Stumble Into One's Own Trap: Comment on the Lars Von Trier Incident

in 64th Cannes Film Festival

by Klaus Eder

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier owes his career in large part to Cannes. Most of his films premiered here, and have been lauded with prizes: Element of Crime won the Grand Prix in 1984; Europa took the Jury Prize in 1991; Dancer in the Dark was awarded the Palme d’Or in 2000. He should know the rules of the game. He should know that press conferences are dangerous places where one must mind one’s tongue. Yes, he wants to provoke. He wants to appear as an enfant terrible, not only on screen — as in his extreme 2009 movie Antichrist — but also as a person. You may or may not agree with this strategy, but it’s clearly his choice; done in an intelligent and decent way, it might even be fun.

At this year’s festival, in a press conference for his new film Melancholia, Lars von Trier was asked about his understanding of the aesthetics of fascism. Recall another enfant terrible of cinema. In the credits of Lili Marleen (1981), the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder had not billed himself with the German directorial credit, ‘Regisseur’; rather, he had used ‘Spielleiter’, a term favoured within the Nazi cinema. And the film’s credits appeared in a Gothic font associated with the Nazi era. He explained it as a necessary appropriation of the aesthetics of fascism: if you wish to criticize something, he said, you must know it.

Lars von Trier offered no explanation. His response was not funny or intelligent. It was even not provocative. It was simply daft. Rash. Stupid. Embarrassing.

Maybe he didn’t mean what he said. Maybe he said something which he didn’t want to say. Maybe his English wasn’t refined enough to articulate irony. Maybe he stumbled into a trap of his own making. Maybe he didn’t consider that the sensitivities of the French public are different from those of the Danish. Maybe… Whatever explanation one provides — or von Trier himself may offer — it cannot explain or even justify what he said. Is the image and role of the artist as moral authority no longer valid? Isn’t it the historic role of intellectuals to sympathize not with the culprits but with the victims? Lars von Trier may not have thought, at his Cannes press conference, of such political and social dimensions — not because of naïveté, but because he’s not interested. He should, however, have been aware that his choice of words could provoke a strong response, especially in countries like Israel, Germany or Poland. It seems that he didn’t care. His apology, issued that evening, was half-hearted: He would “apologize a bit”, he said in an interview.

The festival could have let the incident pass in official silence. It would have risked outraged reactions, but surely the better reaction was to maintain a clear and definite distance from the affair. Instead, Lars von Trier was banned. His film stayed in competition. Why not? Without doubt Lars von Trier is a great filmmaker. French writer Marcel Proust was a revolting person and slimeball; as a writer, however, he was brilliant and ingenious.

At the Cannes press conference, actress Kirsten Dunst looked rather blank, uncomprehending and irritated. Industry papers reported next day that also Trier’s production partner was annoyed, fearing commercial losses. Indeed several countries did cancel their distribution contracts for Melancholia, Israel and Argentina among them.

It seems that in May 2011 two persons heavily disturbed their careers: Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Lars von Trier.