Europa: The Reinvention of Cinema
by Erix Antoine
The key thing to note about Europa is that Lars Von Trier has very explicitly stated how he intended it to be a masterpiece.
This was a conscious and very deliberate attempt to make a movie specifically engineered to impress, be embraced by a massive audience and win countless awards. When its premiere at Cannes was greeted with two technical awards and the honorary jury prize (but not the much coveted Palm d’or), Lars Von Trier thanked “the midget” (jury president Roman Polanski), gave that jury the finger, and stormed off the stage.
But if Europa failed to reach Von Trier’s very specific ultimate goal of impressing the Cannes artistic elite, it still succeeds in many other ways. Not the least of which is as a supreme expression of the artist’s spectacular arrogance.
And yet, it is absolutely a breathtaking work of cinematic art. It is very much, and in almost every way, a masterpiece; and probably continues to stand as Von Trier’s strangest, most carefully crafted and absolutely impressive film. Would that the jury at Cannes had seen it his way, because the truth is he could check every other item off his list of goals. It is exactly the movie Lars Von Trier wanted to make from beginning to end. So perhaps that arrogance is not entirely out of place.
It is here that we can at last put the entire trilogy into perspective and, not only does Europa achieve a greater meaning, but the films that preceded it do as well. It combines the fussy attention to detail and craft of The Element of Crime with the playful cheekiness of Epidemic, while encapsulating the overarching theme of Europe as a dystopia engulfed by the scars of its past. And, in it, Von Trier at last surrenders to the intoxicating magic of cinema.
From the start of the trilogy, we see a concern with hypnotism. The Element of Crime begins with its protagonist being hypnotized. We see hypnotism as a form of therapy, a key to unlock the mysteries of the human psyche. Epidemic ends with a sequence that suggests hypnotism as the ultimate form of cathartic release. In both those films, hypnotism is employed as a plot device. But, in Europa it is the viewer who is hypnotized. Train tracks seem to uncoil before us, as if they were a roll of film, while Max Von Sydow’s eerily soothing, yet commanding voice tells us to “Relax…as you sink deeper and deeper…into Europa.” The film that follows this unfolds like a fever dream, implying that Von Sydow’s mesmerism worked and we have been fully sucked into this world.
But what Von Trier means to state here is that cinema is, by definition, a form of hypnosis. We are always meant to surrender to the will of the filmmakers, as they manipulate our emotions and seemingly guide our every impulse and reaction to the story being told.
The Europe Trilogy is given that label because the films within it are ostensibly concerned with the continent and how it has come to recover from its traumas, or deal with them. In The Element of Crime, the hero returns to an oppressive, post apocalyptic Europe – ravaged by war and societal breakdown – now a mess of dingy hallways and strangely claustrophobic open spaces. In Epidemic, Lars and Niels tell the story of an idealistic hero trying to save a world unable (or unwilling?) to be saved. In Europa, a massive German train stands in as a representation of the continent, while the naive American hero is manipulated into helping the forces from within destroy each other – and themselves.
But there is another fact about The Europe Trilogy that is often ignored in discussions. Mainly – that the entire trilogy is actually about filmmaking. In discussing The Element of Crime, I mentioned that it was not all that different from the debut films of most young, hungry filmmakers. The truth is, the entire trilogy really stands as Von Trier’s “debut film,” as it explores the cinematic art in both form and content; and finally deconstructs it completely. The first film in the trilogy deals with the elements, in particular elements of genre. The second film details the intricacies of creation – of putting those elements together into a story. The third film, then, is all about expression. How these different elements can all be used and manipulated to create a piece of living, breathing visual art.
As in the previous films, the plot of Europa is almost incidental. Though it is probably the most clear cut and accessible of the films in that respect (again, very deliberately so…Von Trier was consciously trying to win awards, remember?). It achieves this accessibility by means of a rather straight forward cloak & dagger storyline, which wouldn’t have been out of place in one of the programmers made by, say, Warner Brothers during the post war period the film observes.
The story concerns a young American named Leo (Jean-Marc Barr), recently hired by his German uncle to work for the Zentropa railroad company as a sleeping car operator. The aforementioned railroad is run by Hartmann – a former Nazi, whom the allied forces (and shady American operatives, headed by Alphaville’s Eddie Constantine) are now attempting to whitewash in order to have him serve their business needs. Leo falls in love with Hartmann’s daughter Katharina (Barbara Sukowa), not knowing that she is deeply involved in the conspiracy – as a “Werewolf” – one of a band of Nazi sympathizers, who bear that name, and refuse to go quietly into the night.
As the story unfolds, Leo is drawn into this web of intrigue and deception; and discovers only too late that there’s no way out. Much like in The Element of Crime, these are standard noir tropes – employed very clearly and deliberately.
But, again, the plot is incidental and really an excuse for post war symbolism and somewhat cynical observations about the current state of Europe (or at least “current” as of 1991, though many might see all this as prescient in any case). Even the wall coming down could not entirely do away with political malaise; and may have had the effect of bubbling up old conflicts.
