Von Trier questioned over Cannes ‘Hitler speech’

Director Lars von Trier was questioned by Danish police for saying at the Cannes Film Festival that he had sympathy for Hitler.

Inciting racial hatred and justification of war crimes is illegal under French law.

Von Trier said Wednesday in a statement released by his publicists that he was questioned. He added,  “Due to these serious accusations, I have realized that I do not possess the skills to express myself unequivocally and I have therefore decided from this day forth to refrain from all public statements and interviews.”

The Danish director had said during a news conference at Cannes in May that “I really wanted to be a Jew, and then I found out that I was really a Nazi because, you know, my family was German, which also gave me some pleasure.

“What can I say? I understand Hitler, but I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely. But I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end. He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him and I sympathize with him a little bit. But come on, I’m not for the Second World War, and I’m not against Jews. I am very much for Jews. No, not too much, because Israel is a pain in the ass.”

Von Trier was declared a persona non grata and removed from the festival.

“Holocaust survivors were offended by Von Trier’s vile and insensitive remarks but do not believe he harbors pro-Nazi sympathies that merit criminal prosecution,” Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, said in a statement Wednesday.

“He is guilty of bad taste in the quest for cheap self-promotion, and for this he should be condemned and exposed. His lack of concern for the traumatized victims of Nazi brutality is disgraceful.

“Nevertheless,” Steinberg said, “his behavior is more childish than criminal. He should grow up.”

Israeli films take a lead role at Cannes

Against a backdrop of threatening skies, clearly not a metaphor for the future of Israel’s film industry, two Israeli feature films premiered on May 15, opening day of the 61st Cannes Film Festival. And a short by Israeli student filmmaker Elad Keidan took first prize in the Cinefondation, a competition supporting new talent.

The highly anticipated “Waltz With Bashir,” by established documentarian but first-time Cannes invitee Ari Folman, made its international debut as one of 22 films in the official competition, alongside features by Clint Eastwood, the Dardenne brothers and Steven Soderbergh.

Four years in the making, with 2,300 original illustrations transformed into a combination of Flash, classic and 3-D animation, the anti-war film, “Waltz,” chronicles Folman’s very personal experiences as a young Israeli soldier during the 1982 Lebanon War. He excavated his own traumatic but buried memories by questioning nine fellow soldiers about their recollections, specifically those recollections surrounding the massacre at the Sabra and Satila Palestinian refugee camps.

“Coming to think about it, it’s all about memory, it’s about lost memory, it’s about repression, it’s about where do our memories go when we repress them. Do they still live in us?” Folman said at a Cannes press conference following the premier.

On the same day, “Shiva,” by the well-known brother and sister filmmaking team, Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz, was selected to open the parallel and prestigious International Critics’ Week festival, running May 15 through May 23.

A French-Israeli co-production, also known as “Les Sept Jours,” this is the second film written and directed by the Elkabetz siblings, with the role of Vivianne acted by Ronit Elkabetz. The film follows the large, extended Ohaion family as they mourn the sudden death of Maurice — husband, son, brother and father — by sitting shiva according to the cloistered and regimented Moroccan tradition.

The film takes place against the backdrop of the 1991 Gulf War. In fact, hearing the familiar siren, the family dons gas masks while reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish at the cemetery. Then, confined to Maurice’s house for the full seven days — with all the mourners sleeping on the floor in one room every night — the family soon becomes consumed by internecine feuds, affairs and business failures.

Second in a trilogy, the film continues to follow the relationship of Vivianne and Eliyau, now estranged 10 years after “To Take a Wife,” their first film. According to Shlomi Elkabetz, their third film is tentatively planned take place a decade later, at the end of last century. However, when asked during a Cannes press conference if the couple will be divorced, he replied, “We can’t speak about that.”

But both siblings did speak enthusiastically about the current strengths of the Israeli cinema in general, believing that it is moving forward in a constant direction.

