A Film Rumination: Europa (released as Zentropa in the US), Lars von Trier, (1991)
June 2, 2010 § 2 Comments
Notable Awards received: Nominated for the Palm d’Or Cannes, Won Best Artistic Contribution Cannes, Won Jury Prize Cannes, Won Technical Grand Prize
For some reason despite my obsession with European cinema I’ve never felt compelled to watch the works of the Danish l’enfant terrible Lars von Trier (he gave the finger to the judges at Cannes when Europa failed to win the Palm d’Or). However, desperate to find something worthwhile to watch on netflix’s rather limited streamable selection of foreign films I discovered Europa. And, with Max von Sydow’s stunning introductory narration telling me to be seduced, I was seduced, but by what exactly? I’m still not exactly sure but I shall try desperately/earnestly to explain myself.
It is necessary to detach yourself from the Lars von Trier of Breaking the Waves, Dogville, and Manderlay. This film was made in his pre-Dogma film style.
… here’s a limited non-spoiler plot summary: An American pacifist named Leopold Kessler travels to post-WWII Germany to find a job. He joins his alcoholic uncle as a sleeping-car conductor for the mysterious Zentropa railways which crisscross Germany. Eventually he falls for the daughter, Katharina Hartmann, of the owner of Zentropa and becomes involved with a shadowy conspiracy against Germany’s occupiers.
And the viewer enters a the visually stunning nightmarish world of post-War Germany rendered brilliantly by Lars von Trier’s camera: characters interacting with back screen projections, heavy contrast black and white (think Welles’ The Third Man), highly selective use of color (think Tarkovsky’s Solyaris), and hallucinatory nighttime journeys through train stations, train cars, tunnels…
Lars von Trier deliberately deconstructs (reverently) American film-noir thrillers. I must admit that I was so entranced by the individual images of this sumptuous/disturbing feast that Lars von Trier’s apparent message became of secondary importance. Is this supposed to be an apologetic piece? Perhaps most importantly, does it have historical locality — i.e. directly an attack on the “idealistic” American occupation after the war? Or, is this a parable to be divorced from it’s historical locality?
Perhaps we should look at this film more explicitly as a reinterpretation of The Third Man more than simply as an homage. In Welles’ The Third Man an American author uncovers the corruption of another American in post-war Vienna. Here, an idealistic American discovers a group of Germans––completely desensitized by the constant death surrounding them during the war––who still “fight” for Germany despite the continued loss of human life. This group of Germans manipulate the American who does not understand the environment he’s entering. The Germans perpetuate destruction but their reasoning remains aloof yet somehow even dignified. What are we to make of this reinterpretation of the players in post-War Germany?
And it is here that words fail me. I was absorbed completely by the murky waters of von Trier’s Europa and I’m strangely satisfied by this unresolved murkiness.
Pretty pictures cast spells.
A truly remarkable experience. Its message, if it has one, remains strangely distant.
And so I implore you — Listen to Max von Sydow
“You will now listen to my voice. My voice will help you and guide you still deeper into Europa. Every time you hear my voice, with every word and every number, you will enter into a still deeper layer, open, relaxed and receptive. I shall now count from one to ten. On the count of ten, you will be in Europa. I say: one. And as your focus and attention are entirely on my voice, you will slowly begin to relax. Two, your hands and your fingers are getting warmer and heavier. Three, the warmth is spreading through your arms, to your shoulders and your neck. Four, your feet and your legs get heavier. Five, the warmth is spreading to the whole of your body. On six, I want you to go deeper. I say: six. And the whole of your relaxed body is slowly beginning to sink. Seven, you go deeper and deeper and deeper. Eight, on every breath you take, you go deeper. Nine, you are floating. On the mental count of ten, you will be in Europa. Be there at ten. I say: ten.”