Lars von Trier: "I don't want to be an adult"

Banned from Cannes, the "Melancholia" director talks about Judaism, communism and his "Nazi" meltdown moment

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 21, 2011 6:22PM (EDT)

Director Lars Von Trier poses for portraits after an interview with the Associated Press promoting the film Melancholia at the 64th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Wednesday, May 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan) (AP)
Director Lars Von Trier poses for portraits after an interview with the Associated Press promoting the film Melancholia at the 64th international film festival, in Cannes, southern France, Wednesday, May 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan) (AP)

MOUGINS, France -- No, Lars von Trier is not a Nazi or an anti-Semite. He grew up with a Jewish stepfather, in fact (who he long believed was his actual father). He may, based on what he says about his teenage years, still have a flame burning for the ideals of communism -- and whatever you make of that, it's not the same thing at all. The permanently controversial Danish director of "Antichrist" and "Dancer in the Dark" saw his bad-boy reputation blow up in his face this week, when the Cannes Film Festival barred him from the premises after a catastrophic Wednesday press conference, when he said he sympathized with Hitler "a little bit" and jokingly declared himself a Nazi. But give the guy credit: Rather than fleeing back to Denmark to lick his wounds, von Trier has spent the last several days receiving journalists at his luxury hotel just outside this village amid the hills, villas and vineyards a few miles north of Cannes.

To be sure, part of this is about refocusing media attention on his new film "Melancholia," a strange and spectacular amalgam of wedding drama and sci-fi apocalypse starring Kirsten Dunst, Kiefer Sutherland and Charlotte Gainsbourg, which premiered at Cannes to mostly favorable reviews. (It's my favorite film of the festival -- and wouldn't it be something if it won the Palme d'Or while the director watched on TV?) But von Trier also seems eager to express contrition, and to place his offensive and ill-considered remarks in context -- that being the personality of an immensely talented film director who shoots off his mouth without thinking and is arguably way too devoted to playing the rebel or the "naughty schoolboy," as he puts it.

Since von Trier rarely travels and has never been to the United States, he's often assumed to be a reclusive figure after the fashion of Terrence Malick, who did no interviews here and did not even appear on the red carpet for the "Tree of Life" premiere. But in our Saturday afteroon meeting von Trier was friendly, loquacious and often very funny, talking cheerfully about subjects ranging from his cinematic idol Ingmar Bergman to communism, Humphrey Bogart and children's author Tove Jansson -- as well, of course, as the remarks that made him globally notorious this week. We sat at an outdoor table near his hotel room, on a dirt-floored patio normally used for a local sport called pétanque (the French equivalent of bocce), overlooking the spectacular gardens and terraces of Mougins. Wearing a white T-shirt and an oversized straw sun hat, von Trier looked ready to play the part of northern European tourist in a movie.

I have to ask you one very important thing about the movie, before we start talking about Hitler.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, about the funny issues like that.

You grew up in a Nordic country. Did you ever read the Moomintroll books by the Finnish children's author Tove Jansson?

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! You are familiar with them?

Yes, I love them and so do my kids. I don't know how many other Americans do, though.

Interesting. Well, my family have Swedish friends who were very close to her, and somebody has told me that one of her stories resembles the film. I didn't remember it at all, but I have read it. I read everything. I was very, very taken by her universe. It was fantastic.

If you went back and read that book now -- in English it's called "Comet in Moominland" -- I think you'd see some striking similarities to "Melancholia."

I'm quite sure. She also did the mystical planet, or comet or whatever it is. Yeah, I'm sure. You know, you're always stealing somehow. Sometimes you know it and sometimes you don't know it, but this is a good source to steal from, I think.

There is even a character who's obsessed with measuring the comet and figuring it out scientifically, like the character Kiefer Sutherland plays in your movie. They go to an observatory to see it through a telescope as it approaches, and the scientists tell them it will arrive on such and such a day at such and such a time, and of course the world will be destroyed.

[Holding head in hands.] You have now destroyed my self-respect! I have no self-respect anymore at all.

No, it's a wonderful influence. I will go back to America and tell my children that a guy from Denmark made another movie of "Comet in Moominland," but they have to wait until they're grownups to see it.

That should have been the title! The whole thing might have worked better: "Comet in Moominland," by Lars von Trier. [Laughter.]

Honestly, how do you feel about "Melancholia" after everything that has happened? Even before the premiere you seemed to have a very strange relationship with your own movie. You keep saying you are uncomfortable with it or aren't sure you like it. Are you just joking? Is that just Lars von Trier shtick? It's hard to tell with you, which may be part of the problem.

