Thursday, May 19, 2011

In defence of Lars von Trier, persona non grata at Cannes

Most people with an interest in film will have heard by now that Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier got into hot water at the 64th Festival de Cannes by making comments about being a Nazi and understanding Hitler. As a result, he has now been declared persona non grata by the festival's board of directors. Whatever you may think about his films or him as a person, this has to be the most ridiculous overreaction to a bad joke in recent memory.

Let me be clear, so that I don't provoke the same overreaction. I think what he said was in poor taste and obviously regrettable. He would agree himself, since he issued an apology very quickly, and gave a stronger ones again later. But to no avail, since so many have been so quick to crucify him.

The first thing to keep in mind, is that almost all reports of the incident have been overblown if not downright wrong. They've mostly omitted any context, too. And they're gone out of their way to sensationalize the incident as much as possible.

So the place to start is with the press conference itself, and not just the two-minute clips either. You can watch the entire 39-minute conference here:

Watching the entire discussion indeed provides the context that a few phrases here and there do not. For one thing, his English isn't strong enough that he doesn't still need translations. It's surprising to see, but both he and Stellan Skarsgård wear headphones to hear simultaneous translations. His longer answers are very halting as he doesn't find the words that easily.

Also, it's an early morning event that he grumbles about at one point. After joking that his next project will be an porn film with Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, he says it will be epic-length at three to four hours long, adding "the only reason for that is that this press conference will be a little later, so I can sleep a little longer."

This brings us to the next point, that his answers are almost all tongue-in-cheek and that there is much laughter throughout the press conference. When asked if he thinks his movie is any good and is a strong contender for the Palme d'Or, he say with exaggerated pomposity "Oh yes I do! Oh yes I do! Oh yes, oh yes." Then he immediately flips and becomes self-deprecating in his evaluation, adding in a longer, more hesitant response "it was a very big pleasure to do the film. Maybe it was, you know, all this Wagner stuff that we kind of put in that kind of, we got carried away a little bit, so everything became over-romantic and ... which was nice to do, very nice to do. But then when I saw it in bits and I saw the stills from it, I kind of rejected it a little bit. So I'm not really sure, you know. I ... maybe it's crap. Of course I hope not but there is quite a big possibility that this might be really not worth seeing." As with most of his answers, there was laughter throughout.

One of the journalists, Roger Friedman, even makes a point of asking him, "you do make a lot of disturbing, melancholy films but you're very funny in person. Why aren't you making comedies?" His answer which got some good laughs was, "because whenever I make comedies, they become very melancholic also. This was in fact a comedy." Friedman interjects, "this was a comedy?" and von Trier continues "yes, this was a comedy. So you don't want to see a tragedy."

As for his controversial answer which referenced Nazis, he was asked two questions towards the end in quick succession. The first by Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian asked about the mood of the film and his use of Richard Wagner's Prelude to Tristan und Isolde and he gave a straightforward, serious reply. This was followed by Kate Muir of The Times of London who said, "my question follows from the German Romantic thing. Can you talk a bit about your German roots and the Gothic (Von Trier mishears this as "Gossip?" and is a bit embarrassed) aspect of this film. And also, you mentioned in a Danish film magazine your interest in the Nazi aesthetic and you talked about that, German roots, at the same time. Can you tell us a bit more about that?"

To understand his response, you should know that his colleague and protégée Susanne Bier (In a Better World) is a Jewish-Danish director who works for Von Trier's Zentropa production company. Also, he is in fact being serious when he says that he thought he was a Jew. For most of his life, he believed himself to be Jewish. He only learned from his mother on her deathbed that his biological father was not Ulf Trier as he believed, but Fritz Michael Hartmann.

Here is the answer to the question about his German roots in full:
The only thing I can tell is that I thought I was a Jew for a long time, and was very happy being a Jew. Then later on came Susanne Bier and then suddenly I wasn't so happy about being a Jew. No, that was a joke - sorry. But it turned out that I was not a Jew, and even if I'd been a Jew, I would be kind of a second rate Jew because there are kind of a hierarchy in the Jewish population. But anyway, I really wanted to be a Jew, and then I found out that I was really a Nazi, you know, because my family is German - Hartmann - which also gave me some pleasure [laughs]. So I'm kind of ... 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. [Dunst interrupts him "that's terrible" and he replies "but there will come a point at the end of this."] No, I am just saying that I think I understand the man. He is not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him and I sympathize with him a little bit. Yes, but come on! I am not for the Second World War! And I'm not against Jews. Susanna Bier, not even Susanna Bier. That was also a joke. I am of course very much for, not too much because Israel is a pain in the ass, but still ... How can I get out of this sentence? [laughs] I just want to say about the art of ... I'm very much for Speer. Speer, I liked. Albert Speer I liked. He was also maybe one of God's best children but he had some talent that was kind of possible for him to use during ... [sighs] OK, I'm a Nazi. [pounds the table in mock conclusiveness]
Not the most politically-correct reply to be sure. And not everyone laughed, although many did. But he's obviously making fun of himself by suggesting his German heritage made him a Nazi. Only the densest moron would conclude that he was actually declaring himself a Nazi and a supporter of Hitler. Yet the headlines that poured out immediately said just that. For example, The Hollywood Reporter headline proclaimed, "Lars von Trier Admits to Being a Nazi, Understanding Hitler (Cannes 2011)." Others said he was "pro-Nazi" or worse, and gave no indication of the ironic tone. The ADL (Anti-Defamation League) came out and accused him of "anti-Semitism" but didn't explain how this was the case.

