Director : Lars von Trier
Screenplay : Lars von Trier & Niels Vørsel
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1991
Stars : Jean-Marc Barr (Leopold Kessler), Barbara Sukowa (Katharina Hartmann), Udo Kier (Lawrence Hartmann), Ernst-Hugo Järegård (Uncle Kessler), Erik Mørk (Pater), Jørgen Reenberg (Max Hartmann), Henning Jensen (Siggy), Eddie Constantine (Colonel Harris), Max von Sydow (Narrator)
There is no denying that Lars von Trier’s Europa, his third feature film and the concluding entry in a loose symbolic trilogy about the end of Europe, is a visual masterpiece. Intricately designed and bold in concept, it mixes noir-ish black-and-white with jarring instances of color that look like they were shot with the old Technicolor two-strip film. The effect is slightly surreal, especially in the way there seems to be no inherent meaning to the use of color other than to draw attention to something in the frame. Even more crucial to the film’s visual sense is von Trier’s heavy reliance on front and rear projection to create a deeply layered image that subtly and not so subtly emphasizes the distinctions between foreground and background. Sometimes we’re not even aware that the foreground characters were shot independently of the background and then optically married in postproduction, but at other times von Trier uses the technologies (which are virtually as old as the cinema itself) to manipulate the environment, suddenly replacing a realistic background with something distorted or exaggerated.
For all its technical and aesthetic brilliance, though, Europa remains a rather cold and distant film, one that is easy to appreciate but difficult to love. The gliding camera movements and bravura mise-en-scene certainly flood your retinas and entice your senses, but the images are remote, never making the leap from head to heart. Perhaps it is because von Trier spent so much time working out the complex technical issues that he neglected to invest much into the film’s emotional underpinnings, or perhaps it is because the film is in various ways meant to be read as a metaphor, which each character and location playing a symbolic role related to postwar Europe. Or perhaps it is essentially the nature of the material, with its mixture of noir despair and Kafkaesque absurdity, that constantly keeps you at arm’s length.
Europa opens with a sequence in which the legendary Max von Sydow literally hypnotizes us into the world of the film, which takes place in Germany in 1945, a few months after the end of World War II. Aside from the presence of hypnosis, the link between Europa and von Trier’s previous “Europe trilogy” films, The Element of Crime (1984) and Epidemic (1989), is the basic story, which involves a naïve idealist entering a hostile foreign land and finding some form of failure (von Trier’s compulsive animosity toward idealists has only grown throughout his career). In this case, the character is Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), a young American who comes to Germany (which his father fled some time before the war) to take a job as a sleeping-car conductor on the recently revived Zentropa Railway. The job has been procured for him by his Uncle Kessler (Ernst-Hugo Järegård), a gruff and ugly man who is constantly berating Leopold and reminding him of his various duties.
The story begins to develop the broad parameters of an espionage thriller when Leopold meets Katharina (Barbara Sukowa), the seductive daughter of Zentropa’s owner, Max Hartmann (Jørgen Reenberg). Leopold is drawn into the Hartmann family, which also includes Katharina’s troubled brother Lawrence (Udo Kier), where he finds conflict and turmoil that in various ways represents the travails of postwar Germany. Max was a Nazi sympathizer who allowed his railroad to be used to transport Jews to the concentration camps, while Katharina may or may not be involved with Werewolves, a pro-Nazi terrorist organization dedicated to sabotage as a means of disrupting the Allied occupation. And constantly circling around the margins is the impenetrably calm Colonel Harris (Eddie Constantine), an American officer who allows Max to escape punishment for his war crimes because his railroad is needed to reestablish stability in the country. (One could easily imagine Europa, played straight, as a wartime Hitchcock thriller, especially when the Bernard Herrmann-esque score is pounding on the soundtrack.)