Those are actually not jokes. But, yeah, I can understand that with me it's difficult to tell if it's a joke or not. I must say that even jokes are not only jokes. I think that's quite important. But this was not meant as a joke. You're sitting there and you have to write a director's statement. And I thought, if I have doubts this is where I should write them. It makes no sense to write, "This is exactly what I wanted, blah blah, blah." I do have some doubts, and you don't make them smaller by mentioning Moomintrolls, you know. [Laughter.]

I was just told by some Russian that the first time Tarkovsky saw "Solaris," he said, "It's far too beautiful." Then he cut all the beautiful scenes out, and there was the film. That's an honorable man. Maybe that would have made me more happy, I don't know. I feel -- I don't know what I feel. It was a big pleasure to do the film, and maybe I feel a bit ashamed of that, that it was such a pleasure. There were no problems, really.

So you would rather -- what? Feel fear and guilt and shame?

Yeah, something like that. It's like you get to the top of Mount Everest without using oxygen and everybody says, "Fantastic!" And you feel funny about it. Maybe it was a little too easy. It's also that it became so romantic, but that was on purpose. Then again, I feel a little guilty for doing something that was too easy. All this Dogme nonsense, and all the other things I have done, has been to prevent myself from doing things that I'm too good at, that I feel is the easy way out. To put up a camera that makes 1,000 frames a second and to do all the things in the overture to "Melancholia," that's easy. [The film opens with a montage of remarkable digital images, set to the overture of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde."]

You know, I had a very funny conversation with Martin Scorsese, who is a very, very polite man. He said, "The beginning of 'Antichrist' was so beautiful." You know, the prelude to my movie. And I said to him, "Yes, but it was black-and-white and slo-mo. How can you go wrong?" And then I said to myself, "Oh, shit -- this is the man that made 'Raging Bull'!" But he laughed and said, "You are right."

This may make you hate me, but "Melancholia" feels in many ways like a more mature film artistically than any you have made before, and also one that's more rooted in an adult sensibility. That may be the last thing you want.

But I don't want to be adult! Please!

Yeah, so part of what happened to you the other day was a desire to ...

A desire not to be an adult, yes. I had an interesting conversation with Gilles Jacob [president of the Cannes Film Festival] just the same day or the day before. He has written a book where he mentions me, and he says that the first time I came to Cannes with a shaven head and a leather jacket, and now I come in a tuxedo. And that's what happens to all rebels -- they're not rebels anymore. Which irritated me, of course, like hell. I told him, "But, listen, I have a tattoo now." And he just laughed, that wasn't good enough.

I don't know ... it was not something I planned. But on the subconscious level, yeah, maybe I behaved like a naughty schoolboy. As Charlotte Rampling said, "You have not been bad, but you have been naughty."

We have an American expression for this. It's called pissing in the punch bowl.

Aha! I recently heard the English expression, "to piss on your chips." I pissed on my chips, that is for sure. [Laughter.]

Look, I was in the room when you said that stuff, and I understood, or I think I understood, where you were trying to go. At this point you don't need me to tell you this, but what you said offended and hurt many people, especially many Jewish people and descendants of Holocaust survivors. And I don't think that's what you meant to do.

No. I didn't mean to do that. First of all, I like provocations, but I like provocations for a reason and there was no reason here. This was just -- I felt like I was driving in a car and suddenly there was a curve I hadn't seen and I couldn't keep the car on the track. So there was no reason for this provocation and I really regret that it happened. I believe in good provocations that can start something, but this one was completely wrong. And I'm not clever enough to understand that saying things like that in this place, of all places in the world, this was absolutely a no-go.

But I don't think that I said anything anti-Semitic. I said stupid things, like I think I said I understood Hitler. But that's why I don't believe in these press conferences. If I said to you that I understood Hitler, you would say, "What the fuck do you mean?" And I could say, well, in the sense that watching Bruno Ganz playing him in "Downfall" and all that, I understand that he is a human being and it's very important for us to recognize that. You know, the Nazi thing lies in all of us somewhere, no matter what religion you are and no matter where you live in the world. It's something that we have to fight against, and if you say that Adolf Hitler was not a human being, that's the most stupid thing we can say.

But of course none of that came out in the press conference because I was just panicking -- I was somewhere else. I think the most insulting thing I did was to say that when I found out I was not Jewish, which I did at a certain point, that in fact I was a Nazi. I only meant, of course, that I was on the other side of the fence, but saying that could only hurt the Germans. It's a very Danish thing, you know -- we've been beaten like hell by the Germans throughout our history.

