Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 9/9/05 w/ Additional Edits, Revisions, & New Content.
Directed by Lars von Trier and written by von Trier and Niels Vorsel, Europa chronicles von Trier's tale of the disintegration of European society. Straying away from the futuristic, post-noir style of Element of Crime and the bleak presentation of Epidemic, Europa goes back in time to 1945 Germany, shortly after the second World War. The story revolves around a naive American who goes to Germany to work with his German uncle as he falls for a woman who wants him to be a part of a plan for a fleeing group of possible Nazi sympathizers. Eschewing his stylish frame of cinema, von Trier pulls out all the stops for optical work, camera tricks with many of the film shot in black-and-white with a mix of color. Starring Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Erik Mork, Eddie Constantine, Ernst-Hugo Jaregard, Udo Kier, and Max Von Sydow as the narrator. Europa is a visual spectacle where von Trier pulls out every trick in the book.
Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) is a young American in Germany to work with his uncle (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard) for the Zentropa train company post-war 1945. With his uncle guiding him on what to do at the station, the idealistic Leopold gets to work at a restored train car as a conductor where he meets a woman named Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa). Leopold learns that Katharina's family runs the company as he meets her brother Lawrence (Udo Keer) and her father Max (Jorgen Reenberg) and the family priest Father Jaregard (Erik Mork) at a dinner. Leopold realizes that the family could be Nazi-sympathizers who are planning a plot to reclaim power for Germany until he attends another dinner with an American colonel named Harris (Eddie Constantine).
Harris asks Leopold to keep an eye on everything that happens at his train car though his uncle doesn't think the job will be easy following an an attempted assassination on a politician. After another dinner with the Hartmanns which Harris also attends with a Jewish man (Lars von Trier) about a questionnaire that Max had taken. Max gives Leopold a cryptic message as Leopold's relationship with Katharina blossoms despite an incident where Leopold meets a man named Siggy (Henning Jensen). Siggy is revealed to be the man that had planned the attempted assassination as he asks Leopold to take part in a plan for his ailing Werewolf company. After marrying Katharina, Leopold's life seems to go well as he has a conductor exam approaching until Katharina asks him to go to Frankfurt with her for an emergency. There, Leopold realizes what it is going on as Siggy wants him to do something which has Leopold becoming a pawn in a grand scheme.
The idea of conventional thrillers are something that is done in cinema but von Trier is very unconventional by bringing his radical, experimental approach to storytelling. Using all of the visual and technical camera tricks, rear-projections, super-imposed shots, and mixing color with black-and-white with computers. The enfant terrible goes for style while using all of those ideas to bring unconventional themes to his story. The storyteller of von Trier is really telling a story about a man who is pulled into all of these situations of conformity only to rebel in the end. There's even one poignant scene in which von Trier had Max Hartmann, just before his death, give a cryptic warning to Leopold Kessler.
The script is filled with kind of tension and dreamlike quality that appeared in all of von Trier's films but the film is also like previous parts of his European trilogy of The Element of Crime and Epidemic, the disintegration of Europe. In Europa, Germany's defeat in World War II really is defined as the end of an old Europe with Russia becoming a superpower and countries are being split into political factions. Something that would hurt Germany even more in the 1960s as it got split before officially reuniting in 1990. The tension is there as we see Americans taking over with the corruptible Colonel Harris wanting to control Zentropa trains for his own political gain. It's a film about power in the simplistic form. Even the narration of Max Von Sydow gives the film an impending doom for the protagonist along with foreshadowing events on what he might do.
The directing style of von Trier is all over the place like in his eerie, post-noir debut feature Element of Crime. Going mostly for black-and-white, there's moments in the film where it's very multi-dimensional on a visual scale where Leo would sleep and behind him, there's a message flashing with big letters across the screen. There's shots where there's another projection screen on display where it's like the audience is seeing two films in one. Then there's the use of color where von Trier would get the characters to go into color for emotional intensity or in an act of violence. There's a lot of spectacular moments in his directing except for the fact that he couldn't keep the film move fast enough to make it more interesting which is why the film does suffer a bit from its slow pacing. Also, because of its experimental, radical approach, the film might seem to other people as something very pretentious.
