My summer with Lars: "Europa" (1991)

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.  

Like The Element of Crime
and Epidemic, with which it makes up vT’s so-called “Europe trilogy,” Europa conjures up a Expressionistic vision of postwar Europe as a monochromatic waste land criss-crossed with railway lines and barbed wire.  The image of the train comes to stand for the violence of modern Europe; in centering on the ominously powerful Zentropa rail company, von Trier makes a nightmare out of industrialization and bureaucracy, both of which are exaggerated here to Kafkaesque effect.  The train to which Leo is assigned to work is a towering, steaming, churning mechanical monster.  Inside, it’s presided over by Leo’s martinet uncle (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard).  Outside, it’s managed by the shadowy Max Hartmann (Jørgen Reenberg), a former Nazi.  The train is also a living memorial to the masses of Jews it delivered to the death camps: in one startling sequence, Leo passes down the train corridor from the sleeping car carrying middle-class Germans to a cattle car filled with emaciated Jewish prisoners.  (Cf. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah [1985], in which the train becomes emblematic of modernity and the insidious uses to which it has been put.)  Europa engages with, and re-imagines, the trauma of the Holocaust even more explicitly than the earlier films of the trilogy, perhaps due to von Trier’s discovery in 1989 that his biological father was German and not Jewish, as he had been lead to believe.  (Twenty years later, he’s apparently still “working through” the shock of this news, as his controversial comments at Cannes last year indicate.) 

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.)   

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