Lars von Trier: “I’m a Nazi”… HaHaHa…

Lars Von Trier, the director of the new movie Melancholia, is a jokester. In promoting his film at a recent press conference, he had this, among other choice hahas, to say, when asked about his German roots and his interest in the “Nazi aesthetic”:

“The only thing I can tell you is that I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew, then later on came [Danish and Jewish director] Susanne Bier, and suddenly I wasn’t so happy about being a Jew. That was a joke. Sorry. But it turned out that I was not a Jew. If I’d been a Jew, then I would be a second-wave Jew, a kind of a new-wave Jew, but anyway, I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi, because my family is German. And that also gave me some pleasure. So, I, what can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things but I can see him sitting in his bunker. [Kirsten Dunst goes, “Oh God!” and hides uncomfortably behind Lars.] I’m saying that I think I understand the man. He is not what we could call a good guy, but yeah, I understand much about him and I sympathize with him … But come on! I’m not for the Second World War. And I’m not against Jews. No, not even Susanne Bier. I am very much for them. As much as Israelis are a pain in the ass. How do I get out of this sentence? Okay, I am a Nazi. As for the art, I’m for Speer. Albert Speer I liked. He was also one of God’s best children. He has a talent that … Okay, enough.”

Yes, let’s agree Lars was being his jokester self. The problem with shock-humor of this sort is:

(a) it’s easy and adolescent, but that wouldn’t differentiate it from much mainstream Hollywood comedy, or Bill Maher, except that

(b) it cheapens actually sincere and critical political dialogue because:

(i) not everyone gets the joke, and a swath take it literally as vindication of their twisted notions;

(ii) the “joke” plays offensively on genocide issues of the deepest real-world (contra Hollywood) emotional significance for millions of people; and

(iii) the “joke” feeds very disturbing, real-world narratives that debase or deny the significance of the Holocaust, or the Holocaust itself (yes, in a world where heads of state still deny the Holocaust, and sponsor conferences for Holocaust-deniers, a measure of maturity on the subject is necessary), and does so most cringingly because —

(iv) it’s insufficiently ironic — which is to say, it resonates at the simplest (again, adolescent) level of Holocaust-hahaha, which in the real world is dangerous, without accomplishing irony’s essential task of exposing and excoriating the target narrative for what it truly is; which is a re-stating, finally, of:

(c) the “joke” isn’t funny. In this case, as with most shock-humor, it’s transparently headline-grabbing self-promotion. People willing to debase themselves this way will always bewilder me. It’s a fame-and money-first sensibility — integrity, maturity and rudimentary decency be damned — and our reality-TV culture appears to be making that embarrassing choice ever more appealing.

One can embrace the Nazi aesthetic. Filmmaker and photographer Leni Riefenstahl did so — and then protested, after World War II, “oh my, I’m just an artist, I didn’t know,” while garnering an enormous, adulating following for precisely her Nazi aesthetic. Susan Sontag — no conservative, to be sure — penned a devastating exposé of Riefenstahl’s lies and hypocrisy — and the willingness of liberal American culture to whitewash her sins in the service of celebrating a woman filmmaker:

The rehabilitation of proscribed figures in liberal societies does not happen with the sweeping bureaucratic finality of the Soviet Encyclopedia, each new edition of which brings forward some hitherto unmentionable figures and lowers an equal or greater number through the trap door of nonexistence. Our rehabilitations are smoother, more insinuative. It is not that Riefenstahl’s Nazi past has suddenly become acceptable. It is simply that, with the turn of the cultural wheel, it no longer matters. Instead of dispensing a freeze-dried version of history from above, a liberal society settles such questions by waiting for cycles of taste to distill out the controversy.

This is an instance of serious dialogue about the serious embrace of a Nazi aesthetic.

What is utterly unserious — what one cannot do, as an adult — is “play” with embracing the Nazi aesthetic. Lars von Trier is a teenager venturing into waters 20,000 leagues above his evident ken.

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16 Responses to Lars von Trier: “I’m a Nazi”… HaHaHa…

  1. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    Honestly? He sounds like a foolish, babbling moron who is, yes, an attention-seeking one as well. Nothing he said was witty or funny or insightful. Anyone who has to reach back to his or her roots and dig around for a less than savory cultural or historical event and then employ it as though it adds to their character — well, they’re just idiots lacking in creativity. As far as Riefenstahl, I have always had nothing but disdain for her. She was a crass opportunist. Her hands are covered with blood, too. I recall a blog post recently that asked if an artist’s infamous background and history could alter one’s perception of the quality of their art. All of the commenters said that if it’s good art, it doesn’t matter what the artist stood for – the art stands on its own. I disagreed.

    I’m on an angry roll, I think.

