LARS VON TRIER IS CANNES’ “PERSONA NON GRATA”
I missed the Wednesday morning Melancholia screening, having to moderate a table at the Producers Network breakfast the same time, but afterwards I happened to catch a snippet of the press conference. I tweeted a few comments, namely ones in which the director talked about this relationship with the film’s d.p., who started the project by telling him not to behave like so many “old or middle-aged directors and make [his actresses] younger and more naked.” “Don’t tell me that,” Von Trier said he told the cinematographer. Watching press conferences on those little TVs in the basement of the Palais is always kind of boring, so I went to explore the market… and missed the pyrotechnics that followed.
By now, you’ve undoubtedly read this elsewhere, but in the event that you haven’t… The Danish director has been officially declared “persona non grata” by the Cannes Film Festival for comments made during the press conference concerning Hitler and Nazism. (These comments followed a question about von Trier’s recently discovered German ancestry and began with a swipe against fellow Danish director Susanne Bier, and grew progressively dicier in the logorrhea that followed.) I don’t know enough about Von Trier’s relationship with Bier to know what he was initially trying to do here…
For a long time I thought I was a Jew and I was happy to be a Jew, then I met Susanne Bier, and I wasn’t so happy. But then I found out I was actually a Nazi. My family was German. And that also gave me some pleasure. 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 in the end. I think I understand the man. He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him and I sympathise 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. 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? [Laughing] OK, I’m a Nazi.
Von Trier quickly issued an apology — ““If I have hurt someone this morning by the words I said at the press conference, I sincerely apologize. I am not antisemitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi” — although he then added more fuel to the fire by saying in an interview that the French were obviously upset by his comments because they have a history of being cruel to Jews.
The festival ultimately responded by issuing a statement that read, in part:
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.
In a festival in which Melancholia is one of the least controversial films, Von Trier’s comments, and the festival’s reaction, are dominating headlines.
At his Hot Blog, David Poland has told Cannes to “get out of the festival business” if they can’t take the rhetorical heat:
I have to say, it makes me kind of sick to my stomach to think that Lars von Trier, stumbling over his own ideas about being Jewish and German, basically saying stuff that has been said by high school upperclassmen and college freshmen for decades, and having it all reduced down to “I Heart Hitler!,” leading to Cannes’ board meeting and saying that the filmmaker is now “persona non grata.”
As inarticulate as his comments and the tortured path they rambled down were, he never said anything more generous to Hilter than, “I think I understand the man.” And he “liked” Albert Speer, which American TV networks have done, via mini-series, in the past….
What really disturbs me is that this is not Fox F-ing News, where anti-intellectual hysteria is a way of life (as they support everyone who would drain every last dollar out of the pockets of anyone earning less than $200k a year). This is a FILM FESTIVAL. We are film critics.
At the New York Times, Manohla Dargis covers the incident and writes:
I don’t believe Mr. von Trier is a Nazi; he’s just stupid and unthinking. Mr. von Trier, who apologized for his comments later on Wednesday, is an extremely awkward man who has always enjoyed playing the provocateur, riling up audiences and journalists who bait him. At the press conference here last year after the premiere of Anti-Christ another calculated outrage, the first questioner demanded that Mr. von Trier justify why he had made that movie. This year, instead of supplying a provocation on screen, he turned his news conference into a sideshow, a freakishly self-destructive move. Anti-Semitic speech is illegal in France, and the board of directors at Cannes clearly felt it had no alternative but to ban Mr. von Trier.
At his Written Under Duress blog, Danish filmmaker Christian Svanes Kolding has written a long post about the incident from the perspective of someone who both has met von Trier and understands issues surrounding Nazism, Denmark, and the Second World War. He also includes some information on the swipe at Bier, from which Von Trier’s comments all tumbled. An excerpt:
just like von trier’s films, it’s unfair to place his comments in an american context, because they have nothing to do with americans, or american jews for that matter.
von trier’s comments have to be seen as reaction to several conditions: his very relevant personal history combined with a resolutely danish disregard for the usual public protocol of avoiding controversy combined with a schizoid, danish sense of humor that doesn’t translate well into english.
in denmark, it is commonly known that von trier grew up believing he was jewish, through his father’s side, but then learned that that was not jewish enough (because it only counts on the mother’s side).
denmark is not a jewish-friendly society. quite the contrary. i’m danish and i once had a production manager ask me not to hire a jewish sound editor because of his jewish identity. i stopped working with that production manager.
years later, von trier found out from his mother that his jewish father was actually his stepfather, and subsequently, von trier discovered the true identity of his biological father. his father was, in fact, a german christian. hence his darkly sardonic humor about this.
furthermore, danes are deeply ambivalent about their connection to germany’s nazi past, which he vaguely alludes to. it’s complicated and not easily digested via american-style sound bites. germany borders denmark and occupied it during the war and killed and executed many danes, including people in my family, while at the same time, over the course of the entire war, more danes fought for germany than against germany.
he grew up in the shadow of this war in a tiny country that was overshadowed by its powerful southern neighbor. you develop a dark sense of humor about these things, as well as a morbid fascination with the mechanisms of power, and, on a personal level, it would be a gross understatement to suggest that von trier has complex feelings about the subject of jewish/german identity.
Finally, at the Village Voice, J. Hoberman identifies what he sees as the self-destructiveness of von Trier’s statements:
Words have consequences. Von Trier made a movie about the end of the world and then compulsively acted it out. What’s pathetic is that an unstable, over-indulged artist, consumed by anxiety and playing the fool, successfully martyred his own movie in full public view. Before Wednesday’s press screening, a colleague told me that when he had asked one of the festival programmers about Melancholia, he was given a two-word answer: “Palme d’Or.” As of now, it’s unclear if Melancholia is still eligible.
UPDATE: Moments after I posted this, Howard Feinstein has written his thoughts here.
UPDATE 2: From an interview von Trier gave to Haaretz:
“I lived most of my life as a Jew. I wore a skullcap when I had to and laid stones on tombstones in cemeteries. My mother wasn’t Jewish, but my father, or the man I thought was my father, was. But then I found out that my father wasn’t my father and my real father was German,” he told Haaretz.
“And instead of saying I was actually German at the news conference on Wednesday, in my characteristic haste and because I couldn’t stand the man who turned out to be my biological father, despite my mother’s telling me he was charming, I said with a kind of typical Danish humor that most people don’t understand that I was a Nazi. But I’m not….”
“It was a stupid joke. But that’s the kind of humor I use when I talk to my friends, who know me and know I’m not a Nazi. I apologize profoundly for offending people. It was not my intention. I’ve also offended Germans, when instead of saying ‘German’ I used the word ‘Nazi,’ as though every German is a Nazi,” he said.