The Cannes film festival had been going on for a week when Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier and the cast of his latest film, Melancholia, took the stage for a press conference in advance of the film’s premiere. The news trickling out from the French Riviera had been mostly bland and predictable all fest long (Praise for Woody! Mixed emotions for Malick.) Then von Trier opened his big mouth, spewing some rather choice phrases that riled up the international press and quickly became the talk of the town. Before he knew it, he was issuing a canned apology and being censured by the fest, dubbed a “persona non grata” and banned from attending any further events this year, though Melancholia remains in competition.

Here’s what he said:

If I’d been a Jew, then I would be a second-wave Jew, a kind of a new-wave Jew, but anyway, I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi, because my family is German. And that also gave me some pleasure. So, I, what can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things but I can see him sitting in his bunker. I’m saying that I think I understand the man. He is not what we could call a good guy, but yeah, I understand much about him and I sympathize with him … But come on! I’m not for the Second World War. And I’m not against Jews… I am very much for them. As much as Israelis are a pain in the ass. How do I get out of this sentence? OK, I am a Nazi. As for the art, I’m for Speer. Albert Speer I liked. He was also one of God’s best children. He has a talent that … OK, enough.

There’s actually more regarding Kirsten Dunst’s privates and wanting to make a film about the Nazis’ “Final Solution," but above is the main offending remark as transcribed by New York Magazine’s Vulture.

That happened Wednesday morning. The film premiered Wednesday evening to quick praise. On Thursday morning, the film festival released the following statement: “We profoundly regret that this forum has been used by Lars von Trier to express comments that are unacceptable, intolerable, and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity that preside over the very existence of the festival.”

Lars von Trier has long been known as a prankster and provocateur. His films are bombastic elegies on the erosion of humanity. Even as he brings the rest of us down (as in Dancer in the Dark, the most depressing musical you’ll ever see) he never loses his sharp wit. He courts controversy like some kind of cinematic jester. If it weren’t for his mastery of the form and obvious brilliance as an artist, perhaps we wouldn’t stand for it. So here he comes to Cannes and, in a tongue in cheek riff, says he’s a Nazi. The French won’t have it. But what will the French have?

They will have Mel Gibson, a reputed anti-Semite and misogynist (and some might say Holocaust denier), come to town to promote his new film The Beaver. I caught the premiere of that film at SXSW and though Gibson’s director and co-stars Jodie Foster and Anton Yelchin made it to Austin for the press junket, Mel was nowhere to be seen. The American press and, moreso, American audiences have disintegrated whatever soft spot they once had for Lethal Weapon’s Martin Riggs; an appearance would have backfired and brought out his old demons. But he gladly made the flight to the south of France to be welcomed with open arms.

The other hot button that stands in stark contrast to the von Trier situation is the arrest of (now former) International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn for sexual assault while in New York. In a recent poll, a majority of French people, 57 per cent, believe Strauss-Kahn is the victim of some kind of setup.  Meanwhile, an overwhelming 70 per cent of Socialist party members, his party, believe there is foul play in his arrest.

It is more posh to presume that the U.S. (and Sarkozy; there’s a whole political mess related to Strauss-Kahn that make up the most colourful conspiracy theories) has it in for a Frenchman than to believe that a politician assaulted a cleaning lady and forced her to perform oral sex on him. In America, he’d be relegated to reality TV by Friday.

As The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, a master not only of all things cinema but all things French, explains: “In France, attitudes toward sex — with the implicit involvement of domination and submission in desire, of pain in pleasure, and of violence in love — tend to be psychologically complex, ambiguous, and, as such, resistant to morality.”

Roman Polanski is perhaps the poster child for where the Cannes jury’s line is. They have been protecting him from prosecution for a lifetime and he has been raised on their shoulders as a master of arts and letters. This year he is premiering a new film, Carnage, at the festival, and last year filmmakers began petitioning for his release from house-arrest in Gstaad pending extradition hearings to get him back to the U.S. and sentenced (he was already plead guilty 33 years ago) for a 1977 statutory rape.

However you feel about Polanski’s situation, it is tough to comprehend how the Cannes organizers took a harder line with Lars von Trier. Banishment? For putting his foot in his mouth and attempting a joke that didn’t play too well in English? (von Trier claims something was lost in translation; a Dane would have understood his ironic use of “Nazi” to simply mean “German.”)

Some outlets are reporting that von Trier’s censure is for anti-Semitism, but I don’t think the Cannes heads minded the brief bit of his rant that was explicitly anti-Semitic. “And I’m not against Jews… I am very much for them. As much as Israelis are a pain in the ass.” This idea is basically what Jean-Luc Godard has explored in his work, including last year’s awkwardly controversial Film Socialisme. Stateside, Godard came under fire for lumping all Jews together as a single unit that started Hollywood; in the film it comes out sort of as a rehashing of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The French have long historical memories and they have no tolerance for making light of WWII if not in the pursuit of art. Perhaps if von Trier made a film that explored the admittedly charged emotions he was free-form exploring in this brief snippet of monologue they would allow it in competition. As he quipped, maybe his next film should be “The Final Solution.” The darks years of The War still haunt those who lived through and those who came of age in its aftermath.

Lars von Trier is of a generation of Europeans who came of age questioning their elders, taking a hard line wondering what they did during The War. He didn’t enter the press conference with an agenda; he sat down on the dais and just decided to be himself, an artist with a sharp dark side and a twisted sense of humour. In other words, Cannes wanted Lars von Trier and they got him, hard.

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