Like a petulant drunk repeatedly wreaking havoc down his local before receiving the wrath of a defiant landlord, Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier has had his comeuppance. Agitator, agent provocateur but, most of the time, just prone to upsetting the apple cart with outlandish, confrontational and deliberately provocative statements (and films), Von Trier has upset Cannes with his Nazi jokes and found himself banned from the festival, from this day forth.
The story has developed over the course of the week, from Von Trier’s Wednesday press conference after the premiere of his new apocalyptic film Melancholia – about the troubled relationship between two sisters as a planet on a collision course with earth looms closer and closer into view – at which he told a room full of journalists that he ‘sympathised with Hitler’, thought ‘Israel was a pain in the ass’ and revealed that he was ‘a Nazi’. At first, Cannes officials told the press that they were ‘disturbed’ by his comments (Von Trier issued an apology), before then, after some time for reflection, revealing a more detailed statement: “Cannes provides artists with an exceptional forum to present their works and defend freedom of expression and creation. We profoundly regret that this forum has been used by Lars Von Trier to express comments that are unacceptable, intolerable, and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity that preside over the very existence of the festival.”
The reaction to the festival’s decision to boot him has not been one of wholehearted support and his film remains in the running for the prestigious Palme D’Or. Peter Bradshaw, Guardian film critic and jury member at this year’s festival has urged Von Trier to make “a real apology, and not the smirking tongue-in-cheek one that made things subtly worse,” but supported the decision to punish the director and not censor his film.
Others though have expressed their dislike for Cannes’ decision to ban someone for their comments alone, particularly when it is unclear just in what context they were intended. Time Out’s Film Editor Dave Calhoun said: “Cannes is an open cultural forum and most people I speak to at the festival agree his comments were hugely open to interpretation and not coherent enough to form any kind of proper argument or clear opinion. The festival has played judge and jury.”
Von Trier has an odd relationship with the festival. He won the Palme D’Or in 2000 for his Bjork-starring musical Dancer in the Dark, but was also the recipient of catcalls and booing when his 2009 film Antichrist screened, genital-mutilation and all. He has always been an unpredictable character, prone to wilfully stirring up controversy and upsetting folk, and has always revelled in the attention it affords him and the anger directed towards him. His latest headline-grabbing escapade is probably the result of an ill-conceived response, and a juvenile one, to a line of questioning that asked him about his German roots.
At the time, when he gave his meandering reply, Kristen Dunst moving increasingly more uncomfortably to his side as the spectacle proceeded from one stuttering statement to another, laughs can be heard emanating from the throng of journalists, no doubt indicating that his words were not literal, their meaning disguised and transformed by their subsequent printing and re-printing. In the same way that humour can be lost in an email or text, Von Trier’s bad joke (?) has reverberated around the world and taken on a new life, that of someone coming out of the closet to reveal his Heil Hitler saluting secret identity. Smirking his way through a half-hearted apology has only served to support the response that he is in fact just winding everyone up.
The question is whether joking along this line is really acceptable. Calling into question issues of freedom of expression, it is clear Von Trier’s comments, serious or not, were in bad taste, but should he be banned for them? Are some topics just off limits? Does the context of his comments really matter, if he really was only joking and got tongue tied in what is not his native language in a knee-jerk manner to someone asking him about his ancestry?
It is supposed that Cannes’ decision to ban is more informed by a personal reaction to Von Trier himself rather than just this singular outburst. A personal attack on someone who has riled and provoked and who has now to suffer the results of his behaviour. Either way, Nazi or not, Von Trier seems continually unperturbed by it all, if reports of his comments in Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet are to be believed. “I’m proud to have been declared persona non grata, this is maybe the first time film history that has happened.” Does that sound smug to anyone else?