style I initiated in “The Perfect Human”, I have developed it further in other films which I related to it. Some of them are included in the animation parts of “The Five Obstructions”. There you see a couple of scenes from other films of mine : “The Perfect Human”, “Good and Evil” from 1975 and “Notes on Love” from 1989. They are very related to the same kind of isolation of people who are addressing the camera and are doing very simple acts, like smoking a cigarette, taking off the jackets, etc.
In other films, I worked in a more richly textured style with the subjects from real life, like sports. I’ve done a number of films about cycle/bicycle sport. I have done films about dance, modern dance, portraits of artists, etc. So I have worked with a lot of different textures, different styles. But I’d say all of them are personal films. I’ve never done duty films. I’ve always, only done films that I wanted to do myself. I never asked others what to do. Many of my films could be called “essays”, essays of trying to describe part of the world, part of reality or something, in different… what I call different aesthetic strategies. So there’ll always be a clear aesthetic strategy. I always like to play with open hands, and every film of mine is born with the style. The style is born with the story. It’s never the other way around. It’s always more interesting to work within a certain style, a certain method, a certain story-telling strategy.
So for instance, when I once did a fiction film in Haiti, about a foreign correspondent, back in 1982, I brought the actors to Haiti, and then I exposed them to situations from real life, from political reality. That was the experiment in that film. But still it was a feature, fictional film, so I brought the fiction and put it in the real environment and situation, and use the real situations. I’m always trying to play that experimental approach to the storytelling.

You said that your orientation is more to counter the mainstream, like your documentary-making approach is to oppose to the social realistic documentary-making. Is the idea also the central idea of your poetry, and what kind of representation it leads to in your poetry?

Ans : Yes. Absolutely. In my poetry, I’m also experimenting with the language and forms. There are many inspirations. But I’d say I’m an avant-garde poet from the start. I experimented with putting languages together and using trivia and ready-made inspired Marcel Duchamp. Later I’ve been inspired by William Burroughs. I think that reached my idiom in poetry, my own style. Very often, my poetry contains visions of images. These visions are inspirations for my own filmmaking. So there’s a kind of common ground between the poetry and the film. It goes two ways. First of all, some of my poetry contains ideas of films that cannot be made, impossible to make. That gives me a high horizon for what I want to do in film. Because I always think well, it can be wilder, more crazy and more poetic. That’s one way two things affect each other. The other way is, in my recent poetry, I reflect the process of work in films. In my poetry, I’m telling stories about what I did on film. I’m also sometimes making portraits of other films, like Godard’s films, Brunel’s films, etc., trying to describe them in poetry. One of my films is also a portrait about a famous Danish poet.

What’s your idea about the relation of sound to image?

Ans : That’s very interesting. From the beginning, image is one thing, and sound is another thing. In my very first film, it was a portrait of a famous jazz pianist, Bud Powell. I put the sound wrongly. I wanted to do that. I always wanted to work with counterpoint between sound and image. I think they’re two equally important elements of film. For me, it’s not that obvious that sound is just illustrating image, it could also be something that’s contradicting the image. It’s the same with music. When I work with composers, I tell them what kinds of feeling I want without showing them my film. Besides, I never use music to dramatize or to illustrate. I have a film, and I have a number of pieces of music, like not chronological or anything, not related to certain theme.
I worked with very important musicians like John Cale, of course who reminds me of Andy Warhol, one of my favorite heroes. He made music for my film New Scenes from America. In another film, I worked with Antonio Carlos Jobim, the great bossa nova composer. I also worked with the Danish composer, Henning Christiansen who made music for “The Perfect Human”. He has also worked with German artist Joseph Beuys. So it’s related in a way to other arts. I never use film composers. I’m not interested in working with them, who think they should just serve the film. I want to use music as having its own value, independently.
John Cale was important for me, with his background from Velvet Underground, withLou Reed and Andy Warhol. The connection is Andy Warhol. In a film I did in 1982, “66 Scenes from America”, I’m very proud of the scene where I have Andy in that film. He’s eating a hamburger in that film. It’s a scene which takes four minutes. One single shot, eating a hamburger. It’s a scene I’m really proud of. It’s one of the highlights of my films. He’s a hero, a cult person for me. He’s been a tremendous inspiration for my work. So I was very happy, and I was persuading him to participate in one of my films.
Get back to John Cale. Warhol died several years ago. The next, I made a new film from “66 Scenes from America”, it’s called “New Scenes from America” in 2002. So I couldn’t get Andy Warhol, and I asked John Cale to do the music. It’s a kind of homage, like a greeting to the era of Andy Warhol.

What does Andy Warhol mean to you as you see him as a cult, a hero, whereas Andy Warhol is conceptually and culturally influential and powerfully inspiring?

Ans : It’s difficult to say what he means to me precisely. But his sensitivity is something I feel related to. There are some artists you feel more related to then others. Like the kind of brotherly feeling of exploring the same kind of feeling, or the same kind of feeling, first of all & same kind of touch. He is one of them. Jean-Luc Godard is another one.
To answer a little more, I’d say that what I like very much in his work is the tendency to take things out of the context, and to give them a special new meaning and a new concept. You can see it’s something that I share; the idea that I share, to take things, like Marcel Duchamps, from ready-mades, take them out of the context, to celebrate their objective space and form in another context. That’s very interesting for me.

