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Sympathizing with Hitler—as Lars von Trier did this week at a much-publicized press conference at the Cannes film festival—may be the most Jewish thing the director has ever done

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Lars Von Trier and Kirsten Dunst yesterday at Cannes. (ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)

Speaking earlier this week at the Cannes film festival, the Danish director Lars von Trier stirred up a bit of controversy. Sitting on the podium at the gala premiere of his new film Melancholia, a confused Kirsten Dunst by his side, the acclaimed filmmaker suddenly began to wax poetic. About Hitler.

“I really wanted to be a Jew,” he said, in response to a question about using Wagner in his latest film’s soundtrack, “and then I found out that I was really a Nazi. Which also gave me some pleasure. I understand Hitler. 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.”

Cue the requisite media maelstrom: As soon as von Trier was done talking, bloggers blogged, pundits pronounced, the festival’s organizers mumbled a few disapproving words, and the din, as is usually the case with things of this sort, grew too loud for anyone to make any sense of the situation.

Let us, then, attempt to parse von Trier’s strange utterance. By which, to be clear, I mean not necessarily the actual statement—a notorious prankster, the director is perpetually in the habit of stirring sensations, both on film and in life, and might have well conjured his latest comments as a maladroit, if ultimately successful, attempt at controversy—but rather the meaning that lies at the other end of the outrage and the buzz.

To do that, we must zoom in on von Trier’s childhood. Raised by parents who were committed communists and zealous nudists, the director nonetheless grew up with a vague sense of Jewish identity, as his father, Ulf Trier, was a Jew. But Ulf Trier, it turned out, wasn’t really von Trier’s father: As she lay dying, the director’s mother confessed that his biological father was really her boss, a German by the name of Fritz Michael Hartmann.

As with most deathbed confessions, hers, too, was rich in pathos. “Before she died,” von Trier recalled the moment in a 2005 interview with the German weekly Die Zeit, “my mother told me to be happy that I was the son of this other man. She said my foster father had had no goals and no strength. But he was a loving man. And I was very sad about this revelation.” Hartmann, the mother said, had come from a long line of classical musicians, and she believed that by becoming pregnant with his child she would produce an artistic genius. “You then feel manipulated when you really do turn out to be creative,” von Trier mused. “If I’d known that my mother had this plan, I would have become something else. I would have shown her. The slut!”

The statement, of course, is enough to keep legions of psychoanalysts busy throughout a long, happy career. But note this—as soon as the interviewer asked von Trier about his personal life, he repeated more or less the same thing he had said at Cannes. “Until that point I thought I had a Jewish background,” he said at the time. “But I’m really more of a Nazi.”

Strange as it may seem, this week’s parasha is a perfect prism through which to observe l’affaire von Trier. The bulk of it consists of a very wrathful God, threatening his people with all manner of horrors should they defy his will. What horrors? The pleasure is in the details: “You will sow your seed in vain, and your enemies will eat it.” “I will incite the wild beasts of the field against you, and they will bereave you, utterly destroy your livestock and diminish you, and your roads will become desolate.” “You will eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters you will eat.” This is every bit as gruesome as, say, the bloody castration scene in von Trier’s last film, Antichrist, which shocked critics at Cannes when it showed there in 2009.

Precisely what it is that would warrant the cannibalization of one’s own children, God doesn’t say. Nor, by the way, does he explain how the devoured-kids business squares with the purported prohibition on punishing children for the sins of their parents. But let us not get too legalistic; the main thing that the parasha wants us to take away is the real and devastating wrath of which God is capable should we forget our ways and stray away from the covenant. This rage is irrational, irrevocable, pure. If he wasn’t capable of great and terrible violence, goes the logic, God’s subsequent mercy would be nothing but mush.

Let us now jump back to that deathbed in Denmark. What he thought was his affinity to the kind and loving Jew was eclipsed by the existence of the imperious and cold German, who met his biological son a few times later in life and then refused all further contact. It’s little wonder that von Trier went on to make films that highlight the unending potential for devastation to rise even amid the most serene settings and insisted—most notoriously in his Dogme 95 manifesto—on the sort of filmmaking the sanctifies honesty and rejects artifice. He realized that once we drift from the spiritual essence that makes us who we are, a Hitler, figurative or literal, is likely to emerge, a horror so ghastly it can leave nothing in its wake but ruin.