What Von Trier is really concerned about with Europa is not the story, but cinematic technique. It is a mixed media experiment which manipulates the image in stunning ways – some that still seem revolutionary even today.
Although the bulk of the film, which takes place on the moving Zentropa train, was shot at the Nordisk film studios in Denmark, the filmmakers spent several weeks in Poland – shooting plates for what would be backdrops. Those plates were then projected on giant screens at the studio, which the actors could perform in front of. It’s actually an extremely old cinematic technique, dating back to the 1930s and famously employed by classic directors, such as Hitchcock, throughout their illustrious careers. But it’s the way Von Trier uses the rear projection technique that ultimately seems revolutionary.
He does not restrict it to backdrops.
There is a wonderful scene I want to highlight, for example, which is in black & white (the rear projection) and color (the foreground action). In it: Leo has a conversation with Katharina. At first, Katharina is in the rear projection. She is in black and white. Then, she steps into the foreground. The two figures are now in color. Then, Leo walks into the rear projection and goes into black and white as the conversation ends.
It’s a stunning effect, accomplished entirely on the set without the aid of any digital trickery. Other scenes… Like the murder of a politician, who gets shot in the face – his gigantic head filling up the background, while the assassin fires a bullet from the foreground. Or a man committing suicide in a bathtub, the only color being the blood in the water, as it overflows from the tub and into the next room. Or the most striking shot of the film – which is Leo sitting pensively in the fetal position, while a giant billboard-sized image of Katharina looms above him.
It’s absolute mastery of the visual medium used to convey ideas; and cements the central concept of the film as being dreamlike. There was already a certain fussiness and visual deliberateness to The Element of Crime. That tendency is refined here and the result is explosive, making the film feel perhaps more transcendental than it would otherwise. Von Trier uses cinematic technique to lend his narrative thematic weight and importance.
Throughout these essays, I’ve been making allusions and comparisons to Tarantino, P.T. Anderson and Spike Jonze. These filmmakers are commercially successful, yet vanguard, American filmmakers who have parlayed their own obsessions with the medium into genuine expressions of their art. Von Trier is often pegged as an “outcast,” a man existing outside the traditional spectrum who might not actually like cinema, much less the people in it. As if he is more interested in communicating his ideas and using film as a means to an end, rather than expressing any real passion for the art form itself.
The Europe Trilogy serves to prove otherwise. And Europa is the maximum expression of that, because it is a movie very much in fetishistic love with the art form that gave birth to it. If Von Trier’s influence and passions were only hinted at with the previous films, they are in full display here; and they reveal him as a young, hungry artist every bit as indebted to his influences as the other filmmakers I’ve mentioned.
The affinity for American film noir, already on display in The Element of Crime, is even more evident here. His respect for Hitchcock, for example, is repeatedly evoked whenever the film’s musical score recalls the swirling symphonies of Vertigo. He doesn’t restrict the display of sourcing to American film. Having always maintained that his idol is Carl Theodor Dreyer, he finally secures the services of Dreyer’s cinematographer Henning Bendtsen. Finally, he casts legendary figures of classic European cinema in key roles.
Really, isn’t casting Eddie Constantine and Ernst-Hugo Jaregard akin to Tarantino featuring people like David Carradine and Robert Forster in his films? I think it is.
Von Trier is as enamored of cinema as any of his contemporaries and the people who followed in his wake. The Europe Trilogy demonstrates that, while the specifically operatic machinations of Europa confirm it.
I would like to close this out by focusing for a moment on his personal touch. The two previous films had it (Epidemic in particular, of course) and this one is no different.
In Europa, Von Trier once again appears. This time in a small cameo as a young Jew (once again, “the Schmuck of Ages” – as he calls him). It’s a pivotal role, as it is this Jew’s false testimony that exonerates the character of Hartmann from any Nazi dealings. After bearing false witness, the Jew storms out of the room proclaiming that he’s “done” and “will never play this role again.”
Is that Von Trier talking? Or the character.
And what does he mean?
It is true that Von Trier (outside of some narration here and there – or documentary footage), would never “act” in a film again (not his own nor anyone else’s).
Some critics have posited this has to do with his own complicated ties to Judaism. There might be some truth to that. After all, Lars Von Trier was raised as half-Jewish (even though his parents were atheists, the Jewish aspects were an important part of his cultural identity). It was his own mother who, on her deathbed – around the time Europa was being made – revealed how the man Von Trier actually believed to be his father was not. His biological father was actually a prominent businessman (with no Jewish lineage) who wanted nothing to do with him.
But what I think is that, by making this bold statement, he is not referring to himself as an actor so much as a director. The perception of Von Trier – that of being a completely analytical filmmaker who shuns the conventions of film in a traditional sense, and doesn’t care about making films as “entertainment” or storytelling… This is first erroneous (as future essays will serve to prove) but also, it is based on the work he did subsequently.
What I mean to say is, he actually spent the energy of his first three films exposing everything he had to say about cinema… His view of narrative and technique, as well as the very art of film creation itself.
He had nothing more to say on that subject, so he allowed his Schmuck of Ages to close the book.