Lars Von Trier, a Danish filmmaker and provocateur, was banished from the Cannes Film Festival this week, because his comments in support of Hitler were found to be distasteful. This same week, Avi Nesher, an Israeli filmmaker, won a Panavision sponsored award at the Israel Film Festival in Manhattan for his depiction of Holocaust survivors living in Haifa in 1968.

This week, at the Cannes Film Festival press conference, Lars von Trier sat next to actresses Gainsbourg and Dunst, as they discussed his latest film, “Melancholia.” His answer to one question about why he opened his film with a score by Wagner moved from bad to worse. His film was based in German Romanticism – which was adored by the Third Reich. Von Trier claimed to have sympathy for Hitler, but not World War II, said he liked Jews (but that Israel is a pain in the ass), and closed with a clause on his regard for the Nazi leader, Albert Speer. VOn Trier said, “Okay, I’m a Nazi.” He also took a jab at Susanne Bier, a fellow Danish director, who is Jewish. Her film, “In a Better World,” received the 2011 Oscar for foreign language film.

Von Trier has been accused of saying anything for publicity and attention. Maybe it was the French wine? But I doubt it.

He is a comedian who takes his jokes too far; and he has been temporarily punished for it. The film was poorly reviewed by some, but others thought it would win the top prize. Perhaps his statement was a ploy to get additional buzz? Von Trier can assert that he grew up thinking his father was Jewish, but found out, as an adult, that his biological father was a German. But is that a reason to tell the Cannes audience that he is a Nazi? It is a lewd and ludicrous statement.

For the record, he said that there was a point in his life when he “really wanted to be a Jew, and then I found out that I was really a Nazi, because, you know, my family was German. Which also gave me some pleasure.” Von Trier then continued that “… I understand Hitler, but I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely. … He’s not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit. But come on, I’m not for the Second World War, and I’m not against Jews…I am very much for Jews. No, not too much, because Israel is a pain in the ass.”

Later, publicists for Von Trier stated that the director said “If I have hurt someone by the words I said at the press conference, I sincerely apologize. I am not anti-Semitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi.”

Von Trier told the BBC’s World Service that his comments were “thoughtless and stupid,” and that he is accustomed to speaking in a sarcastic way with his friends. What he meant to say was that for half his life, he thought he was Jewish since his father was Jewish, but as his mother was dying, she told him that Lars’ genetic father was German (her boss, her strong boss, who was not a weak Jew), and so therefore, Lars felt that he to change his mind and realize that he was genetically German, and on the “other side” in WW2. Then Von Trier reiterated that he could sympathize with Hitler in his bunker, feeling betrayed by his own country as the war ended. He also repeated that he admired Albert Speer, but as an architect and not as a war criminal. He added that the reaction at Cannes to his comments were driven by too much political correctness.

I doubt the Weinstein brothers are going to distribute this film (actually Magnolia Pictures has the U.S. distribution rights). Pity the plight of Shani Films, the distributor that acquired the rights to distribute Von Trier’s film in Israel.

The Matchmaker

But enough about Cannes. The real treat was not in France, but in Manhattan, where the nearly annual Israel Film Festival ran for ten days. Among my three favorite films were Avi Nesher’s THE MATCHMAKER. Well received at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival and nominated for seven Israeli film academy awards, THE MATCHMAKER is the story of a sixteen year old teen, Arik, who lives with his parents in Haifa in 1968. Based on his skill at lying, he gets a Summer job working for Yankele Bride, a matchmaker in Haifa’s low-rent district. Bride is a mysterious Holocaust survivor from Romania; his office is behind a movie theater that shows only love stories. It is run by a family of Romanian dwarfs — survivors of Mengele’s experiments. Bride teaches Arik about classic love, at a time when rock music and free love, represented by Tamara, his neighbor’s visiting American cousin, is infiltrating the neighborhood and the nation. Underlying the story is a sub-theme of how survivors of the Nazi genocide in Europe were seen as criminals and whores by some Israelis.

Teacher Irena

My other favorites were two other tearjerkers, documentaries: STRANGERS NO MORE and TEACHER IRENA.

STRANGERS NO MORE, the recipient of the 2011 U.S. Academy Award for Short Documentary, follows several students and teachers at the Bialik-Rogozin school in Tel Aviv, a school where many of the students are the children of non-Jewish guest workers and immigrants. TEACHER IRENA is a documentary that follows Irena and her 26 third-grade students in the Givat Gonen school in the Katamonim neighborhood of Jerusalem over one school year. Some of these students work after school to earn income. There are pupils who can barely read or write at the start of the year (so she stays late to tutor them), and there are those who steal food from school in order to have some at home (so she collects food from uneaten student and teacher meals for them). Irena, a widow and single mother from the Ukraine is extremely charismatic and has only one thing in her life – an enormous amount of love for the children and teaching. As she sits in the teachers’ lounge, the camera shows her isolation among colleagues. Her life is consumed by taking care of the kids. Their problems and those of their parents become her problems. It was the opening film at DocAviv in 2010.

Maybe if Lars von Trier had seen these three films, he would not be so glib with his jokes?

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  • Those allied industrialists, they
    sure enjoyed profiting from arms dealing to
    ‘that Hitler…’