In contrast, at the press conference for The Tree of Life, a reporter asked Brad Pitt if he was as strict with his own kids as in the movie, to which he responded "I beat my kids regularly -- it seems to do the trick -- and deprive them of meals." He smiled broadly and everyone knew he was joking. Von Trier has a drier delivery typical of many Northern or Eastern European people. But it still should have been obvious to anyone who used their head.

The festival reacted immediately with dismay. They issued the following statement in a press release.
The Festival de Cannes was disturbed about the statements made by Lars von Trier in his press conference this morning in Cannes. Therefore the Festival asked him to provide an explanation for his comments.

The director states that he let himself be egged on by a provocation. He presents his apology.

The direction of the Festival acknowledges this and is passing on Lars von Trier’s apology. The Festival is adamant that it would never allow the event to become the forum for such pronouncements on such subjects.
Von Trier's publicists released an apology that read, "If I have hurt someone by the words I said at the press conference, I sincerely apologize. I am not anti-Semitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi."

He later gave a very contrite roundtable interview and said, "I didn't want to hurt anyone at all [with this]. Sometimes I hurt people on purpose, when there's provocation that I want to get through that has a meaning. This doesn't have a meaning. I've studied how bad the Jews have been treated in [places such as] Poland and France. This is something that matters very much to me. And this was an idiotic way to behave." He added that "half my life I've made very many Jewish jokes because when you are Jewish, you're allowed to do that. And now I feel kind of in-between." This is true, of course, that people in a group can make fun of that group in a way that others can't. He is in the unusual position of having been in that group a long time before learning that he didn't belong.

Still, the Festival de Cannes took the unprecedented step of earlier today declaring him to be persona non grata.

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 Festival’s Board of Directors, which held an extraordinary meeting this Thursday 19 May 2011, 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.
This statement seems somewhat self-contradictory since they are congratulating themselves on defending freedom of expression and yet are banning someone because of ill-advised jokes. Many people rightly pointed out how hypocritical it was since they allowed Mel Gibson to walk the red carpet for the gala presentation of The Beaver only a few nights earlier. They've also welcomed other bad boys like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. While I think there are incorrect beliefs concerning them too, there's also no question that they have actually behaved badly and not just spoken badly.

What does the festival accomplish by banning him? He has already apologized repeatedly. He is obviously a talented filmmaker whose work depends to a large degree on his bold and daring imagination. Should he now self-censor in a bid to appease a festival that claims to defend freedom of expression and creation? Doesn't the reporter share some responsibility since she raised the question about his German heritage and the Nazi aesthetic? Shouldn't she be banned too? Will filmmakers now have to be screened for moral rectitude? Will they have to make a McCarthyesque declaration that "I am not now, and never have been, a Nazi"?

And didn't World War II end 66 years ago, eleven years before Von Trier was born? When if ever will it be acceptable for people to joke about it, however badly, particularly for a man who had genuinely believed himself to be Jewish?

All this is very disappointing from such a major festival. This is precisely the wrong way to handle this situation. Sure it was bad, but not irrevocably so. But by going overboard in their response, they've made it far worse than it ever needed to be. They've set a ridiculous precedent that cannot possibly be good for this or any future editions of the Cannes festival.


  1. Very well reasoned commentary. Completely agree. The Festival made it worse by taking the moralist route and ridiculing the man. Of course the media never helps, and completely buried Lars...
    To my eyes nothing changed and he's still one of the best directors we have today.

  2. Yoour article is perfect. Accurate and saying exactly the truth. thanks.

  3. Excelent article. What happened in Cannes and the medias reaction is a shame.

  4. We are lucky to live in the internet era...for beeing able to getting close to the "real" facts. As an admirer of Lars von Trier's work I immediatly thought it was part of a funny atmosphere. The rest is a sad result of obtuse minds.

  5. Chino Kino, thanks for your article. So precise. Important. Perfect! Nothing to add except the recent comment by Charlotte Gainsbourg:

    « Il ne me choque pas. Bien sûr, c’est de la provocation. Parfois ça peut être très déplacé, mais il est comme ça. […] Ça peut être des mauvaises blagues, je ne dis pas que ce soit du meilleur goût, mais faut pas prendre ça très au sérieux »

    "It doesn't shock me. Of course, it is provocative. Sometimes it can be very out of place, but he is like this. [...] It can be bad jokes, I'm not saying this is the best taste, but don't take it very seriously "

    Very best and thank you again!

  6. Respect, dude! I loved your article.
    I also think there might be a chance that this was all intentional of him. Especially by saying "Sometimes I hurt people on purpose, when there's provocation that I want to get through that has a meaning. This doesn't have a meaning.", he makes me believe that he is either just defending himself, or mocking us in our faces.
    What if by this, he truly meant to say "There is another meaning. I tried to hurt you on purpose, and I succeeded triumphantly. I just proved how self-contradictory you are, when you defend freedom of speech, but you can't even accept a bad joke about someone being a nazi. But of course, I can't say that out loud, because it would certainly not be beneficial to me."?
    I think he is clever and symbolistic enough to do something like this.

  7. I really appreciate your article! I think that Trier didn't meant to hurt people, and his answer was a little confusing, making people understand it in a wrong way.