I think I understand the man (Hitler),” (film director Lars) Von Trier said. “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 of course very much for Jews. No, not too much because Israel is a pain in the ass. But still, how can I get out of this sentence?
Lars Von Trier at a press conference for the Cannes Film Festival
And so, with the response to Lars Von Trier’s rambling faux-pas comments above, the popular outrage machine has created its most perfectly contorted, glisteningly absurd objet d’art yet in a product line with a long history of surreal prototypes. Von Trier’s comments have made headline news across the world, and I have seen a number of people on media websites and on Facebook claim that they will never watch another of his films. But nothing Von Trier says is, or should be construed as, offensive, either to Jews or to those who find the ideology and the ultimate results of Fascism to be among the foulest, most prominent stains on the very dirty cloth of human history. It takes someone very eager to be offended to find ways to interpret Von Trier’s statements as anything other than a sincere (though clumsily expressed) interest in understanding a personality and a part of history which, while horrific, evil and most of all tragic (as Von Trier, an artist who has made a career exploring the horrific, the evil and the tragic, clearly agrees) , are of great importance both as abstract intellectual curiosities, and as lessons in the development of human civilization.
His film The Idiots is not exactly premised on a PC theme. It is nevertheless one of the more interesting, uniquely exploratory films of the 1990s, and, together with others like Zentropa, Dogville, Breaking the Waves and Anti-Christ, contributes to an oeuvre that establishes Von Trier as one of a very small handful of film-makers who are extending and stretching the boundaries of our discourse about the human condition. It is true that Von Trier is an agent provocateur, an enfant terrible, and that he likes to shock – perhaps only for the sake of shocking – but it is also true that he almost always adds to and extends our perception of ourselves as humans and animals. Even if, as many of his critics claim, Von Trier’s output is pompous, irritatingly obtuse, manipulative and contrived, it is difficult to deny that his experiments in narrative cinema have consistently been profoundly original and have contributed to the development of the art form. He has, in my opinion, earned the right to be taken at his word when he states that he can understand what made Hitler tick.
I myself have long had a mild fascination with Hitler, mainly because I believe that, in stark contrast to Nazism, Teutonic intellectual culture, embodied in Kant and Einstein and Nietzsche and Beethoven and Mann (the list, of course, is very long), is one of the great achievements of human civilization. I have often pondered, though never thoroughly investigated, the relationship between the long legacy of German intellectualism (a continuity not only ruptured, but altogether shattered by that violent 15 year period) and the rise of Nazism which seems to me to be completely antithetical. German intellectualism grew out of some of the very best features of the human animal, while Nazism, of course, appealed to – and reflected – some of the very worst.
I now live in Germany, and in Berlin, where I live, buildings are often marked by small brass plates on the footpath which name former Jewish inhabitants, expelled from their homes by the Nazis. My building has three such plates, and it is not impossible that a victim of the holocaust once lived in the very flat in which I now live. It is not impossible, in other words, that I am, in some small way, a beneficiary of the holocaust without ever having to accept a portion of the communal guilt. I live in a city built on the wreckage of the devil’s lair, on the ruins of a certain hell, and yet it is one of the most civilized, wonderful cities on earth, and a direct descendant not only of Hitler’s Berlin, but also of that other paradisiac city, 1920s Berlin. Nazi Berlin was not razed to the ground, however, and pieces of Hitler’s city can be seen in unexpected places. Part of the façade of the Museum für Fotografie in Charlottenburg, for instance, consists of an elaborate patchwork of swastikas, so elaborate indeed that you have to strain to see them. Nevertheless, they are there, piercing the landscape of an indifferent suburbia, like jagged stalagmites of now-cooled magma.
The echoes of the Third Reich are not only borne in silent stone by lifeless old buildings, in my day to day life, I can actually see, or perhaps I only imagine I can see, traits of German culture, that, amplified to distortion by mass hunger and humiliation, led to the rise of Nazism. These traits aren’t in themselves evil, nor even a little bit naughty, they are simply habits, characteristics and practices, aspects of German culture which, like all cultures, is a system of tribal generalisations and generalising pedagogical principles which turns animals into human beings. This statement may elicit a response in you very similar to the response to Von Trier’s ‘distasteful’ comments above: “You can’t say that”! But perhaps you can, and perhaps you should. This kind of censorship inhibits real, honest debate and implies that we, as a society, are not mature enough to openly, frankly and honestly discuss our darker side.
A relatively recent German film, Der Untergang (Downfall), featuring Bruno Ganz, was praised for its “sympathetic” portrait of Hitler, for its attempt to “understand” Hitler, to bring us close to him in a way that no previous film had done. It is an interesting film without doubt, but it brings us no closer to understanding what made Hitler, or the German people who voted for him, do what they did. Perhaps the best possible response to this latest wave of fabricated outrage would be for Von Trier himself to make a film exploring Hitler, the monster and the man. Great portraits and great storytellers can cause us to experience characters and events not only objectively, but in a pseudo-subjective manner. They cause us, in other words, to sympathise with characters, even with monsters, and to find within ourselves the seeds of those very same monsters. The idea that one cannot sympathise with Hitler implies that Hitler is a monster beyond humanity, and I find this absolute objectification a much greater threat than an open and frank discussion of a man who ultimately functioned in much the same way as you and I do. All of us share something with Hitler, and to objectify him is to fail to address our own potential for evil on a grand, or on a minor scale. Moreover, such an objectification lets Hitler off the hook by turning him into an incomprehensible monster rather than the failed human being that he ultimately was.
The education in relation to Nazism of German children since the second world war has interested me greatly since I emigrated here, but I still don’t know much about it. I have had only a few clumsy, probably tipsy conversations about the issue because it feels taboo. Even if it isn’t taboo, it is, for Germans at least, a boring topic of conversation, and one best avoided. Still, Nazism remains an issue in Germany and there are very real groups of Nazis active throughout Germany (as well as much of the rest of Europe), even though, as far as I have gleaned, German children are thoroughly indoctrinated to comprehensively and automatically reject Nazism in all its disguises.
It seems to me that anti-Nazism is not simply a principle that should be learned by rote. Turning Nazism into an absolute – perhaps the absolute – political taboo only turns one of the great lessons of human history into a lesson which we cannot teach, and from which our children cannot learn. Similarly, if we fail to sympathise with the other great villains of the 20th Century – Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot – if we fail to understand the way these ideologues saw themselves, likely as agents of good, contributing to a greater cause even while they ordered, orchestrated and oversaw the murders of millions, we risk falling into the very same traps ourselves. Are our wars so just? Are we really on the right side of history? I believe we are, but unless we put ourselves on the same level as Stalin and Pol Pot and ultimately Hitler by recognising that they, like us, were human beings, until we sympathise with them and interrogate our own ideological motivations, we have no grounds for the assumption that we are the good guys and they are the bad.