the latest von trier controversy at cannes

yesterday morning, lars von trier stepped into a steaming pile of shit at the cannes film festival.

by now, most of the headlines for cannes are going to read “lars von trier says he is a nazi.”

american journalists are having a go at it, the blogosphere is alight with indignation, and i’m sure this will preoccupy a few pages on bona fide news media sites for about five minutes – while the huffington post will blabber about it – and all of this is too bad.

lars von trier is not an anti-semite and it’s an overreaction to ban him from cannes.

americans have generally misunderstood lars von trier because they tend to think that he’s talking about them, or talking to them. he’s not. and, as far as his feelings about being jewish are concerned, there’s a long back-story to that.

let me first recap what happened yesterday, then put it in context.

during the press conference for his film melancholia, von trier alluded to once being a jew, then found out that he wasn’t a jew, then made a crack about a fellow danish director who happens to be jewish, then mused about understanding hitler, then scratched his head, threw up his hands and mumbled, “ok, i’m a nazi.”  during the same press conference, he also admitted that melancholia might “very well be a piece of crap. i don’t know if you should bother seeing it.”

as one can see above, his schizoid provocations don’t translate well into english, but should be seen in light of that he grew up jewish, which in denmark is a not an easy thing to do.

just like von trier’s films, it’s unfair to place his comments in an american context, because they have nothing to do with americans, or american jews for that matter.

von trier’s comments have to be seen as reaction to several conditions: his very relevant personal history combined with a resolutely danish disregard for the usual public protocol of avoiding controversy combined with a schizoid, danish sense of humor that doesn’t translate well into english.

in denmark, it is commonly known that von trier grew up believing he was jewish, through his father’s side, but then learned that that was not jewish enough (because it only counts on the mother’s side).

denmark is not a jewish-friendly society. quite the contrary. i’m danish and i once had a production manager ask me not to hire a jewish sound editor because of his jewish identity. i stopped working with that production manager.

years later, von trier found out from his mother that his jewish father was actually his stepfather, and subsequently, von trier discovered the true identity of his biological father. his father was, in fact, a german christian. hence his darkly sardonic humor about this.

furthermore, danes are deeply ambivalent about their connection to germany’s nazi past, which he vaguely alludes to. it’s complicated and not easily digested via american-style sound bites. germany borders denmark and occupied it during the war and killed and executed many danes, including people in my family, while at the same time, over the course of the entire war, more danes fought for germany than against germany.

he grew up in the shadow of this war in a tiny country that was overshadowed by its powerful southern neighbor. you develop a dark sense of humor about these things, as well as a morbid fascination with the mechanisms of power, and, on a personal level, it would be a gross understatement to suggest that von trier has complex feelings about the subject of jewish/german identity.

the whole susanne bier joke is because (1) she evidently rejected his jewishness and (2) though she’s an oscar winner, she’s a somewhat reviled figure in the danish film industry because of her reputation for the way she treats the industry people around her. that’s what he was jokingly alluding to. once von trier found out that he shared something in common with susanne bier (being jewish – or so he thought) then he no longer wanted to have that thing in common with her.

i believe his comments were never meant to be taken seriously – they were framed by jokes about his own film and other less controversial matters – but if placed in a different context, these same comments could easily be seen as extremely hateful or, at the very least, disrespectful, but i don’t believe he is that.

lars von trier is not an anti-semite. at worst, he is careless and clumsy. so be it.

i’ve crossed paths with him several times and, for about two years, i had my office near his, on the former military base outside of copenhagen. he’s an odd bird who comes across as occasionally petty and paranoid. he is socially awkward, and a provocateur when he wants to be, with a penchant for snark and self-absorption, but that doesn’t make him a nazi.

he’s an outsider in his own country who, like many other danes, is trying to make sense of what’s happening in denmark over the last fifties years and translating that through his work. take a look at his film zentropa and you’ll see that in action.

as for his body of work, though much of it is set in america, it sincerely has very little to do with america per se. it’s more a reworking and subversion of hollywood conventions and danish mores.

finally, here are some more things that he said yesterday.
– csk

UPDATE: this topic has given rise to a lot of debate, and i wanted to follow up with a few additional comments.

the purpose of my blog post is to place his press conference in a context that offers more light on the situation than what’s being reported in the media over here in the united states.

everything he has awkwardly said has been taken out of context to serve other agendas. von trier inadvertently gave the american tabloid press a golden egg.