“We don’t need to imitate American films or European films,” Ronit Elkabetz said in French, through a translator. “We are faithful to our own psyche and this will strengthen progressively.”

Katriel Schory, executive director the Israel Film Fund and, among other duties, responsible for promoting Israeli films outside the country, cites “Waltz With Bashir” and “Shiva” as continued proof of Israel’s formidable reputation in the international film scene. In fact, he said that a fierce battle for “Waltz With Bashir” was waged between executives of the Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) and Cannes.

Last year, Eran Kolirin’s film, “The Band’s Visit,” which stars Ronit Elkabetz and which debuted in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard category, won the Coup de Coeur Award and continues to sell tickets briskly worldwide. Additionally, Etgar Keret and Shira Geffen’s film, “Jellyfish,” premiering in the International Critics’ Week festival, garnered the Camera d’Or Award.

“There is something in the stories, something in the talent and many people and many producers would like to be associated with the talent coming out of Israel,” Schory said, adding that Israeli films sold about 2.9 million tickets worldwide in 2007.

But the presence of these Israeli full-length features and established filmmakers at Cannes is only half the story.

Two student films were selected to appear as part of the Cinefondation, which solicits nominations from film schools across the world, motivating and supporting the upcoming generation of filmmakers. This year 17 films were chosen from more than 1,200 submissions.

Student filmmaker Keidan traveled to Cannes for the May 21 Cinefondation premier of his 36-minute film, “Anthem,” which he wrote and directed as his graduation project for Jerusalem’s Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, and which is the first Israeli film to take top prize in this competition, established in 1998.

“Anthem,” known as “Himnon” in Hebrew, is the story of a middle-aged character, Amnon, who goes to the store to buy milk before Shabbat falls on Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood. Then, from this small episode, everything goes wrong, until “it ends with a Shabbat element,” Keidan said, not revealing the details.

Keidan describes Amnon as an aging beatnik who lets life happen to him. “The film is an Israeli low-budget ‘Big Lebowski,'” he said.

A believer in independent films, Keidan would like to create more of them, both short ones, which he compares to poetry, and eventually an independent feature. And while he is currently restricted to low-budget films, he said he is influenced by Samuel Beckett and Billy Wilder, among other filmmakers, as well as by Iranian art films.

Winning first place is a “life-changer,” Keidan said. It guarantees distribution and exposure for “Anthem,” as well as a showing of his first feature film at the Cannes Festival.

“I have many, many ideas,” he said. “It’s like having many crying babies on your shoulder and deciding which one to soothe first.”

Keidan hopes that being in Cannes has helped him meet people and get his name around. Imitating his film, which he describes as serious but with humor, he said, “I hope to become the sole friend of Steven Spielberg.”

“Silence,” written and directed by Hadar Morag, 25, a fourth-year student at Tel Aviv University’s film and television department, was also chosen to premier in the Cinefondation’s competition, on May 23.

Next Year in Cannes

It’s a tough thing trying to arrange a Shabbat dinner at the Cannes Film Festival.

My friend, Scott Einbinder, had gotten the idea two years ago, during my first trip to the festival. At first, I was hesitant. I was focused on business, a filmmaker obsessed with my career. Plus, I was perfectly happy to twiddle my thumbs alone in my hotel room all Shabbat.

Einbinder, who is less observant, had to convince me, a “Young Israel” Jew, that this was a good idea. What better way to escape the madness and deal-making of the festival, he argued, than by joining together with friends for a Shabbat Friday night dinner?

I stayed skeptical. Would people be willing to spend $90 to attend a dinner without music, when they could instead be dancing it up with Paris Hilton at the MTV party?

We sent out e-mails, hired a five-star party planner and lo and behold, 42 people showed up. Einbinder flew in Rabbi Mendel Schwartz and his wife, Esther, of the Chai Center for spiritual leadership, and we invited the local Chabad rabbi to welcome the crowd. Steve Kaplan, our co-host, arranged free use of a magnificent villa, and our inaugural event was a great success.

