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.