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Someone release this movie on DVD so it can take its hallowed place as
one of the greatest films of all time in ten to twenty years when
critics and film historians look back on the so-called films of the
1990's and see how vapid they were for the most part, and how Lars Von
Trier tried to revolutionize and revitalize the international film
world with this masterpiece. As it stands, "Zentropa" (or "Europa" as
it is referred to outside the US) is one of the most fascinating and
artistic views of the bleakness and almost psychotic uncertainty that
oozed out of post WWII Europe, namely the decimated German landscape,
whose physical horrors were matched only by the damage to the psyche of
its people. Von Trier brilliantly paints his vision on screen. You will
feel like you are watching some lost espionage noir classic from the
late 1940's with the perfectly lighted black and white scenes, while at
the same time feel you are on the brink of something beyond the cutting
edge, especially in scenes like the assassination aboard the train.
Literally, when you see this movie, you are witnessing the evolution of
an art form.
For some reason, Von Trier got caught up in his own Dogma movement shortly after this. And while his "Breaking the Waves" and "Dancer in the Dark" are classics in their own right, it is with "Zentropa" that he truly lifted the art of film making to new and exciting heights. 10/10, ages like a fine wine, and begs for a DVD release.
***Postscript - Criterion released the film on DVD in 2009. Highly recommended.
Storyline: Max von Sydow's voice-over narration hypnotizes the
protagonist (and audience) back to 1945 where our protagonist the young
American ideologist Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) has just arrived
in post-WWII 1945 Germany to help rebuilding the damaged country. Uncle
Kessler (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) supplies Leopold with a job in the big
Zentropa train corporation, but soon Leopold falls in love with
Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa); daughter of Zentropa owner Max
Hartmann (Jørgen Reenberg). Leopold soon finds himself caught in a web
of corruption, being taken advantage of, losing his ideology, and is
forced to chose between pest or colera.
Mysterious, mesmerizing, manipulative, noirish, haunting, beautiful, and ugly. These are some immediate, grandiose, descriptions that come to mind when thinking of Lars von Trier's 1991 masterpiece EUROPA; the final chapter of the Europa trilogy. In USA it was retitled ZENTROPA so audiences wouldn't confuse it with Agnieszka Holland's EUROPA EUROPA from 1990 (equally a WWII drama). The Europa trilogy also consists of FORBRYDELSENS ELEMENT from 1984 and EPIDEMIC from 1987 (the infamous experiment that only sold 900 tickets in the Danish cinemas). The trilogy thematically deals with hypnotism and loss of idealism, although the themes of this trilogy are not as essential as the visuals. In the opening-shot of EUROPA we see a locomotive moving towards us while our unidentified narrator literally hypnotizes us: "On the mental count of ten, you will be in Europa. Be there at ten. I say: ten". A metaphor for movies' ability to transport us into a subconscious dream-reality.
EUROPA utilizes a strange but extremely effective visual style -- that famous Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky is Trier's main-influence says it all. It's a black-and-white movie occasionally intertwined with red in form of blood, a red dress etc. According to rumors this inspired Steven Spielberg to use the similar effect in SHINDLER'S LIST from 1993 (coincidentially another WWII drama). Furthermore Trier uses so-called Dutch angels and reinvents background-projection by adding separately shot co-operating layers upon layers, but unlike old Hollywood movies that incorporated it for economical reasons, Trier uses it for artistic reasons. These carefully executed strange-looking visual techniques underline that we are in a dream-reality, we are hypnotized; the universe of EUROPA is not real! EUROPA is often criticized for weighing advanced technique (such as multi-layered background-projection) above plot and characters, but hey that's what reviewers criticized Stanley Kubrick's 1968 visual masterpiece 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY for -- nowadays it holds an obligatory place in all cinema-history books.
EUROPA also gets accused of historical incorrectness. Apparently Trier assigns the Nazis' Werewolf terrorist-group too much historical significance. According to various online-sources that's correct (a fascinating subject - try Googl'ing it yourself!), yet Trier's purposes are neither educational nor portraying history accurately. EUROPA is a never-ending nightmare. Leopold Kessler is hypnotized, therefore the universe that the audience encounters is a distorted reality. Equally it shows how our memory deceives us -- a 100% accurate reconstruction is a lie! Although young audiences who experience EUROPA are too young to have memories from WWII, we have a collective memory of it from various BBC documentaries, so these small inaccuracies actually serve a purpose: they inform us us that we are not in post-WWII Germany 1945, but in Leopolds memory of it.
