CANNES, France (Reuters) - The Cannes film festival expelled Danish director Lars Von Trier on Thursday for jokingly calling himself a Nazi and Hitler sympathizer, leaving the world's biggest cinema showcase in a state of shock.
The expulsion, the first in 64 years, followed a hastily convened meeting of its board of directors.
"Using the Cannes film festival to say such intolerable things in front of the media is to tarnish its image," said festival president Gilles Jacob.
"The festival had no choice but to react very strongly," he told a small group of reporters. He described the meeting as "tense" and said the decision to withdraw Von Trier's accreditation was not unanimous.
Von Trier told Reuters in a telephone interview that he was shocked by the decision, which he believed stemmed from the fact that his meaning had been misunderstood.
"I'm beyond the point of being disappointed, I am just very tired of the whole thing," the 55-year-old said. "It has come as quite a shock for me, I must say." He said politics and culture should be kept apart and found apologizing "a little distasteful" because it was easy and achieved nothing.
Asked if he would return to Cannes, Von Trier replied: "I don't know if I will be allowed in the Palais (festival center) again. Maybe Cannes has pushed me out to be more of a rebel."
Von Trier's comments on Wednesday angered Jewish groups and caused U.S. actress Kirsten Dunst to squirm with embarrassment beside him at a press conference, as he launched into a bizarre monologue about his Jewish and German heritage.
The famously provocative film maker, formerly a darling in Cannes who won the top Palme d'Or award in 2000, quickly apologized in a statement but it proved too little too late.
Jewish groups welcomed Cannes' decision to ban him.
"The only award that Lars Von Trier should receive is the Cannes Film Festival 'Bigot of the Year'," said Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
"Please spare us all a meaningless apology written for him by his publicists."
Among hundreds of moviegoers milling about in the Mediterranean sun outside the Grand Theater Lumiere, some questioned whether Von Trier had been fairly treated.
"I'm against the decision. Everyone here is on two hours' sleep and anyone can say something stupid at a press conference. He apologized and that was enough," said 20-something film maker Christophe Monsourian.
But Jason Solomons, chairman of the Film Critics' Circle in London who is in Cannes for the May 11-22 festival, said he supported the decision to throw Von Trier out.
"You can't really joke about the Holocaust, you have to take these issues seriously. I'm not offended on the level of being a Jew, I'm offended on the level of semiotics, not Semitics."
Von Trier's latest movie "Melancholia" is in competition in Cannes this year, and had been seen as a possible prize-winner before his remarks appeared to snuff out its chances.
The dark portrayal of a cosmic collision that ends all life stars Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who also appeared in the director's movie "Antichrist," which stunned Cannes in 2009 with its graphic sex and extreme violence.
According to festival director Thierry Fremaux, Dunst and other cast members asked Von Trier about his beliefs after the press conference and only agreed to walk up the red carpet for the premiere after he assured them he did not mean what he said.
During Wednesday's press conference, Von Trier joked that he was a Nazi and that he sympathized with Adolf Hitler.
"I think I understand the man (Hitler)," Von Trier said. "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?"
At the end of the conference he also muttered the phrase: "the final solution with journalists."
Editing by Mark Heinrich