Exploring the Cannes Ban of Lars von Trier – Who’s to Blame?

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Lars von Trier and his inexplicable finger tattoos at the 64th Cannes Film Festival

I’ve remained quiet when it comes to the now infamous Lars von Trier, Cannes Film Festival press conference following the first press screening of Melancholia held Wednesday, May 18, but as the entire scene seems to have played itself out, at least for now, I felt it was finally time to talk about it. Of course, before I get ahead of myself, I am not a supporter of Hitler (something I never thought I’d have to write), I do not condone von Trier’s comments, but at the same time I think this has just as much to do with his comments as it does with journalistic ethics.

For me it began with a Breaking News email from The Hollywood Reporter with a headline that read “Lars von Trier Admits to Being a Nazi, Understanding Hitler“. I saw it and, as I would assume anyone would react, said, What!?!? I have got to read this!

I read the article, which was written by Scott Roxborough, and I wish I had a screen capture of the original because it has obviously been edited since it was first published, which was when it was filled with spelling errors and rushed sentences in an attempt to be the first online with the story. While other outlets reported on the story, THR and Roxborough’s interpretation remains the first to hit the net, fueling a fire with an extraordinary mangling of words and meaning in an attempt to stir up trouble and generate traffic.

I’m not sure who Scott Roxborough is, but his interpretation of the press conference doesn’t come close to offering up the complete picture. He pulls quotes from von Trier such as “I understand Hitler… I sympathize with him a bit” and “Now how can I get out of this sentence? Okay, I’m a Nazi” and pulled them out of context, using them without proper inflection or even a back-story on the kind of provocateur von Trier can be and has been in the past, especially while at Cannes.

For example, Roxbourgh quotes von Trier saying, “Now how can I get out of this sentence? Ok. I’m a Nazi,” is the height of unprofessional journalism. After von Trier says “Now how can I get out of this sentence?” it isn’t for 30 seconds that he says “Okay, I’m a Nazi.” The comment comes amidst von Trier’s own mangling of words, bad jokes, bad taste and gentle laughter from him and an uncomfortable audience, but before we go further let’s watch the video for ourselves so we know what we’re talking about.

Now let’s consider Roxburgh’s opening paragraph in which he says von Trier pulled “a Mel Gibson in Cannes Wednesday, giving a shocking and hilarious press conference for his new film Melancholia.” Looking at this, Roxburgh was off to a great start, it was shocking, but also hilarious, but in a matter of words he drops the “hilarious” and goes straight face saying von Trier “admitted to being a Nazi, to understanding Hitler and speculated that his next movie could be The Final Solution.”

Before I say any more, let me just say that what von Trier said was not right, not funny and I don’t condone it. Joking about being a Nazi (a term von Trier appears to insultingly apply to all Germans) and at the same time saying you sympathize with Hitler is not funny. Hitler is an extraordinarily touchy and hurtful topic in world history, a history that affects us all, and even though von Trier’s comments were a mixture of a man who is both joking and being serious it doesn’t give him a pass, even if his comments lose a lot of their meaning considering he’s speaking in his second language and was clearly searching for the words to explain himself while Kirsten Dunst looked on in horror.

Yet, I still don’t understand how The Hollywood Reporter and Roxburgh can so blatantly draw a line in the sand considering they must know of von Trier’s past and even acknowledge the fact he was clearly making an attempt at dark humor. I would at least think they wouldn’t take von Trier’s comments out of context any further… I was wrong.

So after writing that article, what does The Hollywood Reporter do? They continue their hit-bating with another article only hours later, this time with a teaser that says “The director admitted Wednesday that he’s a Nazi. Check out some of his other jaw-dropping comments.” So now they’ve admitted von Trier is prone to provocation, but they are also saying he’s flat out admitted to being a Nazi?

While von Trier did say, jokingly mind you, “Okay, I am a Nazi” at the end of the conference, he also prefaced that when he said, “But then I found out I was actually a Nazi. My family were German.” What’s even more interesting? The fact this isn’t the first time von Trier has actually said these exact same things.

In a November 2005 interview with Die Zeit, von Trier was asked, “You grew up with a Jewish father. On her deathbed your mother told you that, in fact, your real father was a descendant of the Danish composer J.P.E Hartmann. And that this was her way of securing a ‘creative genetic make-up’ for her child.” Von Trier’s response:

Until that point I thought I had a Jewish background. But I’m really more of a Nazi. I believe that my biological father’s German family went back two further generations. Before she died, my mother told me to be happy that I was the son of this other man. She said my foster father had had notgoals and no strength. But he was a loving man. And I was very sad about this revelation.

This question actually followed this exchange:

In Cannes, American journalists were outraged that film [Manderlay] shows black people collaborating with their oppressors.

