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The Cannes Film Festival moved quickly to defuse a controversy after helmer Lars von Trier described himself as a Nazi at a Wednesday morning press conference for his Palme d’Or contender “Melancholia” (review, page 6).

Von Trier’s remarks came in response to a question about his German roots. He said he “sympathized with Hitler, yes, a little bit” and referred to himself as “a Nazi.”

His comments were largely taken by the press as a provocative jest that, however typical of von Trier, was in disastrously bad taste.

Cannes fest execs issued a statement in the early evening announcing that the fest was disturbed by von Trier’s statements and had asked for an explanation. “The director states that he let himself be egged on by a provocation. He presents his apology. The festival acknowledges this and is passing on Lars von Trier’s apology.”

Von Trier added, “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.”

The fest said it’s “adamant that it will never allow the event to become a forum for pronouncements on such subjects.”

News came on the day that Magnolia Pictures announced it had taken North American rights to Martin Scorsese and von Trier’s collaborative project, “The Five Obstructions: Trier vs. Scorsese.” The doc, a follow-up to a film von Trier made with Jorgen Leth, will track the two helmers as von Trier presents Scorsese a series of cinematic challenges.