Lars von Trier: “O.K., I’m a Nazi”

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Within the hour, Richard Corliss will be posting his review of Lars von Trier’s (in my view, excellent) new film Melancholia, which had its world premiere this morning. But von Trier, the wildly talented, supremely maddening Danish director of such Cannes favorites as Europa/Zentropa, Breaking the Waves and Antichrist, topped himself for audacity in the press conference that followed the screening. As his stars Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg looked on aghast, von Trier mused on his family’s Germanic roots and, following his own tortured logic, concluded, “O.K., I’m a Nazi.”

[See UPDATE below.]

Melancholia, it must be stated, has no political agenda whatsoever; it is a meditation on the end of the world and the grace or panic with which a few people face it. The director calls his film a “German romance,” but that could be because it is the love-and-death saga of two sisters facing the apocalypse, and because Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde swathes the soundtrack. The film was greeted with severely mixed early opinions, and von Trier seemed to be agreeing with the nay-sayers. “Maybe it’s crap,” he said of the movie. “Of course I hope not, but there’s quite a big possibility that this might be really not worth seeing.”

Having sideswiped his current film, he talked a bit about his next project, which he said would be a four-hour porno film starring Dunst and Gainsbourg performing “a lot of very, very unpleasant sex.” From the startle on the actress’s faces, this was news to them. (More seriously, von Trier — whose 1998 The Idiots contained hard-core footage — told his biographer Nils Thorsen that his next film would be called The Nymphomaniac. “But it’s no fun if they’re just humping away all the time. Then it’ll just be a porno flick.”)

Finally he launched into true and perhaps terminal von Trier form when he was asked about his national background. “For a long time I thought I was a Jew, and I was happy to be a Jew,” he said, in remarks transcribed by The Hollywood Reporter. “Then I met Susanne Bier” — the Danish-Jewish director of In a Better World — “and I wasn’t so happy.” That could have been sour-grapes wit over Bier’s winning a Foreign Language Academy Award this year, whereas von Trier has never won and has been nominated only once (for Dancer in the Dark).

But he was just revving up. “Then I found out I was actually a Nazi. My family were German. And that also gave me some pleasure. What can I say? I understand Hitler. He did some wrong things, absolutely, but I can see him sitting there in his bunker at the end… I sympathize with him a bit.”

Dunst attempted to divert the toxic flow, and Gainsbourg (whose father, the singer-actor Serge, was Jewish) appeared stricken. Trying to crawl out of the grave he had just dug for himself, von Trier added, “I don’t mean I’m in favor of World War II and I’m not against Jews, not even Susanne Bier. In fact, I’m very much in favor of them. All Jews. Well, Israel is a pain in the ass, but…”

He concluded: “Now, how can I get out of this sentence? O.K., I’m a Nazi.”

In a way, a dangerous way, he was enunciating what all movie directors feel: that, on the set, someone has to be the commander, the field marshal, the Fuhrer; and that is the person with the vision and the megaphone. Von Trier, who has suffered from lifelong anxiety — call it depression, or melancholia — and whose fear of leaving his homeland (his bunker) has made his appearances at Cannes a biennial guessing game, naturally sees the movie world, and perhaps the whole world, as a me-vs.-everybody battle. He also loves to exhibit, deadpan-style, a skewed impishness that can get him into trouble. Or, as one person leaving the press conference put it, career suicide.

Three days in a row, now, the Festival has hosted filmmakers with a peculiar relationship with the press. On Monday, Terrence Malick, the notoriously shy director of The Tree of Life, skipped his own press conference and showed up at the black-tie screening of his film only at the end. Yesterday, Mel Gibson, whose mouth has made its own problems, also avoided the press but attended the official showing of Jodie Foster’s The Beaver, in which he stars. Von Trier may have made the opposite mistake with a Cannes press conference: he showed up.

UPDATE. No doubt prodded by his producers and publicists, von Trier this evening issued the following statement: “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.”