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Von Trier's Cannes Controversy

May 22, 2011 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

Does art stand apart from the artist? What if the artist is Hitler?

The tragedy is they still don't get it.

The Cannes Film Festival had to make a decision. Danish director Lars von Trier, winner of the coveted Palme D’Or award for best picture in 2000 with "Dancer in the Dark" and a favorite this year to again take the prize with his latest film "Melancholia," caused quite a furor when he publicly made clear his positive feelings about Hitler.

At a press conference, Von Trier joked that he was a Nazi and that he sympathized with Adolf Hitler. "I think I understand the man. He's not what you would call a good guy but I understand much about him and I sympathize with him."

To their credit, the Board of Directors of the film festival condemned these comments and declared von Trier persona non-grata, an unprecedented gesture.

So what's the problem?

Having said that, the spokeswoman for the board added, as if stating a self understood afterthought, that of course Melancholia would still remain in competition despite its director’s expulsion.

The justification seems obvious to the board. There's no connection at all between art and the artist. Art stands on its own, beyond all moral considerations. Art transcends ethical judgments. Art must be respected, well… just because it is art.

And how better could we have summed up Nazi ideology.

As concentration camp inmates were marched to their death, fellow Jews were forced to play music to enhance the "beauty" of the moment. The orchestra at Auschwitz had a philosophical underpinning. The SS guard who snatched an infant from his mother's breast, splattered his brains against a wall and then calmly picked up his violin to enjoy the strains of Beethoven believed the two actions were compatible.

Nazi-ism justified the primacy of artistic over moral considerations.

Hitler had grandiose plans for preeminence in architecture, theater, music and art. He hoped that his Third Reich would epitomize aesthetic progress. For him and his fanatic cohorts art was divorced from heart. The most debased and perverted actions deserved to be glorified for their artistic creativity. Even the crematoria were for the Nazis magnificent demonstrations of human ingenuity, technological wizardry and functional artistry.

Romain Gary, in his "The Dance of Genghis Cohn,” eloquently describes the Germanic distortion of culture in these unforgettable words: "The ancient Simbas, a barbaric tribe of cannibals, consumed their victims. But modern-day Germans, heirs to millennia of human achievement, turned their victims into soap. This, this passion for cleanliness - that is civilization."

"If art is to be reckoned as one of the great values of life, it must teach men humility, tolerance, wisdom and magnanimity."

One thing Auschwitz teaches us is that cleanliness is not culture, and death camps are not to be praised for efficiency of design. Those who forced musicians to play as background to genocide left as their legacy the conviction that, unlike the insight of Keats, beauty need not be truth and truth need not be beauty.

We dare not agree with this distortion. Art represents the artist. Its sole justification, as Somerset Maugham so well put it, is that "If art is to be reckoned as one of the great values of life, it must teach men humility, tolerance, wisdom and magnanimity. The value of art is not beauty, but right action."

"As an ideal of Western civilization," Andre Maurois said, "Art is an effort to create, beside the real world, a more human world."

I do not think it was mere coincidence that the 1930s first saw the creation of "Life is a cabaret" decadence immediately prior to the decline of the moral fabric of German society. Decadent art opened the way to decadent society.

Art has the ability to move us, but just as we can be moved to angelic heights we can be inspired to join evil forces like those responsible for the mass murder of 6 million innocents.

That's why I find it ironic that the Cannes film Festival can acknowledge the horror of an artist's beliefs and still honor his creativity, when the message of the Holocaust ought to be that the two are inseparable and art without heart is impossible.

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