Helping von Trier in the technical, visual department are his team of cinematographers led by Henning Bendsten who brings an authenticity and graininess to the film's black-and-white photography while Edward Klosinski and Jean-Paul Meurisse bring in the more visual spectacle elements of color and rear-projection shots. Editor Herve Schneid also brings in a fluid, stylized editing format that helps brings tension to the film including in its intense moments though he too couldn't help von Trier's slow, languid directing style. Production designer Henning Bahs does wonderful work in capturing post-Germany's bleak outlook while costume designer Manon Rasmussen helps captures the time in the clothes, notably the business-like clothing of Katharina. Joachim Holbek brings in a symphonic, dreamy score in the film's dramatic moments but when the film intensifies into action, the score goes into full on overdrive.
Then there's the film's amazingly, superb cast of actors in which a few of them like Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier, and Ernst-Hugo Jaregard would become regulars to von Trier's films. Now most directors would love to appear in their own films and von Trier makes a great impression as a Jewish man from the Holocaust who signs a questionnaire for the guilt-ridden Max Hartmann. The late Ernst-Hugo Jaregard is excellent as the strict uncle of Leopold who is concerned with his nephew's future while having no remorse for what he is going through, especially at the troubling time his country is in as Jaregard gives a guarded, moralistic performance. Eddie Constantine is also wonderful as the American Colonel Harris who is a patriotic man who wants to rebuild the Zentropa railway station but his intentions are very strange since he's hoping it would give him power but is conflict over his own duties as he tries to find the remaining werewolf company.
Jorgen Reenberg is excellent as the guilt-ridden, weary Max Hartmann who realizes that all of his deeds in supporting Nazi Germany might get him trouble. Reenberg brings in a lot of the emotional tension of countryman wanting forgiveness while becoming an unlikely parental source for Leopold. Erik Mork also plays the moral card as the sympathetic and indifferent Father Jaregard who tries to show Max the right way while not wanting to be involved with any kind of troubles as he presents the rare moral guide of the film. Udo Kier is wonderfully devilish as the power-hungry Lawrence who has his issues with war and is hoping to go to America and gain some power there. Barbara Sukowa is wonderful as the complex Katharina who seduces Leopold with her beauty while having some dark intentions as her character has a conflicted side to herself since she wants what's best for her country or what she wants from Leopold which is love.
Jean-Marc Barr delivers probably his greatest performance to date as the naive, idealistic Leopold. Barr brings in all sorts of innocence early on to the role only to be confused and dumbfounded by his surroundings and the rules he's forced to live with. Barr really gives the film its heart as a dreamer who wants everything a man wants but finds himself in places that he doesn't like. When he rebels, we see Barr go into a full-on mode of some intense acting. It's no wonder von Trier has kept him all of these years into many of his films.
***Additional Content & New Conclusion Written from 12/31/11-1/13/12***
The 2008 Region 1 2-disc DVD from the Criterion Collection presents the film in a 2:35:1 theatrical aspect ratio for the widescreen format with 5.1 Dolby Digital Stereo Surround Sound. The film is given a new high-definition transfer supervised by director Lars von Trier. The first disc with new and improved subtitles plus various special features including its theatrical trailer.
The full-length audio commentary by Lars von Trier and producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen is a very relaxed and humorous commentary as the two men reflect on the production. The two talk about the actors that have passed on including Ernst-Hugo Jaregard whom von Trier talks fondly of despite some of the difficulties he had in wanting some attention. The same with Jorgen Reenberg whom von Trier found to be more difficult than Jaregard as it was among many things that kept the production tense as it went from 12 to 16 weeks. Jensen also revealed that it was hard to finance the film as they went to other countries for funding. The overall commentary is very enjoyable and entertaining for what von Trier and Jensen said about the production as they kept giggling throughout the duration of the film.
The 39-minute making-of documentary released in late 1991/early 1992 is a piece about the film’s production on set and how von Trier created many of the surreal yet dream-like moments of the film with superimposed backgrounds. A lot of the film’s exteriors and the bulk of the superimposed images were shot on location in Poland as von Trier used extras for the scenes of the train car being pulled and the church scene. The rest of the film was shot at a studio in Copenhagen, Denmark with the main actors as Eddie Constantine, Udo Kier, and Jean-Marc Barr talk about von Trier’s methods while von Trier also talks about the film as it’s a very intriguing documentary about the film.
