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How not to apologize (I'm talking to you, Lars von Trier)

Lars von Trier, Cannes, Hitler, Jews, NaziCount on provocative Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier to kick up a controversy even when his movies don't. Steven Zeitchik reports on The Times' 24 Frames blog that Von Trier made a disastrous attempt at humor involving Nazis and Jews at this year's Cannes Film Festival. That's a high-wire-without-a-net subject for even a professional comedian, let alone a notoriously serious filmmaker speaking in a language that's not his first. 

I'll leave it to others to point out why it's not a good idea to express support for Adolf Hitler. ("He's not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit," Von Trier said, according to Zeitchik's account. He added, thankfully, "But come on, I'm not for the Second World War, and I'm not against Jews.") I'd just like to express my exasperation at Von Trier's apology.

Zeitchik reports that Von Trier's publicists issued the following statement, attributed to the filmmaker: “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." Note the strong use of the declarative -- "I am not anti-Semitic or racially prejudiced in any way, nor am I a Nazi." Compare that to the weak opening: "If I have hurt someone by the words I said...."

The "if" clause has become boilerplate language in the apologies issued -- not actually spoken, just issued -- by public figures. It's not an expression of contrition. It's a conditional "excuse me" to anyone who, in the minds of the non-apologizer, overreacts to his or her innocent actions. 

Such a construction is just another way of saying, "Get over it. Anyone who was offended by what I said is just too sensitive."

I'd like to suggest a new approach. It's probably less honest because, frankly, most of the people who "issue" these apologies do so only because their business people tell them to. Yet it would actually pass for an apology. Start by saying something that's the linguistic equivalent of "I messed up." Then point out that the action or words, on their face, were wrong, and why. Then say, "I know that some people were offended by this, and I'd like to apologize to them." Or something to that effect.

A good example of the wrong and right ways to apologize come from Kobe Bryant, whose anti-gay slur during a game last month was caught on cable TV. Bryant's first response fell into the category of arguing that no offense should have been taken. His second was more straightforward: "The comment that I made, even though it wasn't meant in the way it was perceived to be, is nonetheless wrong, so it's important to own that."

That admonition should inform everyone who unexpectedly finds himself or herself in need of a public act of contrition. Got that, Lars?

-- Jon Healey

Credit: Guillaume Horcajuelo / EPA

 

Comments () | Archives (21)

The comments to this entry are closed.

BABE RUTH

while he's at it, Von Trier should apologize for his grotesque films....

Shlomo

there is absolutely no excuse to even remotely try to justify or excuse anything Hitler ever did. He was a disgrace to human race - incarnation of pure evil in the body of a man. Equally, there is absolutely no excuse not to describe the current regime in Israel as a racist apartheid regime. Particularly the children of those affected by Hitler should admit that.

Dennis von

You are not being objective.

anonymous

This article takes the words completely out of context. The nazi comment was a joke. The Hitler comment was related to Hitler's personal struggle with his ideals conflicting with the reality, a basic human conflict, which anyone with a clear reflective mind can relate to, independent of Hitler's role in history. Moreover, reinforcing these taboos (Nazis and Hitler) is exactly what obscures these topics from deeper understanding. Outrage does not serve understanding.

Say

When you can formulate a complete apology in grammatically correct Danish (don't forget to use the proper tenses and genders!) for this hastily written column about your being suckered in to getting "offended" by a man who has spent his entire life doing nothing but offending pretty much everybody, then you will have earned the right to comment on Von Trier bad sense of humor.
Please remember that it was his Jewish father, Ulf Trier (who turned out not to be his bio-Dad, something Lars only learned in 1989 when his mother died) greatly shaped the filmmaker's sense of self.
His parents lived under Nazi occupation (which means Ulf probably had to either hide or escape to Sweden); did yours?
In the meantime, I am sure Von Trier thanks you for the free publicity.

Jane M


Artists, creators play with words, and they are never good PR experts. Von Trier, as many creators, writers etc. has a deep dark sense of humour, without realizing that his jokes make people feel creepy. Not everybody has the same cynical sense of humour. He spoke about Hitler as about a character hidden in his bunker, not about H. as a historical figure. I think that what he says can be ignored and we need to focus on the movie and von Trier's creations. These will remain over years in our memory, not his press conferences. Jane M.


OnMiller

This article is both well said and completely true. I'd add one more personal caveat. The apology should be both spoken (not written), and done so by the offender, not the agent or whoever cleans up his or her messes. A written quasi apology that's simply presented to the press is, to me, worse than no apology at all. It shows the persons actual arrogance and lack of any genuine contrition.

If you can't apologize directly, then don't bother to make any pretense. It insults us all.

me

Great publicity for him. He thanks all the media.

Nicolas

What is the evidence that he was joking? The New York Times reports his comments this way:

“I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out that I was really a Nazi,” he said, citing his family’s German past. “Which also gave me some pleasure.”

“I understand Hitler,” he then continued. “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 a little bit.”

