This year at Cannes, fest veteran Lars von Trier picked a hell of a way to became a household name. In the days following the notorious Cannes Film Festival Melancholia press conference during which the Danish writer-director offended just about everybody (except the Iranian culture minister) by calling himself a Nazi, he apologized repeatedly for his “stupid, idiotic” comments that led to his banishment from the festival and insisted, “I am not a Nazi.”
He held court with the media in the quiet haven of the lovely hotel Le Mas Candille in Mougins, outside of Cannes, far from the madding crowd. I was literally his last interview before he went off to have dinner with Kirsten Dunst to try and repair the damage he had done to their relationship. The next day, she accepted the best actress Palme d’Or, thanking the festival for allowing Melancholia to stay in competition, and afterwards said that she should not have been punished for von Trier’s “inappropriate” comments (video below, with trailer).
The complete transcript of my flip cam interview with von Trier, which covers the movie–originally developed for Penelope Cruz– as well as his comments and the Trier family scandal that led to them and his problems with Danish filmmakers Susanne Bier and Nicolas Winding Refn, plus two video clips, is also below. Von Trier starts things off, not atypically, by insulting Harvey Weinstein. The film opens in Denmark May 26; von Trier doesn’t fly, so any U.S. press he’ll do to accompany the film’s fall release by Magnolia will be via satellite, phone or Skype.
Melancholia starts off with a stunning prologue introducing the soaring strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde that will punctuate the movie, which shows a lavish castle wedding destroyed by a bride’s plunge into depression, followed by how she and her family deal with a planet hurtling toward a possible collision with Earth. Melancholia might have had a shot at the Palme d’Or won by The Tree of Life had it not been overshadowed by von Trier’s misbehavior. (More details on the film and a sampling of reviews are here.)
AT: Here in Mougins it is very quiet.
LVT: Yes, I used to stay at the Du Cap in Cap d’Antibes, which also has a beautiful park, but this is peaceful, I don’t have to be stared at by what’s his name, the big guy, Harvey Weinstein. I met him, and he said, “We represented your film once,” and I said, “You mean destroyed.”
AT: Which film?
LVT: Europa. That was never taken off the shelf. Then he was a little mad. Since then, every time we stayed out there, we would be sitting next to each other eating breakfast without a word. For some strange reason I don’t think the last days’ incidents would have made this much better.
AT: With all the media coverage of your disastrous Cannes press conference, your movie Melancholia has been completely overshadowed.
LVT: I have almost forgotten the movie.
AT: Your last film Antichrist had an extraordinary opening slow-motion sequence, and you went much farther with this one. How did it come into being?
LVT: My first idea was to have some images during the film that were fixed in monumental slow motion that could kind of mirror a scene, or be there as another element through the story, so they were originally thought as something that would be in the film in the right place. Then I slid into Wagner.
AT: Why Wagner?
LVT: It’s an old love. I read about it, and it seems that it’s a major work in German Romanticism, especially since it’s about being purified through death. Yes, that’s how the Germans are, and the Danes for that matter! Then the film suddenly became very romantic and it had to have an overture. So there we used the prelude from Tristan and Isolde. This is one-third of the prelude.
AT: Then we have all the references: the paintings, the Lady of Shallot (pictured). You were shooting in slow-motion, what did you do with the digital photography?
LVT: All these shots are made from many many layers, what you do now very easily in the computer. One shot where she’s in the background and the boy is doing something with a knife, was made from 30 different plates. It sounds complicated but it’s not, you take each tree, and you put one lamp or two, to light that tree, and do the next one, and when you put it together, it gets this larger-than-life feeling because you don’t know where the lights come from because that is taken away in the computer, and you can really play with the picture that way.
AT: In one shot you see the electricity going up and coming out of Dunst’s hands?
LVT: All these things are from the research. If a planet of this size would come there would be a lot of electric storms and this could happen.
AT: It seems there are all these films with apocalyptic feelings in the air, that you are capturing, in the zeitgeist.
LVT: But it’s a little bit by chance because my motive was the melancholia. And then somewhere in the story of this melancholic person, she seems to call the planet Melancholia to come and swallow her up.
AT: The wedding goes to hell —Festen on steroids–and when Stellan Skarsgard and Charlotte Rampling as her parents behave badly, she goes down very fast.
LVT: She’s had this melancholia before, as we hear, and she’s clinging to the idea that if she forces normality on herself that would save her–by getting married, by having a child. So she can fall a long way, we start her quite high. But already from the start they are two hours late; that’s not a good sign.
