Jørgen Leth (71), with his 42-strong film back catalogue, could be Denmark’s most significant and prolific artist. He is mainly concerned with making documentaries, with even his fictional films featuring documentary elements.
The Danish Institute of Film is currently releasing all of Leth’s 42 films on DVD. These bear testament to a long life lived in a spectator’s visual realm. Leth is an aesthetic, a man who often edits his documentaries haphazardly. He prefers his separate scenes so independent and illustrative, that they should fit together in a random collage. This is particularly evident in the short film The Life in Denmark (1972) and the 66 scenes from Amerika (1981). But, first and foremost in the short film The Perfect Human (1967) which quickly made him world renowned, due to its critique of the almost advertising-like superficial life.
In today’s Norway, Leth is most known for the film he did with Lars von Trier, The Five Obstructions (2003). In this film, von Trier gives Leth «impossible» tasks, based on the success of The Perfect Human. Many may recall one of the «obstructions»; when Leth is sitting, tuxedo-clad, in the midst of the Bombay slum eating a luxurious meal, whilst the dirt poor and starving stare behind the plastic table cloth. Leth is also, to some, known as the man behind the biography The Imperfect Human (2006), which angered half of Denmark. He was thoroughly abused in the media, and had to go undercover. Why? A small paragraph in the book sensually depicted his relationship with the young daughter of a chef in Haiti. Leth, who had long since moved to Haiti, and later, became its honorary Danish ambassador, white and relatively wealthy, was accused of being an old, white manipulator. However, Lars von Trier and others came to his defence; they recognised him as someone who always experiments with life, testing and breaking limits, an artist who despite everything has something to tell us. This episode portrayed Denmark perhaps at its worst, its bourgeois morality, as a know-it-all welfare state, and revealed a dim attitude to writing – nobody cared for the remainder of the book.
Leth first came to my attention that time in Copenhagen: a few intelligent (female) newspaper articles defended him – opinion pieces of those who have and those who have not lived a life themselves. Later, online, I came across a journalist who went to Haiti to see the dark, «suppressed» 16-year old. In response to whether she had recovered from the humiliation with Leth, she said: «What is wrong with you? I have had plenty of men before him, and enjoy it immensely. »
JØRGEN LETH, you literally emigrated from Denmark. Why?
“This was a journey which took place in two speeds. My first time there was in 1981. I was due to make a feature film entitled The Foreign Correspondent – about a foreign correspondent who suffers a mental breakdown. For this I needed to live in a country which had a crisis. I was attracted to the banana republic as portrayed by Graham Greene in The Comedians – by its eerie, Tintin-like universe, its political terror and voodoo.”
I feel that both Leth’s fictional films; The Foreign Correspondent (1983) and Traberg (1992), were themed around, and framed by, Haiti. The film – out on DVD in Denmark this month – features the portrayal of a lost and searching male main character as its focus. But, the main character disappears, or is displaced, out of the fictional centre, all the while the Haitian reality offers itself up with a terrific and obsessive force. Not unlike what Leth himself encountered:
“I kept returning to Haiti. I lived there from 1991 and actually arrived in the dramatic months of January – April 1991 just as Aristide was inaugurated as President. I had just been through a severe and protracted depression which stole a year and a half of my life. At some point after my divorce. I thought I would not get through it alive. I had to do something about it, so I left.”
And what did a white Scandinavian as yourself, really gain from Haiti?
“I have learnt more from the Haitians than I have taught them. As opposed to other white, well-intentioned film people, I learnt how to be humble in the face of life’s circumstances – death is present every day. In Haiti, it is possible to conquer many of your Western comfort syndromes.”
Is Leth really considering whether it is ethical to film every situation, for instance dead or dying people? In Haiti, Leth are often in situations where assaults occur while he films. I ask about his filming of a funeral ceremony where the priest is attacked by someone, right in front of Leth’s camera:
“I was filming in the church among the loved ones of a shipping fatality. I was deeply moved. As the sole photographer in church that day, it was important to film it. The images are very graphic, harrowing and moving. At the same time, you should know that I learnt a lot from Living Theatre in the past, in an art history framework. As a result, I have taught myself to be observational sympathetic, not to risk, during traumatic circumstances, losing the ability to observe. I have witnessed Haitian tragedies, but in each instance I perform with a certain decorum. For instance, once I portrayed dead bodies laying on the street by filming how another photographer depicted death. This was how I explained the killed. I filmed the female photographer who shoots the dead bodies for the news agencies. The ethical is decided by the situation as it happens, not by a theory.”
