The Cannes Film Festival’s board of directors did the right thing in expelling Lars von Trier from the festival today. The decision came only a day after Von Trier, a Danish director who was raised an atheist, though told that his father was Jewish, made outrageous comments about Hitler.
Turns out he wasn’t Jewish after all, he told reporters during a press conference, “but anyway, I really wanted to be a Jew, and then I found out I was really a Nazi, you know, because my family was German, which also gave me some pleasure…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."
He didn’t stop there, going on: “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?”
He couldn’t, and even after he apologized shortly after, the condemnations poured in. Then today the board of directors kicked him out.
If there’s anything I think Von Trier’s comments suggest, it’s the strange indifference certain intellectuals have towards anti-Semitism these days. That Von Trier, a highly intelligent and thoughful artist, could even feel comfortable ruminating in public about Nazism is not, as he later claimed, a joke.
If you watch the clip of his remarks, you see that he actually is quite earnest in his "sympathy" for Hitler (that it’s just "a little bit" suggests so even more). To be sure, I doubt if you sat Von Trier down he’d actually say he feels any real sympathy for Hitler’s maniacal Jew-hating, but that’s not the problem with his comments. The real issue is that the very subject of anti-Semitism has become so widely deployed, exploited and misused that even generally thoughtful people like Von Trier seem to think anti-Semitism–and the harm it still causes, physical and otherwise–doesn’t exist. Or don’t care if it does.
There are many reasons why anti-Semitism fatigue has set in, not least of which is the misuse we in the Jewish community are responsible for, too. But that’s no excuse for lacking a basic sense of morality, of simple decency. What’s disturbing about Von Trier’s comments is that he seems to not have any.
There’s nothing an intellectual likes more than provocation, challenging the status quo, but what Von Trier has clearly lost is the artfulness and real moral intelligence required to do that. His thoughtless ruminations reflect neither, and one only hopes that other artists and intellectuals find his story instructive.