AT: The image of the lengthy stretch limo that can’t make the curve, where did that come from?
LVT: That was just something I always thought about because it’s something you see in American films all the time, they must have special roads that can allow them to move. I thought it was also a little symbolic of how great she wanted the wedding to be: it should be a very long car, then the circumstances of the reality get in the way.
AT: She runs away in a fabulous wedding gown to this meticulous golf course. The setting is very Marienbad. Did you think of that?
LVT: Yes, but that came mostly from the castle that we found, that it had these Marienbad views. What I thought was interesting was when they did Last Year at Marienbad, they were painting the right shadows on the ground. But here we have two shadows, because of the two planets. Yeah, everything is stolen, that’s how it is.
AT: The movie was originally supposed to star Penelope Cruz.
LVT: Exactly. My task was to write a film for her. It’s good to have a task, and she asked me if she could be in a film. I said, ‘I don’t know, I like you very much as an actor, let me think about it, if I can find something.’ And we discussed a lot and had a lot of contact, and I came up with, what I could give her was Melancholia. The word Melancholia and Penelope together I thought I could use to create a film.
AT: But she didn’t want to do it?
LVT: This is a little unclear. No, I think she wanted, because compared to the film before, Antichrist, she was getting off relatively easy.
AT: There was some nudity.
LVT: But it was not so hard. I think she wanted to do it, but then she was suddenly in this Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s happened to me before this, these big actresses think that ‘ok he can just wait for me,’ which of course I could. But my problem, compared to other directors, is that I can’t work on more than one thing at a time. And that means that I should wait three quarters of a year doing nothing. So I chose to try something else.
AT: Kirsten came through.
LVT: I think so.
AT: Is she mad at you now?
LVT: Kirsten? I hope not, I am going to have dinner with her. Because I was naughty at the press conference? Yeah, it was probably harder on her than anyone else.
AT: It was a great performance.
LVT: I was talking about the press conference, that was not such a great performance! No, she’s probably a little afraid of situations like that. I can understand that. It was completely stupid, completely stupid, but I am not a Nazi.
AT: What is the real story, what your mother told you?
LVT: The real story, and that’s where all the Nazi nonsense came from, was that Trier is a Jewish name, and a very big Jewish family.
AT: You added the von.
LVT: I added the von, maybe to get away from that, but that was first of all because it was forbidden for me to do it in the film school. You know if something is forbidden it’s kind of attractive to me. But it was also Von Stroheim and Von Sternberg, they added it also, because they came from Germany, and they said, ‘how do we do it in Hollywood?’ and of course we put a von in there, and they were suddenly noblemen, which was complete nonsense, they were not at all. And I like crooks somehow. I like the idea of that, so I put that in. But I took it very seriously that I was from a Jewish family.
AT: Because your father, you thought, was Jewish.
LVT: I know that the thing is it should come from the mother’s side, which is a very clever idea, of course, as we know, but I still took it very seriously, and I went to the concentration camps, blah blah, I was very Jewish.
AT: Did you celebrate Shabbat?
LVT: No, because my family was, as I found out later, not considered to be a fine Jewish family because they didn’t go to the synogogue, they were very much atheistic, and my father was very much against Israel, but he was very Jewish. But people can be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic, of course. This was very important to me. Then my mother died and on her deathbed she told me that my father was not my biological father, which is very common I believe, and probably has happened in royal houses anywhere where the name is important. And then I said this is in a stupid way because I was feeling good and relaxed.
AT: You were cheerful because you knew they liked your movie, the press actually applauded.
LVT: No, I didn’t know that. OK, that’s good. No, I just felt relaxed, then I have this stupid unprofessional thing that I need to entertain a little.
AT: We actually expect you to, it’s a tradition.
LVT: This is the last one of these I’ll do at Cannes. Because I get carried away. Then I say that I found out I was not a Jew but a Nazi, which meant I was on the other side of the fence. It was not nice to say, especially to the Germans. That’s ridiculous and stupid. It was kind of the Danish way of being idiotic. And I regret that. I don’t think I was really anti-Semitic, because that would be extremely stupid. All my four children have Jewish names, I take it very seriously.
AT: And aren’t your children friends with Susanne Bier’s?
LVT: Yes. But that’s quite another story. I have problems with Susanne Bier and she has problems with me, we went to school together, and we always had these problems.
