Friday, May 1, 2020

Europa (aka Zentropa) [The Criterion Collection]

"On the count of 10 you will be dead."

Before taking his vow of chastity with Dogme 95, Lars von Trier´s filmmaking could reasonably be described as ostentatious. Depending on your tastes, this ostentation could also be described as either audacious or pretentious or, if you prefer, a combination of the two.

Variously labeled as an enfant terrible, eccentric, neurotic, provocateur and control freak, von Trier (who added the "von" to his name to sound more distinguished) made a big splash with his first feature "The Element of Crime" (1984) which received a technical prize at Cannes. It was an appropriate reward for the extremely stylized, visually daring but emotionally hollow exercise in shock and genre bending. His second film "Epidemic" managed somehow to be almost as showy despite wearing its low-budget trappings with pride. It was reflexive, shocking (there´s a theme in his work), and a complete failure both commercially and critically though von Trier, in typically obstinate fashion, claims it to be his favorite of all his films.

After his underrated TV film adaptation of "Medea" (1988), von Trier produced his most visually audacious (or pretentious) film yet. "Europa" (aka "Zentropa", 1991) was belatedly dubbed the third film in his "Europa" trilogy (with "Element" and "Epidemic"), and provides an art-house twist on post-war Germany´s "rubble films." In the immediate aftermath of the war (Oct 1945), Germany is in the throes of both an economic and an identity crisis. Allied forces, especially Americans, rule the disgraced country with an iron fist, leaving German citizens on their own to carve out a niche in the New World Order. Rebuilding is a bitch when the Allies keep requisitioning all your equipment.

American Leopold Kessler (played by the German-French Jean-Marc Barr) arrives in this war-torn world to take a job as a sleeping car conductor for Zentropa Railways. His officious uncle (Swedish Ernst-Hugo Järegård) has secured him the job and watches over his nephew like a hawk, assuring, as the German stereotype goes, that orders are followed at all times. Leo, perhaps due to his privileged status as an American, soon finds himself in great demand both by the American Colonel Harris (Euro-fetish icon Eddie Constantine) and the Hartmann family, owners of Zentropa.

Leo is soon drawn into an affair with Katharina Hartmann (former Fassbinder star Barbara Sukowa). Love and work would seem to be enough to keep him busy, but trouble lurks in the background in the form of the Werewolves, Nazi partisans (or "terrorists" in the parlance of our times) who have not yet accepted surrender, who attempt to recruit Leo, using Katharina as leverage.

That´s a partial plot summary. Now forget all about it. "Europa" is a film about style, not content, and you have certainly never seen a film quite like it. Some theorists claim that film induces a hypnagogic state. Von Trier tries to make this literal, beginning his film with a shot of rolling railroad tracks and the chilling-soothing sound of Max von Sydow as the narrator lulling the audience (and Leo, as the audience´s proxy) into a trance: "On the count of ten… you will be in Europa."

Every stylistic choice in the film is designed to disorient and alienate. Characters switch from German to English, sometimes from sentence to sentence, and for no apparent reason. Von Trier mixes black-and-white and color, often in the same scene. Appropriating a classic Hollywood device, he makes frequent use of rear projection to create multiple layers within a single shot. Black-and-white characters in the background address characters filmed in color in the foreground, and then switch places all in one take. Double (and triple, etc.) exposures build images in the way that animators drawing by hand used to layer cels together. Most of the location shooting was done in Poland without any of the lead actors who were then filmed and added in back in the studio in Denmark. Planning was so meticulous that the storyboarding process alone took the better part of a year.

All of the performances are just slightly off kilter, stilted and just plain weird, as if everyone is stumbling around in a post-war stupor. This is only appropriate for a film set partly on a sleeping car and entirely in a sleepwalking country, but is also partly a product of the need for such carefully controlled production. There is no room for improvisation when your actors need to work in synch with complex background shots filmed months ago and hundreds of miles away. The most lively performance, the only real comic relief in the film, comes from the splendid Ernst-Hugo Järegård who would later play the greatest TV doctor of all time, the bitter Swede Stig Helmer in Von Trier´s acidic hospital horror-comedy "The Kingdom."