The second disc of the DVD includes loads of special feature about the film’s production. The first is Trier’s Element, a 44-minute documentary about Lars von Trier as he discusses Europa as well as how it relates to his previous work in the Europa trilogy. The 1991 doc also features footage of the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and its press conference as well as the making of the project Dimension. The last of which was supposed to be a 30-year project that was eventually abandoned in 1998 as the doc featured von Trier shooting footage with Eddie Constantine, Jean-Marc Barr, and Udo Kier as the whole documentary is a wonderful piece about the young von Trier.
The 20-minute Anecdotes from Europa is a short documentary that features interviews with producer Peter Albaek Jensen, editor/assistant director Tomas Gislason, prop master Peter Grant, co-writer Niels Vorsel actor Jean-Marc Barr, and historian Peter Scheperlen. Schepelern discusses the importance of the film not just in von Trier’s career but for the history of European cinema as it heralded the arrival of von Trier as one of the key cinematic voices of the 1990s. Jensen, Gislason, and Grant discuss the difficulty of the production as well as Ernst-Hugo Jaregard who had a reputation for being difficult where Jensen took a stand at Jaregard to make sure he behaved where he would become one of their collaborators. Barr talks about a scene which nearly killed and a recent screening he attended where he was surprised to see how much it has held up.
The From Dreyer to von Trier interview with cinematographer Henning Bendtsen is a thirteen-and-a-half minute piece about Bendtsen’s work with Carl Theodor Dreyer and Lars von Trier and how different they are. Bendtsen reveals some wonderful stories about Dreyer and how von Trier was able to get the tuxedo he has while reveling in the similarities the two have as filmmakers. The Emotional Music Script is a 12-minute interview with music composer Joachim Holbek about his collaboration von Trier and their approach to music. Holbek reveals that both he and von Trier wanted the music to be emotional as well as stylized in scenes where it mixes two things that might not go together.
Lars von Trier-Anecdotes is a 17-minute short documentary that features interviews with actors Ole Ernst, Jean-Marc Barr, and Michael Simpson, editor/assistant director Tomas Gislason, art director Peter Grant, costume designer Manon Rasmussen, producer Peter Albaek Jensen, production manager Per Armen, and film school teacher Mogens Rukov. Many of them talk about von Trier’s early years and his reputation for being a provocateur with many sharing stories about him including the enfant terrible persona that he’s cultivated throughout the years.
The 44-minute conversation piece with von Trier has the director talking to journalist Bo Green Jensen about the Europa trilogy. The 2005 interview has von Trier discussing the origins of his trilogy as well as love for the work of famed Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky who was a primary influence for his early work. The discussion about all three films are talked about as von Trier recalls a lot about the production and influences he had in making the film that also included American film noir. Jensen asks if von Trier had seen the films recently as von Trier admits he doesn’t want to because it would have him relive the experiences of making it and he doesn’t want to know about how he would react to his early work.
The 10-minute short film Europa-The Faecal Location features rare footage shot by Tomas Gislason on the making of the film as it was originally presented on VHS video footage. The short has Gislason and Peter Albaek Jensen discuss some of the problems with the locations in Poland at the time. Due to the awful vegetation and rivers near their location, the toilets in the hotel they lived in weren’t able to flush properly. Even worse was when both Gislason and von Trier ate apples that made them sick while one of the producers also got sick in the very same apple. It’s a very funny short which revealed what to do when vacationing in Poland during the early years of post-Communism.
The DVD set features a booklet which includes an essay by film critic Howard Hampton entitled Night Train. Hampton discusses the film’s importance in von Trier’s career as well as how von Trier was able to take the idea of American film noir elements and infuse it with a European sensibility. Particularly as it would mark a turning point in von Trier’s career as it indicated that it would be the film that would really be the beginning of him becoming a serious filmmaker. It’s a great read that is part of a truly superb DVD release.
Europa is a stylish yet magnificent film from Lars von Trier. Featuring an outstanding ensemble cast and dazzling technical work, the film is among one of von Trier’s finest films in his career. Particularly as it’s the best work of his Europa trilogy of 1984-1991. In the end, Europa is a wondrous and imaginative film from Lars von Trier.
Lars von Trier Films: The Element of Crime - Epidemic - Medea - The Kingdom I - Breaking the Waves - The Kingdom II - Dogme #2: Idioterne - Dancer in the Dark - Dogville - The Five Obstructions - Manderlay - The Boss of It All - Antichrist - Melancholia - Nymphomaniac - The Auteurs #7: Lars von Trier
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