Judge Daryl Loomis's life is the definition of style over substance.
When I count "ten," you will be in Europa…
For one of the directors who started the unwatchably Spartan Dogme95 film movement, Lars Von Trier (The Idiots) certainly didn't start out that way. His first films, a trilogy that begins with The Element of Crime and follows with Epidemic and this film, Europa (called Zentropa in America to avert confusion with Angieszka Holland's Europa, Europa), are hyper-stylized dystopian delights that fly in the face of his later work (or, rather, the other way around). Europa, the most technically marvelous of the three, has remained unavailable on DVD in the States until now. Finally, from Criterion, we can enjoy the profound stylistic endeavor of Europa; often short on story but always long in vision.
Facts of the Case
To a Germany decimated by WWII, Leo Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr, The Big Blue), an idealistic young American, travels to "make a difference" and help the disenfranchised people of his ancestors' home. His uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård, The Kingdom) gets him a job with the Zentropa train company that he works for as a sleeping car conductor. Shining shoes and taking orders may be great for some people, but Kessler really isn't making a difference at this job. That's when he meets the daughter of the company owner. Beautiful and intriguing, Katherine Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa, Lola) is the woman of his dreams, and she may also have ties to the Werewolves, a group of insurgents bent on removing American occupation of Germany who are convinced that Leo has the key to their mission.
Railroad ties roll vertically across the screen in beautiful black and white. We're on a train and our narrator counts down, explaining between counts about entering Europa, who we are, why we've come. As he counts "ten," we are Max Kessler and we have come to Germany because we are idealists, and want to help an embittered country. This Germany is a violent, dystopian wasteland, however, with a landscape marked by flaming barrels and lifeless bodies dangling from poles. We aren't welcome in this Germany, yet we stay. We'll do anything to help, including confining ourselves inside a tiny train car for a seeming eternity of shining shoes for our drunken, trollish uncle. Before the shade is forced down in front of us, we look out the window to see the desperate and dying, those we've come to help, with no way to do anything. Our self-supposed kindness is hamstrung serving the rich German elite on this luxury line. Just as we start to think we'll go mad here, we meet a woman who promises excitement and deliverance from the Zentropa line and into the real Europa. We should have been more careful what we wished for.
In his essay in the booklet for this release, Howard Hampton begins, "Seduction by locomotion." There may not be a better way to describe Europa. The virtue and the curse of the film at the same time, Europa is about seduction and, at its core, is itself a seduction. From the opening narration by Max von Sydow (Strange Brew), his deep baritone hypnotizing the viewer, we are drawn into its lurid web of derivative plot elements, culled from sources ranging from Kafka to Bergman. In having the narrator speak directly to the audience and placing the greater majority of the action from the perspective of the main character, Trier forces us into Kessler's shoes. We are not omniscient viewers over this story; the serpentine plot unfolds for Kessler as it does for us. We discover what he discovers and nothing more, leaving any attempt to connect all the dots in the story futile. These elements make for an immersive and disorienting cinematic experience that falls in nicely with the stylistic elements of the film but, like any good seduction, the experience leaves the viewer feeling somewhat hollow. Because it is a pastiche of so many elements from the history of film, Europa is filled with fantastic set pieces, but the parts to the story are never meant to fit together. There are some feeble themes about partisanship and the dangers of neutral complacency, but these themes fall into the hodge-podge of a lurid story, the main utility of which is as an accessible conduit to the main thrust of Europa as a marvelous artistic and technical endeavor.
Like the story, much of the technical and artistic parts of the film are formed as a pastiche of cinema past. Unlike the story, however, where the melodrama inhibits any real emotional weight, Trier uses cinematic history to create a triumph of artifice. The film is most famous for the extreme use of rear-projection. Like the technique in vogue today with films like Sin City and 300, nearly all of Europa is shot in front of screens and rarely did the actors interact when performing the scene. The use of projection lends a feeling of detachment and surrealism to the film, but Trier merely begins there. Using multitudes of layers of celluloid, sometimes as many as seven layers at a time, Trier creates both strange mixed-media collages as well as scenes of dramatic coherence. At one point, Leo sits in a chair while words fly across the screen. It hammers viewers over the head with its sense of the avant-garde. Another point, however, Leo and Catherine are having a difficult conversation. Leo stands in the foreground in color while Catherine is in black and white in the back. She walks off screen, then returns in the foreground, now in color, talking to Leo directly. Leo leaves the screen them, only to return again, in the background, no longer in color. With no cuts in the scene, it is amazing how seamlessly he accomplishes this feat but, at the same time, the scene's style and emotion come straight from David Lean. Blood drips red on the black and white image. Pieces of a scene are highlighted in color to draw the eye to a particular place or object. He uses the technique in countless ways, and these are the things that make Europa magically hypnotic.
The release of Europa on Criterion continues their long trend of brilliant transfers and extras. The anamorphic image is mixed in quality, but this is to be expected, especially in those scenes where Trier uses multiple layers: true clarity is impossible. There are times when the picture is pristine, but the constantly changing style keeps this from happening very often. The stereo sound is very good; dialogue is clear and the score, lifted almost directly from Bernard Hermann's score for Vertigo sounds fantastically menacing. For extras, Criterion has supplied as much as you'd ever want to know about the film, with featurettes and interviews that run the gambit of style, production, story, etc.
Europa is far from a perfect film. It is beautifully shot and the picture of an accessible art film, but the shallowness of the story will leave many viewers feeling hollow. It is easy, however, to fall in love with this film coming, if for no other reason, from a love of cinema. Lars Von Trier's vision took a drastic turn after this but, though his later films may be more true to himself, Europa is Trier's finest achievement.
Not guilty. When I count "one," you'll stop reading this review.
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