Lars Von Trier, Nazi pornographer manqué

On Hitler: “I sympathize with him a bit”

'Melancholia' director Lars Von Trier with Kirstin Dunst at Cannes press conference / photo by Brian D. Johnson

Lars Von Trier sure knows how to generate publicity. At this morning’s press conference for his competition entry, Melancholia, he did his best to downplay the merits of the film, saying, “Maybe it’s crap. Of course, I hope not. But there is quite a big possibility that this is really not worth seeing.” He went on to joke about how his next project would be an epic hardcore porn movie with Melancholia stars Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who flanked him at the press conference and acted amused. After 20 minutes of this, I bolted to catch a repeat screening of Aki Kaurismaki’s  Le Havre. I figured that Von Trier was pretty much done. But by the time I got out of Le Havre (which is a gem), there was outrage about Von Trier all over the Internet. However, it was not about anything he’d said when I was there. He had embarked on an incendiary tangent near the end of the press conference. He talked about discovering, to his regret, that he was not Jewish, then mused that he could find some sympathy for Hitler and concluded: “Ok, I’m a Nazi.”

Now, I wasn’t there, but I can only assume the Danish enfant terrible was as serious about this Nazi stuff as he was about making hard core porn with Kirsten Dunst. But you  joke about Jews and Nazis at your peril; just ask Mel Gibson. Von Trier said, “I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out I was really a Nazi, because my family was German, Hartmann, which also gave me some pleasure.” He went on:

“What can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things, yes absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end. . . I think I understand the man. He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him and I sympathize with him a little bit. But come on, I’m not for the Second World War, and I’m not against Jews. . . I am of course very much for Jews. No, not too much because Israel is a pain in the ass. But still . . . how can I get out of this sentence? OK, I’m a Nazi.”

Apparently Dunst and Gainsbourg were no longer amused. But Von Trier couldn’t let go of it. When a journalist charitably tried to bring the discussion back to the movie, asking if he might direct something on a bigger scale, he said, “Yeah, we Nazis … have a tendency to try to do things on a greater scale. Maybe you could persuade me.” He then made a crack about the press conference being the “final solution with journalists.”

It’s a perverse a way to publicize his movie, a sensitive tragedy about the end of the world that could be accused of many things, but is probably the least controversial of Von Trier’s films. Maybe he was trying to make up for it.

Kirsten Dunst in Lars Von Trier's 'Melancholia'

Melancholia is the story of an ill-fated wedding that takes place in a vast seaside chateau surrounded by its own 18-hole golf course. Dunst plays the miserable bride, Gainsbourgh her sister, who is married to the wedding’s benefactor, a cold-blooded tycoon played by Keifer Sutherland. What looms over the entire story, however, is the approach a planet called Melancholia, which is on a lethal collision course with Eart. The film is preceded by an exquisite overture of super slow-mo, painterly images—from Dunst in a vast wedding dress, dragging herself across a golf green and sinking into it like quicksand, to an image of the bride floating like Ophelia.

To be sure, something is rotten in the state of this state of Denmark, but the malaise is cosmic.

John Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg at the 'Melancholia' press conference in Cannes / photo by Brian D. Johnson

That opening sequence also telegraphs the story’s final destination with an image of the small planet colliding with the Earth, which looks not unlike a sperm penetrating and ovum.

The story is thin, the performances strong. Dunst’s heavy-lidded depression is eerily convincing (“Kirsten has, thank god, some knowledge of depression,” Von Trier cheerily volunteered at the press conference.

Melancholia is shot in the Von Trier’s trademark shaky-cam style, which gave me vertigo from my perch in the fourth row of the 2,400-seat Lumiere theatre early this morning. For me, the end of the world, and the movie, arrived as a great relief.  But you have to wonder what on earth is going on with the damn zeitgeist when two of the most hotly anticipated films in Cannes—Melancholia and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life—both involve cataclysmic galactic events.

Earlier in the press conference, before Von Trier slid into the Nazi quagmire, a journalist asked him why he didn’t make a comedy, because he clearly had such a good sense of humour. “When I make comedies, they become very melancholic,” he said. “This was a comedy. You don’t want to see me make a tragedy.”

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