Should Israel Give Lars Von Trier the BDS Treatment?

At Cannes three years ago, the Danish filmmaker expressed sympathy with Hitler and said Israel was 'a pain in the butt;' but not screening his avante-garde work here would be a mistake.

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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Uri Klein
Uri Klein

Should Lars von Trier’s new film “Nymphomaniac,” and the Danish director’s films in general, be screened in Israel? I don’t know if this question has come up yet, but it should be discussed in a country that only recently prohibited the use of the word “Nazi” except in its historical context. (The somewhat ludicrous aspect of that prohibition is a subject for a separate column).

In film clips from the Berlin International Film Festival, which closed at the beginning of the week, Von Trier is seen arriving at the premiere of his new film wearing a black T-shirt with the slogan “Persona Non Grata.” That apparently was also an example of Danish humor, the same category into which he put his own words after the press conference at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2011. A Dane’s idea of a joke, he says, was lost on others.

At that infamous press conference Von Trier reported that he was a Nazi, declared that although Hitler was not a nice man he understood him and felt empathy towards him. He also said that in principle he had nothing against Jews but described Israel as “a pain in the butt.” Of all his words at that press conference, his statement about Israel was the least offensive.

In the wake of these scandalous remarks, the heads of the Cannes festival declared Von Trier persona non grata -- thus the slogan on his T-shirt. Until then Von Trier had been one of the festival’s favorites, and his films had regularly been screened at the annual filmmaker’s Mecca. These include his 1996 film “Breaking the Waves,” which won the Grand Prix, and his 2000 film “Dancing in the Dark,” which won the the Palme d’Or. In addition, the public relations events for the film “Melancholia,” which that year participated in the official competition, were exiled to a site located about half an hour’s drive from Cannes. In fact, that’s where I had to go, together with journalists from other countries, in order to meet with Von Trier, as had been scheduled in advance.

I was the only Israeli in the group, and so when I arrived at the site I demanded that the woman in charge of the event let me interview Von Trier privately. To my surprise, she agreed. In the approximately 15 minutes that I sat with him, he repeated his claim that his humor had been misunderstood, that his words stemmed from the fact that for almost his entire life he thought he was the son of a Jew, and only when his mother was on her deathbed did she confess that Von Trier’s real father was actually a German. He also said that in his opinion apologizing for things that he said is foolish, because the apology doesn’t change anything.

Press conferences with Von Trier are usually strange. Two years before “Melancholia,” for example, when his film “Antichrist” participated in the competition at the festival, Von Trier devoted almost the entire press conference following the screening to discuss his profound depression, which was liable to prevent him from directing additional films.

Almost every direct question he was asked about the film led him back to the only subject that he wanted to talk about. In the case of “Melancholia,” perhaps in order to somewhat moderate the festival’s reactions to Von Trier’s words, and to prove that his artistic partners were not responsible for what he said, Kirsten Dunst won the prize for best actress for her performance in the film. And in Cannes, a best actor or actress award is first and foremost a prize for the film and its director.

“Melancholia,” the film after which the scandal erupted, was purchased for distribution in Israel, and screened here in a few theaters. As far as I could discover -and perhaps there will be a change by the time this article is published - Von Trier’s new film has not yet been purchased for distribution here, and the question is whether the film, like the next films by the Danish director, deserves to be shown in Israel at all. In my opinion, the answer is yes.

Since the early 1980s Von Trier has been one of the outstanding film directors of our time, and the history of his work and the way it developed represents an important chapter in the history of the development of film in the past few decades. I write this desite never having been a great personal fan of the Danish director. I believe, for example, that his best film is one of his earlier ones, the 1991 movie “Europa.” It’s the only one of his films that I feel like watching again when it’s shown on television.

His films have always seemed problematic to me, in so many ways, that they have often deterred me, but neither could I deny the vision and the talent that motivated them. I will always prefer the problematic artist, when the problematic aspect is accompanied by talent, to the artist who plays it safe, as talented as he may be. The demanding nature of the problematic artist at least makes it possible to experiment, as in the case of the Dogme 95, an avant-garde filmmaking movement of which Von Trier was one of the founders. The movement, founded in 1995, appears to me to lack any serious theoretical foundation, perhaps even deliberately, perhaps as another example of Danish humor.

I believe that Von Trier’s films are worthy of being shown in Israel, if not as part of regular distribution in movie theaters, then in cinematheques or local film festivals, since I’m opposed to prohibitions and boycotts. We must remember that the decision as to whether to purchase a film for distribution has economic considerations as well; There needs to be a significant enough audience willing to pay to see the film. But if we boycott Von Trier’s films in Israel, we will be participating in a game that he himself initiated and continues to nurture with the help of that slogan on his shirt at the Berlin Film Festival. If we are opposed to the boycott that directors such as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh are calling to impose on our artists, we must also oppose any boycott imposed on our part, even if the circumstances are presumably legitimate.

I am not desperately eager to see Von Trier’s new film; I have never looked forward to seeing his next film as I look forward to the next films of many other directors. However, I want to be free to decide whether or not to include Von Trier’s work in the experiences of my cinematic life. Lars Von Trier is a pain in the butt, and I want to decide for myself whether I want to experience this pain.

One of the posters of Lars Von Trier's new movie 'Nymphomaniac.'
Lars Von Trier showing off his "persona non grata" t-shirt.Credit: Reuters
One of the posters of Lars Von Trier's new movie 'Nymphomaniac.'
One of the posters of Lars Von Trier's new movie 'Nymphomaniac.'
The cast of "Nymphomaniac" at the Berlin Film Festival. Credit: AP

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