Cannes 2011. Lars von Trier declared "a persona non grata"

David Hudson

Updated through 5/26.

This afternoon, the Board of Directors of the Cannes Film Festival released a statement that's shocked cinephiles and, going by the activity on the wires, the world's press corps as well as fans of Lars von Trier and the Festival alike. What follows is the statement, a bit of context and a sampling of some of the immediate reaction.

First, the statement:

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.

Andrew O'Hehir does a fine job of filling in the background to this decision at Salon:

Lars von Trier dazzled the Cannes press corps on Wednesday morning with the premiere of Melancholia, his gorgeous, profoundly emotional and often very funny tragicomedy about two sisters, a wedding gone wrong, the personal costs of depression and — oh, by the way — the end of the world. Then, as if uncomfortable with having made a film people actually liked, the Danish director of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark and the near-psychotic 2009 horror movie Antichrist upstaged himself at an increasingly awkward press conference, announcing that he understood and sympathized with Hitler, and intended to make a hardcore porn film with Melancholia stars Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg that will be "three or four hours long."

There's context for all that, of course. Trier was presumably joking about the four-hour porn film, or maybe he doesn't know what the word "hardcore" signifies. As for the Hitler thing, which has already been magnified, via the massive game of Telephone that entertainment journalism has become, into some kind of semi-serious confession of Third Reich sympathies, here's how that came down. Trier was near the end of a muddled disquisition about the fact that he had long believed his heritage was Jewish, but discovered more recently that his family had been non-Jewish Germans: "So I am a Nazi."

What I think he was trying to say after that was that he understood Hitler's grand aesthetic vision for the remaking of Europe, and at best that's an ill-advised analogy, reminiscent of composer Karlheinz Stockhausen's declaration that 9/11 was a great work of art. But when Trier tried to extricate himself , it only got worse: "Look, I'm not for the Second World War, and I'm not against the Jews. I'm 100 percent for the Jews. Well, maybe not 100 percent, because Israel is kind of a pain in the ass ... How do I get out of this sentence? OK, I'm a Nazi." That got a big laugh, and was clearly meant to, but the clicking of hand-held devices around me only intensified, and you could hear headline writers all over the world virtually high-fiving each other. So, yeah, maybe the context doesn't help that much after all. (You can see much of the press conference for yourself.)

Later in the day, which is to say, after Andrew posted those paragraphs, leading up to his own first impression of Melancholia, von Trier released a statement: "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."

Not enough, evidently, for the Festival, which has now effectively banned him. A sampling of the reaction:


If Cannes keeps banning directors for saying stupid things, then, in a few years, they won't have any films to show in the competition.Thu May 19 11:52:13 via TweetDeck


Oliver Lyttelton responds to the statement at the Playlist:

If we may, we'd like to highlight four of those words quickly: "freedom of expression and creation." Yes, the director was being a prize ass, to the surprise of absolutely no-one. But we'd think that the official reprimand, and subsequent apology would have been the end of the story, without the need to blacklist the director. If Von Trier had stood up and outlined racial supremacist views, that would have been one thing, but he was nowhere near that, and even clarified his views at the time, and to ban Von Trier from the festival only a few days after parading Mel Gibson, a man on record as making genuinely racist and anti-Semitic statements, down the red carpet for the out-of-competition premiere of The Beaver, a move designed to generate publicity just as much as Von Trier's comments were, is an act of staggering hypocrisy.


So Cannes celebrates two banned filmmakers this year, then bans one of the best.Thu May 19 11:53:56 via Twitter for iPad


 "Whether the ban will render Melancholia ineligible for the festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or, is not certain," reports the Guardian's Catherine Shoard. "Until the ban was announced, the film was thought a frontrunner, despite having divided critical opinion. Further press engagements to promote Melancholia were cancelled, with illness on the part of interviewees cited."