All three Europa trilogy chapters portray young ideologists with noble intentions forced into corruption and losing their ideological innocence. The ambiguous endings of FORBRYDELSENS ELEMENT and EUROPA show the ideologists getting forever caught in their hypnotized realities. Before, during and after shooting EUROPA in 1990 in Poland, Lars von Trier and co-writer Niels Vørsel were extremely interested in WWII. It shows. It's packed with extremely beautiful shots catching the atmosphere of the time-period spot-on. A great example is the old Polish church (EUROPA was shot in Poland primarily for economic reasons) in the last act of EUROPA. As with 2001: SPACE ODYSSEY I think EUROPA will receive it's rightfully deserved place in cinema-history. Its method of twisting old film-noir love-affair clichés and visual techniques is so unique, strange and completely different from anything you will see from Hollywood nowadays, or any other dream-factory for that matter.
EUROPA is an essential movie in the Lars von Trier catalog. Some write it off as pure commercial speculation, but that would be catastrophic. It's right up there with other Trier classics and semi-classics such as FORBRYDELSENS ELEMENT from 1984, the TV-series RIGET from 1993 and DOGVILLE from 2003. It's a unique experience from before Trier cared for his actors, and before the Dogme95 Manifesto. Watch it! "On the count of ten..." 9/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A few years ago, a friend got from one of his other friends a video
with the Michael Mann film 'Heat' on it. After we finished that movie,
and were about to stand up, we saw that there is another film just
after, tough on the cassette's envelope the owner didn't write it up.
Yet we were all glued back to our seats by its distinct opening, which
Some two hours later, I just sat there wondering: how could I not have heard of this masterpiece before?...
This film was Europa. Lars von Trier woke film noir from the dead, deconstructed reality with intentionally obvious sets, yet often there was haunting similarity with post-war German photographs I saw. And then the tricky cuts!
The story itself is a hard-to-take moral odyssey that has no happy end. A young American pacifist of German descent comes to post-war Germany, intent on doing some good to pay for the bombs his countrymen dropped. But he mostly meets distrust and self-destructive defiance. He hires with Zentropa, a dining-and-sleeping-car company (modeled on Mitropa), whose owner is one of the Nazi collaborators the Occupiers whitewash. Our hero falls in love with his daughter - who later turns out to be a member of the Werewolf, Nazi post-war terrorists. When he doesn't understand the world (or just Europeans) anymore, in his rage he blows up a railroad bridge under a train which he just saved.
As a final note, for historical correctness: in the real world, the Werewolf were nowhere as important as the film implies, they were mostly a final Nazi propaganda coup. After an SS unit assassinated the major of Allied-occupied Aachen, two months before the capitulation, the Nazis announced the creation of whole legions of saboteurs and terrorists who will be ready to fight behind the lines, the Werewolf. But only a few hundred of mostly Hitler Youth received some training, and while two or three times some were deployed to murder suspected communists or forced-labourer foreigners in Bavarian villages to imprint lasting fear on inhabitants, with Hitler's death and the war's end it all fell apart.
However, the Werewolf propaganda had a profound effect on the occupiers. They feared the Werewolf everywhere, suspected it behind any serious accident - but without exception another cause was found later (ignored by some recent pseudo-historians). For example, when a gas main exploded in the police HQ of bombed-out Bremen, or when the Soviet military commander died in a motorbike accident in Berlin. The effect was strongest on the Soviets, who arrested tens of thousands (in large part children!) 'preemptively' on suspicion of being Werewolf, and closed them off in prison camps where a lot of them died.
Zentropa is another von Trier film that manages to tell an authentically
interesting story, revel in its own aesthetic beauty, and engage us in
questions of metaphysics. The films narration, as described above, sets
gauntlet very high. The often tired flashback/hypnotism/relapse/etc
structure poses a certain disaster to most of the films that dare to use
However, it is pulled off masterfully.
With Zentropa, we must first buy into the introduction. We prepare ourselves to relive these moments, and allow the film to justify its use of this down the tracks. However, we learn very quickly that what we have been sold is not the standard omniscient perspective. It is distorted and fragmented; emotion has been poured on too thick at parts, while in others it is spread too thin. We must accept the story directly from a mind that we considerably mistrust.
The rest of the film tirelessly reconstructs the scenes of this deranged mind. We transition from b&w film, to color. From a nearly mystical hope, to an absurd pessimism. Time moves too slowly, but abruptly jumps ahead too quickly. von Trier understands the architecture of this 'hypnotic' state supremely.
The movie progresses sporadically which is mandatory given the structure. von Trier plays wonderfully with the noir genre, he throws in some espionage, some sex, love, hats and guns. Finally, he skillfully introduces issues of morality, war, and responsibility- adding a rich political dimension to an already layered film.
The final scenes are visually the most beautiful in the movie, and some of my all time personal favorites. The quiet, tenseless moments in this sequence finally allow us to sink into a comfortable pace and an agreeable aesthetic.
