Lars Von Trier apologizing for sounding anti-Semitic at Cannes

Director Lars Von Trier is a very, very bad boy. His films are transgressive and dark. He is nevertheless a film festival darling because, although his stance is often nihilistic, his characters are so deeply inhabited that his work feels paradoxically humane. According to co-workers, his sense of humor relies heavily on irony, counterintuitive insights and social envelope pushing. So when he ran his mouth at the Cannes Film Festival, confessing to sympathy ("a little bit") for Hitler in his bunker, admiration for the Nazi architect Albert Speer ("the Nazi aesthetic") and irritation with Israel ("a pain in the ass"), one would assume that he was groping for a way to display the facility that gives his work much of its power: his reflexive empathy for the twistier members of our species.(1)

In the zealously policed eyries of Euroculture, however, we do not joke about genocide. Even if it's clear that the joker is strongly opposed to mass exterminations, the guardians of International values don't want the subject taken lightly. And with some reason: many Holocaust survivors saw Anti Semitism in the West devolve from a fun topic of casual conversation (even for many Jews) into a virulent state policy. Because the talk is known to normalize, enable, even precipitate, the walk, we have trouble parsing the chatter from the slaughter.

Von Trier, even though he is genuinely not an Anti-Semite, and probably should have been let off with a profuse and illuminating apology, was barred from further festivities at Cannes this year, and later, chastened, he said he understood why. But, not surprisingly, he had trouble taking his ritual exile without a dash of salt. He did offer a few sincere apologies (he did not wish to hurt anyone), but supplemented them with bogus excuses (he isn't good at "reading the mood of the room"), and tone-deaf efforts at ironic self-awareness ("I feel this obligation, which is completely stupid and very unprofessional, to kind-of entertain the crowd a little bit"). Ouch.

But the most interesting explanation Von Trier offered for his misbehavior is the one The New York Times quoted him as having offered: He attributed his public ramblings about his inner-Nazi to his newfound sobriety.

Blaming sobriety for social war crimes may be a hilarious inversion of the usual celebrity alibi for hating on the Jews, but it is timely. Blaming alcohol obviously no longer works. When Mel Gibson claimed that a bottle of tequila induced him to respond to a Los Angeles DUI arrest by announcing "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world," he was called out by Slate essayist Christopher Hitchens: citing Gibson's cryptic assertion that his holocaust-denying father "never told me a lie," Hitchens protested, "One does not abruptly decide between the first and second vodka, or the ticks of the indicator of velocity, that the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion are valid after all.  

The skunk-drunk excuse didn't help John Galliano either. Back in February, the besotted fashion luminary pitched a  hissy fit in a Parisian cafe, calling a fellow patron "Jew face" and expressing the wish that Hitler, whom he petulantly professed to love, would destroy her whole family. His employer, the House of Dior, had been looking for an excuse to shed the designer, whose performance had been off, so instead of sending him to rehab with a caning, Dior canned him. He has been eating his fist ever since. 

Riding the borderline between pleading drunk and blaming sobriety for Jew-bashing in public we find the all-purpose decorum buster, Charlie Sheen. The Two and a Half Men star, you may recall, angrily addressed his sitcom producer by the Hebrew version of his name. The sound of "Chaim," in a hostile utterance, with its echos of Jesse Jackson's famous 1984 reference to "Hymietown," struck some as an expression of contempt for Judaism as well as for the man. Sheen apologized, insisting he had nothing against Jews. He also insisted he was sober. His employers chose not to believe him on either count, and he was eventually replaced on the show. 

Von Trier's official story is more sophisticated and funnier. He said that he had found himself drinking too much, and so had recently quit. As a result, he claimed, he was wide awake at Cannes when he made his forbidden speech whereas normally he'd be too weary to try.

Now, obviously, this story is nonsense. Von Trier can crack complicated jokes in his sleep. His sobriety alibi, in fact, is one such complicated joke. But psychologically, I discovered, there is more to this counterintuitive notion than I first thought.

For the neurons in a brain, it turns out, self-control is a high-energy task. It requires a lot of glucose, and the brain's supply of glucose is limited. Back in 2007, Matthew Gailliot and Roy Baumeister, both of Florida State Universty's Psych Department, ran a battery of tests on 16 students. They found that "A single act of self-control causes glucose to drop below optimal levels, thereby impairing subsequent attempts at self-control." To rephrase: whenever you wrestle down one of your demons, the next little devil in you has a better chance of hijacking your mind.   

