Congratulations to Nicolas Winding Refn for winning best director at Cannes. Well done, I’m looking forward to Drive, just as I hope to catch Terence Malick’s Palm-winner Tree of Life. I did however find shameful Refn’s callous disavowal — he was “repulsed” — of his mentor Lars von Trier’s extremely ill-advised, but ultimately harmless comments that got him banned from the festival earlier in the week.
Look, what Trier said was clearly offensive, if taken at face value, and the press being the press of course immediately did so, reducing it to out-of-context soundbytes — “Trier admits to being a Nazi,” and so on. He did no such thing, and Refn of all people should understand Nordic irony when he hears it. This is a deeply ingrained way of joking in Scandinavia, and anybody who has followed Trier just a little bit, at his Cannes press conferences perhaps more than anywhere, would know that he relishes this kind of humor, and has a tendency to talk out of his ass. Refn is right when he says that Danes can be parochial and insensitive — witness the Muhammad cartoons — but how about sticking up for your embattled colleague instead of choosing the easy way out?
The real disgrace in all this, however, is the festival board of directors’ decision to expel Trier. They probably had concerns that some big time sponsor would pull the plug on them, but it really is a sad showing from a festival that champions freedom of expression in art, as they paradoxically stated in their press release announcing the decision.
For at the end of the day, this really is about art. Trier has never taken the easy way out, and for those familiar with his work, it should be obvious what led him down this particular, dark tangent. He has always been fascinated by Nazi aesthetics — which is what prompted the question that started it all — as well as with the specter of history. This was apparent already in his graduate film Befrielsesbilleder (1982), which dealt with the abuse of power by Danish resistance fighters after the liberation from German occupation in 1945.
At the same time, he identified as a Jew until he learned at age 33 from his dying mother that his biological father was not the Jewish man who had raised him, but rather a German. This is the story behind his comments in Cannes that he for a long time thought he was a Jew, but a second-rate Jew (because the lineage was from his “father”, not his mother).
Trier negotiates this issue in his life and art with particular intelligence in his 1991 film Europa (or Zentropa, as it is bizarrely called in America), which was awarded the Jury Prize at the Cannes festival that year. Jean-Marc Barr plays a young American idealist who comes to Germany after the capitulation in a show of compassion to the war-ravaged country, working as a train conductor for the American military. He naively falls in with with a network of so-called ‘werewolves’, Nazi terrorists who refuse to give in to the new order, and haplessly gets implicated in their cause, understanding the moral underpinnings of it. This of course leads not only to his own downfall, but that of many others. Along with Dogville, Europa is perhaps Trier’s most provocative and compelling spin on his favorite theme of the wages of idealism.
We are simultaneously, yes, repulsed and empathetic to the road traveled by the protagonist in a film that dares to humanize Nazism, but crucially never legitimizes it. Its evil is ever present. This should be obvious to anybody who has seen the movie, and who remembers Trier’s own self-reflexive appearance in it, as an anonymous, “Eternal Jew,” who is compelled by the American military to testify in favor of a Nazi collaborator who has proven vital to their reconstruction efforts.
Trier recognizes from his own life that history is inescapable and he has the nerve to expose the tensions inherent in the tragic, still recent past of Europe, a past from which none of us can exempt ourselves. Max von Sydow’s hypnotic narration, which bookends the film, reminds us of this. This is where those stupid comments at Cannes came from, and anybody who values film as an art form that may ask difficult questions — as the Cannes board claims it does — would do well to recognize it.
If you read Danish, or are willing to brave a Google translation, this is a good analysis by Trier’s biographer Nils Thorsen, which draws upon his extensive interviews with the director. Also, check out the site devoted to Trier’s new film, Melancholia, for which Kirsten Dunst was recognized as best actress at Cannes.