Ultimately, von Trier has framed this film around a giant question of reality. As is his standard. The fact that this metaphysical dimension continually impinges upon the film, justifies its validity. The question was artfully asked. And beneath this works a noir film, a veritable feast of imagery, and wonderful performances.
This is the fifth von Trier film I have seen. I believe that he is the only
director to whom I have given such a high score on all his movies. Four of
them, The Element of Crime, Europa, Breaking the Waves, and Dancer in the
Dark, I have given a 10, and one, The Idiots, I have given a 9 (and I have
been reconsidering whether to give it a 10 since I first saw it, although
I'd like to see it once more before I do). He has been chided for calling
himself one of the best working directors. I tend to agree with him. I
cannot blame him for being arrogant when he has made such great films. In 50
years, when von Trier retires, he will be looked upon as the pre-eminent
film artist from Europe (perhaps from the planet), and there will be classes
taught in his name. He simply is the Bergman or Fellini of our time. It is
too bad the critics are too intrigued with themselves to notice this.
About Europa itself, I'll admit that it was confusing and that its narrative did not seem strong. I think that's the point. This film was obviously meant to represent a nightmare, or the subconscious at some level. This is absolutely clear from the framing of the film: Max von Sydow's narration. We are hypnotized, or von Trier is hypnotized, and this is our/his subconscious mind. I'm inclined to lean more towards his mind, since the degradation of Europe concerns me, an American, very little. This framing is also clear if you have seen The Element of Crime, an even more brilliant film than this (although I am disputing that in my mind; what Europa needs more than anything is a proper release on DVD, hopefully Criterion again, with theatrical aspect ratio and remastered sound and picture; then, I am fairly sure, this film would seem as great as any of von Trier's other films). In The Element of Crime, the film begins with a hypnotist, whom we actually see on screen this time, is hypnotizing Fisher, a European detective who wants to get to the root of his mental anguish. The first words of that film are "Fantasy is okay, but my job is to keep you on track." And whenever Fisher, the narrator, gets off track, the hypnotist does chastize him and tells him to get back on with the story. He even laughs when a character is given a really silly and trite line. Something along the lines of, "Do you understand the difference between good and evil?" The hypnotist laughs and says, "Now, Fisher, she didn't really say that, did she?"
So the key to interpreting Europa, almost a sequel of sorts to The Element of Crime, is that we are deep in our/von Trier's subconscious, and the symbols there are to be interpreted within ourselves and will likely be different for everyone. What does the train itself symbolize? Consider it internally, and only then discuss it externally. Europa is a great film, a masterpiece. I was never bored by it, even though I watched it at 3 am. The perfect time to watch, actually, since it works in dream logic.
Von Trier has created a film that is a noir satire, a joke on psychotherapy, the last great hurrah for back-projection in movies (even tops "The Nasty Girl" in that depatment), a historical hoax, a satire of the Prussian work ethic, a satire of noir romances, and an indirect indictment on the firms which profited off twelve years of Hiterite insanity. The train is Germany, with Ernst-Hugo Jaregard and Jean Marc-Bar decked out as its' SS and military (notice the tunic design, the collar patch piping, the peaked caps, the fact that it's all black.) The Werewolves are taken from Reichspropagandaminister Goerbbles' last hat trick, that the Reich gov't. was prepping an army of saboteurs in 1944-45 to make occupation a misery. The Zentropa firm is a combination of the steel kingpin Krupp (which used slave labor at Auschwitz), and Deutche Reichsbahn (the state railway firm which sent so many to their deaths), along with others like Ford, who profited from Axis and Allied war efforts. Hence the burial sequence is doubly ironic; the Nazi war profiteer getting last rites in a ruined cattle car that was probably resposible for the oblivion of hundreds. The film leaves you with the suspicion that Nazism was an extreme expression of the German national psychology of sado-masochism and that 46 years later Hitler's shadow still stalked Europa (the cathedral scene was shot in an actual Polish cathedral which had been left roofless by the Communist Polish gov't.) I will say no more, but I do love the "Europa Aria" over the final credits. That song says more then I possibly could.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
On October of 1945, the American German descendant Leopold Kessler
(Jean-Marc Barr) arrives in a post-war Frankfurt and his bitter Uncle
Kessler (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) gets a job for him in the Zentropa train
line as a sleeping car conductor. While traveling in the train learning
his profession, he sees the destructed occupied Germany and meets
Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa), the daughter of the former
powerful entrepreneur of transport business and owner of Zentropa, Max
Hartmann (Jørgen Reenberg). Leopold stays neutral between the allied
forces and the Germans, and becomes aware that there is a terrorist
group called "Werewolves" killing the sympathizers of the allied and
conducting subversive actions against the allied forces. He falls in
love for Katharina, and sooner she discloses that she was a "Werewolf".
