DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Europa aka Zentropa

Friday, 11 November 2011

Europa aka Zentropa

Europa aka Zentropa (1991) dir. Lars von Trier
Starring: Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Eddie Constantine, Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Jørgen Reenberg, Erik Mørk and Max von Sydow


By Greg Klymkiw

In 1990, Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin was directing his tragedy of the Great War Archangel which told a tale of lovers afflicted with severe mustard gas apoplexy who forget, at any given moment, who precisely they are in love with. To ensure his actors were always in a trance, he secured, with my deft finagling (in the spirit of full disclosure I was the film's producer) the services of a renowned hypnotist (who, due to a binding non-disclosure policy cannot be named) to place Maddin's on-camera charges in a state of waking and walking sleep during the entire shoot of the film. Complete and utter submission was the goal. Archangel was in black and white, occasionally colour tinted, replete with post-dubbed dialogue (also performed under hypnosis), a cornucopia of in-camera special effects including double (and triple) exposures, matte paintings, rear and front screen projection, as well as a series of optical shots. At the same time, across the pond from the Dominion of Canada, one Lars von Trier was making Europa (renamed Zentropa for its North American release) which, like Maddin's film, was set in a strange never-never land of historical revisionism (though in post-WWII Germany as opposed to Maddin's WWI/Russian Revolution cusp period). It too was in black and white (though with dollops of full-blown colour rather than colour tinting) and was, like Maddin's film, bursting at the seams with wild in-camera and optical effects.

Where they differed, and yet existed in the same zeitgeist, was this: Maddin hypnotized his actors whilst von Trier rendered a movie that literally hypnotized the audience. The results were identical. Much like any living subject of hypnotism, audience-members who opened themselves willingly to both cinematic experiences were, in fact, under the power of suggestion.

Upon first seeing Europa back in the 90s, I was initially coaxed into the alternately pleasurable and disturbing states of waking and walking sleep and as such, became so obsessed with Lars von Trier's vision that I fought hard on subsequent viewings to deflect the hypnotic power in order to fully experience his dazzling, sumptuous genius in all its glory. Twenty years after my initial exposure to his great film, I am not only happy to report that it holds up magnificently, but has deepened for me to such dizzying degrees that I am convinced it is one of the most stunning works of cinematic art I have ever seen.

Over the years, both von Trier and Maddin have been fêted with screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival and its Cinematheque. This month, the work of the Danish bad boy genius of cinema is being featured in a TIFF Bell Lightbox retrospective entitled "Lars von Trier: Waiting for the End of the World" running until November 19. Europa is just one of several pictures in this series (including his latest masterpiece Melancholia) and this movie in particular, (playing Saturday November 12, 2011 at 8:00 PM and Thursday November 17 @ 9:15 PM) will be screened as it MUST be seen - on a big screen and projected in glorious 35mm. This is especially important given the special quality in-camera and optical effects have over the much colder digital approach to rendering screen magic today. It is, finally, the warmth of cinema in the format of its birth that allows us to be enveloped in fluffy white blankets of forgetfulness (in Maddinesque parlance) and the sheer joyful terror of being forced into a unique, trance-like state of both yearning and forgetfulness that is, indeed, TRUE magic.

Europa begins with the hypnotic tones of a voiceover belonging to Max von Sydow (The Exorcist himself and longtime Ingmar Bergman star), whilst we slowly cascade over train tracks engulfed in darkness, save for the soft light beaming gently over the centre of the frame. Lars von Trier plunges us into the black tunnel that is Germany just after World War II. Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an American of German descent has come to his expatriate father's homeland and taken a job as a railway employee under the tutelage of his persnickety, alcoholic Uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård). He meets and falls in love with a fetching film-noir-like femme fatale, Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa) who is the daughter of the German rail magnate Max Hartmann (Jørgen Reenberg). He is taken into the family with open arms. Max, in particular, is drawn to the notion of Germany becoming more international and is impressed with Kessler's desire to bring his North American, yet German-influenced know-how to the reconstruction of the country.

This is in vast contrast to the American armed forces occupying the Fatherland. The American commander mysteriously presiding over all matters of a reconstructive variety is Colonel Harris (played by the brilliant, gravel-voiced American expatriate tough guy actor Eddie Constantine, he of Lemmy Caution fame in numerous French movies like Alphaville). Harris knows all too well that Max used his train company Zentropa to transport Jews to concentration camps, but he also realizes that a vast majority of Germany's populace had been, to varying degrees, complicit in the activities of the Nazi regime. He seeks to protect Max since he believes this guilt-ridden rail baron is ultimately important to the American goal of reconstruction. Harris is also embroiled in a secret fight against a mysterious group of German partisan terrorists called Werewolf and while the young American Kessler trains on the railways and romances Katharina, his services are secured to delve into and expose the forces of evil.

