His jokes about being a Nazi got Lars von Trier expelled from the Cannes film festival. But the Melancholia director tells Richard Porton why he is “very happy” about being deemed persona non grata.
Upon arriving Thursday for one of many roundtables arranged for journalists to grill Lars von Trier, the Danish director of the Cannes film festival competition entry Melancholia, reporters were informed that von Trier regrets what his publicist termed a “Lenny Bruce–style routine that bombed.” Von Trier, who realizes he’s “been a bad boy,” had just been declared persona non grata by the Cannes brass for comments made during Wednesday’s Melancholia press conference, in which he joked about “ sympathizing with Hitler” and feeling empathetic with Jews until he met the Danish-Jewish director Susanne Bier (the most recent winner of the best foreign film Oscar for In a Better World). Refusing to see much humor in von Trier’s ramblings, the festival condemned him for observations deemed “unacceptable, intolerable, and contrary to the ideals of humanity.”
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Of course, journalists with knowledge of von Trier’s penchant for making outrageous public statements did little more than roll their eyes. (A Danish reporter told The Daily Beast that “Lars says this sort of thing when he’s nervous.”) In 2005, he remarked that George W. Bush had sadomasochistic fantasies about being whipped by Condoleezza Rice. In 2009, after the initial screening of his film Antichrist was greeted with cheers by the mercurial Danish director’s partisans and loud boos by much of the rest of the audience, he declared himself “the best film director in the world.” His on-set behavior has proven no less controversial over the years. The grueling shoot of Dancer in the Dark inspired its star, pop singer Björk, to label him a woman-hating “soul robber.” Nicole Kidman, although more restrained in her remarks concerning her unpredictable Dogville director, quickly canceled plans to continue working with von Trier after the film’s tempestuous Cannes reception—a scene featuring Kidman chained to a wheel brought forth accusations of misogyny from many of the thousands of journalists on hand for the premiere.
Despite being effectively banned from Cannes (it’s uncertain whether the persona non grata status is temporary or for all time), von Trier was amiable and, amazingly enough, seemingly relaxed as he met with the press at the elegant Hotel Le Mas Candille to discuss the fallout from the controversy. Sensing that his remarks amounted to a public-relations disaster and an inadvertent effort to sabotage his film’s chances for the festival’s highest honor, the Palme d’Or, he retained an impish grin as he voiced his regret over the brouhaha he created. “It was stupid and the wrong place to be sarcastic,” von Trier admitted. “Of course, I don’t sympathize with Hitler. And, as we all know, the Holocaust was the cruelest and most barbaric crime against humanity of the last century … My only excuse is that if I think a press conference is getting boring I start to perform.”
When The Daily Beast asked him to clarify his attack on Susanne Bier and the nature of their tension, he replied: “I went to film school with her, and she used to work for Zentropa, my production company, but quit. I’ve always thought, compared to me, that she was treated extremely well, which is fair enough, but has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that she’s Jewish. The reason that I make these Jewish jokes is that, for half my life, I thought I was Jewish. If you’re Jewish, you’re allowed to make Jewish jokes. So it’s hard to break that habit when you find out that you’re not really Jewish. All of my children have Jewish names. I’m sorry that people took it the wrong way. But I know why; I was stupid enough to talk to the world like I talk to my best friends.”
When asked about his new persona non grata status, von Trier said it was “irritating” and added that he was close friends “with Gilles [Jacob, Cannes’s president] and Thierry [Frémaux, Cannes’s artistic director].” But von Trier, who has always felt like an outsider, quipped that the category of persona non grata “fits me very well; I’m very happy about that.”
Assuming that von Trier now has as much chance of winning the Palme d’Or as Mel Gibson (of The Beaver) does of being a keynote speaker at a B’nai B’rith conference, what, you may ask, are the merits of Melancholia itself, and how could an art movie with a gratuitous sci-fi hook have prompted such a bizarre rhetorical detour? To begin with, it’s helpful to know that the controversy was initially generated by an interview in Film, the magazine of the Danish Film Institute, which featured von Trier proclaiming that he’s “always had a weakness for the Nazi aesthetic.” The ironic remark was intended to explain the generous snippets from Richard Wagner’s (Hitler’s favorite composer) Tristan und Isolde that dominate Melancholia’s sound track.
To put a benign gloss on remarks that much of the world—unfamiliar as it is with von Trier’s decidedly adolescent brand of humor—have already found extremely offensive, von Trier’s new film plunges into the thorny terrain of German romanticism. The apocalyptic avant-garde epic personifies the explosive union of beauty, eroticism, and destruction that characterizes the most feverish romanticism much like Wagner’s music conjoins love and death (i.e., the famous Wagnerian Liebestod). It is not giving anything away to inform prospective viewers that Melancholia ends with “Planet Melancholia” crashing into earth and killing the film’s protagonists and all of humanity. That, for von Trier, is a starting point for the audience. The film is not bound up with plot devices, but with the stylistic bag of tricks he brings to bear on this experimental version of the disaster movie.
Melancholia, like many of von Trier’s films, is a mixed bag. The plight of the terminally morose Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is stunningly conveyed through a series of images inspired by an array of classic paintings that open the film. But, as is often the case with von Trier, the script itself is weak and the primary narrative revolving around Justine’s doomed wedding and conflict with her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is schematic and underdeveloped. One has the impression that if von Trier had his way, or lacked commercial instincts, he’d abandon narrative altogether and make completely abstract films.
At Thursday’s roundtable, such aesthetic considerations were cast aside. Afterward, von Trier was being summoned for an interview with an Israeli broadcaster. It was difficult to predict whether his multilayered ironies would go down well in Tel Aviv.
Richard Porton is one of the editors of Cineaste magazine in New York and has written on film for Cinema Scope, In These Times, and Moving Image Source. His anthology, On Film Festivals (Wallflower Press), was published in 2009.