That, perhaps, is the overarching theme of all of von Trier’s films, and it is also the theme of this week’s parasha; both urge us to never forget our covenants—with God, with each other, with ourselves—or risk terrible pain. In a strange way, saying “I am a Nazi” may be the most Jewish thing Lars von Trier has ever done.

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I hadn’t read about Mr. Von Trier’s statement, and so had not had the opportunity to get irritated about it. Thank you for the clarification here. I think I understand him better now.

T0here are some Germans who feel as he does. A number of years ago, I sat a Seder at my shul in Ann Arbor next to a German friend who had converted from Lutheranism to Judaism (in an Orthodox conversion, no less). I asked whether he had felt comfortable with the conversion. He said to me that he was trying to repay a debt. When I asked him to clarify, he said that he believed that the only way Germany could make restitution for its actions during the Holocaust would be if 6 million German Christians were to convert to Judaism. His feeling of guilt and Mr. von Trier’s comments have, I think, a common root.

Or maybe he just doesn’t like Jews.

Claezer says:

It’s curious that the article doesn’t mention he was also sitting next to Charlotte Gainsbourg (on the other side from Dunst) at the time.

Dani Levi says:

That is a perverse little story.

Carl says:

It’s funny how you left out the rest of what he said; that he like all Jews except for Israel which is a pain in the ass.

Shalom Freedman says:

Leil Leibowitz’s response to the disgusting, publicity – getting anti-Semitic outburst of the Danish director is both inane and deeply offensive. Sympathy for the worst murdererer the Jewish people have ever known should be greeted with one response only: Total condemnation. The ridiculous effort to ‘understand’ is an undue magnification of the kind of Jew- hatred which recently among others Mel Gibson,deposed French fashion designer Galleano journalist Helen Thomas have made somehow ‘fashionable’. Often the most hateful remarks are made in little asides and covered up with a lot of apologetic self- justifying babble.
I would expect not only a commentator for a Jewish magazine but any decent person to be wholly outraged by these remarks and not find some kind of understanding and quasi-justification for them.

Johnny Andersen says:

Shalom, as a Danish person, a born again, fundamentalist Christian that support Israel and the Jewish people 100% -I condemn any such attack or attempt to make fun of the people of G-d.
May you all have a blessed Sabbath!
Sincerely supporting the people of HaShem,
Johnny Andersen, Denmark

Arik says:

Leil Leibowitz’s response is as usual stupid, has nothing to do with Judaism, and is just a extreme left-wing provocation. Please don’t feed the troll.

Ok Liel, you connected some of the dots between Von Trier’s statement and his personal history. However, when I cut through the pretentious veneer of the “artiste” Von Trier, I just find a guy who gets off by pushing peoples’ buttons.

Oh the horror experienced by the sophisticated Cannes audience!

But over here in working-world-America, Von Trier is just another asshole.

dusan says:

Absolutely ridiculous. His mama believed in eugenics (choosing father of her child by the talent he had and not by feelings she had for him; apparently she didn’t have any) just the way Hitler did and now von T. declares he understands the fuehrer. It seems Liel doesn’t get it, not Cannes.

Jeffrey Sultanof says:

The director’s ‘mission’ in his films and in his words is to create controversy of some kind or other. As we know, many people in the arts put their personal lives in their work and in public in different ways and degrees. The circumstances of his birth and upbringing are clearly issues that he exploits in some way instead of really dealing with them.

Having seen some of his films, I can’t say I’m at all surprised that he made such a crude, insensitive and ultimately stupid statement. The organizers at Cannes had the good sense of asking him to leave and not come back, so this incident certainly isn’t being ignored.

All the attacks of others only gives Lars von Trier the criticism he wants heaped upon himself. I don’t expect people to watch the video of the director’s remarks. I’ve seen them, and although his performance is a belly-flop, my view of the way he hung himself with his own rope was that he is trying to excoriate himself. He has a very twisted sense of humor, but when I hear someone admitting that he is a Nazi, he’s owning his own self-hatred in public, rather than expressing anything positive about Germans or German history.