Europa is both important and original on numerous fronts. In terms of theme and content, it is one of the most indelible screen portraits of post-World War II Germany ever committed to celluloid. Delivering a narrative which, I think, more than ably points a finger at America's complicity in the evils of Nazi Germany, especially in terms of making it clear how many Americans owned munitions factories IN Germany and did business with the Nazis under the radar. The overwhelming sense that we are in a nightmare world where an occupying force bullies the occupied, yet represents the corporate interests of the occupier is precisely what Lars Von Trier exposes. For all the lip service paid to the needs of assisting Germany with reconstruction, he presents a portrait of American military goons exercising the same sort of encroachment upon basic civil liberties as the Gestapo. While he does not veer away from Germany's rightful guilt in supporting one of the most foul regimes in all of recorded history, his film is not afraid to point a finger at America's military regime and its fascistic defence of America interests - in particular, the corporate interests - using reconstruction as a thin veil over basic greed. Unrestricted sovereignty was not ultimately granted to Germany until reunification in 1990 - a point not lost on von Trier. Both the narrative and mise-en-scène etch a chilling portrait of occupation - juxtaposing the German adherence to bureaucracy with the American adherence to back-door dealing and how both are equally flawed, but also at odds with each other within the context of the political situation.

Mixed into this heady brew of conflicting ideals, von Trier never neglects the thematic elements of complicity, betrayal and redemption. The Americans - in particular, the character of Colonel Harris - are complicit only in their exploitation of the situation while on the German side, complicity is a heavy cross that all the other characters must bear. Betrayal runs rampant throughout the narrative, though von Trier wisely explores this theme within the tropes of film noir elements and melodrama. I place an accent on "wisely" here because at the time the film was made, Germany was on the cusp of reunification and the issues he deals with had repercussions on a world wide scale, but by placing them within this stylized framework, he created a work that is not ephemeral in its power, but is, indeed, truly universal. In this sense, Europa feels less a film of its time, but rather, a film for all times. For example, while I feel the best works of American cinema in the 70s more than adequately capture the overwhelming paranoia of the period WITHOUT feeling dated, these are films directly from the periods of history and culture they represent.

Making a film in any contemporary context and looking back upon a period of history with contemporary eyes, requires an emphasis upon recreating the past world with indelible historical accuracy on as many levels as possible. However, when placing works dealing with historical issues and made during different historical periods - especially a film about the beginnings of occupation in Germany made at a time of German reunification - framing its narrative and themes in an almost post-modern aesthetic allows the artist a context to create a work that's truly visionary. This, is what Lars von Trier accomplishes. Reading reviews from the time of Europa's original release, one sees how even the best of the best acknowledge von Trier's visual gifts, but dismiss and/or outright ignore his narrative and political savvy. This, of course, did not keep the film from finding an audience at the time, but what's phenomenal to me is just how ahead of its time the film actually was, and in a sense, still is. Certainly viewing the film in the context of the current situation we face in terms of the economy, terrorism, the corporate imperialism of America, the domination of the New World Order and the horrendously obvious notion that war is ultimately all about money, Europa is without question a film for our times and, no doubt, will be so in the future as well.

The idea in certain circles, a confederacy of dunces to my way of thinking, that there's something wrong with melodrama is both myopic and elitist. There is, to be sure, good melodrama and bad melodrama, but it is a worthy genre and one that can work quite perfectly when presenting important historical and political themes. I suspect that von Trier and Maddin might well be cinema's leaders in understanding the importance of utilizing melodrama within stories dealing with political, historical and/or humanist subjects. Neither are afraid of filling their work with retro melodramatic devices and doing so, not with tongue in cheek, but playing them straight. When this approach sings ever-so sweetly, it is the humour - both natural and satirical - that comes to the fore - sans the empty spoof-like manner which is the domain of the holier-than-thou, the better-than-that and all the other head-nodding-eye-winking purveyors of mediocrity.