I have talked to a lot of Germans and they're in a very strange vacuum. They have nothing to do with the war, of course, but they have a grandfather who did whatever he did, and somehow they must be punished for being Germans. Their punishment is that they are overloaded with information about the war. When you see a documentary about the Second World War, they are saying "that bastard Hitler and his cruel henchmen," where a film in Danish or English is much more neutral. I suppose that will last for some time and then stabilize. For me, I just think it's important to understand that we are all Nazis, somewhere.

Well, right after leaving that press conference I had the Elvis Costello song "Two Little Hitlers" in my head. Do you know it? It's about two lovers, of course. "Two little Hitlers will fight it out until/ One little Hitler does the other one's will."

[Laughter.] I don't know it. That's very cleverly put.

That's the territory you were talking about, right? Everyone feels that urge to dominate sometimes, and artists may feel it a lot.

Oh, yes. Oh, yes. But I failed completely. I also have to say something about apologizing -- especially after the Clinton thing. You know, I thought the Clinton affair with Monica Lewinsky was proof that he was a human being, even the president. I know that was not how it was seen in America! I thought, OK, that's good, he's a human being! It might hurt Hillary, yes. Or maybe they have an agreement, who knows! They were hippies or whatever. [Laughter.] But to go to a group of priests or whatever and say "I'm sorry" was so hypocritical. It gave me a bad taste in the mouth. You see a real human being, and he was for me a new kind of president, a man with good intentions and suddenly he has to submit to something that makes no sense. Saying you're sorry -- what does that change? If you were so sorry, you probably wouldn't have done it! It's a ritual, like sitting in the town square and being flogged.

It may help Americans to understand your personal back story a little better. So you grew up with a Jewish father, and then you found out as an adult that he wasn't your biological father. You had believed you were half Jewish until that point.

Yes, that's exactly right. But of course I know that Judaism comes through the mother -- which is a very clever idea! -- so I could not have been exactly Jewish. He was not religious, and I found out later on that the Jewish family I had was not considered to be a fine Jewish family, because they never went to the synagogue. In all groups, it's like that. I remember when I was a communist as a young man, there were the Maoists and the Trotskyists, who hated each other much more than they hated the capitalists! They were fighting like hell over ridiculous things, over nothing.

You were a teenage communist! Which group did you belong to?

I belonged to -- I was for Moscow. And I have to say that I still have that tendency. It's strange, because I know Lenin was a bastard and he killed very many people. Still I somehow -- now I'm getting into trouble again! -- I somehow forgive him a little bit, because it was for a good cause, and I believe in the ideals of communism and socialism. Of course it was not all right. It was terrible! But you have to compare it to what was there before. Now, it's a fact that communism will lead to dictatorship, that's a fact I can't argue with. But I still have a love for the ideals of the whole thing.

You've spoken a little bit about the influence of Ingmar Bergman on your movies, which I know is a cliché when talking about Nordic filmmakers -- the great god Ingmar who rules your life. But the first part of "Melancholia" is like one of his country-house movies, "Smiles of a Summer Night" or "Wild Strawberries," cranked up to 11, with all this gorgeous, decadent German Romanticism poured into it.

That is probably correct. But I have to say that I saw "Smiles of a Summer Night" again recently, and I don't think that's one of his better films. I was crazy about it when I first saw it. I used to own a book with interviews and pictures from it. The sun rises for the second time and all that. If you see "Wild Strawberries" or "Through a Glass Darkly," those are much better films.

[To a publicist.] Just a minute, I'm talking to America here! And we will not allow anything to interfere! We will make a no-fly zone and call in the bombers!

He tried a lot of times to make funny films and never succeeded. I was so mad at him after "Fanny and Alexander." I treasured his films so much, and I thought it was a discount highlights version of everything, all put together.

I know what you're talking about, but I'm too sentimental, I guess. I still love both of those. Here's my last shot: Like Bergman, you haven't been able to get rid of God. In the movie, Kirsten's character says that she knows we're alone, that there is no other life elsewhere in the universe. And you have said that's your personal view.

I don't think that's my personal view. But it's like a revelation. It's like, there are things you're not supposed to say [laughter] and here's something you're not supposed to think: That there is no life, not the tiniest bacteria anywhere. This was purely an accident that will only happen once.

See, that's another Northern European philosophical idea. We used to be special because God had created us, and now we are special because we're all alone. You're just sneaking God back into the equation, under the radar, and calling him something else.

Yeah, yeah. He will probably sneak back in. Even though I will deny him until the day I die.


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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