Your son, Asgeir Leth, also made a shocking film about Haiti. How intimate should you be with Haiti’s violence?
“His Ghosts of Cité Soleil is a very brave piece of work, made in the slums of Port-Au-Prince where President Aristide organised political groups to support himself. For a long time, the slums were no go areas, but Asgeir was present there during the most dramatic period before and after the President’s departure.”
But, were you not afraid he might get killed?
“Yes, I was afraid. I was scared the entire time.”
You are aware that the two main characters in the film were killed afterwards?
“Yes, I followed them both closely. They are now both dead.”
JØRGEN LETH is older than fellow Danish film maker Lars von Trier. In a way, von Trier is his «student», and in The Five Obstructions, he gets to challenge his idol. Von Trier is also the producer of Leth’s current project, The Erotic Human.
You are inspired by difficulties, so I am curious what kind of relationship you have with Denmark’s «enfant terrible», Lars von Trier. In a previous interview, you described him as a person with a «purist complex » – that he inhabits an almost religious need to deconstruct.
“Which he has. That is evident. You can say many things about Lars. And most are true. You could argue that he might also suffer an Oedipus-complex towards me. The whole idea of the purist in The Five Obstructions was him having an illusion about breaking down my monitoring, observer role as film maker. For instance, that I would break down in front of the poor suffering earth shattering misery in Mumbai. But, you could say that this was a miscalculation on his part. I am not sentimental, something Lars was, in this assessment. He possesses melodramatic traits. However, you could say just as many negatives as positives about him. This film expressed both his devilishness and his love of me.”
“Lars von Trier is more intelligent than me, I am unable to imagine what his thoughts are. In the film we made, I was never able to prepare myself. The fact that he is so devilish, makes a good film. The infeasibilities inspire me and make me inventive. At the same time, we both create strict game rules. For instance, there are no lengthy conversations outside of the film.”
In the «fifth obstruction», you read a text written by von Trier, an admittance that in the end, he is the one being obstructed. This was not meant ironically?
“No, I am very touched by that scene. It quickly dawned on me that these were very powerful words from his end, probably his most self-aware ever. That chapter really touches me, he is showing me infinite generosity. He is admitting to something he is unable to do, yet I am. Do you agree?”
Yes. You can tell from the way it is edited. He is moved, he sitting there, sensitive.
What about von Trier’s other films, you are quite critical of some of them, and of his religious themes?
“I think Breaking the Waves is a very religious film, featuring a female Christ. I can see his religious themes in it. On the whole, the film is fine. I am less enamoured with Dancer in the Dark, where the religious issue is too amplified – the sacrificial part is too exaggerated for my taste. Whilst in Dogville, I think Nicole Kidman and Lars von Trier are a perfect fit. Kidman proves a willing and talented tool in his hands – the way she made herself available is almost masochistic. He is doing something Christ – or Jean d’Arc-like there. I do not want to saddle wit with a religious analysis, but I do think this is a road he can navigate, although it will occasionally turn more pathetic than what is good.”
You mentioned Carl Dreyer’s film Jeanne D’Arc. Are you inspired by your Danish predecessor, and in particular the study of people?
“I understand Lars’ fascination with Dreyer extremely well. I feel exactly the same way. Dreyer is a far greater artist than Bergman – who received so much attention last year. Both Lars and I are captivated by the masterpiece Jeanne d’Arc – where the human is under the spotlight.”
SOME DIRECTORS, including von Trier, consciously pester their actors, and place heavy demands on them. Do you do this?
“In Ophelia’s Flowers (1968) I created a scene with Ophelia in which I constantly interrupted her by banging two wooden pieces together. I interrupt her monologue, after one word or five, after one line or two – whereby she had to restart. It is a form of mental terror and torture. It seems really strong. But otherwise, I am not that way inclined to be sadistic towards my actors. What I do with the actors is different to other directors – have you noticed?”
You mean in films such as The Life in Denmark and Good and Evil?
“Yes, in these you are able to see that I am not giving them any finished parts, but instead simple tasks to complete. This is very difficult for some actors.”
I see that Ghita Nørby mastered this.
“Yes, she is happy with this. But then, she is fantastic. This is not torture, but rather believing that they are able to fill the void. That there will be some scribbles in the emptiness.”
You once filmed Andy Warhol in New York. He is eating a hamburger. He did not have anything to drink and is obviously struggling to finish his meal. Afterwards he sits for a long time just staring at you, as if waiting for something. Is this the same method?