Europa is deliciously blessed with both the crazed big emotions of Douglas Sirk and the humanity of Carl Dreyer. Most amazingly, there are several moments of suspense that even owe their existence to the feverish qualities of D.W. Griffith - notably, several sequences involving the arming of a bomb and the subsequent attempt to disarm the bomb. Von Trier throws in everything including the kitchen sink to extend our dread and anticipation. Our desire for relief to said tension hits stratospheric heights. In addition to the visual flourishes reminiscent of another age, the score is sumptuously derived from a variety of original and pre-recorded pieces - most notably and pointedly from Bernard Herrmann's haunting music from Hitchcock's dreamy expressionistic thriller Vertigo. The stylized performances - aided further with the use of hollow dubbing - are a marvel and in particular, Jean-Marc Barr as the addled protagonist delivers what surely must be one of the bravest performances I've ever seen. He runs the gamut of emotion, but often in a controlled and intentionally stiff manner. He allows himself to be the puppet of Lars von Trier and as such, takes the thankless, but often surprising and engaging task of representing our (we, the audience) point of view. He is our way in to this world and for an actor to expose himself and yield so uncompromisingly to a filmmaker's vision is brilliantly, stunningly, delightfully foolhardy and ultimately, what makes his performance and the film itself so great.

This is razzle-dazzle filmmaking at its best. The bonus is plenty of food for thought and the cherry on the sundae is the occasional laughs and tears von Trier elicits from us. Some have charged that von Trier's approach is, in this, and other films, cold.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you - once again - the aforementioned confederacy of dunces.

One of the more extraordinary achievements of Europa is the narration. It works two-fold. First, it is a hypnotic device - literal hypnotism and I'd argue that anyone open to the picture on a first viewing will, indeed, succumb. Secondly, it's a wonderful use of the great, though rare literary tradition of a second person point of view. In contemporary American literature this was popularized by Jay McInerney in his brilliant 1984 debut novel Bright Lights Big City. The book announces its bold style and brash approach in these extraordinary opening sentences:
"You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy."
The idea of a detached voice speaking directly to its central character in order to relay the narrative was, even in the 80s, not a new approach, but it was one that thrust the pelvis of its literary conceit in the faces of readers all over the world and frankly, proved to be an ideal way of telling the story of a young man in the midst of a cocaine-addled phase of his life. As von Trier's central character Kessler is plunged into a similarly opaque world, we constantly hear Max Von Sydow's "you-are-getting-sleepy"-styled hypnotic offscreen orders to both the character and viewer. In 80s New York, it's coke-fuelled headlong dives into nightclubs. In Post-World War II Germany, its the strange, dreamy, addled world of occupation.

Certainly William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! is replete with both second person point of view and narrative techniques and is, in a sense, very close to the territory von Trier explores in Europa. Where Faulkner's novel is rooted in myth, one in which its central character is representative of the myth of the deep South and resulting in his ultimate, almost inevitable demise, von Trier's Europa seems similarly rooted in myth - in particular that of the Greek goddess of Europa who is seduced by a horny, old Zeus. That Europa herself, in mythic terms, was from a long, noble lineage is also a fascinating element in von Trier's film. We have Kessler, for example, seduced by his German roots and his American need to "do good" (or, one might even suggest the deeper American need to "meddle") and his attraction to the female heir to the Hartmann's rail empire.

In Faulkner's words:
"You cannot know yet whether what you see is what you are looking at or what you are believing."
Beat by beat, shot by shot - this is Europa. Images we will never forget rush by - Kessler dashing in silhouette in front of a huge illuminated clock, a scarlet ocean of blood rushing from under a door, a harrowing walk through mysterious cars on the Zentropa train full of caged Holocaust victims, corpses of "werewolf" partisans hanging from knotted ropes round their snapped necks, exquisitely composed Josef von Sterberg-like shots of Barbara Sukowa resembling Marlene Dietrich come-to-life, the desperate flailing of a drowning man as he seeks life and instead finds redemption and finally, the most gorgeous of all - a midnight Christmas mass in a bombed-out cathedral as puffs of snow gently fall upon the devout.

We cannot know yet what we see is what we're looking at, or what we're believing.


Feel free to read my past review of Von Trier's Melancholia and Antichrist.


Paul Duane said...

I saw this in a festival screening, many years ago, having already semi-suffered-through, semi-adored LVT's Element of Crime. It absolutely floored me, and I've looked in vain for a similar experience in his films since then, finding it only in the climax of Breaking the Waves, which left me - for one of possibly two or three times in my life - simultaneously laughing hysterically and weeping inconsolably. Wonderful review.

Greg Klymkiw said...

Thanks Paul. I do agree that nothing LVT has done matches Europa. That said, The Idiots makes me laugh as insanely, consistently and repeatedly as (the genuinely great) Freddie Got Fingered. Antichrist creeped me out in ways that few films have ever done and for reasons I've yet to completely explain, Melancholia has not failed to make me weep geysers with four viewings thus far. And I love everything that precedes the final minutes which have the repeated effect upon my tear ducts. Somehow, I think that if one is moved by the film's end as profoundly as I have been, it can't work it's magic WITHOUT everything that happens prior to it. To reiterate, though, I still have yet to adequately explain it.