Facepalm d’OrThe reaction to Lars von Trier's comments at Cannes.
Danish film director Lars von Trier was at a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18, promoting his new film Melancholia, where he made some remarks that have become the talk of the cinema blogosphere:
The camera angle here on Kirsten Dunst (star of Melancholia) lets you watch her go through a whole range of emotions as she processes what von Trier is saying. As one Internet commenter put it, it’s like a real-life performance of The Office, with von Trier as Michael Scott issuing forth an awkward stream of verbal diarrhea, digging himself into a deeper and deeper hole while everyone in the room sits uncomfortably, hoping that it will stop. His remarks:
For a long time I thought I was a Jew and I was happy to be a Jew, then I met Susanne Bier [Danish director of In a Better World] and I wasn’t so happy. No, that was a joke, sorry… [the room laughs]. But it turned out I was not a Jew, and if I had been a Jew I’d have been a second-rate Jew, because there’s kind of a… hierarchy in the Jewish population.
But no, I really wanted to be a Jew but then I found out I was really a Nazi. Because my family was German, which also gave me some pleasure. [chuckle] What can I say? I understand Hitler… I think he did some wrong things, yes absolutely. But I can see him sitting in his bunker at the end– [Kirsten Dunst: Oh my God, this is terrible.]
What? There will come a point at the end of this- I will- No, I’m just saying I think I understand the man. He’s not what you would call a “good guy” but I understand much about him. I sympathize with him a little bit. I don’t mean I’m in favor of World War II and I’m not against Jews, not even Susanne Bier. That was also a joke. In fact I’m very much in favor of them. All Jews. Well, Israel is a pain in the ass but… Now how can I get out of this sentence? [laughter] No, I just want to say about the art- I’m very much for… Speer, is it? Albert Speer I liked. He was also maybe one of God’s best children, but he had some talent. It was possible for him to use during… [giving up] Ok. I’m a Nazi.
You can watch the entire conference here, including a bit at the end where von Trier desperately tries to salvage the Nazi schtick by making another joke about how “maybe you could persuade me into… to… yeah, the Final Solution, with journalists.” The situation received more prominence when the festival released a statement declaring von Trier “persona non grata” and asking him to leave the festival, although Melancholia remains in competition.
Let’s just go down the litany of ironies here:
- Mel Gibson, who has been recorded as saying, “Fucking Jews… the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” received a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes on May 17.
- Here is a photo of Cannes Film Festival president Gilles Jacob warmly receiving director (among other things) Roman Polanski in 2007.
- In writing their press release on von Trier, the festival managed to summon the incredible cognitive dissonance required to come up with
The Festival de Cannes provides artists from around the world with an exceptional forum to present their works and defend freedom of expression and creation.
The board of directors profoundly regrets that this forum has been used by Lars von Trier to express comments that are unacceptable, intolerable, and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity that preside over the very existence of the festival. The Board of Directors firmly condemns these comments and declares Lars von Trier a persona non grata at the Festival de Cannes, with effect immediately.
Yes, it took them all of one sentence to segue from defending freedom of expression to kicking a director out for something he expressed.
As for the actual content of von Trier’s remarks, they approach off-color at the worst; as mentioned before, they’re more Michael Scott than Michael Richards. Anyone who watches the clip can easily see it’s far from hate speech or Nazi worship in any sense. Von Trier has always been provocative, even boorish in his comments outside the space of his films: earlier in the same interview he made another uncomfortable joke about how he was casting Dunst and Melancholia co-star Charlotte Gainsbourg in a hardcore pornographic film that would be three hours of them having “unpleasant sex.”
This isn’t even to the level of Prince Harry in a Nazi uniform, where that act showed a stunning lack of understanding by Prince Harry of his own privilege, his family and national history, and the power of symbolism. On the other hand, the issues that von Trier jokes about in an unsophisticated way form the core of his incredibly sophisticated films; the question at the conference that prompted the whole debacle was about the role that the aesthetics of German Romanticism played in his work.
What von Trier approached with his invocation of Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect, were the friction points between aesthetics and politics and how art must be, by its very nature, part of a political dialogue and embedded in political space. After all, his 1991 film Europa was about a Europe shattered and broken by the Nazi regime, and the existential crisis that results from being inextricably implicated in a political horror show. (Incidentally, von Trier made waves at Cannes with that film: upon learning that he hadn’t won the Palme d’Or, he gave the festival jury the finger and stormed out of the venue.)
And the comments about understanding Hitler’s basic humanity and seeing “him sitting in his bunker at the end,” which seemed to be the breaking point where Dunst had to laugh out of sheer embarrassment? That’s the plot and theme of the 2004 German film Downfall (directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel), which was nominated for an Academy Award.
While it doesn’t necessarily excuse anything he said, there’s also this intriguing interplay between racial and political identity; beyond the conflation of German-ness with the Nazis, he’s expounding on his own struggle with personal identity, of thinking that you belong to one group and then realizing that the truth is something different — and those identities on some level shift the boundaries of what one can and can’t say, boundaries which von Trier seems to have difficulty locating. It’s a battle that the Anti-Defamation League noted with their response that “He seems to be struggling with some personal ghosts. This is one way I guess he resolved them, in a very, very bizarre way.”
Overall, the conference debacle is a performance of the tension created by a provocative film from an insensitive filmmaker — the fact that great art may issue from not-so-great people. (Björk was reported to have spit at von Trier while working on his 2000 film Dancer in the Dark). Take von Trier’s crude public persona and compound it with him trying to tackle a complex issue in the adrenaline-charged sound bite space of an international press conference in a language he’s conversant in but not native (note the construction of “there will come a point at the end of this”), cutting off avenues of nuance and shades of meaning: the result is film festival melodrama.
At the end of the above video of the conference, Dunst is still on mic as everyone is wrapping up; she tells her director, “Lars, that was intense.” That’s a better way of describing what happened than what anyone else has tried.