Lars Von Trier at Cannes: Anti-Semitic spew or strange, stupid gaffe? UPDATED

May 18, 2011

The Cannes Film Festival has declared Danish director Lars Von Trier “persona non grata” after he delivered some flippant remarks about Jews, Nazis and Hitler yesterday [see transcript below].

According to several entertainment outlets, the festival’s board of directors issued the following statement:

“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.”

According to TheWrap.com, Von Trier responded: “I’m very proud of being persona non grata. I’ve never been that before in my life, and that suits me extremely well…I’m known for provocations, but I like provocations when they have a purpose. And this had no purpose whatsoever. Because I’m not Mel Gibson. I’m definitely not Mel Gibson.”

While premiering his latest film, the apocalyptic drama “Melancholia” starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg on Wednesday, Von Trier had some very strange things to say about the Jews, and in particular, fellow Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, whose film “In A Better World” won this year’s foreign film Oscar. 

To be fair, Von Trier seemed to be running his mouth, unsure of what he was saying, and some of it was said in jest. Here is a transcription of his remarks:

“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 I was not a Jew, but even if I had been a Jew I would have been a second rate Jew because there’s a kind of a hierarchy in the Jewish population. But anyway I really wanted to be a Jew, and then I found out I was really a nazi because my family was German, which also gave me some pleasure. So I’m kind of…yep…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… [At this point Kirsten Dunst gasps with nervous laughter] 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. But, but, come on, I’m not for the second World War, and I’m not against Jews—no, not even Susanne Bier (that was also a joke). I am of course very much for Jews—no, not too much because the Israelis are a pain in the ass… How can I get out of this sentence? [“By another question,” suggests someone in the press conference. Von Trier stumbles a bit more, and then, realizing he has gone on a weird and dangerous tangent verbally throws his arms up and says…] Okay I’m a Nazi.”

At the end of the press conference video, Kirsten Dunst can be heard saying, “Oh Lars, that was intense.”

While Von Trier’s remarks are somewhat cryptic (Is he a Jew? Is he a Nazi? Is this a joke?), he is known for being a provocateur. He is widely considered an edgy, iconoclastic filmmaker. In 2000, the musical/dance film “Dancer in the Dark” starring the artist Bjork won him the Palme d’Or, Cannes’ highest prize. In 2009, he shocked audiences with “Antichrist” which featured a graphic scene of female genital mutilation. He’s an artist who thrives on scintillation. He is turned on by pushing buttons and shattering boundaries.

The Cannes Film Festival officially wrist-slapped Von Trier, releasing a statement calling his remarks “disturbing” and he recanted in full: “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,” Deadline.com reported.

The ADL’s Abe Foxman made the following statement to The Hollywood Reporter:

“He seems to be struggling with some personal ghosts…It’s a bizarre outburst. I don’t know what to make of it except that what we’re seeing recently is, when somebody has a personal problem or is under intense pressure, it bursts out in an anti-Semitic fashion…. It certainly is insensitive to Jewish people and to Jewish history.”

Von Trier’s comments are an odd addition to a recent spate of Hollywood Jew-hating, coming after firestorms surrounding the fashion designer John Galliano, the actor Charlie Sheen and late last year, the director Oliver Stone.

Whether Von Trier’s remarks should be categorized with previous anti-Semitic comments made by Hollywood stars is puzzling. The issue here is not that Von Trier hates Jews, because I think it’s fairly obvious he doesn’t, but that he is diminishing Hitler’s evil. It’s fine to feel you “understand Hitler” as a man, or as a character—Von Trier is, after all, a filmmaker—but to say Hitler did “some wrong things” and is “not what you would call ‘a good guy’” severely blunts Hitler’s crimes against humanity. 

Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center was less charitable with Von Trier’s remarks: “The only award that Lars Von Trier should receive is the Cannes Film Festival ‘Bigot of the Year’ for expressing his ‘understanding of’ and ‘sympathy for’ Adolf Hitler and for suggesting a ‘Final Solution’ for journalists,” Hier and Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the museum said in a joint statement.  “Please spare us all a meaningless apology written for him by his publicists,” they concluded.

I think what this boils down to is a thoughtless ramble, and next time, someone in the room should have the courage to shut him up. He’s not THAT important.

Here’s a live video of the whole press conference; Von Trier’s comments come in around 35:00, towards the end.

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