Expulsion of Lars von Trier from Cannes: And the Prize for Idiocy Goes To ... Festival Management

A Commentary by

Yes, Danish director Lars von Trier's commentsabout understandingAdolf Hitler and about Israel being a "pain in the ass" on Wednesday were ill advised. But the Cannes festival's decision to exclude him from this year's event -- while at the same time rehabilitating Mel Gibson --was even worse.

Photo Gallery: Lars von Trier Excluded from Cannes Photos
DPA

On Wednesday, the question of the day was how much damage director Lars von Trier had inflicted on himself with his controversial remarks about Hitler and Israel. On Thursday, the question was: How much damage has the Cannes Film Festival inflicted on itself with the wrongheaded decision to exclude von Trier?

By deciding to declare von Trier persona non grata for the current competition, the festival loses much of its credibility. Treating von Trier's remarks as a political position to be taken seriously and drawing extensive consequences from it misjudges the situation in which von Trier made the remarks, as well as his work as aesthetic context.

"How do I get out of this sentence?" von Trier wondered out loud at the press conference for his new film "Melancholia." By that time, he had already distanced himself from World War II and said that he was "very much for Jews." But then he added: "Well not too much, because Israel is a pain in the ass." Kirsten Dunst, the star of his film, was visibly uncomfortable, but despite von Trier's mindless drivel, most of the journalists were laughing. In the end, von Trier was unable to "get out of this sentence" and closed the conference by saying, almost with resignation: "Okay, I'm a Nazi." Was this someone explaining his close-minded view of the world? Or some elaborate, anti-Semitic ideology? Hardly.

Lars von Trier was free-associating at the press conference, and if he hadn't come up with more outrageous, tasteless associations than anyone else, he wouldn't be the groundbreaking director that he is. "Any journalist who has ever seen von Trier at one of his many Cannes press conferences over the years knows that the man is simultaneously shy and provocative, depressed and joking, off-the-cuff and off-the-wall," US film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote afterwards. "Any reporter with any sense of perspective knows not to take such stinkbombs at face value."

Incomprehensible

But von Trier's remarks were taken at face value, which is why he had to treat the matter seriously and apologized the same day. "If I have hurt someone this morning by the words I said at the press conference, I sincerely apologize. I am not anti-Semitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi," he announced in an official statement on Wednesday. Why this prompt, unambiguous statement was not sufficient for the festival management is incomprehensible.

It should also be pointed out that, on the day before the premier of "Melancholia," Mel Gibson's new film, "The Beaver," was shown in Cannes. Gibson was arrested in 2006 for a traffic violation and, in a drunken tirade, berated the Jewish policeman who had arrested him with the words: "Fucking Jews ... the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." Gibson also had to apologize for his remarks, which adversely affected his career for a long time -- until Cannes included "The Beaver" in its competition program.

By rehabilitating one man while banning the other, the festival management couldn't have shown less of a backbone. Gibson's films contain at least some fuel for a discussion about anti-Semitic tendencies. His archaic film "The Passion of the Christ" was criticized for its distorted perception of Jews. A search for similar material in von Trier's films will be in vain.

Idiotic, Pointless Performance

Another comparison shows how much standards have slipped in the current controversy over von Trier. During a press conference, von Trier rambled on about understanding Hitler, saying that he could "see him sitting in his bunker in the end." Bernd Eichinger and Oliver Hirschbiegel didn't ramble on about Hitler as a person, but instead made a 150-minute film about him, depicting Hitler in his bunker at the very end. Their film, "Downfall," was even nominated for an Oscar in 2005.

What will remain of the scandal? Probably less than it would seem at first glance. Von Trier accepted the expulsion without further ado and characterized his statements, once again, as "completely idiotic." The management of the Danish Film Institute has already announced that von Trier would not be disadvantaged in any way when submitting future applications for project assistance. And the Cannes Festival management stressed that the expulsion applied only to von Trier and only for this year, but not to his film.

The most idiotic, pointless performance in Cannes? That award for 2011 goes to the festival management itself.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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