Nazi or Not So Much?: Behind the Lars Van Trier Controversy at Cannes

Nazi or Not So Much?: Behind the Lars Van Trier Controversy at Cannes

Lars von Trier is known as an outspoken provocateur, a maker of emotionally wrenching films, and, now... a Nazi? At a Cannes press conference today for his new film, "Melancholia," the Danish director, when asked about the interest he recently expressed in the Nazi aesthetic, gave a rambling reply in which he said that he sympathized with Hitler and joked about being a Nazi. Later, von Trier apologized for his remarks, but the jury is still out on how they will affect the critical reception of his film, or its chances of winning the Palme d'Or.

Having joked earlier in the press conference about making a hard-core porn film with "Melancholia" stars Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, the filmmaker began addressing the question of Nazi design by invoking his own heritage, saying "I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew," before relating that on his mother's deathbed she revealed that the man he believed to be his father was not actually his father. He went on to say, "I really wanted to be a Jew, and then I found out I was really a Nazi, you know, because my family was German. And that also gave me some pleasure. So, what can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things, but I can see him sitting in his bunker." At this point, Dunst leaned toward von Trier and half-whispered, "Oh, God, this is terrible," but he was not dissuaded.

He continued on his Hitler rant, stating, "he is not what you would call a good guy, but, yeah, 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.... No, not too much, because Israel is a pain in the ass. But, still, how can I get out of this sentence?" At this point, the moderator attempted to halt the snowballing disaster by taking another question, but von Trier continued to talk, praising Albert Speer and ending with, "OK, I am a Nazi."

ARTINFO France can't help but wonder how the film's other female lead, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who was also present alongside von Trier, felt about his remarks, given that her father, singer Serge Gainsbourg, was a Jew of Russian origin who was forced to wear a yellow star as a child in occupied France. (He later referred to it as his "sheriff's badge.")

After the conference, the filmmaker told the AP, "I don't have much to say, so I kind of have to improvise a little and just let the feelings I have kind of come out into words." He later apologized, saying in a statement that "if I have hurt someone this morning by the words I said at the press conference, I sincerely apologize. I am not anti-Semitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi."

Perhaps von Trier just had to inject some shock-value into the press conference because his latest film doesn't pack the same over-the-top punch of alienating suffering and violence as his previous works. It is "perilously close to the aesthetic of American mainstream films," he told FILM#Magazine's Per Juul Carlsen earlier this month, the same interview in which he first professed admiration for the Nazi aesthetic. "The only redeeming factor about it, you might say, is that the world ends."


The example he gave of admirable Nazi design in that interview was the Stuka bomber, which had a whistle attached to it to frighten the population before dropping its bombs. Von Trier compared it to a practice that he said Danish soldiers had told him was used in places like Afghanistan: "You aim the first two shots at the abdomen and the rest at the head" of the enemies you're attacking, because the stomach is the most painful spot. While these gruesome anecdotes don't really say much about Nazi art or design, they do, as Carlsen pointed out, say a lot about von Trier's approach to filmmaking.