    • You get it exactly — and go a brilliant step further with a subject I didn’t attempt to tackle, the relationship between an artist and his or her politics. I’ve always hated that facile notion that it doesn’t matter what the artist stood for. This is why, for example, I really like some of Wagner’s music, but won’t listen to it, and certainly can’t, if it’s forced upon me, without abundant mindfulness of his repugnant politics. Art and politics were never so cleanly severed, except in the feverish brains of those who would hypocritically use one for the promotion of the other (or who were simply clueless).

  2. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    Oh, yeah, and by the way, one of the moronic commenters on that link said, “Yeah, he’s got a really dark sense of humor, I love people like that.” Dark? What? Roald Dahl, Vonnegut and Monty Python writers had a dark sense of humor. Lars has an undeveloped, immature one.

    Ok, I’m done here.

    • Amen.

      • Terrance H. says:

        Yet another example of Kendrick teaching me something. I had no clue that Wagner was a Jew-hating moron.

  3. David Macdowell says:

    There’s a little justice in his new distinction at the Cannes:

    Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier was condemned and declared “persona non grata” Thursday by the Cannes Film Festival for saying that he sympathizes with Adolf Hitler.

    • Yes, interesting decision. His movie, “Melancholia,” however remains in contention for the top prize.

  4. Paul Grubbs says:

    I hope Melancholia wins just to see what Cannes will do then. Its another disconnect to me when art and the artist are judged together. It is a very good reason not to encourage artists, celebrities, or athletes to use their stature as a person of interest to opine. They should be relegated to the relative anonymity of the sea of internet blogs like the rest of us.

    • After my brother David alerted me to the Cannes decision, I did a little inquiry. It’s bizarre. He’s “banned” from Cannes, and declared “persona non grata” (whatever that means — is that some sort of Socratic damnation and banishment from the “community” for the nouveau-riche??). But his film remains in contention, and, at least before his nutty remarks, was considered a serious contender for the top prize. So Cannes could do an interesting baby-splitting here: slap Lars von Trier for profound stupidity (implicating sensitivities in Europe very different than America), and award his film the top prize. I’m not sure I agree with you that that would be a good result. In a way, that would be the ultimate, and ultimately phony, disconnect between art and politics. In a way, it would say, “naughty boy, go away, and here’s the ultimate career prize for your inconvenience.” It would say, self-righteously, “we distinguish between the artist and his politics (even his joking stupid “politics”),” and promote the fiction that art and politics are actually separate things — when we know they are not.

  5. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    I judge art and the artist together. The only way to disconnect the two is to have a robot paint or a computer write a script. Most likely Melancholia will win, because after all, it would make the judges look bad to overlook the crowd favorite or to exercise a higher set of standards that transcends what is “accepted” to be the ultimate in art. The art is the artist. If you’re saying something in your art and against that background you’re saying something else heinous, your art should be judged in that framework as well.

    • I agree, and would add — especially in the context of art as high-profile commodity, dependent on capitalist tools like muscular advertising, it is a special hypocrisy to claim some sacrosanct preserve of vocal politics, while pretending you’re not “advertising.” The reason people like Lars von Trier say the stupid things they say is to generate a million hits on “Lars von Trier,” and thereby hopefully create buzz about his art “product.” And that is the most cynical marriage of art and politics imaginable — even more cynical than government-subsidized art, which might at least happen, from time to time, without a political agenda.

  6. rautakyy says:

    A good post!

    Artists have a certain degree of influence on people, and famous ones are part of the media that shape what is acceptable and what is not. Therefore they also have a great responsibility on what they express both by their art and by any means. Lars was not being very responsible at all. What he said was also tasteless which is not something one would expect from an artist, would one?

    Art should have a meaning. A message to give it meaning. Sometimes a good piece of art is like it had no message, but they all do. Even the bad ones. Sometimes the message is different from the intended one. I do not know if you think the movie “300” for example as a piece of art, but it seemed like they really tried to make it such. It also seemed to hold a political agenda, which turned somehow upside down in historical context. After all it was about a small nation led by theocrasy trying (heroically?) to defend itself against an agression from a mighty multinational and multicultural even pornographic empire. They were fighting in mountains whith some little succes, much like the war in Afghanishtan today. Even though their leader died like a martyr…

    Wagner was a silly romantic and was drawn into politics by his childish notion of being better simply by the right of birth. It was much more common idea in the world those days. One might say it was sort of ultra conservatism, that later produced nazism. There is no defence for his actions though he could not foresee what would happen in the future. In the end the whole nazi machine has been overly commended for being efficient, it was more like a total catastrophy in efficiency, since they were all a bunch of romantics. In my opinion their early military succes was a result of the fact that reasonably thinking politicians and military leadership could have not believed anyone would take such risks…

    Hey, do not forget that it was Hugo Boss who designed the ss-uniforms. Talk about nazi aesthetics… They may look good, but they are the symbols of ultimate evil. However they did their share on promoting the nazi ideals. Nothing funny about that. Would you wear a Hugo Boss suit? Would you buy a mercedes? Would you buy a GRUPP blender? Those are just some of the companies that made money on the nazi war machine and came clean from Nürnberg.

