Europa (Zentropa) (1991)

by | Dec 11, 2008 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Europa (Zentropa) (1991)

Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Eddie Constantine, Max von Sydow
Studio: Zentropa Ent./The Criterion Collection 454 (2 DVD set) [Release Date: Dec. 9, 08]
Video: 2.35:1 anamorphic/enhanced for 16:9, color & black & white
Audio: English & German DD stereo
Subtitles: English (improved translation)
Extras: Commentary track (in Danish) with director & producer; “The Making of Europa” documentary; Original theatrical trailer; “Trier’s Element” documentary interview incl. footage from the set, Cannes premiere and press conference; “Anecdotes from Europa” 2005 doc. featuring interviews with Jean-Marc Barr and others involved in the production; Interview with the cinematographer, composer, costume designer, film school teacher, actors and production manager; 2005 Conversation with von Trier on his “Europa Trilogy;” “Europa – The Faecal Location,” a 2005 short film by Gislason; Illustrated booklet with new essay by critic Howard Hampton
Feature Length: 107 minutes
Rating: ****(*)

Von Trier is the Oscar-nominated Danish director known for his strict Dogme 95 approach to films. This one didn’t follow many of his odd dictums; for example, it has a compelling, often very romantic-period orchestral music score instead of sticking to his dogma that the only music used has to be created in front of the camera as part of the story – such as someone sitting down to play the piano.  Europa was called Zentropa in its North American release due to release of another film at the time titled Europa Europa. It is the third in a von Trier trilogy which all have some things in common.

One of the these things is the director’s interest in hypnotism.  Europa opens with an oft-repeated shot of railroad tracks passing under a train at night, while the hypnotic voice of Max von Sydow is heard directing the actions of the lead actor, the character Kessler. (von Sydow came by his “von” legitimately, unlike von Trier.)  The story is very surreal, and von Trier creates a weird nightmarish effect supported by his unusual treatment of the visuals. The plot concerns the pacifist Kessler, who comes from a U.S. family with a German background (he speaks German fluently). He takes a job in Frankfurt as a sleeping car conductor in late 1945, just after the end of the war in Europe. He is innocent and idealistic, determined to “show some kindness” to the German people after the horrible war. Everybody he runs into dumps on him and in the end he becomes not only destructive of other’s lives but also his own. He is seduced by the daughter of the owner of the Zentropa railway system on which he works, and she is associated with the “werewolves” – a pro-Nazi terrorist group. The daughter is played by Barbara Sukowa, who will be familiar to viewers who sat thru the lengthy Berlin Alexanderplatz series. Von Trier does an Alfred Hitchcock bit by appearing in his film as a Jewish concentration camp survivor.

I’ve been fascinated by all movies which mix black & white and color since seeing Wizard of Oz as a child. Von Trier creates a very effective Kafka-like and Brecht-influenced world with his occasional use of color mixed into the primarily B&W images.  For example, in one scene Kessler has been ordered by one of the terrorists to stop the train on a bridge. In an otherwise entirely B&W shot he reaches for the emergency stop handle in the foreground of a corner of the shot – it is bright red. Even more involved are scenes with one actor close to the camera in B&W while another actor speaking to them is seen in the background in color.  In some shots they change position as the dialog progresses, and exchange their colorations.  A scene involving blood seemed to pay homage to Kubrick’s The Shining. One of the featurettes shows Von Trier filming some of the B&W background shots with extras in Poland; the main actors not present at all. (The extras were nearby factory workers and he had been filming them all day; it was 2 AM and they had to be back at the factory at 6 AM. They threatened to leave until he doubled their pay.)

The film’s hi-def transfer is first rate, as always with Criterion.  I don’t see how Blu-ray would improve it very much. The stereo soundtrack is also high quality and those extras I took time to check out were all interesting viewing. Von Trier is certainly an original.  I don’t think the hypnotism bit and voice-over with Max von Sydow worked very well, and Eddie Constantine as the U.S. Army general, who is also demanding of Kessler, was a terrible actor – sounding like von Trier gave him his lines a moment before the camera rolled. But otherwise this is a fascinating journey into a very dark time and place.

 – John Sunier

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