How far is too far? For the gentlefolk who run the Cannes Film Festival, too far is when a crazy-great director like Lars von Trier uses Europe’s version of the N word: Nazi.
Yesterday, at the press conference for the world premiere of his movie Melancholia, the Danish director launched into a bantering riff about his family’s German origins, which somehow led him to say, “I understand Hitler… I sympathize with him a bit,” and, once he’d castigated Oscar-winning Danish-Jewish director Susanne Bier and the State of Israel, to end with “Now, how can I get out of this sentence? O.K., I’m a Nazi.“
Here’s the video of his performance, from The Wrap.
The comments were immediately condemned by the Festival and by Jewish groups in several countries. Later in the day von Trier issued an apology (“I am not antisemitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi”), but that didn’t satisfy the Cannes bosses. Today they announced:
“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.”
Reveling in the apparent precedent of the indictment, von Trier told the Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet, “I’m proud to have been declared persona non grata. This is maybe the first time in film history that has happened.” He added: “I think one of the reasons is that the French themselves treated the Jews badly during the Second World War. Therefore it is a touchy subject for them. I highly respect the Cannes Festival, but I also understand that they are very angry with me right now.”
The anger is understandable; the verdict, not. If, as the Cannes declaration proclaims, the Festival is an oasis of free expression, then it should allow filmmakers the right to express themselves, however piquantly, on screen or at their press conferences. Over the decades, these panels have been the occasion for many an idiocy, on which the Festival bureaucracy has never felt the need to declare itself. Today’s statement, having condemned von Trier’s remarks, then should have said that its mission to “defend freedom of expression” restrained it from taking further action. By exiling von Trier, the Festival unfortunately merits the cynical definition of a liberal as someone who will defend to the death your right to agree with him.
At 55, von Trier is world cinema’s oldest, most incorrigible enfant terrible. He’s a mess of phobias and eccentricities, and has the letters K, C, U and F (in some order) tattooed on the fingers of his right hand. He is also known for the merciless browbeating of his actors; yet top stars queue to appear in his films. Nicole Kidman, fresh off her Oscar for The Hours, joined Lauren Bacall, Paul Bettany, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Gazzara, John Hurt and Chloë Sevigny in von Trier’s Dogville. Penélope Cruz was set to star in Melancholia — her suggestion of Jean Genet’s The Maids as a starting point led him to write his drama about two sisters — until scheduling conflicts forced her withdrawal, and Kirsten Dunst replaced her. Some would call von Trier nuts, but other directors fit that description. Hey, it’s show business.
The filmmaker’s comments were cued by a question about his family’s Germanic roots. Young Lars Trier (he later added the “von” for a whiff of nobility, as had silent-film directors Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg) grew up believing that Ulf Trier, his mother’s Jewish husband, was his father. On her deathbed in 1989 his mother revealed that Lars’s biological father was another man, a German gentile. “For a long time I thought I was a Jew,” he said at the press conference, “and I was happy to be a Jew…. Then I found out I was actually a Nazi. My family were German. And that also gave me some pleasure.”
Von Trier, whose films often find grim pleasure in outlandish behavior, was indulging in wild logic here: if I’m German, I must be a Nazi. But he is no Mel Gibson, who was also at Cannes (though not giving interviews) to support his starring role in Jodie Foster’s The Beaver; in fact von Trier, who simply can’t shut up or be shut up, told reporters today, “I’m not Mel Gibson. I’m definitely not Mel Gibson.” The American star’s tirades against the Jews suggested a desperate, deranged hatred, whereas von Trier almost surely meant his monologue as a joke. A bad joke? Probably. But a joke with a punch line that echoes the old vaudeville routine where one guy says, “Call me a taxi,” and the other replies, “O.K., you’re a taxi.” Von Trier’s version — “O.K., I’m a Nazi” — might require a slap on the wrist, but not a Film Festival firing squad.
The practical import of this edict was not immediately clear. Melancholia, it is understood, remains in competition for the Palme d’Or and other awards to be announced by Jury President Robert De Niro at the closing ceremony on Sunday. Presumably von Trier may keep the Palme d’Or he won in 2000 for Dancer in the Dark; it is one of four prizes his films have earned since he was first invited to the competition in 1984. And he won’t have completed his next big project for at least two years. Maybe then they’ll let him back into the club. If not, he can show his film at Venice.
Another possibility: the filmmaker had apparently persuaded Martin Scorsese to take a new edition of the torture test that von Trier devised for Danish director Jordan Leth in their 2003 collaboration The Five Obstructions: to remake one of his movies with nearly impossible caveats (as a crappy cartoon, in shots lasting no longer than a half-second, filmed in “the worst place in the world,” etc.). There’s no word on which Scorsese film would be remade; and the American director may well duck out of the von Trier firestorm. But a Scorsese Obstructions, should it be ready for Cannes next year, would be a cunning way to challenge the Festival bosses’ excessively stern ruling.
Von Trier embarrassed himself yesterday, but he’s just one loony artist. Today, for overreacting to his remarks and bending to internal or outside pressure, it’s the Festival organization that should feel shame.