    • Thanks rautakyy. Solid response. Yes, artists “have a certain degree of influence on people,” which is why it is important to tackle what they say, even when, or perhaps especially when, it is idiotic.

      Your attempted comparison of “300” (the heroic Greek stand against the Persians) and the Afghanistan war is clever, but lame. The Persians sought total conquest and subjugation. Those pornographic Americans sought simply liberation and a measure of autonomy for Afghans — most especially certain of its massively oppressed citizens, like women, who suffered Taliban stoning and acid thrown in their face for allegedly insufficient modesty. America has not sought not a whit of subjugation — witness Karzai’s ability to act pointedly against American interests and to stir up murderous Muslim anger against trivial events in America. The 21st century American paradigm has nothing whatever to do with the motives that drove men to war in the 5th century B.C.E. Moreover, the opponents of America in Afghanistan are not seeking freedom, but renewed subjugation of Afghanis.

      As to companies that managed to navigate their unholy intimacy with Nazism without accountability, I welcome any thought you may have as to how that accountability might be belatedly imposed.

  7. rautakyy says:

    What I meant by the “300” comparrison was how the taliban (if they ever saw the movie) could percieve it. How art has obvious messages, hidden messages and messages that actually depend upon the view of the beholder. Historically the spartans were one of the most outrageous slave owning communities ever. Their famous military prowess was not meant for fighting the persians, but to subjugate all the other lakonian people. The reasons, why they only sent 300 men to Thermopylae to engage in the suicide attack against the mighty imperial forces of Persia, was a religious festival, and that they were allways affraid to send their armies abroad as the slaves might rebel if the army was far away. The persians were all slaves, in nominal terms even the mighty satrappes or governors of regions far larger then the whole of Greece were the slaves of the over king. That is they had to pay taxes to the king. Yes, there were actual slaves also, but originally the king of Persia did not seek to enslave all greeks, only to be paid homage and nominal taxes. As a result of the war the greeks started to collect taxes among them selves to carry out military expeditions against Persia. It was called the Delos alliance. Persia threatened the indipendence of Greeks, the indipendence of the slave owning class of greek men.

    There is a thing called artistic lisence, but there is also a thing called historical perversion. In my opinion the message the “300” is trying to send as an allegorical story is “lame”. But it could be also be a nominee on both of the abowe series. Incidentally, it is strange how none of these stories, not the movie “300” nor the graphic novel “300” on which the movie was based upon, nor the older movie “The 300 Spartans” (which had its own allegory, more related to the time it was made) ever mention the 1100 boiotians who died in Thermopylae defending their own country. Maybe it is because the boiotians later turned to the side of the persians. On the other hand so did the spartans, though a lot later.

    Also, what is freightning the movie “300” describes the spartan rather fascistic culture whith admiration. It has set a new image of an idividualistic superhuman hero killing faceles enemies. Check out you tube for 300. This is not honest to history either, since the strength of spartans in battle was the unity of corps. Their strength was not that of an individual fighter, but the support each hoplite gave to the next one. They had “standing power” to survive and frustrate their enemies efforts to kill them (much like the american army today). The image the movie sets out is the exact opposite to what the spartans held in regard. The kind of individual heroic ideal was seen by the spartans as “faked manhood”. King Leonidas and the 300 have been seen as heroes who died for democracy, a value they did not support. Sparta was led by priests, and for designing military action they had two kings backed up by a military council.

    I absolutely do not support the religious terror the taliban has subjucated their own nation. It is a perfect example how immoral people can get when they have the supreme authority of a god to back up what ever they do. However, I see little difference between the soviet occupation to the american and western allies occupying Afghanishtan. Both tried to raise a stone age country and support a sort of legal but corrupted government there. Both were there for the benefit of local women to have right to go to school and to obtain other kind of emancipation (and both used this as “casus belli”). Both were hated by the local population and both killed locals as “collateral damage”. The CIA supported the mujahedin into power, which later became the taliban, and the war goes on. Well, I gues if one makes a mistake, one has to correct it, right?