“Yes, with Warhol we are close to it. But, this came afterwards and was unintentional. What is happening is him eating a hamburger. A typical Warhol act. He enjoys it, so he wants to do it. But as he starts, he knows fully well from his own aesthetics that game rules are not to be interrupted. I completely forgot to provide him water, which would have made it easier for him to get the food down his narrow throat. The bottle of ketchup is also new and gives him problems. These are two obstructions caused by coincidences. There is a hint of martyrdom. The long and weird silence when his eyes dart around is there because he awaits a signal from me for when to utter the final line. But I did not agree a signal. The recording is thus filled with a happening-aesthetics. That is my method – to invite coincidences.”
What about the unpredictable in your sports films, as sports have strictly defined rules?
“I experience sport as theatre, a human theatre, where all human abilities and virtues are acted out. I think I saw this in Tour the France and in other cycle races too. Also in mythology, where rules form a vital part. Although life itself have rules, in the world of sports these are clear and schematically. In the same way as I use rules in my film work, I admire people who meet regulations with ingenuity. Or as when rules are used as a springboard for fantastic deeds.”
From sports to poetry. You have written many poems. Do you see a connection from poetry to film?
“The greatest ideal to me is for a film to be akin a poem in its creation. A poem can start in the top left hand corner, but you never know where it may end. The end goal for me is when a film develops and becomes a piece of research through its language. This is also the way I am gambling in my new erotic film project. I never tire of pushing things to the extreme by risking failure or fiasco. But that must happen during the course. What made me say that? What was the question?”
YOU MADE The Perfect Human in 1967 – a sort of counter expression to a time when political commitment was strong. Was this ethically thought-through, or youthful rebellion?
“Early on, I sought out a polemical role in Danish intellectual society. I was aesthetically annoyed with social realism and boring short films and documentaries which always depicted rain and drab environments. We were inspired by the world of advertising instead. At that time, the strength of an advertising film was to transport people into an empty space. Besides, advertising was always showing you how to make you better at living. I once thought it quite natural to create a film interpretation of the idea of being better at living, living perfectly. A perfect surface, which will then crack everywhere.”
“But is not meaningful for me to create something that will save the world. It completely disinterests me. My purpose was never to make anyone wiser or advise people how to live their lives. But I imagine it is meaningful to fill the empty space. Your own void.”
«Godard creates poetry, Truffaut only platitudes».
You stated that you went to Haiti, because there was enough space for your depression there. You yourself have experienced periods of total loneliness. Making a film could be a cure against anxiety, but you are simultaneously fascinated by the fear?
“I am in Haiti to tend to my depressive tendencies. Here melancholy can unfold and not cost me too much. I have described my anxiety in one of the chapters of The Imperfect Human. It was pretty bad while it lasted. A metaphysical fear did that I, periodically, had to avoid watching films like The Shining, because some barriers disappeared leaving a sigh coming up from the abyss. I worried for my mental health. Depression is there all your life, you just have to find a way to contain it. I have done everything medically to control my depression. But the best cure is actually Haiti. Haiti’s external chaos has a strong calming influence on my inner chaos. The humility towards life and death is plainer here than in Europe. Selfishly, I can control my own chaos by living in Haiti – because traumas are inspiring.”
Are your films investigations, akin to self-therapy?
“To me, it might be the only way to live. My next film The Erotic Human is definitely one of the most difficult tasks I have ever taken on. To distance myself from observing and engaging more. It is truly difficult to make, and I expose myself enormously. I feel ethically pressurised to expose myself a lot, to gamble.”
You once said that «Godard creates poetry, Truffaut only platitudes». Godards Histoires du Cinéma states: «Do not harm yourself, because we are all still here.» That the realm of films offers a community, existential care, maintains and creates meaning – and thus eases loneliness, depression, and wards against suicide. Have you thought about this?
“That is a beautiful expression. I have not seen it before.”
“But remember – I have never wished for a large audience. I want a loyal audience, someone to understand my films, who can see me through my work and who will return to me.”
We are all still here.
“That is very correct. And I have always felt on the same wave length as Godard, right from the start. I have never met him, but have, since the 1960s, considered him almost like a brother to me. He made several films that I wish I had made myself. It was hypnotic to witness Godard’s fantastic camera work. It was anticipating an active conversation. You can see it in my earlier films, and in The Perfect Human. I admire Godard’s great masterpieces, those he did before he turned politically crazy and started to «float».”