Danny Glover plays a good black man whose pure humanity puts him in league the slave owners. But this is exactly how fascism works and how it was implemented in the concentration camps. If everyone was fighting for their own lives, the Nazis had a problem. But as soon as someone with good intentions entered the camp, they had a powerful instrument of manipulation. That’s when the trading begins: “Okay you can kill these two old women, but not the children”. Well-meaning people are dangerous.

Especially when you put them in a von Trier test laboratory.

Nazis, slaves and slave owners. These are all just extreme images which I use to examine the categories which have left their mark on me. My family had a very clear idea of good and evil, of kitsch and good art. In my work, I try throw all this into question. I don’t just provoke others, I declare war on myself, on the way I was brought up, on my values the entire time. And I attack the good-people philosophy which prevailed in my family.

My reading of this is von Trier obviously does not support Nazism the same he doesn’t support slavery, they are the evil he is referring to in his comments, but he is stirring conversation by exhibiting how evil can twist good to do its bidding. As for the Nazi-related comments he made both at Cannes and six years ago, this is him saying he’s a Nazi by blood relation, not by practice. In this sense, he does seem to be referring to all Germans as Nazis, which, in my opinion, is the biggest insult he’s made, but one that seems to be overlooked.

Again, to me, it’s context lost in translation, which is to also say, no, he should not have made the comment. It wasn’t funny and I can understand the push back he received, but not all of it.

Following all the articles I received a statement from von Trier’s publicist that read, “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.” This, however, did not stop the Cannes Film Festival board from acting as they decided von Trier was no longer welcome, issuing 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.

A following statement was released, which to me seems the Board was second guessing their “persona non grata” decision, but still unwilling to accept his apology:

The Festival de Cannes was disturbed about the statements made by Lars von Trier in his press conference this morning in Cannes. Therefore the Festival asked him to provide an explanation for his comments.

The director states that he let himself be egged on by a provocation. He presents his apology.

The direction of the Festival acknowledges this and is passing on Lars von Trier’s apology. The Festival is adamant that it would never allow the event to become the forum for such pronouncements on such subjects.

Will the ban of Lars von Trier remain forever? Does it matter if he was joking? Is there a proper solution to handling such a situation, considering what he said was clearly wrong? Does it bother anyone that Mel Gibson, who’s shown repeated antisemitic behavior, walked the red carpet the night before and walked into the 2,300-seat Grand Lumiere theater to a standing ovation?

Adolf Hitler committed some of the world’s most heinous acts against humanity. Unforgivable acts if you ask me. Do I believe the “sympathy” von Trier says he has for Hitler has to do with these acts or some other connection that has nothing to do with the Holocaust? Is it fair to say without asking him as he was clearly never given the chance to explain at the press conference?

Von Trier explained later to Roxborough (the hit-bating “journalist” that started it all) from the Hollywood Reporter saying, “It’s a pity because (Jewish festival head) Gilles Jacob is a close personal friend of mine. What I said was completely stupid but I am absolutely no Mel Gibson … What I meant was I could imagine what it was like for Hitler in the bunker, making plans. Not that I would do what Hitler did. But it’s a pity if it means I will lose contact with Cannes.”

Of course, von Trier also made things worse saying he was “a little proud of being named a persona non grata. I think my family would be proud. I have a French order. Now they will likely tear it off my chest.”

He also continued to stir things up with conversation of Albert Speer and Leni Riefenstahl in an interview with the Los Angeles Times saying, “Even if I was Hitler, what does that have to do with my film being here? It’s a festival for films, not for directors… Albert Speer was for me a great artist, and we must accept that there can be big artists, like Riefenstahl, that suddenly get their room to work because of a dictatorship. There are people who want me to take that back, but for the sake of truth I can’t do that.”

While von Trier’s point at the end here makes sense, I think we all know why a film directed by Adolf Hitler would not be accepted in the festival. However, if he had thrown out Roman Polanski’s name instead would he not have a more interesting talking point?

So who is to blame for Lars von Trier’s ban at the Cannes Film Festival where he says he is no longer allowed within 100 meters of the Festival Palais and red carpet? If you ask me, he’s to blame, but only in giving them reason to do it.

Von Trier has been a provocateur for years and the organizers in Cannes know it. It’s the reason they invited him back after the explosive worldwide coverage the fest received two years ago with his controversial feature Antichrist.

In talking with a Russian journalist before Melancholia she asked if I was going to attend the press conference telling me the reason she was going was “to see if Lars von Trier was real.” He obviously is and she and everyone in attendance, as well as Cannes, got what they wanted. So who’s to blame? You tell me… as you can see from the video below, Hitler already has his own opinion.