The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Lars von Trier: Nazi sympathizer or just a filmmaker with bad comic timing?

May 19, 2011 |  1:04 pm

Lars_vonTrier If you thought that Newt Gingrich had foot-in-mouth disease, then what can you say about Lars von Trier, the Danish filmmaker who has now been banned from the Cannes Film Festival after making remarks earlier in the week that were interpreted as being pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish?

Like Gingrich, Von Trier has a history of making all sorts of provocative statements -- he once said he believed that George W. Bush was "in love" with Condoleezza Rice. And judging from the various on-the-scene-stories from this week's flap, it seems possible that Von Trier was trying to joke around with the press corps.

But as bad as it is for Gingrich to blast his fellow Republican Paul Ryan's Medicare plan as "right-wing social engineering" on "Meet the Press," it's an even worse idea to make loose talk about Nazis at a film festival. Film festivals are teeming with media, all looking for something lively to write about. And the vast majority of festival news conferences are so full of unbelievably dull and self-serving actors and directors, droning on about their motivation and artistic process, that anyone who actually says something remotely prickly or controversial will quickly find those remarks being rocketed around the world, causing a sensation and being deconstructed by bloggers everywhere.

This is clearly what happened to Von Trier, who at a news conference promoting his film "Melancholia," said that he at one point "really wanted to be a Jew, and then I found out that I was really a Nazi, because, you know, my family was German. Which also gave me some pleasure." According to my colleague, Steven Zeitchik, who was on the scene, Von Trier added: "What can I say? I understand Hitler, but I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely .... He's not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit."

Sensing that he was mystifying, if not entirely outraging, his audience, Von Trier ended his monologue by saying: "I am very much for [the Jews]. As much as Israelis are a pain in the ass. How do I get out of this sentence? OK, I am a Nazi. As for the art, I'm for Speer. Albert Speer I liked. He was also one of God's best children. He has a talent that .... OK, enough."    

My immediate reaction was that Von Trier must have hanging been around with Glenn Beck, who in a six-month period last year on his Fox News program, made 202 references to Nazis or Nazism, mentioned Hitler 147 times and even name-checked Joseph Goebbels 24 times. Of course, Beck is not a Nazi admirer -- he simply compares people he doesn't like to Nazis. As for Von Trier, his motivations are not so easily understood.

In previous interviews, he has discussed, in a more serious manner, his odd heritage. He grew up with a Jewish father, believing himself to be Jewish. On her deathbed, his mother told him that his biological father was a different man, someone whose German roots went back two generations. Von Trier has been trying to figure out his feelings about all this ever since. Unfortunately, he often does it in public, using sarcastic humor, which is a bad idea, especially in the hothouse atmosphere of an international film festival where any subtlety or humorous tone is easily lost.

I doubt seriously that Von Trier is a Nazi in the old-fashioned sense of the word -- i.e., a proponent of fascism or racism. He is an artist who should know better than anyone that loaded language can have a powerful effect on people, especially when unleashed in the middle of a film festival. Von Trier has made his apologies, of course, but it seems clear that he feels the media took what he said wildly out of context, at least in the sense that they failed to see his attempts at humor.

I'm betting that Glenn Beck feels that his obsessive references to Nazism are being misunderstood, too, especially when people like Lewis Black get to make great comic hay from them on "The Daily Show." But being a professional provocateur, it's always worth remembering the risks -- sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug.

-- Patrick Goldstein  

Photo: Lars von Trier being greeted by general delegate Thierry Fremaux at the Cannes Film Festival this month. Credit: Georges DeKeerle / Getty Images