This year, we wanted to do it bigger and better. Our goal was to double the number of guests. The rabbis joined as hosts, as did Hollywood heavyweights Craig Emanuel and Joan Hyler.

Unfortunately, the villa was not available. Rumor had it that Lenny Kravitz was staying there, and although Jewish, Shabbat dinner was not on his itinerary. Our party planner spent several months trying to find an alternate venue and eventually found a quaint, beachfront restaurant a few minutes walk from the hustle and bustle of the festival. The Chabad rabbi worked his kosher magic, and we hired one of the best chefs in town.

The response was great, everything was set and we were on our way to Cannes — then the bad news came. The restaurant bailed. Seems it wasn’t thrilled with the sweetheart deal we had negotiated and was talking to another party with a fatter wallet. Welcome to Cannes.

Our dream dinner was turning into a disaster. Fortunately, Einbinder was already in Cannes. Along with the Chabad rabbi — who no doubt threatened the wrath of God — they convinced the restaurant owner to honor the negotiated price. We were back in production.

Cannes is hard to describe. Its beauty is unparalleled, its ambiance is magical, full of romance and excitement. Most of all, people who travel there have a sense of jubilation.

We spent Friday recruiting a few more guests to the Shabbat dinner. I bumped into veteran producer Arthur Cohn, who unfortunately couldn’t make the walk to the restaurant but was so excited, he wrote a check for two seats just so he could somehow participate.

On my way to the dinner, I pulled aside two eager, young British paparazzi who were hanging out in front of the Carlton Hotel. I told them that although Tom Hanks and Penelope Cruz would not be attending, our Shabbat dinner was a unique party not to be missed. For a nominal fee and the promise of delicious kosher food and wine, they agreed to shoot the event until sundown.

As the sun started to set, guests trickled into the party. Twilight in Cannes is always beautiful, the calm waters adding to the tranquility of the Shabbat. About 15 guests huddled for a quick prayer service, while others circled the hors d’oéuvres and posed for photos. Shabbat candles were lit and Kiddush recited. Then it was off to the requisite buffet.

More than 80 studio executives, producers, directors, lawyers, agents, distributors and rabbis all enjoyed a Shabbat dinner together in the south of France. For some, Shabbat was a new experience. For others, a weekly ritual. Still for others, it was simply another networking event.

But amid all the business talk, I couldn’t help but notice that this Shabbat experience was transforming business acquaintances into friends, strangers into family — from all over the globe, Jew or non-Jew, Reform or Orthodox, Sephardic or Ashkenazi, it didn’t matter. In a town that evokes images of Bridget Bardot in a bikini and Pamela Anderson in “Barb Wire” leather, we were infusing Cannes with Kiddush, conversation and tranquility — the very essence of Shabbat.

After a few short speeches and probably a few too many l’chaims, the delicious dinner was over. Everyone was happy and vowing to bring more friends next year. One woman came up to me and proclaimed that she would return to Cannes next year “if only to experience such a Shabbat again.”

One guest was so moved that he said he was making plans to throw his son a bar mitzvah party so he can share with him the experience of his Jewish tradition.

The next few days were very gratifying for all of us. We were the talk of Cannes. As we walked the Croisette, familiar Hollywood faces stopped us and promised they’d come next year

I even found myself next to Paris Hilton at a party. She’d heard all about the dinner. “I’ll attend if I have a Jewish boyfriend next year,” she told me.

I’m available!

I got into the movie business because I thought movies could change the world. I’m not sure if my movies will ever change the world, but I know that our Shabbat dinner certainly affected a few people.

There may be a lot of stress and aggravation in planning a Shabbat dinner in Cannes, but I know it was biggest Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s name, I had ever been involved with. Next year, we plan to have an even more spectacular event. Who knows? Maybe Lenny Kravitz will sing with us.

Max Gottlieb is a film producer living in Los Angeles. If you would like to be placed on the invitation list, e-mail snowmax@comcast.net.

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