Philip Hensher: Is evil a no-go area for the imagination?

This is a film-maker drawn to extreme states. For him to say that he depicts them without engaging sympathetically with them would be hypocrisy

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Lars von Trier is a film director known for his eccentricity and alarming way with words.

There is an apocryphal story that, towards the end of the filming of Dogville, Nicole Kidman, completely broken down by Von Trier's methods, asked him: "Lars – just tell me this. What do I have to do to make you like me?" According to the much-loved anecdote, Von Trier is supposed to have said: "Fuck me, and give me all your money."

All the same, his comments at a press conference to launch his new film, Melancholia, at the Cannes Film Festival this week, surpassed the wildest hopes of long-term Von Trier-watchers. He was asked a question – I am afraid it is beyond human wit to reconstruct the question that could have preceded this reply: "No, I really wanted to be a Jew, and then I found out that I was really a Nazi. You know, because my family was German – Hartmann – which also gave me some pleasure. So I'm kind of a – yep – so I – what can I say – I understand Hitler. But I think he did some wrong things, yes absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end" – Kirsten Dunst to his side mutters "this is terrible" – "there will come a point at the end of this, there will come, I will, I am just saying that I understand, I think I understand the man. He's not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him and I sympathise with him a little bit. Not in the – come on, I'm not for the Second World War, and I'm not against Jews, Susanne Bier – no, not even Susanne Bier, that was also a joke, 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?"

A fascinating three minutes. Probably not the best idea to bring up the Jewish-Danish film director Susanne Bier in this context, nor to mention how much you dislike the state of Israel after expressing sympathy for Hitler. The Cannes festival immediately declared Von Trier persona non grata, and a spokesman for the Danish film institute said, very truly, that "there's nothing new in the fact that great artists make stupid remarks".

The highlights of Von Trier's remarks, extracted, are totally indefensible – "I was really a Nazi...I understand Hitler...I sympathise with him." But to listen to Von Trier's rambling and chaotic comments is to listen to somebody trying to make an important point. Is Von Trier an anti-Semite? Is he an admirer of the Nazis? No: I don't believe that he is.

Compare another statement made by a public figure recently, which also led to the speaker's disgrace. John Galliano, the fashion designer, was filmed in a Paris café. A woman asked him, perhaps after being shocked by a racial remark, "Are you blond with blue eyes?" He replies: "No, but I love Hitler and people like you would be dead. Your mothers, your forefathers would all be fucking gassed."

No ambiguity or thought there. Galliano's comments are pure hate speech.

But when Von Trier says that first he thought he was a Jew, and then he discovered he was a German, and therefore Nazi, he is making the same kind of comment about identity and labelling that his films constantly make.

And the word "sympathise", which led Von Trier into so much trouble, is unlikely to have been used by him in an emotional, empathetic sense. Is it not clear that he was trying to make a point about imaginative sympathy – the point that he found it possible to imagine, up to a point, what it was like inside Hitler's head?

The jocular asides about the state of Israel and Susanne Bier are shocking and disgraceful. But Von Trier's central point – the point of which he says "there will come a point at the end of this, there will come", without ever reaching it – is that the creative artist may think his way into the most extreme and terrible human situations. There are some minds that the power of sympathy can reach.

Reading about serial killers who kill out of pure loneliness (Dennis Nielsen), sexual rapacity (Fred West), or a wish to exert power (Harold Shipman), we might recognise some normal emotional states in ourselves, engorged to a terrible degree.

Some minds, I think, are beyond the power of imagination for most of us. I can't imagine what it was like to be Hitler, or Mao, or Henry VIII, or, actually, Mozart. But there are classes of people who can imagine something of all of that. When Bruno Ganz played Hitler in Oliver Hirschbiegel's film Downfall, he clearly imagined, sympathised with, understood Hitler to a certain degree. A writer who treats some of these figures as characters – Hitler in George Steiner's The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., or in Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui – must enter into the madman's imaginative world.

For Von Trier to say, "I understand, I think I understand the man" is not at all the same as to say "I admire and defend Hitler". Von Trier is drawn, as a film-maker, to extreme states – feigned and performed madness, the death-cell, the end of the world, enactments of self-mutilation. For him to state that, as a film-maker, he depicts such states without being able to imagine or engage sympathetically with them would be the grossest hypocrisy.

Press conferences call for hypocrisy, however, and Von Trier's mashing together of disgraceful opinions, presented as jokes, and, just about perceptible, a serious point about the power of the imagination is going to destroy his reputation for the foreseeable future. Most of us can't think our way inside Hitler's head. It is easier than you might suppose, however, to imagine what it is like to be Lars von Trier.

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