By Symi Rom-Rymer
This past week at the Cannes International Film Festival, Danish film director and provocateur Lars von Trier announced in a press conference for his most recent film, Melancolia, that he understood Hitler and that Israel was a “pain in the ass.” These comments and several others, made in response to a question by a journalist about his self-described ‘Nazi aesthetic,’ predictably caused an instantaneous uproar at the festival. Cannes organizers responded by banning von Trier from the festival. Jason Solomons, chairman of the Film Critics’ Circle in London told Reuters that he believes the political furor in the wake of von Trier’s remarks will prevent the festival from considering his current entry for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top award.
The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors & Their Descendants (AGJHSTD), an umbrella organization of survivors groups, immediately issued a statement applauding the festival’s decision. “This is a welcome action which declares to the world that the suffering of victims is not a fit subject for mockery or casual self-promotion.…The organizers of the Cannes Film Festival have eloquently taken a determined moral stand against cavalier expressions of hate and insensitivity to those brutalized by the Nazis—Jew and non-Jew.”
Von Trier seems to enjoy courting controversy. In 2005, he said that “President Bush dreams of being spanked by Condeleezza Rice.” Indeed, just before he launched into his Hitler-themed ramblings at Cannes, he mentioned that he was planning to make a four hour porn film starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, the female leads from Melancolia, with lots of “uncomfortable sex.” Danish photographer Martin Hoien, who was covering von Trier for a Danish newsmagazine, told The New York Times that among Danes, the filmmaker has a reputation as a provocateur. He observed that “It’s not a surprise that he said what he said. Mr. von Trier is uncomfortable doing press [conferences] and seems to act out because of it.”
It is tempting to jump on the anti-von Trier bandwagon and add to the expressions of outrage. After all, he is an adult and must therefore have some understanding of (and take responsibility for) the impact that his words would have on his audience. But examining the situation more closely, it really isn’t worth all the indignation. The AGJHSTD said that the Holocaust is not “fit for mockery” and they are right. But von Trier was not mocking the Holocaust. He did not denigrate its victims or their suffering. His use of politically loaded words: ‘Nazi’ and ‘Hitler’ was dumb, but using outrageous language is not equivalent to mocking others pain. His remarks that he ‘understood’ and even ‘sympathized with Hitler’ have been blown out of proportion. Articles about the incident have led with sensationalist headlines, “’I’m A Nazi…I Understand Hitler” or “Lars Von Trier Declares Himself A Nazi, Hitler Sympathizer.” Out of context, his comments are, indeed, deeply troubling. One might even assume, based on headlines alone, that von Trier is a closet neo-Nazi. Taken within the larger context of his body of work, however, his remarks have a different meaning. Von Trier has made a career out of making films with dark plots and destructive protagonists, such as Antichrist and Dogville. That he might be fascinated with a dark and disturbed historical figure such as Hitler would not be surprising given the themes that he repeatedly returns to in his films.
Over the past week, there has been a great deal of space online and in print devoted to this latest Cannes controversy. Much of the reaction from the press or from Jewish groups, however, is little more than political theater. If von Trier wants to call himself ‘a Nazi’ or say that he understands Hitler to attract attention to his film, then let him. He is not using his media pulpit to call for another Holocaust or express solidarity with today’s neo-Nazis or truly saying anything that could harm anyone other than himself and the actors—by dint of association—who acted in his film. Until he does, we might all save some valuable energy and react as the Danish photographer Hoien did when he heard von Trier’s comments: roll our eyes and walk away.