Either in “The Five Obstructions” or in some other interviews, you said that you tend to be an observer, like you always take a distance, look at things in thinking about the film. But with the previous questions, you also talked about the state of mind when your were making “The Five Obstructions”, like in Bombai. You said you knew that there might be breakdown or accident, but you have to be a performer. It’s interesting that you can actually take a kind of distance.

Ans : It’s close to the definition of art that there’s a strong elemental observation. At least I don’t understand Lars when he thinks that this distance should disappear. I don’t understand it. I think it’s a very romantic notion. That’s what I’m saying in the film, and I also think so. The ability to be concerned & to be involve, and being very close to things that are happening in real life should definitely not exclude that you are observing what’s happening. For me, that’s central in the process of creating art. So you observe what you doing, and you also observe what’s happening and you observe what you doing yourself in the situation. It’s essential, basically. It’s essential to have this inbuilt distance in your work. I cannot think of… Of course there’s different amounts of distance in different works, some works were on the meltdown relation to the object, but to me they are not the most interesting.
But maybe Lars is thinking about himself. He has such a calculated distance to everything he’s dealing with, to my opinion. He’s playing with melodrama; he’s playing with the manipulation of other people’s feelings. But he himself is a calculator. That’s part of his quality as an artist, I think. Sometimes it goes wrong; sometimes it goes well. But this is probably … When he wants to push me toward some kind of invisible limits, he’s probably playing with that idea himself, to expose himself to what’s happening. So he’s using me as a medium for test. I’m aware of that.
But I’m not going to be hypnotized by him.
Obviously you are more conscious and in a way more in control of the situation.
Distance and engagement do not exclude each other at all, but intertwine totally. You’re more able to be actually engaged in a thing when you still have a kind of inbuilt distance, I think.

We know that Lars doesn’t dare to take airplanes, whereas you are more like an anthropologist and traveling a lot. Anthropology and travel has very close connection.

Ans : I’ve always been attracted to anthropology. I started with anthropology. Anthropology is another way of systematizing curiosity. I think the most important drive for me is my curiosity. By applying anthropological metrology, it makes sense. But I’m not a serious anthropologist. I like to play with the attitude of being an anthropologist. I see myself as being a creative anthropologist.
My next film will be a film about “The Erotic Human”. In that film, again I want to play the role of a storyteller being a kind of crazy anthropologist, making simple questions about life. “What does erotic life mean to people”, where do you find it, where do your find example, how is it in one culture compared to in another culture. Very simple, basic questions. With the same kind of naïve look as in “The Perfect Human”. In fact “The Perfect Human” was the inspiration for the idea of the “The Erotic Human”. It was a producer in Denmark said, “Jorgen, you should do a film. You’re the one who should do a film about erotic life in the same style you’re doing The Perfect Human”.

Up to now, the audience in Taiwan is more familiar with Lars’ films. Most of his films are introduced to Taiwan. But it’s until “The Five Obstructions” that we find you are the mentor behind him. In Denmark, the film tradition established by Carl Dreyer has influenced many Danish filmmakers, with Lars among them. How about you?

Ans : I admire Carl Dreyer very much. His “Jeanne d’Arc” has been absolutely an inspiration. It’s a film with the extreme close-ups; the emotional impact of that film has always been a high idea. I always love Carl Dreyer much more than Bergman, much more. I think he was a much greater filmmaker, and a very important one. I think I’m indebted to him also, as Lars is. Absolutely is Dreyer.
But there are only few Danish filmmakers who think about Carl Dreyer today. Lars is one and I am one. But basically, for many people, his work seems to be too passionate, I don’t know. But that’s exactly what I like. I like the intensity of watching as Carl Dreyer has.
“Jeanne d’Arc” is one of my five favorite films.

What are the other four?

Ans : I mostly say ten. One is “Apocalypse Now”, one is “Vertigo”, one is maybe “Goodfellas”, one is any BRUNUEL film, like “Nazarin”. I like all Brunuel’s films, but I’ll take one of them. I like all of Godard’s films. But I would choose one: “Two or Three Things that I Know about Her”. I also like Jean Renoir, “Rules of the Game”.

What do you think about the Danish films right now and its future?

Ans : I’m not so interested in the mainstream films. I think Vinternerg is a big talent, but the films after “Festen.(The Celebration)” is not good. He lost too much traveling to festivals. Maybe he’s immature to handle the continuation of his career, but I’m sure he’ll come back. Susanne Bier is less interesting for me. Lars is the most interesting, I think.
Of course I’m aware that there’s a big new wave of Danish cinema in the world. It has a lot of respects in the world and I’m proud of that. Also because I’ve been a teacher for some of these talents in the film school. But personally I’m not so interested in mainstream films.

Made in 2004 in Taipei. Chinese version was published in Film Appreciation journal ( of Taipei Film Archive in Taiwan ), April-June, 2005, No. 123, pp. 97-104.


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