While the plot elements of Europa, however intricately interwoven, don’t last long in the mind, the visuals have a powerful resilience--dreamlike images of a child assassin shooting down a recently installed mayor, dozens of women dragging a locomotive out of a holding warehouse, blood spreading through a sink full of water from a man’s cut wrists, and a lengthy, agonizing sequence of drowning that replicates as closely as I can imagine possible what the awful experience must be like. Working with three cinematographers--Henning Bendtsen (a 40-year veteran of the Danish film industry who shot two of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s last films), Edward Klosinski (a favorite of Krzysztof Kieslowski), and Jean-Paul Meuriss (a relative newcomer who would go on to work with Luc Besson)--von Trier has crafted a visually striking film that is somehow both extremely realistic (much of it was shot at various locations in Poland, including an incredibly bombed-out cathedral) and completely detached. The tone of the film is dark and somber, but with a sense of growing absurdity that reaches its fever pitch when Leopold is running frantically about the train trying to install a time-bomb while a pair of pedantic examiners attempt to test his knowledge of sleeping-coach protocol.
In this regard, Europa is nothing if not intensely unique, even as it reassembles bits and pieces from recognizable films and genres using well-worn techniques and technologies. So much of it is so familiar, but from a distorted perspective, as if looking at a well-known painting through a prism; everything is simultaneously new and old. Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller would essentially take this visual approach to its zenith using CGI in their graphic novel adaptation Sin City (2005), but von Trier should be justly appreciated for his vision so many years earlier. In interviews, von Trier has claimed that he was trying to make a “commercial” film, but what he really made was something truly visionary--messy and in some ways incomprehensible, but visionary nonetheless.
|Europa Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set|
|Audio||English/German Dolby Digital 3.0 Surround|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||December 9, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|For their new high-definition transfer of Europa, Criterion went back to the source and scanned the original negative, which is particularly important given that virtually every shot in the film is an optical and is thus at best a copy of a copy. This results in the film having a slightly soft appearance, although it is sharp enough to make out plenty of detail in the often astounding visuals. The black-and-white image has good contrast and a nice range of grayscale, while the moments of color are appropriately desaturated and slightly unnatural. The MTI Digital Restoration System has cleaned up the image nicely, with only a few signs of dirt or other artifacts. The stereo soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the 35mm LT/RT optical track and digitally restored, sounds quite good, especially in the musical score and the hypnotic sound of the train moving.|
|Many of the supplements on Criterion’s two-disc edition of Europa have been ported over from the Region 2 DVD released by Electric Parc in 2005. Chief among these is a screen-specific audio commentary by director Lars von Trier and producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen (it is in Danish with English subtitles). In addition to the commentary, the first disc contains an original theatrical trailer and “The Making of Europa,” a 40-minute documentary produced in 1991 about the film’s production. Despite the rather shoddy video quality (which is true of virtually all the supplements), the doc presents a fascinating journey from the elaborate process of storyboarding to the various stages of production, including behind-the-scenes footage on location and on the set and several interviews with von Trier. The second disc opens with “Triers Element,” another 1991 documentary about the film’s production, although this one dedicates significantly more time to an interview with von Trier, and it also includes footage from the production of Dimension, a film von Trier started shooting in 1991 and plans to work on for three decades. “Anecdotes From Europa, a 20-minute documentary from 2005, is exactly what it sounds like: amusing anecdotes about the film’s production told by film historian Peter Schepelern, actor Jean-Marc Barr, producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen, assistant director Tómas Gislason, co-writer Niels Vørsel, and prop master Peter Grant (the best involve Jensen illegally bringing guns into Poland for the shoot and bribing notoriously difficult actor Ernst-Hugo Järegård with Cuban cigars). Also from 2005 are a series of video interviews with cinematographer Henning Bendtsen, composer Joachim Holbek, costume designer Manon Rasmussen, film-school teacher Mogens Rukov, editor Tómas Gislason, producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen, art director Peter Grant, actor Michael Simpson, production manager Per Arman, and actor Ole Ernst. There is also another 43-minute interview with von Trier recorded in 2005 in which he speaks extensively about the “Europa Trilogy.” Lastly, there is a 10-minute featurette titled “Europa: The Faecal Location,” which features raw footage shot at the location where the crew stayed in Poland that was, shall we say, somewhat subpar (let’s just say there a lot of attention paid to the toilets, which don’t work as they should).|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Columbia Pictures and The Criterion Collection