Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.
We’ve been digging into the early films of Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier the last few weeks, and this week’s movie represents one of the first real attempts at departing from his early work into something bigger than the quasi-student films he had been producing before his fateful turn on last week’s made-for-TV adaptation of Medea. In this case, von Trier returned to writing with long-time collaborator Niels Vorsel to create a final piece in what would come to be called the Europa Trilogy.
That’s something of a misnomer, as the three films in the set (The Element of Crime, Epidemic, and Europa) don’t really share any actual characters or plot. It’s an after-the-fact labeling of the one thing these movies do have in common: a deeply subjective, not-quite-real look at the fall of European civilization in the 20th century. It’s a tenuous link to be sure, but it marks the beginning of a sort of formalism that von Trier would start slotting all of his movies into (many of his later movies are grouped in more conscious trilogies, which we’ll address when we get to them).
In the meantime, we have a movie to tackle, and boy is it a doozy.
Trying to neatly classify Europa is a fool’s errand. It’s a mishmash of cultural allusions to a century of European cinema, part love letter and part bitter condemnation, a movie so dense that I’ve watched most of it twice and I’m still fairly certain I can’t begin to sum up the film in a way that would make sense for anyone who hadn’t seen the movie. If that sounds like a warning, then maybe that’s okay. Normally I don’t subscribe to the idea that people need to be prepared to engage with ‘difficult’ movies, but there are always exceptions like Europa. Here there be dragons.
The movie begins with an off screen narrator-as-hypnotist (Max von Sydow, who might as well be the European classical arthouse voice of god himself) lulling us into a dream just like the opening of von Trier’s first film The Element of Crime, counting backwards from ten, even as we watch the rush of rail in black and white. That voice brings us to the magical nightmare of 1945 Germany, still recovering from the horrors of World War II, infested with occupying American forces as it tries to put back the pieces of both a shattered country and a forever-tarnished national identity.
Into this world of constant nighttime rushes a train, upon which we meet Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), a young idealistic American who came to Germany after the war to try to find himself in this new, unusual frontier. He has an uncle (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard, a wickedly jovial troll of a man we’ll be talking about at length next week) who works for the railroads, who will get him a job as a sleeping car conductor on the trains that shuffle people back to the cities they fled during the war, rail reuniting families and dropping children off in bombed out wastelands. Leopold is mostly ignorant of all this, a wide-eyed immigrant coming from an American home front that was all gung-ho propaganda and post-war victory celebration. He comes with the ridiculous idea that he can somehow save the Germans, that he can (in his words) ‘show some kindness’ and that that will be enough.
Needless to say he is deep in over his head, thrust into a situation where he’s hobnobbing with industry contacts who are busy scrambling to prove to the lingering American forces that they were never Nazi sympathizers. It’s a theater of politics, with people taking loyalty oaths and conducting interviews about their wartime practices, but everyone (outside of Leopold, who remains mostly oblivious) knows the truth: these people of course worked with the Nazis. They were the infrastructure before the war, during it, and after. If You don’t own rail or freight companies during wartime and not have some dealings with the country’s government. And if it goes badly for you? You run like hell to save your ass, but nobody’s fooling anyone.
Leopold’s uncle puts him in contact with Zentropa railway executive Lawrence Hartmann, who takes him under his wing. Here he meets Lawrence’s daughter Katharina (Barbara Sukowa), a femme fatale who he quickly falls for, but who has ties to the pro-Nazi terrorist group the Werewolves. Leopold’s torn between the scrutiny of his nationality and job, and his love for the increasingly interested Katharina, as he drifts through this nightmare of plots and intrigue that begin to crop up in the situation around him as tensions begin to rise between the German factions the longer the occupation goes on.
That seems like a fairly conventional explanation for a movie that’s anything but conventional. I started out by describing Europa as a nightmare, and I continue to think that’s the perfect explanation for the world that von Trier meticulously constructs. Filmed mostly in black and white, with a heavy use of rear projection, Europa feels like it fell out of the mid-40s setting it takes place in, a movie that almost relentlessly latches onto the old Hollywood aesthetic and only rarely lets go. When it does, however, it’s for it’s more inventive reasons: compositing visions onto one another like the oldest silent shorts would experiment with, playing with scale and perspective in a way more in keeping with modern cameras and tones (including an amazing scene of Leopold and Katharina having sex on a table-top landscape for a model train, their love literally crushing the world they live in).
But it also has an incredible use of color, used with a flourish that at time underlines scenes and in others seems almost whim. Characters in a two-shot will step from black and white into color, various items will bleed color into the black and white world, and sometimes the color will just bloom in moments of emotion, the sudden thawing of the image on the screen. It’s incredible work, especially considering it was all done pre-digitally, with an array of tricks (including a scene or two that even look colorized by hand after the fact, the work’s so delicate) that ground it in its own insane alternate vision of 1945 both in life and on film. In many ways, it’s like the anithesis of a movie like The Good German: creating a credible sense of old movies is easy, building it only to deliberately pull back the curtain and subvert it is far more interesting.
And all of it is in service of a story that dances on the fine line between solemnity and von Trier’s eternal mockery of the sacred and forbidden—in this case, the sobering horrors of the second World War. The Germany he paints is heartbreaking in its savagery, a place that has become a hell on Earth. Either people were visited by the actual horrors and destruction of war, or they escaped only to find everything they knew brushed away, replaced with a deep cultural guilt for the injustices they could not stop or even potentially enabled. This is a Germany (and a Europe) that is struggling to remember its humanity after losing it, a slumbering giant trying to awake from a dream and finding it impossible to fully escape.
This is represented in the opposing views of Leopold and Katharina. Leopold wanders through trains helping people and worrying about promotion, Katharina tries to point out that the trains he walks through not too long ago held people being herded to concentration camps to suffer and die. Katharina believes that the whole country has teetered past the brink, a culture that is all entirely guilty, criminals all trying to get away with acting innocent. And given how hostile everyone is (including American soldiers) towards Leopold, maybe she has a point. As the one real innocent, he is the one contrasting speck in this miasma.
That’s not to say that the entire movie continues on with this grimness. Von Trier never seems content to rest until he’s turned seriousness into a profane sort of gleeful torment, and here he pulls that off with aplomb. Leopold blunders to a point that would be comedy in any other movie, and the dream setting allows von Trier’s flourishes to bring beauty to the horrifying. Von Trier himself shows up, even, as a Jewish man who exonerates Max Hartmann for money, driving him so mad with guilt that he kills himself in one of the most striking sequences. And as the movie goes on, it drifts into the comfort of noir, with an assassination plot and a ticking bomb, burrowing deep into the conventional Hitchcockian narrative, the sort of Hollywood finish that Leopold seems to willingly thrust himself in with his need to reduce everything to the fairy tale world he perceives himself to be living in.
It’s this strange melding of film references and historical mediation that makes Europa a movie of caveats. I think it’s beautiful and more than a little ridiculous, at the same time it’s affecting in a way I wasn’t expecting. But it’s a movie that wears its high barrier of entry on its sleeve, more daring people to approach it than welcoming people into its strange world. I think this is easily the best of the four movies we’ve covered so far, but I don’t know how I would ever recommend it to anyone. It’s a labyrinth, both of cinema and philosophy, and even on the other side I’m not sure if I actually found my way or not.
I really like the trailer for this movie, which offers up a lot of the visual flourishes of the movie, including its allusions to silent film. I wish it wasn’t randomly tinting the black and white with a blue wash the actual film doesn’t have, but it’s still by far the best von Trier trailer we’ve seen to date.