Von Trier And The Conscience Of Cannes


It often seems that we’ve become emotionally numb to talk about Nazis and Hitler. We toss around the word “Nazi” with such impunity these days that the essential meaning of who Hitler was and what the Nazis represent appears entirely lost.

Some worry that ignorance and latent anti-Semitism lurks behind our lax standards, but many suggest otherwise: it’s Holocaust fatigue, they say, a culture saturated not with too little knowledge about Nazis, but rather, too much.

Yet occasionally we’re reminded that we haven’t really forgotten at all; that Nazis were not a joke, and that the horror they brought upon the world and Jews in particular was real. And what could be a stranger place to be reminded of that than the Cannes Film Festival?

This year’s festival, which ended last weekend, was overshadowed by the egregious comments made by Lars Von Trier, a renowned Danish filmmaker. In a press conference before the debut of his latest film, “Melancholia,” Von Trier, 55, was asked about recent comments he’d made about his interest in Nazi aesthetics.

He answered with an extended diatribe meant partly in jest, but which was essentially mindless, outrageous and lame. He began with an explanation of how, even though a Jewish father raised him, he found out later his real biological father was, in fact, a German gentile.

“But anyway, I really wanted to be a Jew,” he said, “and then I found out I was really a Nazi, you know, because my family was German, which 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.”

Few understood Von Trier, however. Within hours Von Trier’s comments ricocheted around the Internet, which then prompted the programmers to kick him out of the festival, in an unprecedented move. Since then most critics have come to Von Trier’s defense, arguing that while his comments were grotesque and utterly inappropriate, he was not being literal.

Others turned to the decision to ban Von Trier from the festival, arguing that the organizers were over-reacting and being hypocritical. After all, critics argued, the same organizers were giving Mel Gibson a warm welcome for his new art film “The Beaver.” Yet how were Gibson’s past anti-Semitic comments more forgivable than Von Trier’s were?

But many of Von Trier’s defenders missed the point. They were right that Von Trier was not being literal when he said sheepishly, “OK, I’m a Nazi”; it was indeed a very bad joke. And perhaps Cannes’ organizers over-reacted. But what helped the joke land flat to begin with was his very earnest attempt to explain his interest in Nazi imagery.

Of that, he did a horrific job, blithely disregarding the line between provocation and probity. Provocation requires awareness of the precise location of that line, and the intelligence and decency to respect it. Yet at the conference Von Trier showed none of the above, saying of Hitler: “He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him and I sympathize with him a little bit. … I’m not against Jews. I am of course very much for Jews. No, not too much because Israel is a pain in the ass.”

A few days later he told The New York Times what he meant to say about Nazi aesthetics, explaining that he found it interesting how German artists converted Nazi ideology into purely aesthetic terms. “The ideology, since it’s so clear, since it’s one-sided, makes it easier to make a design that has some power to it,” he said.

That’s a perfectly acceptable statement, but of course it was by then beside the point. Von Trier’s mistake was letting his well-known delight in provocation get the best of him. At the actual conference, he crossed a line perhaps few thought even existed. Maybe that was the real surprise at Cannes: not what Von Trier said, but the clear indication that even the liberal intellectual types that inhabit the festival may not be as liberal as we thought, at least when it comes to anti-Semitism.

It is often assumed that comments like those made by Von Trier are perfectly normal among many European intellectuals. Anti-Semitism, we are told, has made a strong comeback among them. But that so many at the event, including Von Trier’s defenders, were able to distinguish the malignity of his remarks from what he probably meant, suggests otherwise.

Von Trier even appears to know it too, even though it will probably take a long time before his apology is taken seriously. As he said immediately after his disastrous comments about Hitler: “How can I get myself out of this sentence?” He knew what he said was wrong; he just didn’t have the good sense to think before he said it.

Eric Herschthal covers arts and culture for the paper.