The 64th Cannes film festival threw Lars Von Trier out yesterday (May 20th, 2011). Until now, Trier had long been the festivals’ daring darling, with over 20 personal award nominations and 6 wins for various tasks from directing to technics (not to mention those of his actors, etc.). What kind of policing power does Cannes embody in its act of expulsion; or perhaps more pertinently, what do Trier’s statements signify?
I happen to watch the entire video of the “Melancholia” press conference, where Trier offered his quasi-confessional Nazi sympathies in a long-winded attempt at making fun of the superficial hype surrounding the release of his Hollywood-esque film. All over the news the excerpts seem to speak for themselves. Viewers watch them stupefied— with relief: he declares himself a Nazi openly and repeatedly (not unlike some children shit in their pants). Shocked? Have you seen and loved his films, or did you simply enjoy the new nihilist fad in which laughter, however shallow and weak, sadistic and sad, wears a uniform, waving a flag?
Immediately, I knew this was a publicity stunt: Trier, the bad (film/cow) boy shooting off at the smoke-screens of status quo Hollywood-ism. (Yes, Cannes is something else, but not enough something else.) While Trier’s films were already popular, esp. “Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark,” “Dogville,” etc., after the 11 million spent to make “Antichrist,” it grossed millions less than expected. Let’s say that it’s not unlikely that Trier needs the (big) money, which as we know is counted per click or per head (not per insight or word). What’s better than days of front page news for free advertising to match Hollywood’s own? And what other choice is there to compete—how else can one get that kind of coverage?
If you answer this all too un-rhetorical question you can also see how the statement converges with suicidal historical attempts in more way than one. Trier has likely miscalculated if the comments were meant as a publicity stunt, as they arguably appear to be; not only because the Argentinean distributor of “Melancholia” has dropped the film and even less due to being kicked out of Cannes, but rather because even if the infamy spelled big bucks for the now (as it is still likely to do), in the long run he has shot himself in more than a foot in terms of Hollywood-esque financial success.
Now, after the preliminaries, we should ask head-on what is going on with Trier’s remarks, which he repeats, poignantly: first, saying twice, “I am a Nazi.”
I spent the night thinking about this comment of his. Actually two nights. Not because I like his work in particular, but because I am interested in the history of the Holocaust and its contemporary legacy. Also, I was profoundly stunned by my reaction to Trier’s statements: I laughed, along with the progressively mortified K. Dunst and the shocked, giggling press. Second, I could not place his remarks: something about them simply didn’t work.
Trier’s work is marked by visual sadism (a concept that surely requires greater clarification elsewhere; suffice it to say here I mean it outside any BDSM related context): that is, the strongest effect of the films tend to be psycho/emotional torture, undeniably from “Breaking the Waves” to “Antichrist.” Hearing the plot of “Dogville” is enough - before sustained feminist analysis, out of basic defensive experiential considerations.
The point is that there is nothing surprising in itself, when Trier admits to being a Nazi. Nazism certainly is a precise and definite historical movement, which should not be quoted in vain, and yet the reference to “Nazi” reawakens a laughing terror in front of a sneaky consideration: what made Nazism “Nazism” (that is: the name of horror for antonomasia) could not actually be dead and buried in the bunker where Hitler died if a director at Cannes is still suffering, he says, from the same pain.
It was clear from the beginning to anyone who thought about Trier’s work that many of its elements were marked by sadistic extremes verging on annihilation, a clear hatred of life wherever it would pulse with hope —but, and this is a giant but—the work did not evoke thought, it blocked it, sufficiently enough to turn away from any intellectual content and be torn apart psychologically by the experience. But why, one should ask?
Before we tackle this question, we should look at the status of his statement as such: the status of the declaration made in the context of a Cannes press conference by an important director: I am a Nazi. After the disturbed and disturbing laughter that follows such a declaration (due to its absurdity and incongruence) the statement settles and leaves a trace.
This trace demands to be thought. It must considered on its own terms, in a context, a culture, a civilization and last and most importantly: history. A statement such as this is irreducible on the following counts: 1. It is made. 2. It is made in a particular context. 3. It refers to a specific history. Let’s examine these irreducibilities step by step.
First of all, there is something particular about this statement that takes time to see, after the knee-jerk revulsion abates and allows thought to re-emerge, bringing horror out of the coldness of what language can do. The statement is a contradiction.
This throws us without return into the second element outlined above. Whether or not Nazis admitted to each other or outsiders being Nazis historically, a Nazi today, which Trier claimed (twice) to be [he claimed it today] does not admit to being a Nazi, certainly not publicly. This has not only to do with the repercussions such statements can bring in certain realms (which are more associated with publicity) but with the fact that a Nazi today, and I would argue historically as well, is not interested in debating his position in language, instead he acts through violence.
Trier’s films have been interesting precisely in this respect: as non-physical, mediatic acts of violence. Someone once described them to me as psychological rape (- or perhaps that was Matthew Barney’s films). The question is not why someone would make such films, which is easy enough to explain, but why they are loved. And I say loved and not liked or watched or praised intentionally, although all of the latter verbs apply as well.
Trier’s films have been loved not despite his “Nazism” – that is their non-physical violence – but for it, of course. Because so-called “Westerners,” though in fact, I mean the majority of citizens from “economically developed countries” have a guilty conscience. However, the guilt will take more than digesting a few virtually nervous breakdown-evoking films, however cathartic this may appear to some, to address.
The question of violence, physical and psychological, visual and invisible, historical and cultural, imposes itself with the greatest of urgencies. Trier’s films, as well as his inflammatory statements, can be credited with bringing this question into a cultural midst where superficiality dominates, even if he himself cannot.
Who can understand Hitler? Infamously, as quoted in every webpage, Trier said he can. If taken seriously, Trier should be asked to explain Hitler more so than himself. But for too many global citizens, the question is moot, more often than not below the level of consciousness. It was not a minority of Germans who understood Hitler, as is so well documented and rejected by turns. Hitler did not cast a magic spell on Germans in order to elicit their cooperation. The history of not only National Socialism, but also its continuing aftermath has yet to be thought genuinely on a wider scale.
Cannes’ expulsion of Trier signifies not their allegiance to the victims of the Holocaust, numerous as they are, and having little to nothing to do with Israel as a whole except by Nazi logic, but their potential allegiance in the perpetuation of the crime of non-thought which pervades economically developed culture(s) and society(ies), enabling global collaboration of monstrous oppression.
Our monsters are not those who understand Hitler, but those who refuse to understand how Hitler and their own daily activity contribute to mass oppression, (self-)destruction and death. It is unlikely that Trier intended to incite this thought directly and does not deserve much more credit than to take him seriously, something that is being diverted by the press and anti-Semitic discourse in all quarters of the globe.
What is interesting and worthy of note is less Trier’s comments in which he insisted on being a Nazi and understanding Hitler, and Cannes consequent expulsion of its darling bad boy, but the relation of culture and work in which violence insistently, if indirectly, plays the major role; as well as what passes under the surface of applause and behind the fake smiles of producers and consumers worldwide refusing to engage with a work only after trigger-statements no longer allow the denial of what has been going on under our nose all along.
Although at this point the controversy will likely spell even greater financial disaster for Trier’s work, it could be a great move for whatever creative elements may move alongside the visual violence constituting his films. And what will decide our fate as a whole on the planet we share is not whether Cannes expulses a director for spurious Nazi claims (notwithstanding the importance of taking political stands), but how the living breathing history of disaster is addressed and subverted. Nazism is more than a relevant topic today when the heart of Europe rages with racist violence, physical and psychological.