Von Trier exemplifies conflict between work and words

September 25, 2011

I think this is the sort of piece newspapers ought to run. I know I’m in the minority, but it’s what I believe. On the other hand, part of being a grown-up is realizing that your hero is probably a jerk. But I think I may be in the minority on that as well. Anyway, well said.

By Manohla Dargis of the New York Times

In 1938, a month after the Nazi assault on German Jews known as Kristallnacht made headlines across the world, Walt Disney gave Hitler’s pet filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, a tour of his studio. He showed her some Mickey Mouse sketches, and she offered to show him “Olympia,” her cinematic slog through the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He turned her down because he was worried it would get out that he was playing host to a woman most of Hollywood shunned. In his biography “Leni” Steven Bach writes that when she returned to Germany, she praised Disney for receiving her, saying, it “was gratifying to learn how thoroughly proper Americans distance themselves from the smear campaigns of the Jews.”

I thought about Uncle Walt and Leni’s culture klatsch in May when, during the Cannes Film Festival, the Danish director Lars von Trier announced to a room of journalists with whirring, snapping cameras that he was a Nazi. His new movie, Melancholia, had just had its premiere and it was about to provide him some of the best reviews of his career. Longtime von Trier watchers should have known that he might try to sabotage all the good will coming his way, and sure enough the moment came after he took a question from a journalist who asked about the Gothic qualities of Melancholia and if he could expand on earlier comments he had made about Nazi aesthetics.

Stupidity started to dribble out of von Trier’s mouth, and then began to gush. He said he used to think he was Jewish and “was very happy being a Jew.” But “then later on came Susanne Bier,” he said, referring to the Danish director of In a Better World, and “suddenly I wasn’t so happy about being a Jew. No, that was a joke, sorry.” He added, “Then I found out that I was really a Nazi, you know, because my family was German.” He continued, “I understand Hitler, but I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely.”

His stars, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, looked progressively more embarrassed. (Dunst quietly asked him to stop.) He laughed, and after some more awkward groping (“How can I get out of this sentence?”), sighed and blurted out, “OK, I’m a Nazi.”

The festival subsequently declared von Trier persona non grata, a mysterious designation that left attendees scratching their heads: Was he banned for life or just for this year’s event? The competition jury, however, led by Robert De Niro, kept its own counsel and — deservedly — awarded Dunst the best actress prize. Since then the movie has continued to earn praise, including at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it will soon be in the main slate at this year’s New York Film Festival alongside the event’s opener Carnage (Sept. 30). This adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play God of Carnage was directed by Roman Polanski, who, when not picking up awards in Europe, still attracts outrage and legal interest in America, which he fled in 1978 after pleading guilty to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl.
It’s no wonder I sometimes yearn for the good old days when directors were anonymous hires instead of beloved auteurs who sometimes say and do the darnedest, most awful things. And who make it hard to watch their movies without wincing, who force you to reconcile your love of their work with their flawed humanity, as von Trier did when, during that same news conference, he expressed ostensibly sincere admiration for the Nazi architect Albert Speer. I believe he was joking about being a Nazi, and that he was also saying, self-seriously or not, that as someone of German heritage he was inherently guilty. So I opted for the Naughty Lars defense: He was just being Lars von Trier, the irrepressible provocateur. I kept thinking about Melancholia, perhaps his finest movie, and whether its apocalyptic tale of depression and death was autobiographical. I also kept wondering how close Vichy is to Cannes.

This wasn’t the first time von Trier waded into treacherous, Nazi-infested waters, and for some at Cannes his comments brought up memories of his 1991 film, Europa (also known as Zentropa). That earlier work turns on an American who falls in love with a Nazi supporter and features a Nazi group that’s portrayed sympathetically enough that the film was attacked at Cannes. Talking about Europa later, von Trier hit a familiar note. He initially addressed its critics by saying that he wasn’t siding with the Nazis. But then, in typical fashion, he kept blabbing on and on, sharing that there had been a joke about him winning “the Iron Cross for the film.”

“Europa” is such a lugubrious bore that I haven’t revisited it to check on the friendly Nazi rap; there’s something about a bad von Trier movie that resists repeat viewings. All his movies, including dreary ones like Dogville, have their feverish fans. One thing that everyone, admirers and detractors, can agree on is that he relishes sticking it to his audience with nudity, violence, a child’s death, a talking fox, mutilated genitals, whatever. As a filmmaker he can be bullying, overly fond of shocks. He’s been routinely condemned for his representations of women, and there’s no question that he rains down the abuse. The rape of Nicole Kidman’s character in Dogville, a crude sermon on violence and power, is an assault, if largely on one’s patience. The tribulations endured by Emily Watson’s saintly character in Breaking the Waves, by contrast, serve a story about suffering and salvation beautifully.

When Melancholia hits America, the debates over von Trier may rekindle, and anyone who suggests he is merely a compulsive attention getter or rejects the idea that an author’s stated intentions offer the last (or only) word on his work, can look forward to being criticized. “You are an apologist for anti-Semitism plain and simple,” one reader wrote in response to my article about von Trier’s news conference. (Another reader told me that I had no right to criticize a towering artist like von Trier. You can’t win!) So is von Trier a Nazi? I haven’t a clue, and neither does any one else who claims he or she “really” knows what he meant. All I know is what I see in his movies, which are not Nazi-promoting vehicles for anti-Semitism any more than Polanski’s are advertisements for rape and pedophilia.

To love a film by Polanski, though, as I know from other irate readers, is to guarantee that you will be accused of going easy on a criminal. Some of this anger can be blamed on avid Polanski supporters who assert that he did nothing wrong, or that he’s an old man now and has suffered enough. And, true, that Swiss chalet of his where he stayed after he was arrested in Switzerland in 2009 while waiting to hear if he would be deported to America sure looked as chilly as a medieval dungeon.

Some Polanski apologists repellently portray his victim as a culpable seducer rather than a 13-year-old who was drugged and marinated in booze. Others trivialize statutory rape, never mind that their opinions are legally immaterial. Some detractors remain insistent that he should return to America to face judgment, as do I.

Polanski belongs to a long line of liars, adulterers, sadists and slaves, wife beaters, rapists, miscellaneous miscreants and even murderers who helped make Hollywood great.

Charlie Chaplin liked young girls so much that three of his four wives were teenagers when they wed. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer may have had more stars than there are in heaven, as it proudly crowed, but in the 1930s it also had an opium den on the lot and Christmastime orgies. Walt Disney, as I said, played Hollywood host to Hitler’s favorite filmmaker. In 1952 Elia Kazan gave up old colleagues to the House Committee on Un-American Activities and then went off to direct a handful of movies about betrayal, including one about selling out your nearest and dearest: On the Waterfront. It’s a classic.

Judging filmmakers along with their films is a favorite critical pastime, and it was fascinating to wade through the confusion of responses to von Trier’s statement, in particular the struggle to reconcile a superb work like Melancholia with his words. The mistake was thinking the two could be reconciled rather than admitting that some contradictions remain insoluble.

And if the case against von Trier finally seems weak while the argument against Riefenstahl remains strong it’s because of the visible evidence offered by their films. In Triumph of the Will Riefenstahl, with Speer — whom von Trier, at Cannes, unforgivably called “maybe one of God’s best children” — put her talents to propagandistic use for a cinematic lie in which her guilt is inscribed on every frame.

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