Johnny Mardkhah says:

Lars von Trier is a moronic “left-wing” intellectualoid who needs to say dumb or vulgar things in order to get noticed.
Like tattooing the letters F – U – C – K on his fingers. Almost as boring as his films.
Almost as boring as the singers who receive a reward at one of the various MTV nights and give a speeech where they say “Fuck you very much” to the jury and audience.
I remember L. von Trier at a film festival (also in Cannes?) a few years ago saying that president Bush is an asshole. WOW! Such unbelievable courage. Does he live under police protection now? Let’s hear him say that the ayatollah Khomeini was an asshole and count the days left him to live.
That was the year when he directed a movie that purported to show us that slavery in America (banned 150 years ago) was, like, a really really bad thing. What a novel and fresh idea. How come no-one else had thought of that before?
Or how about making a movie about slavery TODAY? But don’t hold your breath waiting for that, people. To denounce slavery today, you would need to say it only exists in (some parts of) the muslim world, including some arab embassies in our civilized, liberal, democratic West.
And that would be taken as an “insult” to islam, to the “profet” Mahomet, or G-d know what else.
I agree wjth what George Orwell said about this king of intellectuals: “It’s such a dumb idea, only an intellectual would believe that”.

Dror Ben Ami says:

Getting back to the main subject at hand i.e. The Torah: “different types of food” in the Old Testament are metaphors for “different types of knowledge”. Hence “The Torah is the bread of Life”.

“A son” is a metaphor for “a word”, thus in the New Testament “Jesus is the son of God” and he is also described as “the word of God”.

Jacob tells Rachel that he is not responsible that their is “no fruit” in her womb. Thus, in Hebrew “1st born sons” and “1st fruits of the Harvest” are the same word.

My problem Liel is not that you don’t have interesting things to say, but that you don’t write 2 articles. one about the weekly Torah portion and then a second one about Von Trier, the New Yrok Mets, or whatever else you want…..

Steffen Bach says:

von Triers statement about understanding Hitler and that he is a Nazi has nothing to due to Danish humor. Danish humor may often be cynical or ironic while von Trier’s is simply sick and offensive. If he hasn’t already done so, he should deeply apologize to both Charlotte Gainsbourg and Susanne Bier as well as Holocaust survivers, who he could only have deeply offended.

Barry Meislin says:

Ah, if only, if the great filmmaker had stopped at “and then I found out that I was really a Nazi.”

If only….

(One might then have been able to understand, with Mr. Liebovitz’s help, why such a remark is “simply” a case of Danish (or any other kind—why not Dutch? Why not Jewish? Though probably not German) “humor”.

Or misunderstand (with Mr. Leibovitz’s help)…

Alas, he didn’t stop. He continued. And continued. And continued. Which speaks volumes about his “sense of humor”…

…and about Mr. Liebovitz’s views of what constitutes “Jewishness”— which are most interesting and may even be true of a segment (large? small?) of our oft conflicted, oft perverse, oft too-intelligent-for-our-own-good people.

To be sure, this profound, poignant description and analysis of the background and development of the Artist as a Young Dane, for which the author deserves kudos (and I say this as someone who finds his views consistently—let’s say, um, “exceedingly problematic”) tells us as much about its author as it does about the filmmaker….

…and the “70 faces”(?)—some of them exasperating—of what it means to be Jewish….

I agree that his statement was deeply offensive and even a non-Jew Jew like me would have gotten up an walked out, while screaming offenses at the great director. I even agree that his films are only pretentious emissions of gas (because they are).

But assuming that von Triers is an artist (of some kind, I won’t deny it, even though I don’t like his art) Liebovitz has shown a lot of analytical talent here. He has caught von Triers’s remark in an illuminating piece of dialectal reasoning. A mother that plays around with homemade eugenics with her own son and then goes on to rub his face in it on her deathbed may deserve the appellation, “slut”, in any case. But if her choice of sperm donor was a German artist, just because he was a German artist, and then von Triers’s real father was a Jew, who his own mother ran into the ground on her deathbed, perhaps the “Nazi” remark can be seen as just a description (at least in the mind of the artist, von Triers).

I can’t deny that von Triers’s situation is heartrending for me. It’s a life history that breaks new ground in child abuse. Honestly, I can’t bring myself to sit in judgment on such a person. I can’t imagine such true (as opposed to pomo) existential torment.

Both von Trier and Galliano would have been sent straight to the gas chambers under nazism. They should be judged based on their art, not on some inane though clearly very successful attempt to provoke people who take themselves too seriously.


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Sympathizing with Hitler—as Lars von Trier did this week at a much-publicized press conference at the Cannes film festival—may be the most Jewish thing the director has ever done

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