A representative image from Europa (1991), probably the best of von Trier’s early efforts, which my fellow LvT fans and I screened Sunday night. It’s an example of von Trier’s experimentation with rear- and front-screen projection, in which images are densely layered on top of one another to disorienting and often clever effect. (von Trier also experiments with color and black-and-white throughout the film, at times shifting from one to the other within a single shot.) Europa is so heavily stylized that it becomes tempting to ignore the plot and to lose oneself in the images; like all of von Trier’s early films, it’s more successful as a stylistic exercise than as a piece of storytelling. That said, the film—which concerns Leo Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an idealistic American sleeping car conductor who becomes embroiled in the politics of postwar Germany—is considerably more engaging on a narrative level than The Element of Crime or Medea, both of which suffer from serious pacing issues.
Europa also remains von Trier’s most meta-cinematic film: its use of rear-screen projection techniques becomes a homage to classical Hollywood, its score quotes from Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo theme, and it variously borrows the conventions of film noir, Hitchcock, German Expressionism, and New German cinema. As I wrote several years ago when I first saw Europa, “it’s a film about nothing so much as the magic of cinematic illusion, the magic of light and shadow projected onto screens, and our willingness to lose ourselves in that light and shadow.” (Below: projected embraces in Vertigo, top, and Europa, bottom.)