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CANNES, France — Danish director Lars von Trier, an auteur provocateur known for his controversial films, apologized Wednesday after joking with reporters at the Cannes Film Festival that he was a Nazi and that he was glad he was not of Jewish heritage, as he once hoped he might be.

At a news conference for his new film “Melancholia,” starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg as sisters, he said that he at one point “really wanted to be a Jew, and then I found out that I was really a Nazi, because, you know, my family was German. Which also gave me some pleasure.”

He added: “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. ... 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 very much for Jews. No, not too much, because Israel is a pain in the” butt.

He also took a shot at fellow Danish director Susanne Bier, who is Jewish and whose movie “In a Better World” won the Oscar for foreign language film this year.

The remarks were an attempt at humor, but they were met with silence in the roomful of reporters.

The comments grew out of a question Von Trier was asked about his use of music by Wagner in a striking opening sequence of “Melancholia.” The longer he spoke, the deeper the hole got, and he seemed to realize it, as did Dunst and Gainsbourg, who were sitting next to him. Reaching an impasse in his monologue, he ended with “OK, I’m a Nazi.”

After festival organizers issued a statement saying they were “disturbed” by the comments, Von Trier’s publicity team replied with an apology attributed to the director. “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,” it said.

Two years ago, Von Trier got into a tussle with a reporter at a news conference in Cannes after the journalist questioned the tastefulness of his “Antichrist,” which featured several scenes of bloody castration.

A bit ironically, this latest flap comes as Von Trier is promoting a film far less provocative than “Antichrist.” “Melancholia” centers on a wedding and a dysfunctional family, and is set against the looming prospect of Earth’s end. The movie was generating buzz as a possible contender for Cannes’ top prize, the Palme d’Or, immediately after it screened. But Von Trier’s remarks seemed to cast that into serious doubt.

Von Trier did win the Palme for “Dancer in the Dark,” his divisive drama starring Bjork, in 2000.

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