The tests they ran covered, among other things, "thought suppression, emotion regulation... and social behaviors (i.e., ...coping with thoughts of death, stifling prejudice during an interracial interaction)."  Had Lars been suppressing the desire for a drink, in other words, or fighting back an impulse to say what he really thought of his father (2), it could have reduced his ability to navigate between political landmines.  

Drinking also, after an initial sugar rush, notoriously suppresses blood sugar, resulting in loss of self-control. But Von Trier's mind would not have needed either alcohol or a caramelizing spasm of self-discipline to precipitate a hypoglycemic moment. As scientists at of the University of Oulu, Finland discovered, alcoholics in withdrawal show inflated insulin levels---a condition which can cause blood sugar to drop, leaving them more prone to lapses of judgment---like Von Triers'.

So the "recently sober" excuse for offensive speech has at least a shred of scientific credibility, as does drunkenness. But, while either excessive boozing or sudden sobriety might prompt you sound-off like an anti-Semite, neither can make you into one. For that, you will need to gulp down stronger stuff---like the teachings of Mel Gibson's father. By contrast, the credo Von Trier has adopted, could have been summarized less destructively by Kant's famous maxim:  "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made."


1. The "Nazi aesthetic" was for the most part beer hall kitsch, but Von Trier was more likely thinking of the rare high points of fascist design in the 1930's that have had a lasting impact on other cultures. Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, designed, among other things, Hitler's Nurenberg Parade grounds, which he surrounded with 130 anti-aircraft searchlights, creating a "cathedral of light." The twin pillars of light that served as a temporary memorial to the demolished twin towers of the World Trade Center after 2001 were arguably decendents of Speer's. Speer also invented the romantic concept of "ruin value," the notion that buildings, once fallen, should move people the way Greek and Roman ruins did, a version of "graceful degradation" that designers in many fields, including digital programing, now routinely consider. The propaganda films of Leni Riefenschtal pioneered the use of close ups and several other film techniques, and her celebration of Aryan beauty pioneered the way for, among other things,Calvin Klein ads. Nazi uniforms and insignia, with their visual invocations of power and cruelty, are still staples of sexual kinkwear among the sorts of people the Nazi's used to put in camps.

(2)  To get a glimse of just how morally convoluted Von Trier's mind is, and how much glucose he must need to operate it properly, read his interview with blogger anne thompson. It includes this passage, in which he discusses his feelings about the father whose identity was the pretext for his misbegotten speech at Cannes:

"LVT: I like provocation, this is not a good provocation, it was not something I wanted to do. Sometimes I provoke because there's meaning behind it. This time there was no meaning. It was a mistake.

AT: Did you know who your real father was?
LVT: The real father, he was a German. That's why I said I was a Nazi. He was not a Nazi, he was a freedom fighter. Yes, I met him, he was an asshole. It was ridiculous, my mother said to me, ‘you will like him so much, he is such a fantastic person.' Then I met a feminine man, he said, ‘I was sure that your mother would protect herself.' He said to me, ‘If you want to discuss more, it should be through my lawyer.' And he was 78.

And I had imagined this kind of slow-motion thing. And he said, ‘I have never accepted that child.' And he said that to me. It was completely awful, but that did not make him a Nazi, not at all, he was a freedom fighter, and very respectable in every way. I just didn't like him. But then I got some siblings, who I see. That's fine. The only thing that was funny in the story was that I was not Jewish, I was half-German. From there it went wrong."


#1. Self-control takes energy It gets used up.

Gailliot, M. T.,* Baumeister, R. F.,* DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M., . . . Schmeichel, B. J. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(2), 325-336. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.2.325

*Department of Psychology, Florida State University,

doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.2.325  

# 2. Alcohol withdrawal enhances insulin production:

Glucose metabolism, insulin​-​like growth factor​-​I, and insulin​-​like growth factor​-​binding protein​-​1 after alcohol withdrawal.

By Paassilta, Marita; Kervinen, Kari; Kesäniemi, Y. Antero

Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, Vol 23(3), Mar 1999, 471-475.

doi: 10.1097/00000374-199903000-00013

N.B. This post was published on generator power during a power outage do to heavy storms.

About the Author

Lynn Phillips

Lynn Phillips is the author of Self-Loathing for Beginners. She has written (sometimes as "Maggie Cutler") for a variety of publications, from The Nation to T Magazine.

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