I'm missing the wit, irony, or slapstick.

Cooper

Vor Triers words were ridiculous, much like a schizophrenics, and there is a relationship here between the two. First off, Lars von Trier like Hilter about as much as sea creatures enjoy plastic and nuclear bombs. Would von Trier like to see any humans rounded up and killed. Not ever. Does he imagine thousands of people being gassed to death? Absolutely, but those people talk about the best designer clothes, and drive only the best luxury cars and think women are weak, and talk about themselves until we're all numb. And he's only ever imagining this scenario! Not unlike a lot of people. Meaning, he hates press conferences and he loves to get a rise out of people so he could have been half asleep and he would have mumbled something about eating children for breakfast...off the cuff...because his brain says "shock them!"

JackBeNimble

Oh poor pitiful Lars found out his daddy was not who he thought. Parents lived through an occupation. He is not the only person to have endured such struggles. That is no justification to say and do anything you want. And if you do you will need to be able to handle the rebuttals that come your way. Yeah, the Danes of Denmark are really getting some great publicity thanks to the Cannes event. Between Lars von Trier and Mikkelsen being filmed soused in a French restaurant and seen leaving with a young girl who is not his wife.
Chip Shot.

JackBeNimble

Oh poor pitiful Lars found out his daddy was not who he thought. Parents lived through an occupation. He is not the only person to have endured such struggles. That is no justification to say and do anything you want. And if you do you will need to be able to handle the rebuttals that come your way. Yeah, the Danes of Denmark are really getting some great publicity thanks to the Cannes event. Between Lars von Trier and Mikkelsen being filmed soused in a French restaurant and seen leaving with a young girl who is not his wife.
Chip Shot.

JackBeNimble

Oh poor pitiful Lars found out his daddy was not who he thought. Parents lived through an occupation. He is not the only person to have endured such struggles. That is no justification to say and do anything you want. And if you do you will need to be able to handle the rebuttals that come your way. Yeah, the Danes of Denmark are really getting some great publicity thanks to the Cannes event. Between Lars von Trier and Mikkelsen being filmed soused in a French restaurant and seen leaving with a young girl who is not his wife.
Chip Shot.

anonymous

Well, Hitler was nervous that the Russians would do to Germany what they did to Ukraine (re: Lazar Kaganovich and Holodomor, among other things). Genocide is completely unacceptable, but somehow leaders back then found it acceptable to do. The fact that it still happens is what deserves our attention and resolve to end.

Zorobabel

The discussion of Hitler, his character, and the Nazis has become a cultural taboo. It may make things easier, more comfortable, or more convenient to simply say Hitler was pure evil and that everything he ever did was a blight to the human race. But, of course, that's not true, is it?

The truth is that many people around the world have a sense of admiration for Hitler. I have met Indonesians wearing Hitler t-shirts and Africans with swastika tattoos. They don't agree with his treatment of the Jews, but they respect and admire his 'spirit' and nationalism. They see fascism as a supremely efficient way of dealing with the problems facing their societies, which often have much in common with Weimar-era Germany. They are also probably attracted by Hitler's charisma and the symbols of the Third Reich.

The reemergence of the extreme right in Europe is worrying, and the understanding of Hitler as merely a caricature in broader society only perpetuates these problems.

franz kafka

I am so tired of people getting offended for jokes. Thumbs up Lars.

Dean Boswell

Just for the record I had not even hear about this guy until today. I saw the footage that this article talks about and can honestly say this guy is an idiot. He said “I always wanted to be a Jew, but found out I was a Nazi”. He then goes on how he understands Hitler because of it. If he apologizes to anyone it should be to Germans for implying that Nazi is a race and Germans are that race. Nazi was (and in some back woods places still is) a political party.

HistoryIsReal


It wasn't until I actually watched a video of Trier's entire response (s) that it became apparent that this man is a true anti-semite; his words are filled with absolute hatred. In addition, he is ignorant of history. It was eventually proven that Albert Speer was as guilty as anyone else in the Nazi regime. Did it ever occur to Trier that the Nazis would have considered himself a degenerate avant garde artist, and gassed and burned his corpse in a concentration camp along with Jews, Gypsies, gays, and any other group they deemed not proper? It will be interesting to see how Martin Scorsese responds to this. My guess is that after a career spent misrepresenting Italian-Americans for money, he will cheerfully proceed with his upcoming collaboration with a man who voices joyful enthusiasm for Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Is it too much to ask that we here in America boycott his films?

Scorsese

nadav

i just wonder what would happen if he would make a "funny" remark on islam
i dont think that losing job offers would be the things that will trouble him

nadav

humanizing hitler,"trying to understand him" seeing him as a tragic figure, seeing him "in context", comparing him with other rulers, are all neo nazis antisemitic trials to lower the suffering of the jews and clean the shame of europe. which of course will make it easy to blame israel as the "real villain"

Shlomo

he wasn't kicked out of Cannes for the Hitler comment. He was kicked out because he said "Israel is a pain in the ass"


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