Theater of Cruelty

2–3 things I now know about Jørgen Leth

Steffen Moestrup
Steffen Moestrup
Regular contributor to MODERN TIMES, and docent at Denmark's Medie- og Journalisthøjskole.
Last call for travelers
Forfatter: Jakob Kvist
Forlag: Lindhardt og Ringhof, (Danmark)
OLD AGE / To be in life. Really be. It is Danish Jørgen Leth's contribution to the rest of us. And this book cements that way of being in life. But, our reviewer asks: «Are we humans never satisfied?»


For most of my adult life, I have scrutinized Jørgen Leth#'s life. Read all his books, watched all his films, met him quite a few times and thus also talked to him, looked at him. Therefore, it is an achievement in itself that Jakob Kvist delivers 2–3 things I didn't know about Leth in this new interview book – to paraphrase Godard, one of Leth's heroes.

Leth is a media person. Not only has he used the media – TV, films, books – he has also been turned and twisted by the media to that extent. Told about his life, communicated and formulated it. Again and again and again. Repetition has become a trademark at Leth. Buying an Armani shirt in Paris. Eating herring in Copenhagen. To experience the sensuous jumble of Haiti. Again and again and again. That is why communicating Leth and about Leth is full of repetition.

My scrutiny is probably mostly due to a fascination with Latvian life. And thus also of the repetition. For me, the attractive thing about Leth has always been his ability to maintain a curiosity about the world. He constantly goes on a discovery in life. He never seems done with the world. He senses and finds new clues – or revisits old clues and finds something different in them. Even now, at 86, he is looking for life. Looking it up. Grow it. In itself, the fact that he can do it is attractive.

Life is always open

Life is all about finding a shape, landing somewhere. Do you then accept this form, or do you constantly challenge the stuckness of life by going on a discovery through life? André Malraux touches on exactly this in the novel The King's Road, which I read simultaneously with the Leth book. Malraux writes:

"They have no idea what it means, this constricting, inescapable destiny that rests upon one like a prison regulation – the awareness that one becomes just that, and nothing else, that one ends up having been that, and nothing else, that what one haven't got it, you'll never get it either.»

This quote perfectly sums up why Leth fascinates me. It is his ability not to let the form of life hold him back, but instead to consistently seek out the world and himself in the world. Don't accept that what you haven't got, you'll never get, but on the contrary, think that life is always open, that there can always be more to find, more to get out of it.

Indeed, Leth's approach to life is one that craves experience. It is the esthetician who enjoys and enjoys. Sometimes at the expense of others such as children who do not have a father at home (Kristian Leth has also recently written a book about that experience). He has abandoned people again and again. It's a requirement if you want to live like him (and maybe the reason I don't live like him, because I don't have the courage to leave).

At the same time, he is a person who celebrates life. People value life so much that it just has to be lived through life.

He falls

As I said, the book also provides new thoughts and new directions in the Latvian language. Part of this has to do with Leth's age, 86. He falls. Bodyone does not want the same as Leth. He has difficulty moving, difficulty traveling. Therefore, the side of him that is the explorer is weakened. He becomes so easy depressed, perhaps especially in Denmark, which is locking him up now – if he doesn't manage to escape to Mallorca or Haiti every now and then. His discretion is limited.

He has abandoned people again and again.

And then he falls. Flat out on the pavement. Beats up, goes to hospital, undergoes surgery. It is not because he senses the expiration date of life or is afraid of dying, but he is tired of losing life. Losing the opportunity to achieve what he did not achieve. It is interesting in a man who achieved so much. Are we humans never satisfied? Or is that feeling in Leth again an expression of his eternal preoccupation with life?

Another aspect that I haven't heard Leth scrutinize much before is how the senses are weakened alderone. He can't smell much anymore, so the scope of life is also limited. He has always fallen head over heels for women and has sought out the erotic, but now the sexual is gone. And not only that, the fascination with the woman also seems to have diminished. The vibrations of life seem to have subsided. Is it sad or is it just a smart way to be in the passion when you can't really act on it anymore?

Curiosity and sensuality as the absolutely central way of being present in life.

These kinds of questions flutter around the pages and in the sentences. It is an open and searching book that Kvist has created. It works well with the openness, and the question-answer structure gives us a good flow, a feeling of listening in on an interesting conversation. Occasionally, Kvist throws chunks of himself into the book. Maybe Kvist gives something of himself so that Leth has to give more. It doesn't work that well. Kvist is far less interesting than Leth makes it seem. More mundane. More down to earth. Less articulate. He would have liked to have weeded out those passages about himself. We are here for Leth.


In a little while Leth dies. It may happen in a few months, it may be in a few years, but die, he does. Just like all the rest of us. However, something always remains. This also applies to everyone. In Leth's case, for me it always will be curiosityone and sensuality as the absolutely central way of being present in life. I will take that with me. Hopefully right up until the day I fall over myself. Thanks for that, Leth.

See also Truls Lie's film The Seduced Human (2011) about Jørgen Leth for free here:

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