by Old Bone Machine
Jørgen Leth is fundamentally a poet.
(image credit: Mie Brinkmann)
He is also the director of films and documentaries, a sometimes journalist, and during the Tour De France a commentator for Danish television. His cycling documentaries, Stars and Watercarriers (1973) and A Sunday in Hell (1977) are classics. Cycling races rendered mythical. Yet there is a thread that runs through all that he does.
They are all driven by the urge to understand what is going on. To understand, and to explain what you see, and to be educated and informed by what is taking place in front of you. I see all of these things as a great drama, a theater where certain characters take shape and a plot evolves. It’s the same in the world of sports. In my documentaries about bicycle races, you see the various cyclists take on different qualities and human virtues as if on a great stage. In the race, they’re not just fighting against each other but also measuring themselves against the history of the race and other legendary performances of the past.
Leth’s most critically acclaimed work is perhaps his 1967 short film The Perfect Human, which was revisited in 2003 and used as a creative device in making another film, The Five Obstructions. With The Five Obstructions, the film director Lars von Trier challenged Leth to remake his classic short film but with ever more difficult restrictions or obstructions. The obstructions included filming in a Bombay red light district and in Cuba without a film set, holding a shot for no longer than 12 frames (as Leth is fond of slow, edit-free takes) and remaking the classic as an animated cartoon. As a director, von Trier is always mischievous and sometimes sadistic. The obstructions he devised for his former mentor and film teacher were diabolical.
Lars has this crazy theory that truth comes out if you are broken. And I don’t agree with that. It’s a romantic and sentimental notion. He wanted to break me down. But it will not happen. Not with me.
I did not want to be aggressive back. That is not natural for me. So I decided to lie back and to listen to what he said and then respond to it. I like the idea of how Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman by lying back on the ropes and absorbing the blows.
More recently in 2005, Jørgen Leth attracted controversy in his home country of Denmark after publication of his autobiography, The Imperfect Man. In the autobiography he detailed his sexual relations with a 17-year-old girl in Haiti (the daughter of his cook).
Jørgen Leth’s home in Haiti was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake.
Postscript, Leth also directed a television documentary with the curious title of Eddy Merckx in the Vicinity of a Cup of Coffee (1973). The documentary is in the Danish language, experimental and not readily available.