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Von Trier's Cannes Controversy
Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Von Trier's Cannes Controversy

Does art stand apart from the artist? What if the artist is Hitler?


The tragedy is they still don't get it.

The Cannes Film Festival had to make a decision. Danish director Lars von Trier, winner of the coveted Palme D’Or award for best picture in 2000 with "Dancer in the Dark" and a favorite this year to again take the prize with his latest film "Melancholia," caused quite a furor when he publicly made clear his positive feelings about Hitler.

At a press conference, Von Trier joked that he was a Nazi and that he sympathized with Adolf Hitler. "I think I understand the man. He's not what you would call a good guy but I understand much about him and I sympathize with him."

To their credit, the Board of Directors of the film festival condemned these comments and declared von Trier persona non-grata, an unprecedented gesture.

So what's the problem?

Having said that, the spokeswoman for the board added, as if stating a self understood afterthought, that of course Melancholia would still remain in competition despite its director’s expulsion.

The justification seems obvious to the board. There's no connection at all between art and the artist. Art stands on its own, beyond all moral considerations. Art transcends ethical judgments. Art must be respected, well… just because it is art.

And how better could we have summed up Nazi ideology.

As concentration camp inmates were marched to their death, fellow Jews were forced to play music to enhance the "beauty" of the moment. The orchestra at Auschwitz had a philosophical underpinning. The SS guard who snatched an infant from his mother's breast, splattered his brains against a wall and then calmly picked up his violin to enjoy the strains of Beethoven believed the two actions were compatible.

Nazi-ism justified the primacy of artistic over moral considerations.

Hitler had grandiose plans for preeminence in architecture, theater, music and art. He hoped that his Third Reich would epitomize aesthetic progress. For him and his fanatic cohorts art was divorced from heart. The most debased and perverted actions deserved to be glorified for their artistic creativity. Even the crematoria were for the Nazis magnificent demonstrations of human ingenuity, technological wizardry and functional artistry.

Romain Gary, in his "The Dance of Genghis Cohn,” eloquently describes the Germanic distortion of culture in these unforgettable words: "The ancient Simbas, a barbaric tribe of cannibals, consumed their victims. But modern-day Germans, heirs to millennia of human achievement, turned their victims into soap. This, this passion for cleanliness - that is civilization."

"If art is to be reckoned as one of the great values of life, it must teach men humility, tolerance, wisdom and magnanimity."

One thing Auschwitz teaches us is that cleanliness is not culture, and death camps are not to be praised for efficiency of design. Those who forced musicians to play as background to genocide left as their legacy the conviction that, unlike the insight of Keats, beauty need not be truth and truth need not be beauty.

We dare not agree with this distortion. Art represents the artist. Its sole justification, as Somerset Maugham so well put it, is that "If art is to be reckoned as one of the great values of life, it must teach men humility, tolerance, wisdom and magnanimity. The value of art is not beauty, but right action."

"As an ideal of Western civilization," Andre Maurois said, "Art is an effort to create, beside the real world, a more human world."

I do not think it was mere coincidence that the 1930s first saw the creation of "Life is a cabaret" decadence immediately prior to the decline of the moral fabric of German society. Decadent art opened the way to decadent society.

Art has the ability to move us, but just as we can be moved to angelic heights we can be inspired to join evil forces like those responsible for the mass murder of 6 million innocents.

That's why I find it ironic that the Cannes film Festival can acknowledge the horror of an artist's beliefs and still honor his creativity, when the message of the Holocaust ought to be that the two are inseparable and art without heart is impossible.

May 22, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 25

(21) Emma, May 16, 2013 1:42 PM

Historical Inaccuracy

"I do not think it was mere coincidence that the 1930s first saw the creation of "Life is a cabaret" decadence immediately prior to the decline of the moral fabric of German society. Decadent art opened the way to decadent society."

Nothing could be further from the historical truth. The Nazi Party was present before the end of WWII, but only rose to power because they offered a "solution" to the problems created in Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. The Germans felt that the Treaty of Versailles was unfair and humiliating, and they wanted revenge on who they irrationally felt was responsible: the Jews. It has nothing to do with the degeneration of an "immoral" society. Prior to the rise of the Nazis, the "underground" flourished more and there were even gay nightclubs in a time when this was unthinkable to the rest of the Western world. However, it was those sick demons of the Nazi Party shut all these down, and sent homosexuals to concentration camps alongside Jews. For crying out loud, they even banned jazz music because it was "detrimental to the Aryan soul." I understand what point you're trying to get across but please don't resort to such dishonesty to do it.

(20) Lisbet, May 27, 2011 11:04 PM

It is a big conundrum

WIthout straying to other fields of art than just that of movie making, a few names come to mind: Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Mel Gibson. Personally, I have not been able to wrap my head around the latter because his movie itself stirred up or revived antisemitism but I am totally able to appreciate movies by both Polanski and Allen despite despising them as individuals for their actions of child rape and incest. I deeply hope von Trier does not win (may have already taken place since I don't follow the Cannes Film festival) but I still think we in the name of democracy must allow the work to stand so long as it does not itself promote antisemitism or Hitler propaganda. Each person should make their own informed decision. I, for one, will not be seeing the movie now. We want a free society where we each choose right from wrong, not get told what to do. Sometimes that is painful but I don't think we would ultimately want it any other way.

Ellen, July 13, 2011 8:25 PM

The Nazis also condemned "degenerate art". And Stalin's Socialist Realism wasn't much of a solution. It's not the art that is the problem, it's the anti-semitism of the artist.

(19) Grace Fishenfeld, May 25, 2011 2:10 AM

Not obliged

For some artists, Art mirrors life at a specific time. Kurt Weil, the composer, made his statement in Three Penny Opera and as mentioned, Cabaret. The painter George Groz was compelled to produce Ecce Homo, examples of cruelty and depravity, much the same idiom as Weil. Times and society was seen by these two artists as ethically unacceptable. Their art demonstrated their rejection of the status quo. They were punished for it in Germany and so they fled to the United States. Other artists were not bound by the need to reflect ideas and created art as abstract forms that had nothing to do with social content. They were mainly concerned with color shape and line and sounds There is no rule that places the artist in a strait jacket. There is no reason to believe that art should take a form which obliges the composer to teach or uplift people. By the same token, there is no reason to say that all art is to be respected. Art should be allowed to be seen, heard read and performed. Art may be presented, but we may reject it. Civilized people do not burn books or censor content. The artist remains free to create and the viewer, audience or reader is free to reject it. Art is the work of a talented creator. The viewer and the audience judges it and is free to walk away from it. There is no reason that people must respect Art. Art is not God. It is man's attempt to materialize form and content. The artist is merely a person. Some people are brilliant and some are fools. The artist reflects who he or she is. We do not have to like them or their work.

(18) Margaret, May 24, 2011 4:47 PM

By their fruits you will know them

Von Trier was banned and so should be his film. Imagine thet he wins the competition or any of the additional prizes. The Festival would then inadvertently bestow the stamp of approval on the man himself. If you can not accept the individual , do not give them the forum to build their fame and ,by the same token, legitimize and propagate their views.

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