Kusturica actually supported Milosovic. Lars is a leftist with a philosophical interest in cruelty. Cannes' motto: spray it, don't say it.Thu May 19 12:48:31 via Twitterrific


Join the discussion.

Updates: For the Los Angeles Times, Steven Zeitchik heads out of Cannes a bit to hear von Trier out: "'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 said from beneath a straw hat as he sat in the garden of a hotel in Mougins, a town about six miles north of Cannes, where he stays during the festival. 'I must say that I believe strongly that the Holocaust is the worst crime against humanity ever, and I do not sympathize with Hitler one second.' … But for all his remorse, he said he believes that at least part of why the incident became such a live wire was because of the country in which he made the statements. '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.' … But when asked whether he felt Cannes jurors upset by his comments could make the same distinction with his work, he replied flatly, 'I don't deserve to win a [Palme d'Or].' He also said he didn't know if he would ever sit for another news conference. 'I'm not sure I'll leave Denmark again,' he said, though anyone who knows Von Trier knows that tongue-holding is not something he practices often.'"

"On the one hand," notes Mike D'Angelo at the AV Club, "that people would take anything Von Trier says at face value suggests that they haven't been paying attention over the past quarter-century. Contextually, it seems obvious that he was mostly kidding around — though the 'I understand Hitler' bit was very likely sincere, in the same way that Bill Maher's 'staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly' was sincere. On the other hand, both were unquestionably boneheaded comments to make while seated in front of a microphone and a video camera. Never, ever trust the media with anything remotely inflammatory."

David Cairns: "Let's be clear: this wasn't a drunken Mel Gibson or John Galliano tirade, directed at and intended to hurt specific people. If anything, Trier was insulting himself. He did call Israel a pain in the ass, which is vague but doesn't seem too severe for a nation whose military are not only routinely slaughtering Palestinian civilians but who may even be targeting children. This was a mildly bad-taste riff intended to provoke a few laughs — not that different from The Kingdom or Antichrist, I'd have thought. It's political correctness and Lars Von Trier gone mad."

"Words have consequences," blogs the Voice's J Hoberman. "Von Trier made a movie about the end of the world and then compulsively acted it out. What's pathetic is that an unstable, over-indulged artist, consumed by anxiety and playing the fool, successfully martyred his own movie in full public view. Before Wednesday's press screening, a colleague told me that when he had asked one of the festival programmers about Melancholia, he was given a two-word answer: 'Palme d'Or.' As of now, it's unclear if Melancholia is still eligible." Actually, it seems to be, but its chances of actually winning can't have been helped, of course.

"Today's statement, having condemned von Trier's remarks, then should have said that its mission to 'defend freedom of expression' restrained it from taking further action," argues Time's Richard Corliss. "By banning von Trier, the Festival unfortunately merits the cynical definition of a liberal as someone who will defend to the death your right to agree with him."

Updates, 5/20: Howard Feinstein sounds off furiously at Filmmaker ("Will I lose my accreditation in the future for writing this? I would not put it past them.") — where Scott Macaulay also notes that Danish filmmaker Christian Svanes Kolding has written at his own blog, "von trier's comments have to be seen as reaction to several conditions: his very relevant personal history combined with a resolutely danish disregard for the usual public protocol of avoiding controversy combined with a schizoid, danish sense of humor that doesn't translate well into english…. he grew up in the shadow of this war in a tiny country that was overshadowed by its powerful southern neighbor. you develop a dark sense of humor about these things, as well as a morbid fascination with the mechanisms of power, and, on a personal level, it would be a gross understatement to suggest that von trier has complex feelings about the subject of jewish/german identity."

Vulture quotes Peter Aalbaek Jensen, von Trier's Zentropa partner: "Zentropa would like to apologize to all persons, business partners, staff and institutions that, in connection with Lars von Trier's comments, have been inflicted in any way ... We would like to make it perfectly clear that Zentropa does not share Lars von Trier's view of what might be funny to say at a press conference, and that his comments are a direct contradiction of Zentropa's values ... We hope that we, in time, may regain your trust, and will do all we can to rectify the damage that Lars von Trier's remarks may have caused."

