The home of the film provocateur has expelled one of their own for crossing the only impermissible line. Or, Lars von Trier, the provocative Danish filmmaker, has been kicked out of the Cannes Film Festival for saying “I understand Hitler. I sympathize with him a bit,” and “I’m a Nazi.” The interview (which cuts off just before the “I’m a Nazi” remark) is here:
Von Trier seems to be—I have never actually seen any of his films—a filmmaker who trades primarily in shock value. My unfamiliarity with his body of work means that I cannot substantiate my assumption that his work is style over substance, but someone going around making comments like that strengthens the assumption. His comments came at a press conference where he was asked about his German roots. His actual reply:
I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi because my family was German, which also gave me some pleasure. What can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things absolutely. I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end. I think I understand the man. He’s not what you would call a good guy. I understand much about him and I sympathize with him a little bit. I’m not for the 2nd World War. I’m not against Jews, not even Susanne Bier. That was also a joke. I am of course very much for Jews. No, not too much because Israel is a pain in the ass. How can I get out of this sentence? [pause] OK I’m a Nazi.
Again, von Trier appears to be playing the provocateur. There are very few taboos in our world, but Hitler, the Holocaust, and Nazi Germany have their orthodoxies. Von Trier decided to play with this dogma, but the inquisitors of tolerance found it intolerable, kicking him out of the festival. It’s the structure of orthodoxy, heresy, and excommunication that interests me here.
What I see operable here is what I dub the sacral vacuum: the cultural removal of divine good and evil (in the Western past, the Christian God and the Devil, respectively) will only result in other things rushing in to take their place. It’s hard to name God’s replacement in broader culture—there are too many—but Hitler has surely become our Devil. To question his infernal status is to question pretty much the only belief we have in common, which we find threatening enough to expel von Trier from Cannes.
Von Trier the heretic has been excommunicated, and now we can once again rest assured in that we’re agreed in knowing how to name (past) evil. But Hitler is not the devil, nor was he unalloyed evil. Allowing him to occupy that space in our public life dulls our ability to name evil in the present, as our inattention to the genocides in places like East Timor, Darfur, and the Congo reveals.
We all worship a god and fear a devil of some sort, whether they look like traditional religion or not. Belief and religion are unavoidable, and the only open question is what shape they will take. I worship God the Father of Jesus Christ, who welcomes and forgives the Hitlers, von Triers and Matt Wiebes of this world. This scandalous grace bursts open the ordinary orthodox/heretic continuum, troubling easy dogmas and pieties. This is one of many reasons I find the good news about Jesus Christ so compelling.