On the off chance that this is the first time you’ve heard of this story, or if you simply skimmed a couple of headlines and never either watched or read all of von Trier’s “controversial” pro-Hitler rant, here it is:
The only thing I can tell you is that I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew, then later on came Susanne Bier, and suddenly I wasn’t so happy about being a Jew. That was a joke. Sorry. But it turned out that I was not a Jew. If I’d been a Jew, then I would be a second-wave Jew, a kind of a new-wave Jew, but anyway, I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi, because my family is German. And that also gave me some pleasure. So, I, what can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things but I can see him sitting in his bunker. I’m saying that I think I understand the man. He is not what we could call a good guy, but yeah, I understand much about him and I sympathize with him … But come on! I’m not for the Second World War. And I’m not against Jews. No, not even Susanne Bier. I am very much for them. As much as Israelis are a pain in the ass. How do I get out of this sentence? Okay, 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 … Okay, enough.
Cannes then banned the director, but not before asking him to issue the following apology:
If I have hurt someone this morning by the words I said at the press conference, I sincerely apologize. I am not antisemitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi.
First of all, to quote Avenue Q, everyone’s a little bit racist. But really, Cannes? You’re surprised that a man who wrote and directed a film called Antichrist, and who used his own experience with a depression to write and direct his newest film, Melancholia, might stir up controversy at your press conference? You don’t kind of think that he was hoping for a big reaction and that, by banning him, you’ve probably upped all the press this little indie film was ever going to get by tenfold? von Trier himself has said as much, arguing that being banned from Cannes might free him creatively, but also that he feels his banning shouldn’t mean that his films should also be ignored by the film festival which should always be more about art than politics — though the heavy irony of that sentence was undoubtedly intended.
Here’s the thing: I’m not defending von Trier. I think he said something stupid on purpose and was looking for attention — some of Kirsten Dunst’s murderous looks while he was talking were fantastic. She was pissed that he was sabotaging this for the sake of some flashy press, as she should be. The comments were hateful, disrespectful, irresponsible but also… lazy. I mean, what was the point? Apart from stirring up controversy. Because it feels like the Holocaust is the go-to for instant shock value and it’s just kind of… stale. This kind of cheap joking goes on in high schools and Universities all the time with wild-eyed white boys hoping to get a shocked giggle in response to some lame anti-semitic joke. And it’s clear that that’s all von Trier was doing — trying to tell a cheap joke.
In sum, I think Cannes was wrong to ban von Trier — make him apologize, sure, but don’t act like this was something more sinister than an immature man desperate for attention trying to build some notoriety for what is, according to many reviewers, a rather slow and boring film.