By Michael Ewins
I often find myself, oddly enough, at the starch defence of Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, whose sensibilities have been shocking the world since 1996’s divisive drama Breaking The Waves. For example, when people accused his arthouse horror Antichrist (2009) of misogyny I vouched that it was demonstrably a film about misogyny, which depicted but not engaged with the ideology, and was cruel not for the sake of being cruel but for the sake of story and subtextual examination of the genre. But I digress, for this is not a self-aggrandizing piece. It is to address the controversial and I feel somewhat unconscious comments made by von Trier at the Cannes Film Festival yesterday, following a screening of his new film Melancholia (2011). His cast members looked on in cringe-inducing horror when he declared:
“I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi, y’know, because my family was German… which also gave me some pleasure.”
“What can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things, absolutely, but I can see him sitting there in his bunker at the end. I think I understand the man… I sympathize with him a little, yes.“
(Finally, self-deprecating) “Ok, I’m a Nazi.”
For full context, which the media has almost wholly deformed, you can watch the complete statement here.
Maybe I’m just such a big fan of von Trier that I’m willing to forgive his comments at a deeper level than if, say, Catherine Breillat had made them. I have fundamental moral issues with her films, and therefore those words coming from her mouth – and for legal purposes I should state that she’s never, ever said such things – would have had a much different impact for me. But can somebody please clarify the issue here, concerning von Trier’s outburst? Exactly why are we getting inflamed about the insecure ‘confession’ of a man who created the Dogme 95 Manifesto for a bit of fun? Arguably people will deem Hitler and the Nazis a topic that really shouldn’t be joked about but he’s hardly the first person to use it as comedy material. Didn’t anybody see The Producers (1968)?
Clearly nothing von Trier says can be trusted, much less taken at all seriously – his next playful project will force Martin Scorsese to remake his 1976 classic Taxi Driver five times under a set of restrictive rules. Will we get angry at that too, when there’s the inevitable backhander aimed at the US and Vietnam? Probably we will…
I’m not exactly defending von Trier, nor will I categorically condemn him; it is not my place, nor that of the world press, to do so. He’s a prankster and always has been, and this grossly misjudged joke – or perhaps even publicity stunt – is hardly what the world needs to be concerning itself with right now. Without wanting to come off as too political or solemn, watching the world unfold through news coverage today is like staring through a kaleidoscope of terror. Lars von Trier, something of a fluffy bear at heart, called himself a Nazi, as he once called himself “the greatest filmmaker in the world.” No matter how offensive you personally find his comments can we not agree to judge the art over the artist? Actually, above all, can we please just… y’know… let it go?