Lars von Trier has always been a polarizing director, but until recently, most of the controversy has been over his perceived misogyny. And while feminists and film buffs have been fighting over von Trier’s treatment of women for a few decades now, it only took one interview in which the filmmaker professed to identify with Hitler to get him banned from Cannes.
Despite my ambivalence about his female characters, I’ve always been a fan of von Trier’s. I think his films are challenging and shocking and sometimes brilliant. Even my least favorite of his movies are striving to express something (infallibly depressing) about the human condition. Von Trier may be misanthropic, but he’s no sociopath. So, when the news broke that the director had said he was a Nazi and understood Hitler, I knew there had to be more to the story.
News articles have placed the quotes in some context. Von Trier explains that he had always believed he was a Jew, but while his mother was dying, she revealed to him that the man he thought was his father wasn’t. “I really wanted to be a Jew,” he said in the conference, “and then I found out I was really a Nazi, you know, because my family was German … which also gave me some pleasure.” Here, it’s fairly clear that von Trier is referring to his Nazi lineage, not his current political affiliation.
As for identifying with Hitler, here’s the real quote: “I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things, yes absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end. I think I understand the man. He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him and I sympathize with him a little bit. But come on, I’m not for the Second World War, and I’m not against Jews. I am of course very much for Jews. No, not too much because Israel.” Now, these are difficult statements to process, especially for people of Jewish heritage (like me) and those who lost family in the Holocaust. What I believe von Trier meant to say is that he comprehends humanity’s potential for cruelty (his movies prove as much) and can imagine Hitler as a human being.
Video from the press conference shows the extent of the moment’s awkwardness: Von Trier stammers, insists that he’s going to make a point, fields some sideways glances and nervous whispers from Kirsten Dunst, and ultimately loses the thread of what he’s trying to say.
Even those of us who wanted to assume the best about von Trier expected an apology and a clarification of his comments. And he did. Soon after the incident made papers around the world, the filmmaker issued a 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.” His retraction didn’t impress the Cannes Film Festival, which announced the next day that it had banned him.
Von Trier’s apology read as a bit brusque, so it was a relief to see an in-depth interview with him at Salon over the weekend. In a conversation at Cannes with critic Andrew O’Hehir, he offers a smart and satisfying explanation of what he said, what he meant, and why he regrets his comments:
I like provocations, but I like provocations for a reason and there was no reason here. This was just — I felt like I was driving in a car and suddenly there was a curve I hadn’t seen and I couldn’t keep the car on the track. So there was no reason for this provocation and I really regret that it happened. I believe in good provocations that can start something, but this one was completely wrong. And I’m not clever enough to understand that saying things like that in this place, of all places in the world, this was absolutely a no-go. But I don’t think that I said anything anti-Semitic. I said stupid things, like I think I said I understood Hitler. But that’s why I don’t believe in these press conferences. If I said to you that I understood Hitler, you would say, “What the fuck do you mean?” And I could say, well, in the sense that watching Bruno Ganz playing him in Downfall and all that, I understand that he is a human being and it’s very important for us to recognize that. You know, the Nazi thing lies in all of us somewhere, no matter what religion you are and no matter where you live in the world. It’s something that we have to fight against, and if you say that Adolf Hitler was not a human being, that’s the most stupid thing we can say. But of course none of that came out in the press conference because I was just panicking — I was somewhere else. I think the most insulting thing I did was to say that when I found out I was not Jewish, which I did at a certain point, that in fact I was a Nazi. I only meant, of course, that I was on the other side of the fence, but saying that could only hurt the Germans.
As far as I’m concerned, this is a mature response. Von Trier takes responsibility for the “stupid” things he said, explains that he was “panicking” when he made the comments, and proves that he has thought deeply about Hitler and Nazism. When he says that “the Nazi thing lies in all of us somewhere” and that “it’s something that we have to fight against,” he is talking about the same thing Hannah Arendt described as the “banality of evil” in her brilliant book on history’s great atrocities, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Von Trier is reminding us that Hitler was a flesh-and-blood human being and Nazis were normal people — and that it’s vital we comprehend regular citizens’ capacity to be drawn into unspeakable acts of evil. I remember learning similar lessons in Sunday school.
But von Trier’s Salon interview hasn’t seemed to make much of a difference, either. Today, unfortunately, the Iranian government wrote a letter of protest against the director’s persona non grata status at Cannes, calling the film festival’s actions “fascist.” Considering its government has made news for its Holocaust denial, Iran’s ulterior motives for supporting von Trier couldn’t be clearer — and the association certainly doesn’t help his cause.
Now, von Trier has apologized again. His most recent statement is an even more direct version of what he said to Salon:
In connection with the Iranian Vice Minister of Culture Javad Shamaqdari’s letter to the Cannes Film Festival regarding the ‘Persona non grata’ stamping of my personality, I feel called to make the following comment: In my opinion, freedom of speech, in all its shapes, is part of the basic human rights. However, my comments during the festival’s press conference were unintelligent, ambiguous and needlessly hurtful. My intended point was that the potential for extreme cruelty, or the opposite, lies within every human being, whatever nationality, ethnicity, rank or religion. If we only explain historical disasters with the cruelty of individuals we destroy the possibility of understanding the human mechanisms, which in turn are necessary in order to avoid any future crimes against humanity.
In the past week, von Trier has turned some very unfortunate and hurtful comments into an intelligent statement on the dangers of misunderstanding the lessons of World War II. He has given the necessary and respectful apology. Does he court controversy? Yes. Do his films push limits and make us uncomfortable? Definitely. Does the dialog about his treatment of women need to continue? Of course. But it’s time for Cannes and the public to forgive him for saying that he was a Nazi or appearing to endorse Hitler — because he’s spent nearly a week proving to us that he isn’t and he doesn’t.