When Max commits suicide, Leopold is also pressed by the "Werewolves"
and need to take a position and a decision.
"Europa" is an impressive and anguishing Kafkanian story of the great Danish director Lars von Trier. Using an expressionist style that recalls Fritz Lang and alternating a magnificent black & white cinematography with some colored details, this movie discloses a difficult period of Germany and some of the problems this great nation had to face after being defeated in the war. Very impressive the action of the occupation forces destroying resources that could permit a faster reconstruction of a destroyed country, and the corruption with the Jew that should identify Max. Jean-Marc Barr has an stunning performance in the role of man that wants to stay neutral but is manipulated everywhere by everybody. The hypnotic narration of Max Von Sydow is another touch of class in this awarded film. My vote is nine.
Title (Brazil): "Europa"
Released as Zentropa in North America to avoid confusion with Agniezska
Holland's own Holocaust film Europa Europa, this third theatrical
feature by a filmmaker who never ceases to surprise, inspire or
downright shock is a bizarre, nostalgic, elaborate film about a naive
American in Germany shortly following the end of WWII. The American,
named Leo, doesn't fully get what he's doing there. He has come to take
part in fixing up the country since, in his mind, it's about time
Germany was shown some charity. No matter how that sounds, he is not a
Nazi sympathizer or so much as especially pro-German, merely mixed up.
His uncle, who works on the railroad, gets Leo a job as a helmsman on a
sleeping car, and he is increasingly enmeshed in a vortex of 1945
Germany's horrors and enigmas.
This progression starts when Leo, played rather memorably by the calm yet restless actor Jean-Marc Barr, meets a sultry heiress on the train played by Barbara Sukowa, an actress with gentility on the surface but internal vigor. She seduces him and then takes him home to meet her family, which owns the company which manufactures the trains. These were the precise trains that took Jews to their deaths during the war, but now they run a drab day-to-day timetable, and the woman's Uncle Kessler postures as another one of those good Germans who were just doing their jobs. There is also Udo Kier, the tremendous actor who blew me away in Von Trier's shocking second film Epidemic, though here he is mere scenery.
Another guest at the house is Eddie Constantine, an actor with a quiet strength, playing a somber American intelligence man. He can confirm that Uncle Kessler was a war criminal, though it is all completely baffling to Leo. Americans have been characterized as gullible rubes out of their element for decades, but little have they been more blithely unconcerned than Leo, who goes back to his job on what gradually looks like his own customized death train.
The story is told in a purposely uncoordinated manner by the film's Danish director, Lars Von Trier, whose anchor is in the film's breathtaking editing and cinematography. He shoots in black and white and color, he uses double-exposures, optical effects and trick photography, having actors interact with rear-projected footage, he places his characters inside a richly shaded visceral world so that they sometimes feel like insects, caught between glass for our more precise survey.
This Grand Jury Prize-winning surrealist work is allegorical, but maybe in a distinct tone for every viewer. I interpret it as a film about the last legs of Nazism, symbolized by the train, and the ethical accountability of Americans and others who appeared too late to salvage the martyrs of these trains and the camps where they distributed their condemned shiploads. During the time frame of the movie, and the Nazi state, and such significance to the train, are dead, but like decapitated chickens they persist in jolting through their reflexes.
The characters, music, dialogue, and plot are deliberately hammy and almost satirically procured from film noir conventions. The most entrancing points in the movie are the entirely cinematographic ones. Two trains halting back and forth, Barr on one and Sukowa on another. An underwater shot of proliferating blood. An uncommonly expressive sequence on what it must be like to drown. And most metaphysically affecting of all, an anesthetic shot of train tracks, as Max von Sydow's voice allures us to hark back to Europe with him, and abandon our personal restraint.
With stunning cinematography and a thread of Kafkaesque absurdity, this
movie had me from the simple yet fascinating opening scene. The movie
plays much like a dream, and I think that may be why people either hate
it or love it. Characters are drawn superficially and the story itself
is slight and perhaps a little pointless. But these are failings of the
movie but conscious choices. The film works isn't trying to work as
history, but rather is a deconstruction of 1940s war movies.
I would have trouble arguing that there was much real substance to the movie, but the movie is such a cinematic wonder that I was completely swept away. This is one of the most beautifully filmed movies ever, and there is a wild imagination in its style. I can completely understand why people would hate it, but I give it 9/10.
By watching this movie I discovered an artist that I waited too long to discover. Playing with multiple cinematographic tricks Trier not only bring us back in history but he also adopt the style that movie had in the time where the action is depicted. Also, with the rear screen projection, Trier had the chance to give his movie a unique depth of field and by the way to mix color and B&W and therefore make a magical masterpiece that can be appreciated by the dumb movie eaters that most of us are.
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