Viewing (2'03"). The Guardian asks passing critics for their take on the brouhaha.

"I will never do a press conference again." Howard Feinstein interviews von Trier for indieWIRE.

Updates, 5/21: In another interview, this one from Dennis Lim for the New York Times, von Trier blames his verbal ramble into the danger zone on his sobriety.

Listening (16'48"). The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Scott Foundas and Gavin Smith debate von Trier before moving onto other topics. Other Cannes-related topics, of course.

Update, 5/23: From Eric Kohn's interview at indieWIRE with Cannes Film Festival artistic director Thierry Frémaux:

It seems like each year comes with a scandal. There's no doubt this time that it belonged to Lars von Trier and his ill-conceived Nazi jokes. What are your feelings about how that turned out?

I think that Melancholia is a great film, maybe his best. Everything was going very well. Lars von Trier was in very good shape. He was happy. The press conference was very enjoyable for me. Then, suddenly, he made that provocation. It shows you how things can turn down very quickly. Anyway, Lars von Trier has been very stupid, an idiot, but he's not anti-Semitic. However, on these matters, it's hard to say something and go back. So the board of the festival had to do something, and this is what they decided. Of course, I would like the filmmakers to think about the fact that Cannes has a big ego, and reflects a lot of things, so they have to be careful. But [filmmakers] are not political men. They don't have the habit of making a speech that's perfect, like a politician's. They're artists — extravagant, provocative. Among them, the most provocative of all is named Lars von Trier. More than anything, it's sad because in a way he killed his own movie.

Does his “persona non grata” status mean he will never come back to the festival?

(Pause.) Let's talk about this year.

Do you think these events will hurt the movie beyond Cannes?

No, absolutely not.


Update, 5/24: Complications ensue. As Peter Knegt reports at indieWIRE, Iranian Deputy Culture Minister for Cinematic Affairs Javad Shamaqdari has released a statement condemning the Festival's decision:

Surely you remember that the Cannes festival was established with the aim of struggling against fascists. After 64 years, it is sad to see the traces of fascist behavior in the Cannes organizers' decision to expel one of the acclaimed European filmmakers… Perhaps it is necessary to provide a new definition of freedom of speech for encyclopedias. Otherwise, the behavior Cannes exhibited toward Von Trier by forcing him to apologize several times causes everybody to recall the churches' medieval treatment of Galileo.

Von Trier's response:

In connection with the Iranian Vice Minister of Culture Javad Shamaqdari's letter to the Cannes Film Festival regarding the “Persona non grata” stamping of my personality, I feel called to make the following comment:

In my opinion, freedom of speech, in all its shapes, is part of the basic human rights.  However, my comments during the festival's press conference were unintelligent, ambiguous and needlessly hurtful.

My intended point was that the potential for extreme cruelty, or the opposite, lies within every human being, whatever nationality, ethnicity, rank or religion. If we only explain historical disasters with the cruelty of individuals we destroy the possibility of understanding the human mechanisms, which in turn are necessary in order to avoid any future crimes against humanity.

Lars von Trier

We can probably assume this won't be the end of the matter.

Update, 5/26: "I was literally his last interview before he went off to have dinner with Kirsten Dunst to try and repair the damage he had done to their relationship," writes Anne Thompson. "The next day, she accepted the best actress Palme d'Or, thanking the jury for allowing Melancholia to stay in competition, and afterwards said that she should not have been punished for von Trier's 'inappropriate' comments." And she has video of Dunst's reaction to the win, plus clips from her own interview with Von Trier, which touches on those "comments and the Trier family scandal that led to them and his problems with Danish filmmakers Susanne Bier and Nicolas Winding Refn… Von Trier starts things off, not atypically, by insulting Harvey Weinstein."

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