I think people have attacked Lars von Trier’s comments about Jews and Hitler during the Cannes Film Festival for the wrong reasons. What he first said at the press conference was: “I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew … Then it turned out that I was not a Jew … I found out that I was really a Nazi which also gave me some pleasure.” It was clear he was trying to shock (successfully) his audience, and equally clear that he did not mean he was a Nazi, but only that his real father was German, and not a Danish Jew as he had been led to believe until his mother’s death-bed confession. Why this should give him pleasure is not clear, but we can easily dismiss this attempt at Danish humor as macabre or silly. What he said next, however, was less easily forgiven:
“I understand Hitler. He did some wrong things, absolutely, but I can see him sitting there in his bunker at the end … I sympathize with him, yes, a little bit.”
Asked to explain, after he was banned from the Cannes Festival for one year, he complied, genuinely contrite at how badly south his attempt at humor had gone.
But the explanation was even more alarming than the original comment. I expected him to explain how he had come to understand Hitler, no small task for anyone. He did.
He explained what he meant to the Salon film critic Andrew O’Hehir: “In the sense that watching Bruno Ganz playing him in Downfall and all that, I understand that he is a human being and it’s very important for us to recognize that. You know, the Nazi thing lies in all of us somewhere no matter what religion you are and no matter where you live in the world. It’s something that we have to fight against, and if you say that Adolf Hitler was not a human being, that’s the most stupid thing we can say.”
This has become a cliché of explaining the holocaust, or any other example of man’s cruelty to man: “We all harbor an inner Hitler.” I am not ready to accept this at all, but for the moment I simply want to comment on how von Trier came to recognize Hitler’s “humanity.” (I presume he means more than simply the fact that Hitler is a member of the species Homo sapiens.)
He says that he came to understand him (and sympathize with him?), because he saw an actor depict him in a fictional version of his last days. I understand that film directors, perhaps more than others, are prone to exaggerating the importance of their work, but do we really want to derive our understanding of history’s most heinous moments from a movie? Is this another example of von Trier teasing his audience, or can he really not distinguish between history and the cinema?