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Danish director Lars von Trier at a Cannes press conference. (AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images)
Danish director Lars von Trier at a Cannes press conference. (AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images)

Cannes 2011

Lars von Trier apologizes for Nazi comments at Cannes Add to ...

Mel "The Mouth" Gibson avoided the press when he came to Cannes to promote his new film, The Beaver. Brad Pitt, growing slightly impatient with personal questions about his family when promoting The Tree of Life, made a flip comment about beating his kids to discipline them.

And then came Danish bad boy Lars von Trier.

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You could practically see the headlines forming themselves in thought balloons above the journalists at the press conference Wednesday when the 55-year-old director called himself a Nazi, expressed sympathy for Hitler and suggested he make a movie about a "Final Solution for journalists."

To be fair, he was attempting to make jokes. Von Trier seems to be a man without ordinary emotional and intellectual filters, which translates into viscerally raw, allegorical dramas such as Melancholia. The film stars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst as sisters. After Justine (Dunst) gets married, she descends into severe depression, but in an odd way this gives her more strength than her sister Claire (Gainsbourg) when it appears that a large blue asteroid named "Melancholia" is about to collide with the world and destroy all life.

The director, who has been candid about his history of phobias, anxieties and depression, said the movie is less about science fiction than about "a state of mind. I've gone through some melancholic stages in my life."

Occasionally serious, more often openly mocking, there's no doubt von Trier was trying to be funny. When asked if he would win the Palme d'Or? "Oh, yes." Was he happy with his movie? There was a good chance, he said, that it may be "crap," and "there's quite a big possibility that it might be not worth seeing."

He suggested he was going to make a "three- or four-hour porn movie" at his actresses' urging, and that the French star, Gainsbourg - who won Best Actress at Cannes two years ago for von Trier's shocker Antichrist - had real orgasms onscreen, while the American (Dunst) faked hers.

The two actresses humoured his digressions, while praising the roles he wrote for women and the freedom he gave them on screen.

Someone asked him why, since he is a habitual jokester in person, he has never attempted a comedy.

"Because my comedies always turn out to be melancholy. This is a comedy. You don't want to see my tragedies."

The Nazi comment came near the end of the press conference in response to a journalist who asked him to expand on comments in a previous interview that he was interested in "the Nazi aesthetic."

"For a long time I thought I was a Jew and I was happy to be a Jew," he began. "Then I met Susanne Bier (the Danish-Jewish director of the recent Oscar-winning film In a Better World) and I wasn't so happy. But then I found out I was actually a Nazi. My family were German. And that also gave me some pleasure. What can I say? I understand Hitler."

Von Trier qualified that: "I don't mean I'm in favour of World War II and I'm not against Jews, not even Susanne Bier. ... In fact, I'm very much in favour of them. All Jews. Well, Israel is a pain in the ass, but ... now, how can I get out of this sentence? Okay, I'm a Nazi."

Not everyone was willing to cut von Trier slack for his eccentricity. Six hours after the Melancholia press conference ended at noon, the festival press office issued a release:

"The Festival de Cannes was disturbed about the statements made by Lars von Trier in his press conference this morning in Cannes. Therefore, the Festival asked him to provide an explanation for his comments.

"The director states that he let himself be egged on by a provocation. He presents his apology.

"The direction of the Festival acknowledges this and is passing on Lars von Trier's apology. The Festival is adamant that it would never allow the event to become the forum for such pronouncements on such subjects."

A few moments later, the second e-mail arrived with the text of von Trier's statement:

"If I have hurt someone this morning by the words I said at the press conference, I sincerely apologize. I am not antisemitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a nazi. [sic]rdquo; - Lars von Trier.

The only problem, as everyone who attended the press conference can attest, is that von Trier's "apology" is inaccurate. He needed no egging on to say the things he did, when he responded at unnecessary length to innocuous questions.

Those who knew the director's personal history understood he wasn't completely babbling. Von Trier was raised by a Jewish man he thought was his biological father, but on her deathbed his mother told him that his real father was her employer, who had German-Catholic roots and many musical relatives, which she thought might give her child "artistic genes."

The news prompted von Trier, who had been raised as an atheist, to begin to explore Catholicism in his life and films.

Recently, he says, he has been working on a film about the Eastern Orthodox Church, which he believes is less about "crucifixion, suffering and guilt" and more about light - "the Divine Light, the Holy Spirit, or whatever. This light to me is very much about cinema for me."

In spite of the ongoing problems with verbal incontinence, von Trier says he's feeling emotionally better these days, that he "reads books and does boring things," and has given up drinking, " though philosophically I'm opposed to non-drinking."

Better, possibly, but he's hardly mellowed. As the press filed out and von Trier signed autographs, he held up his left fist for the cameras to show off the four-letter word he had inked across his knuckles.

Follow on Twitter: @liamlacey

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