(Reuters) – Danish director Lars Von Trier jokingly declared himself a Nazi at a press conference at the Cannes film festival on Wednesday, causing consternation among the assembled reporters and offense 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, threatened to overshadow 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.

The Hollywood Reporter remarked that the 55-year-old 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.”

Flanked at the news conference by his two leading stars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst, Von Trier made several references to making a long porn film featuring the actresses.

“I UNDERSTAND HITLER”

As the conference drew to a close, the director, who won the Palme d’Or in 2000 with “Dancer in the Dark,” was asked to expand on comments he made in a recent interview regarding 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.”
Dunst looked uncomfortable as he continued his remarks, which clearly 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.”