Manohla Dargis on Von Trier, Polanski: Don’t judge a filmmaker by his behavior

It is perennial fun analyzing the ways in which Hollywood filmmakers express their discontent. Sometimes it comes in the form of the classic anti-Semitic tirade, and other times, in the case of Roman Polanski, statutory rape (oh I’m sorry, the rape charge was thrown out in favor of the euphemistic “Unlawful Sexual Intercourse with a minor”). 

“It’s no wonder I sometimes yearn for the good old days when directors were anonymous hires instead of beloved auteurs who sometimes say and do the darnedest, most awful things,” wrote the NY Times’ Manohla Dargis on the occasion of encountering a great artist with a grotesque character.

Those directors—and in this article she refers directly to Lars Von Trier and Roman Polanski—“who make it hard to watch their movies without wincing, who force you to reconcile your love of their work with their flawed humanity, as Mr. von Trier did when…he expressed ostensibly sincere admiration for the Nazi architect Albert Speer.”

About Von Trier, whose next film “Melancholia” is earning the filmmaker the best reviews of his career and which is garnering early Oscar buzz (lead actress Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress prize at Cannes even though the director was declared persona non grata), Dargis confessed, “I believe he was joking about being a Nazi, and that he was also saying, self-seriously or not, that as someone of German heritage he was inherently guilty.”

What Dargis is getting at in her piece is the problem of egocentric artist types who run their mouths because they can (or have sex with whoever they want because they can), without giving thought to the consequences of their declarations and actions. Von Trier may not be anti-Semitic—in the same press conference that he admitted admiration for Nazi aesthetics, he said that for most of his life he believed he was a Jew and he was “happy being a Jew”—but the question as to the deeper significance of his sudden admission that, “Ok, I’m a Nazi” does beg better understanding. In other words, what was he saying? And what the heck did he mean by all that?

It was readily rationalized in the press as a filmmaker who delights in provocation. But in a very smart and balanced piece, Dargis suggests that’s only the easy answer:

“When ‘Melancholia’ hits America, the debates over Mr. von Trier may rekindle, and anyone who suggests he is merely a compulsive attention getter or rejects the idea that an author’s stated intentions offer the last (or only) word on his work, can look forward to being criticized.”

She is less kind to Polanski, of whom she wrote (in maybe one of the greatest sentences in entertainment journalism ever): “Mr. Polanski belongs to a long line of liars, adulterers, sadists and slaves, wife beaters, rapists, miscellaneous miscreants and even murderers who helped make Hollywood great.”

It is a difficult thing separating artists from their art. This is well expressed in the recent news that Mel Gibson will produce a movie about the Maccabees and the outrage it inspired—though, for some reason, Dargis makes no mention of Gibson in her column. She also doesn’t offer any conclusive salve for how audiences—and perhaps America at large—should respond to the messy humanity of these skilled and lionized artists.

“Judging filmmakers along with their films is a favorite critical pastime, and it was fascinating to wade through the confusion of responses to Mr. von Trier’s statement, in particular the struggle to reconcile a superb work like “Melancholia” with his words. The mistake was thinking that the two could be reconciled rather than admitting that some contradictions remain insoluble.”