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CANNES, France (Reuters) - Danish director Lars Von Trier apologized on Wednesday for joking about Nazis and Hitler to reporters at the Cannes film festival, remarks that shocked organizers and caused offence among Jewish groups.
The maverick film maker is at the cinema showcase with competition entry "Melancholia," a grand cinematic statement on life, death and the universe which wowed a packed audience at a press screening in the giant Grand Theater Lumiere.
But his provocative comments, which appeared to have been made in jest, overshadowed the triumph some journalists and critics felt his movie to be and may harm his chances of winning the Palme d'Or in Cannes for best picture.
"You can't award him a Palme d'Or, politically," said Jason Solomons, chairman of the Film Critics' Circle in London who is in Cannes for the May 11-22 festival.
"People might say it should go to the art and not the artist, but these days I don't think that's true or right," he told Reuters after hearing Von Trier's remarks.
Festival organizers demanded an explanation from the 55-year-old film maker, and Von Trier issued the following statement: "If I have hurt someone this morning 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."
His comments dominated press coverage from Cannes on Wednesday. The Hollywood Reporter remarked that the director had "pulled a Mel Gibson," in reference to the latter's anti-Semitic slurs in 2006 that badly harmed his reputation.
The American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants said in a statement: "Holocaust survivors condemn Von Trier's repulsive comments as an insensitive exploitation of victims' suffering for self-serving promotion and publicity.
"We cannot give a review of his film, but as a person Von Trier is a moral failure."
At the press conference for "Melancholia," the director who won the Palme d'Or in 2000 was asked to expand on comments he made in an interview about his interest in the Nazi aesthetic.
"I thought I was a Jew for a long time and was very happy being a Jew," said Von Trier, who, according to biographies was told by his mother on her death bed that the father he had known all his life was not his real father.
"Then later on came (Jewish and Danish director) Susanne Bier and then suddenly I wasn't so happy about being a Jew. No, that was a joke, sorry.
"But it turned out I was not a Jew but even if I'd been a Jew I would be kind of a second rate Jew because there is kind of a hierarchy in the Jewish population.
"But anyway, I really wanted to be a Jew and then I found out I was really a Nazi, you know, because my family was German ... which also gave me some pleasure."
"Melancholia" star Kirsten Dunst looked uncomfortable as he made his remarks, which took reporters by surprise.
"What can I say? I understand Hitler. I think he did some wrong things, yes absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end.
"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. 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?"
He expressed admiration for Nazi architect Albert Speer before ending another rambling sentence with: "OK, I'm a Nazi."
One reporter asked whether he could imagine making a movie that was even bigger in scale than "Melancholia."
"Yeah, that's what we Nazis ... we have a tendency to try to do things on a greater scale. Yeah, maybe you could persuade me." He also muttered "the final solution with journalists."
As the press conference broke up, Dunst, who was no longer smiling, could be heard saying: "Oh Lars, that was intense."
Reporting by Mike Collett-White; editing by Philippa Fletcher