Tears for Von Trier?

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?

About jeffreymasson

My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/beasts-9781608196159/ or the eBook http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/beasts-9781608199914/
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6 Responses to Tears for Von Trier?

  1. Raquel Medina R says:

    We all harbor an inner Hitler.” That sounds so terrible !!! But…….
    I would love to know what there is inside of each soldier able to kill anyone who does not hurt him neither know him, who kills innocent civilians without problem because it is only collateral damage?
    What there is inside a boy able to bath a kitten with gasoline and burn him for fun?
    What inside each person planing with their family and friends go into the woods to kill innocent animals and then, feel proud of his cowardly deed?
    Inside a person tormenting an innocent animal the name of the science? and etc.,etc., etc., talking about the human being, the list is endless……
    It would be interesting to know it.

  2. Feral Fairy says:

    I don’t know if I agree with this director, as you said, it’s quite ridiculous that he derives his empathy from a performance from an actor who never knew the criminal nor his crimes. (Although actors are important in portraying circumstances to outsiders to encourage empathy for apartheid victims and animal abuse victims.) However, I can understand empathizing with a criminal, even one as disgusting as Hitler. I don’t know why but while I find it impossible to understand and empathize with someone’s deeds that are accomplished with a complete lack of empathy for the victim (human, animal, innocent, guilty) I can nevertheless empathise with the fear, self-loathing and confusion that many criminal people experience. It makes me pity them. I want them to see justice done but I don’t want to take their life or force empathy with victims through torture, I hope that they will repent, that they see their bad deeds for what they are. And then I pity them for the pain that they will experience when they do finally realise the magnitude of their crimes. Can you imagine being Hitler, at the beginning, in the middle or at the end, being aware of your immense evil, and knowing that in a thousand years you could not fix what you broke and people will still remember you and hate you. He deserves to feel that pain but I could not handle that burden on my psyche. What if for even a moment he faced with contrition his deeds, that would be enough to drive a person insane with guilt and terror and self-hate. I don’t think he is a forgivable person, and I don’t believe he should be forgiven but Hitler was definitely worthy of pity. He may never have experienced the misery and suffering of the holocaust victims and he doesn’t deserve sympathy or admiration or anything that could be offered in consolation to the holocaust victims but I can empathize with the extreme hate and rage he might of directed toward himself. Of course, there are folks that are sociopaths and sadists and have no notion of empathy and if Hitler was one of those then the risk of his inner barriers being torn apart by his lifetime of evil is non-existant and I can feel no empathy for someone that can feel no empathy.

  3. Katy says:

    US President Ronald Reagan believed he had been at the bombing of Dresden because of some film he had acted in. This may not be such an unusual problem among theater people very sadly.

  4. Katy says:

    You are very familiar with the work of Alice Miller. The empathy that one could have for sociopaths is of the “there but for fortune go I.” Sociopathy is not a choice but a result of trauma. It may not be in you or me but that is because we have had better luck falling out of the gumball machine. Not that it excuses any deed!

  5. Karen Logan says:

    I believe he is trying to say that we all have two dogs inside. A dark one and a light one. We must be aware that they both exist and choose which dog to feed. People who externalize all evil are lost – they are blind to their own potential for destructiveness and a danger to society. The most malignant villians of all time believed they were RIGHT in their zeal! Hitler has become the icon for evil. It’s as if he is the recepticle for all the evil in the world. What we forget is that man’s inhumanity to man is a continuum. It hasn’t stopped with Hitler and it will never stop until we all recognize that evil is something we feed or starve – in ourselves and others.

  6. Karen Logan says:

    By the way, I LOVED your book on Freud. It was a glaring spotlight on what is wrong with psychology in regards to child abuse. Thank you so much for writing it.

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