Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier has always been a provocateur, to him the worst kind of reaction is indifference. Love him or hate him, both his work and he himself divides and catalyses opinion amongst even the most aloof cinematic enthusiasts. He explores controversial subject matter, differing filmmaking styles, and famously suffers periodically from depression - all of which has resulted in some truly strange but often original work.
From "Europa" ("Zentropa") and "Breaking the Waves", to "Dancer in the Dark," "Dogville" and "Antichrist" - von Trier pushes the envelope. You challenge him with the slap of a glove, he'll pick a steel gauntlet and shove it up your ass. He's a prankster with a fondness for political incorrectness and a very dark sense of humour, no-one wants to stick it to the establishment more than him. This makes the events of the past two days something that I've no doubt he will ultimately look back on with a feeling of wry amusement.
The fuss began Wednesday morning at the Cannes Film Festival where he was on hand to promote his newest film "Melancholia". The premiere had gone splendidly, the reviews were typical von Trier with some labelling it a piece of genius, others a laborious bore. Cannes has always been a friend to the filmmaker and he's used the festival as a platform to launch his films since the mid-80's. It's an arrangement the pair have both done very well out of.
A 45-minute press conference began. According to an excellent Indiewire write-up, jokes were made and von Trier's strange Scandinavian sense of humour saw him often contradicting himself and drawing both gasps and nervous laughter from the assembled cast and journalists. He hazed his actors, saying with a straight face his next film would be a hard core porno because his stars Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg insisted on it.
Reportedly "some in the audience roared while others in the audience seemed bewildered" by the conversation which had him making fun of everything from Udo Kier's sexuality to having seen Gainsbourg nude from every angle. The tone shifted on a dime between dead serious, to jokes that sometimes hit and sometimes only the director himself seem to be amused by. Towards the end came a moment however where von Trier's inarticulate attempt at humor didn't come together quite like he expected.
He said: "For a long time I thought I was a Jew and I was happy to be a Jew, then I met (Danish and Jewish director) Susanne Bier and I wasn't so happy. But then I found out I was actually a Nazi. My family were German. And that also gave me some pleasure. What can I say? I understand Hitler…I sympathise with him a bit…I don't mean I'm in favour of World War II and I'm not against Jews, not even Susanne Bier. In fact, I'm very much in favour of them. All Jews. Well, Israel is a pain in the ass but… Now how can I get out of this sentence? Ok. I'm a Nazi…This movie was done on a great scale. Yeah, that's what we Nazis do - we do things on a grand scale.”
Kirsten Dunst, sitting next to him on the panel, was visibly astonished and uncomfortable. That was nothing however compared to the media firestorm that erupted in the ensuing hours. A crazy auteur said something crazy which invoked the most overuse of the words Hitler, Nazi and anti-Semite in headlines since Mel Gibson's well-publicised and far more damning drunken tirade. Ironic considering Gibson was in Cannes and had been welcomed with open arms by the organisers, while his film "The Beaver" scored a standing ovation.
Von Trier later officially apologised for his remark, saying that "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." The Cannes Film Festival organisers however went one step further - they effectively banned him. In an official statement this morning, they said:
"The Festival de Cannes provides artists from around the world with an exceptional forum to present their works and defend freedom of expression and creation. The Festival's Board of Directors, which held an extraordinary meeting this Thursday 19 May 2011, profoundly regrets 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 Board of Directors firmly condemns these comments and declares Lars Von Trier a persona non grata at the Festival de Cannes, with effect immediately."
While Von Trier's "Melancholia" remains in competition, his status as "Persona Non Grata" means he would not be welcome to collect any prize on Sunday, including the Palme d'Or. The film's chances to be judged fairly have also likely been washed away with these events, while The Hollywood Reporter says that Argentina's Distribution Company SA has already declared that it will refuse to distribute.
Has this been a massive over-reaction? Jeff Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere put it well - "Lars von Trier has, press conference-wise, often played the role of a provocateur, a kidder -- he loves to poke and agitate and whip the press into a lather. Nazi-winking, even in jest, in a huge no-no, of course, but we all know that Von Trier is a serious artist and a humanitarian… Due respect to the Cannes team, but this is excessive. They're swatting a fly with a double-barrelled shotgun."
I'm not personally an enthusiast of Von Trier's often over-rated work, but I do admire his dedication to his craft, his refusal to bow to convention, and he certainly has more of an eye for the way to both shoot and edit film than many who call themselves directors. What happened here seemed to be an ill-placed joke in his head that came out as little more than verbal diarrhoea.
The ban means little to him, but he will follow it because Cannes is one of the few institutions he does have great respect for. Far more disturbing than his comments have been some of the more extreme reactions from members of the public and media demanding stricter measures be taken, up to and including the banning of his works and even jail time.
This morning Von Trier spoke with 24 Frames and seemed contrite - "I'm really sincere when I say I don't really know what hit me. I can understand if you take things out of context. This was very sarcastic and very rude, but that's very Danish. I'm very sorry that it's being taken the wrong way."
He then went on to tell Time Out that while he deliberately takes shots at people, this wasn't the case - "I'm known for provocations, but I like provocations when they have a purpose. And this had no purpose whatsoever. Because I'm not Mel Gibson. I'm definitely not Mel Gibson." He continued, "I've studied how bad the Jews have been treated in [places such as] Poland and France. This is something that matters very much to me. And this was an idiotic way to behave."
He said he didn't know if he would ever sit for another news conference, but did start the interview with the joke "If any of you would like to hit me, you're perfectly welcome. I must warn you that I might enjoy it." He later added "I should be carried around in a little cage with something in my mouth and shown to the press… I'm joking a lot. I think you need, as journalists, even though you don't find it funny, to see my intention."
Still, these interviews weren't without their own controversy when Von Trier was asked why the story exploded like it did - "The reason why it's so big, especially here, is that France has had a problematic relationship with Jews, and you [as an interview subject] shouldn't touch such things. But on the other hand, being a cultural radical, you should touch such things."
Aside from von Trier himself, the controversy has also dredged up questions about the ban and how much of it was politically motivated. For a festival built on being a place open to all cultures and points of view, however ill-informed, taking such a reaction to these comments smells of hypocrisy. It has also lead to questions over how safe the organisers will be with future line-ups and what impact this will have on their relationship with the press.
T.S. Eliot wrote "The thrilling wire in the blood sings below inveterate scars", a reference to the energy in our veins that surges and pulses so loud as to cause madness in some. Von Trier has always been a man driven by his own unique madness, one I can't claim to understand, yet it has endured and burned within him through the many years that daggers have been slung his way.
This week may leave him mildly scarred, it may even see some humility sink beneath the skin. When it comes to his work as a filmmaker though, I've no doubts the off-key hum that drives him will be as vibrant and torturous as it always has been, and he will continue to be the polarising figure he always was.