AT: This all seems to be blowing up inside your Danish film community.
LVT: She’s Danish. Yeah, OK. We have these differences. Maybe it has to do with, some people think she is very important to our company that I am co-owner of, Zentropa, that has given her privileges. Fuck that.
AT: You said that to the son of your editor, Nicolas Winding Refn.
LVT: I am very fond of Nicolas. He’s a nice guy.
AT: His film Drive did well last night.
LVT: Good. No, I like him very much. I’m sure what he said about me was what he meant but I can’t stop loving him. I worked with his father on almost all my films and I’m very good friends of his mother’s and I don’t know what he meant that I’ve been harmful to his family, that was a little strange, but I would kiss him any day.
AT: With Anti-Christ, you were pulling yourself out of depression, as you made it, and this film feels as if you were out of it, had come to another place.
LVT: That is what I’m not so proud of, that it was too easy to do.
AT: It feels like it was easy, like it was like butter. Why is that bad?
LVT: That’s a very good question! I think it has to do with the Protestantism of my country even though I’m not religious. It’s like you have a great view, if you crawl there with your nails and see the view, or you go there in your car, stop the car, and get out, see the view. That’s something different, even though it’s the same thing.
AT: Any word from Martin Scorsese on The Five Obstructions?
LVT: No, I haven’t heard anything from him. I’m a little worried that he should be frightened by all this nonsense that I don’t want to say any more that I regret. The only thing that I have decided is that I don’t want to do these press conferences. Because if I had said ‘I’m a Nazi,’ while we were talking, you would say to me, “what the fuck do you say? What do you mean by that?’ Then we would discuss it and there might come some sense. That doesn’t happen.
AT: What did you feel at that moment as you were doing it, you said ‘how do I get out of this sentence?’ Was your heart beating? Did you know that you were in trouble?
LVT: No, I didn’t know that I was in that serious trouble that I later came to be. It seems it has very much to do with where we are. Of course, in America there would be trouble also.
AT: France has certain rules?
LVT: They have rules and certain historical issues with Jews that are not so good. Which yeah, so but then again it can’t be forbidden to mention Hitler, for Chrissake, especially not at a festival. That’s called freedom of speech.
AT: You said that Thierry Fremaux and Gilles Jacob were on your side. You still feel that?
LVT: I expect them to be, they are very dear to me. I haven’t talked to them about it, I just said, ‘do whatever you think is necessary for the festival.’ I haven’t talked to them about it, haven’t talk to them directly, I said to them through my people, ‘do what is necessary, throw the film out, it’s fine.’
AT: They were talking about cutting the film off. Fremaux told me he and Jacob fought against it.
LVT: That was a good idea, because that would have given them an artistic problem, because let’s talk about some other film that was politically incorrect, but was a brilliant film. Should that go in competition, should it not, should you choose the films by the chance that this idiot would say something stupid at a press conference? It’s an interesting question, if you have a film festival.
AT: I agree. It’s about art.
LVY: It is. That’s why I said to them ‘do whatever you need to do that gives you the less trouble.’
AT: The ban may be just for this year. Would you submit your films again?
LVT: I don’t know if I’m allowed to. So far I am persona non grata, I’ve been told. The words are funny, and something a rebel like me can treasure. I’m not proud of the circumstances of how it happened, not at all. I said a thousand times that I would not hurt anybody, that was not the idea. 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.
AT: So Thierry Fremaux indicated to me, my sense was that he’d like to see this not be more than just this year. There’s hope for the future. You could come back.
LVT: If I come back to Cannes, or to any other festival, I won’t make press conferences. That’s what I learned. It’s so much better to talk to directly to someone. It becomes very formal, like I’m making a statement. I don’t want to make a statement, my film is my statement.
AT: You and Terry Malick. He didn’t do it either.
LVT: I was told early on that I had to make this press conference. But I could show up and talk one at a time. It doesn’t necessarily have to be. The same people that can communicate with the world in a good way with the right films, it’s two different talents. One is to talk to the world in the right way, which you do when you talk at a press conference. I’m not good at that. So I’d rather talk through my films.
Von Trier interview, part one:
Dunst reacts to winning her Palme d’Or for Melancholia, saying that she should not have been punished for what von Trier did, which was “inappropriate and idiotic,” adding, “he paid for it”:
[Photo of Lars von Trier and Kirsten Dunst by Brian Brooks, indieWIRE.]