On Wednesday, Lars von Trier set off a worldwide firestorm when, in his typically provocative way, he attempted to make a number of jokes about being a Nazi who sympathized with Hitler.
Less than 24 hours later, he added contrition to his repertoire, without letting up too much on the provocation.
In one of his first interviews since the controversy exploded Wednesday at a news conference for his Cannes film "Melancholia" -- and on the same day the festival declared him persona non grata -- Von Trier came off like a man who regretted the whole incident even as he seemed to take a small amount of playful enjoyment in the fact that, once again, he had gotten a lot of people worked up.
He began the conversation with an apology considerably more elaborate than the terse statement sent out on his behalf by his publicity team Wednesday afternoon.
"I'm really sincere when I say I don't really know what hit me. I can understand if you take things out of context. This was very sarcastic and very rude, but that's very Danish. I'm very sorry that it's being taken the wrong way," he said from beneath a straw hat as he sat in the garden of a hotel in Mougins, a town about six miles north of Cannes, where he stays during the festival. "I must say that I believe strongly that the Holocaust is the worst crime against humanity ever, and I do not sympathize with Hitler one second."
He did make light of the email statement Wednesday in which he apologized, saying it didn't come with much feeling behind it. "All apologies to me are nonsense. It's saying 'I did something wrong,' but what does that help? I think it makes the whole situation much worse." Why, then, did he send it out? "It's something called damage control."
Von Trier has been known to take shots at everything from fellow filmmakers to American values, cultivating an image of the auteur shock jock. But he said that, despite the fraught nature of the Nazi comments, they were far from substantively motivated. "I didn't want to hurt anyone at all [with this]. Sometimes I hurt people on purpose, when there's provocation that I want to get through that has a meaning. This doesn't have a meaning." He continued, "I've studied how bad the Jews have been treated in [places such as] Poland and France. This is something that matters very much to me. And this was an idiotic way to behave."
But for all his remorse, he said he believes that at least part of why the incident became such a live wire was because of the country in which he made the statements. "The reason why it's so big, especially here, is that France has had a problematic relationship with Jews, and you [as an interview subject] shouldn't touch such things. But on the other hand, being a cultural radical, you should touch such things."
He said he felt the flap was blown out of proportion by one group in particular: the Cannes Film Festival. Organizers called the filmmaker Wednesday to express their concern, and also released a statement that they were "disturbed" by the remarks. It's a reaction Von Trier has trouble understanding. "It's a major thing at the festival, and very problematic for the festival. And that's a little strange, because 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," he said.
In a similar vein, he continued to stand by his belief that one should separate art from artist. "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."
But when asked whether he felt Cannes jurors upset by his comments could make the same distinction with his work, he replied flatly, "I don't deserve to win a [Palme d'Or]."
He also said he didn't know if he would ever sit for another news conference. "I'm not sure I'll leave Denmark again," he said, though anyone who knows Von Trier knows that tongue-holding is not something he practices often. He did say he was eager to return to his home country, where he plans on shooting both a soft-core and hard-core porn movie.
"I want to be surrounded by porn people who love me for what I am, who say, 'Where do you want the erection, where do you want the penetration.' Where it's not complicated. There wouldn't be a porn star running out there saying 'Lars said this or Lars said that.'"
As for "Melancholia," most of the interview was given over to the question of the day, though he did talk a bit about how he wanted to make a film about depression with a supernatural gloss.
Finally, the director said his own Jewish background -- his father, Ulf, was Jewish, although the director learned as an adult that the man was not his biological parent -- complicates the question of what he does and doesn't feel comfortable saying about Jews. "Half my life I've made very many Jewish jokes because when you are Jewish, you're allowed to do that. And now I feel kind of in-between."
But then he seemed to undercut the sensitivity of the moment when he added, "I'm very much into the Jewish stuff. Even when I found out I'm not Jewish by my genes, all my children have Jewish names. I'm actually" he pauses -- "too Jewish." And then realizing how that could be misconstrued, he said, "Oh ...", using an obscenity and leaning his forehead against the table in a playful what-have-I-done pose. "Don't write that." He added , "I'm just an idiot that should just say home in Denmark and never talk to anybody."
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-- Steven Zeitchik in Mougins, France
Photo: Lars von Trier. Credit: EPA