Movies We Like
What will the Europe of the future look like? In the opinion of the great Dane Lars von Trier Europe will be polluted, plagued, and riddled with an existential numbness preventing connection of any kind between its inhabitants. Life for Europeans will vacillate between madness and extremism and boredom and anonymity. Von Trier’s prognostications are manifested in his Europa trilogy: The Element of Crime (1984) set in the future, Epidemic (1987) set in the present, and Europa (1991) set in the fall of 1945 after the German surrender to the Allied forces. In Europa, von Trier extrapolates his fears for the future of Europe from its past, finding parallels in the alienation and chaos of post-war Germany replicated in the angst of modern Europe. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Western Europe was facing the same problem of the Allies after WWII: now that you’ve won, how do you turn the enemy you vilified into a trustworthy ally?
Von Trier describes the theme of the Europa trilogy as “the story of an idealist who tries to save people, but it all goes wrong.” Element of Crime features a cop intent on proving the viability of the controversial, psychologically debilitating crime-solving techniques of his mentor; in Epidemic a director (played by von Trier) wants to bring to life the story of a doctor (also played by von Trier) intent on stopping a deadly plague who ultimately turns out to be the carrier of the disease. Europa is less conceptual and is in fact the most conventional of any of von Trier’s films. Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) is an American of German descent who travels to Germany just after the war’s end with the vague goal of showing kindness to humanity. Kessler soon gets a job as a sleeping car conductor with the help of his fellow conductor uncle, so apparently showing kindness includes taking a job that could have been filled by a starving German. Kessler is soon invited to dinner at the house of Herr Hartman, the former Nazi collaborator who owns the Zentropa rail company where Kessler is employed. Kessler soon falls for Hartmann’s daughter, Katie (Barbara Sukowa), a sexpot who isn’t hesitant to admit that she was also once a collaborator. Kessler’s desire to save Katie from her past pulls him into a milieu of intrigue and betrayal that pose the ultimate challenge to Kessler’s altruistic weltanschaung. In plot, Europa is a Nazi spy thriller in the vein of Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die and Hitchcock’s Notorious, but because of a strong technical choice, von Trier gives it a new, singularly postmodern collage aesthetic.
Before CGI, there was optical printing. The low tech transfer of one image onto another through superimposition and double exposure, along with other cinematographer tricks like rear and front projection and matte paintings, were among the venerable techniques used to create startling effects in films from Spellbound to Robocop, and create graphically innovative sequences like the opening titles of the original Thomas Crown Affair. Yes, if we just force our memories back far enough we can remember a time when a director’s attempt to dazzle his audience by bringing an imaginary metropolis to life before their eyes didn’t look like SimCity. The same year Terminator 2 wrought the CGI behemoth that dominates movie screens today, von Trier shot the foregrounds and backgrounds of Europa separately, only uniting the layers later in rear projection and optical printing. (N.B. No hate on Terminator 2 here. Unfortunately, it just spawned a wave of awfulness that it could never have foreseen.) In rear projection, a background that has been filmed previously is illuminated onto a screen that actors perform in front of. When properly lighted, the effect is seamless and the stereoscopic vision of the human brain cannot differentiate between the onscreen flat foreground of the actors and the flat background of the projection. Human beings will always accept two dimensional photographs of real humans and places (and even paintings of such objects) over two dimensional computer graphics rendered to show a degree of depth superior to cell animation. In other words, Shrek may be shaded to look more real than Mickey Mouse, but he will never look more real than Jimmy Stewart, or even Jimmy Stewart on a TV being watched by a character in another movie.
For Von Trier fans, Europa is full of esoteric treats. Jean-Marc Barr went on to join von Trier’s Dogme movement and directed Dogme #5, Lovers (1999.) Udo Kier, a von Trier regular, gives one of his most-restrained performances as Katie’s self-hating brother. Viewers who watch Europa as the final part of the trilogy will recognize von Trier has a cameo in each film and also seize upon the fact that von Trier and his screenwriter Niels VÃ¸rsel play themselves in Epidemic, Von Trier may be a stiff performer, but VÃ¸rsel is something of a natural; the highlight of the film is his long relation of a funny story about manipulating several dozen teenage pen pals from Atlantic City.
Europa is the strongest film of trilogy. Visually innovative and evincing a confident handling of suspense from von Trier, the viewer willingly falls under his spell, transported to a nightmarish past that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to our unsettling future.