    The companies that really benefited from the nazi warmachine should have been condemned at Nürnberg. Now it seems a bit late, but if one can not listen to Wagners music because of the connontations of his political affiliation, how could one wear a Hugo Boss suit, drive a Mercedes, or blend whith a GRUPP blender? As the artist is responsible for the kind of politics he/she supports is the corporation boss or shareholder not? What about the workers of said corporation? They are the ones who in the end will bear the brunt, if the company leadership is punished for unethical behaviour. Wether the punishment comes from governments or from consumer choises.

    • The historical detail you bring to bear on Thermopylae is impressive indeed. But it still fails to engineer a meaningful comparison with the Americans, who weren’t fascist in any remote sense of that word — much less a comparison between the Soviets and the Americans. And by the way, the Spartans weren’t merely “rather fascistic” — they were full-bore horrific fascists, with a militaristic and literally murderous culture that would make Mussolini blush, and yes, I agree, the movie “300” overlooks that fact, to put it mildly. While I enjoyed the movie, I join with you in treating it as cinematic myth — all the more reason to resist comparing it to current events. I get (I think) why you wish to make the comparison from the Taliban point of view — heaven knows myth drives much of the grievance and hate narrative upon which the Taliban depends for support. But still… even an indirect comparison of the Persians (as you say, themselves fascists) and the Americans is facile. Even if the Persian ambition were as limited as you say — “only to be paid homage and nominal taxes,” which, given the Persian treatment of other subjugated people, seems a stretch — the Greek City States would have been at best vassals of the Persian Empire, and vassalage is simply not something, by any stretch, Americans seek. You must see that.

      The Soviets, on the other hand, bear a little comparison, because they were fully fascists themselves and actually did seek the modern form of vassalage — a Communist puppet in Afghanistan with no real autonomy and no meaningful latitude to depart from Soviet policy. In short, the Soviets wished to add Afghanistan to the Soviet empire as fully as the Persians wished to add the Greek City-States to the Persian empire, however benignly we might wish to assume the respective imperialists would have treated the subjugated people. It is impossible to speak in the same way of adding Afghanistan to an “American empire,” or otherwise comparably subjugating the people of Afghanistan. That is what makes the American paradigm fundamentally different. Yes, of course, the American paradigm seeks to maximize common interests and to promote an American “freedom ideology” — but that is the very opposite of subjugation. Karzai has already demonstrated in abundance that American pursuit of common interests and promotion of basic freedoms in Afghanistan is a vision, not a coercive conqueror’s program. The American effort seeks to create Afghani stakeholders across a much broader spectrum of society — stakeholders who will hopefully (we don’t know yet) prevail in guaranteeing basic freedoms. Free societies historically never make war against any other free neighbors, much less export terrorism. That is a worthy goal, and whether or not the forces of freedom ultimately prevail in Afghanistan, it was, in my opinion, well worth the effort to give freedom a leg-up in a place notoriously hostile to the basic freedoms of its own people and notoriously generous in supporting murderous and repressive ideologies.

  8. rautakyy says:

    The movie “300” had an agenda, a modern political allegory. It was not even that hidden, so it is not just an art experience and falls under the responsibility of the artists. I am in full support for the little countries to manage their own business as I am a citizen of one. The actual historical story about the greek city states fighting their war of indepence against the Persian empire is all about that, but that was not the allegory the movie makers wanted to make. Under those (I admit vague) terms the allegory the movie makers tried to make was upside down. That was the questionable twisting of history, the filmmakers are responsible of. Well. this is my subjective vision of a piece of art anyway.

    Let us hope you are right and I am wrong about the US policy. That would make the world a better place in the future. All I can see is the abundance of the civillians killed in Afghanishtan and the hate it creates against the western countries at the moment. The war on terror seems to be failing miserably in that it creates an abundance of fresh and desperate candidates to becom terrorists. If the US is not trying to create puppet vassals, you can perhaps forgive me for making such a mistake as to have believed the opposite, as Saudi-Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, South-Vietnam, Laos, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama and Chile among others have at some point of their history, or even now, seemed to perform that role. For the record I am not trying to be sarcastic, and I really hope you are right, that there is a difference there somewhere as you describe.

    In my view empires are all imperialistic, and when they no longer are, they are no longer empires. The US for one has agressively supported corporational benefits by military might and that is imperialism, even if it was morally based on an ideology of freedom. Because as whith the greek, it all depends on whose freedom we are talking about. From the perspective of the slave or the slave owner? The soviets told themselves also that they attack other countries just to support the ideology of freedom. They too believed it is all right to sacrifice some principles in order for their ideology of freedom to prevail and to stop slavery. That was the spirit in which they attacked my native Finland and Afghanishtan. It really did not make it allright. The US joined forces whith Soviet Union to stop the nazis, because the nazis (and the fascist rulers of Italy and Spain etc.) were the only ones who actually openly supported fascistic ideals. And now, up to some degree, Lars von Trier…

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