journalists who rush to call him an anti-semite without understanding the context, or even bothering to do a simple fact-check, dilute the meaning and power of the term and do a disservice to the genuine struggle of righting the wrongs of anti-semitism, but those same journalists will strengthen their own profiles and no doubt profit from their calls for action and that’s too easy an opportunity to turn down.

stated bluntly, accusing someone of vile behavior creates a scandal and scandals sell the news as well as ad spaces.

he said what he said and it was careless, pathetically short-sighted and should have raised eyebrows but once a statement is stripped of its context, whether in print or as an edited sound-clip, then anything that anyone says can, and often will, be used against them in the court of public opinion. he is now being referred to as “the nazi director” which therefore justifies the punishment, in what appears to be a victory for moral righteousness and the tabloid journalists who demanded action.

whose interests were being served by this development?

i feel bad for jodie foster for stepping into the same pile of shit but so it goes…

again, a few details on von trier’s background: when von trier was 35 years old, he found out that his jewish father was actually his stepfather and that his biological father was actually a german christian.

so, why did he call himself a nazi? i believe that it was a statement of embarrassed resignation – that he thought he was a danish jew but it turns out that his father was an arch-german: the worst thing that he could possibly be… his father might as well have been hitler. that’s what he was saying. it most certainly was not an identification with nazi values or history… or an endorsement thereof.

additional thoughts on the perception that von trier’s films are about america:

there are precedents for setting films in countries that are terra incognita to directors and producers.

of all of the films starring gene kelly that were set in europe but filmed on a hollywood back lot, where the director and producers have never set foot on the european continent, it would be very difficult to say that they are about europe or europeans. if so, then that would certainly present an interesting point of view about france or england or italy. those hollywood stories are just american fairytales that happen to be set somewhere exotic, in these constructed environments that offer no reflection of reality. hollywood filmmakers never expressed the need to rationalize their choice of setting. they just did it. i doubt many of them would have professed to have put forth a picture of the “real” europe.

i see von trier’s films as an examination of hollywood techniques and conventions – they rework and subvert hollywood archetypes and themes but their dramatic point of origin is always centered on danish values and mores (and possibly about pan-european culture, post world war two).

they are set in “america” as a comment on america’s cultural imperialism – such as the aforementioned gene kelly films – where von trier gives himself the same right to determine where and when he places his stories, just as any hollywood producer would do.

furthermore, von trier makes it painstakingly obvious that his films are set in a fantasy version of america – a tormented hollywood version of an obviously fabricated america – how else does one explain DANCER IN THE DARK? other than that it’s really really long and kinda boring and keeps punishing viewers for remaining in their seats, and it might have been the fulfillment of a personal vendetta against björk (or his mother) but i digress.

his films are set in the english language so that they can be seen by a wider audience: his films need to make money and there are not enough viewers in denmark to keep his films afloat. hell, most of his films don’t even break into the annual top ten for domestic ticket sales in denmark.

regarding his comments about albert speer – which i really wish he hadn’t made – but he was referring to speer’s talent as propagandist and storyteller. even george lucas and steven spielberg have admitted to the fundamental influences on cinema by leni riefenstahl and albert speer… it’s funny how scenes in STAR WARS echo scenes in TRIUMPH OF THE WILL…. in some cases, shot for shot… but that doesn’t mean that lucas’ blockbuster is an endorsement of riefenstahl’s client, right?

finally, it should be stated that at no time are any of these thoughts to be construed as an endorsement of anti-semitic behavior or an encouragement for anyone to defend behavior that is truly anti-semitic. i understand that people are provoked by von trier’s comments. my grievance is with the journalists who have failed us by not doing their homework, by not reporting the whole story, by selling out for the sake of an easy victory. von trier might have dug his own grave, but we don’t need to throw dirt on top of it; and if we do, it certainly does not improve our moral standing.

UPDATE #2: scott macaulay, editor of filmmaker magazine, quoted my blog in his
article about von trier, which includes some follow-up reactions from von trier
himself. it’s worth taking a gander. thank you, scott.

One thought on “the latest von trier controversy at cannes

  1. the whole episode is depressing. different cultures have different ways of using language to express themselves. when a dane says something, it’s gonna mean something different to when an american says the same thing. i learnt that difference very quickly (and i am a brit). heck, the same is true within one country: jokes made by young people in britain should be interpreted differently from jokes made by old people in britain.

    unfortunately a sober look at linguistics doesn’t sell newspapers or get website hits!

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