Lars Von Trier’s Europa is a unique take on post WWII Germany that could easily be defined as a war drama/mystery. The film is at times hard to follow and yet at the same time suspenseful and deeply emotional. It’s easy enough to understand for a film devotee, however for the typical viewer they may get held up on the complexity of the film, in the process failing to get the bigger picture of the film itself.
It’s inaccessibility to typical viewers is perhaps the main reason why this film has never had real mainstream success, despite being well made. This film is in many ways Von Trier’s experimental film. In this paper I will discuss the experimental nature of this film and how it pertains to the genre itself, in doing so I hope to shine a light on the visual expertise of this film while enlightening future viewers to watch this film with the mentality of focusing on visuals over actually plot elements. A lot can be gained from focusing on a director’s visual style in dissecting plot elements, because many visual elements are meant to illicit specific feelings from the viewer. In Europa I feel there is plethora of unique visual experiences that should be dissected.
Having never seen Europa before now, the opening moments of the film really stuck out. The film opens with a high angle shot of train tracks moving rapidly, as if to give the feeling of actually moving along the track. As the track begins to hypnotize you, a voice over begins, inviting the viewer to take a journey back to Europa. The voice asks for you to listen to his voice as he counts to ten. When he gets to ten he asks you to mentally visualize yourself in Europa. The combination of Max Von Sydow’s droning voice and the melodramatic music in the background make for an intriguing opening to the film and it works well to grab the audience’s attention. Von Trier is attempting to directly place the viewer into the circumstances of the film. He wants us to feel that we have just taken a long trip on a train in order to arrive at our destination, in some ways this first scene feels like meditation. Sydow’s airy voice beckons us to feel what he says, and in doing so our bodies are being taken over by feelings described through his words.
Von Trier is setting a picture as well as a mental state; one of the main goals of experimental film is to make the viewer feel as if they have a direct connection to the film. Another words they are not merely just watching a film but expressing their own thoughts and emotions as if they were characters within the film. Von Trier successfully captures this feeling with his opening scene. In reality this is a story revolving around Leopold Kessler’s expedition to post WWII Germany, so what we are trying to visualize is his perspective, yet we have not been introduced to this character yet, thus making this one of the more intriguing parts of Europa.
Lars Von Trier
Von Trier builds on the opening scene of his film, using a slew of other interesting, and riveting visual styles. One thing that is interesting is that for a film released in 1991, Von Trier does an exceptionally good job of making the film fell much older. His choice for the film to be in Black and White helps a great deal but it’s not just the simple choice for the film to be in black and white that gives it an older feel, but rather the overall timing and pacing of the film feels very deliberate, which reflects an older style of filmmaking. Simultaneously it makes us feel more present to the story as if we were actually there. The color choice of the film is one of the more interesting aspects of the style and genre of this film. This is so because while the story takes place mostly in black and white, Von Trier uses splashes of color to highlight certain elements of the film. In doing so his intention is to illicit an emotional response from the viewer that is similar to that of the character being illuminated.
When Leo Kessler first see’s Zentropa, after his uncle successfully gets him a job as a sleeping car conductor, it is the first time we see the use of this technique. Leo is rather taken aback by the train and his face is filled with color as if you can see that he is enticed by the prospects of his future career in Germany. This also occurs at several other crucial points in the film. For instance when Leo is first introduced to his love interest Katharina Hartman on his first time aboard Zentropa. The first shot we see is a P.O.V. shot from the perspective of Leo and what we witness through his eyes are Katharina reading a book and smoking a cigarette. What’s important however is that the whole shot is in color, highlighting the importance of this moment for Leo and thus for the viewer as well.
In Katharina he has found his love interest, as well as his antagonist. Von Trier wanted to make sure it was understood that these two characters would play a crucial part in the story together. Another crucial element of the color splashing technique is the questionnaire that Colonel Harris brings to Max Hartman the owner of Zentropa. The questionnaire holds great significance due to the fact that it was created as a way to establish which Germans sympathized with the Nazi’s. This was a necessary part of the reconstruction of Germany. However in the case of Max Hartmann he was freed of his misdeeds by Colonel Harris who got him off the leash by negotiating a deal with a Jewish man who owed Colonel Harris. By having this man sign papers that suggested that Hartmann sympathized with the Jewish, he was freed of his misdeeds, yet he carried a heavy conscious as a result. At this point in the film Max Hartmann takes a bath to relieve his stress but it gets out of hand as he committees suicide. The Scene is gory and emphasized with dark red colors of blood that run from the bath. This proves to be a turning point in the film.
The film continues on and as the story progresses new revelations are brought to the table. One of the most important revelations comes when we find that Katharina is a ‘werewolf’. This is shocking to Leo but she denounces her affiliation saying that it was long ago. Leo and Katharina do get married, but as we find out later it really turns out to be an elaborate ploy to have Leo commit an act of terrorism against the Zentropa company. At this point in the film we begin to actually see a specific type of genre coming to the forefront,which is a dramatic thriller.
In the concluding half hour of the film, Katharina gets abducted by the werewolves. In order to get her back Leo must detonate a bomb when the Zentropa crosses a specific bridge. Left with the unfortunate decision of killing hundreds of passengers or save his own wife, Leo eventually decides to save the train but he is too late and the train explodes as well as the bridge, sending the train tumbling into the river below. The film culminates in the same way it started with the airy voice of Max Von Sydow’s voice counting to ten. However this time he is counting to the death of Leopold Kessler. In doing this Von Trier ties the film together by making parallels to the beginning and end of our journey. At the same time it allows for the viewer to experience the suffering of Leo’s last fleeting moments of life.
This film exemplifies the idea of experimental film well because it leaves the viewer feeling as if they were just subjected to the events of the film as well. Each moment drives the next and each character seems to have qualities that attract the viewer to their personality. In all it makes for an interesting twist on the sometimes conventional thriller drama. What makes this different is that in many films similar to this genre we see directors use a much more straight forward approach to thrilling sequences and events, unlike Europa in which the sequences play out often very unconventionally. Lars Von Trier with this film has shown that he is an Auteur with his own unique style.
This film is rather challenging to watch at times because it can be very confusing and not necessarily straight to the point, yet it is classic cinema that cannot be overlooked due to its unique style. It is a film that I would recommend for others to watch, but I think it would be difficult to watch if you didn’t go into it with an open mind. As I have mentioned several times, this film is very experimental. Experimental films very rarely get the spotlight of the mainstream and this film was no exception.Von Trier even believed he was snubbed by the Cannes film festival when it was not selected for the top film honor. Whether or not it deserves that kind of honor is not up for me to decide but after viewing this film twice now I feel that it is a classic film that should receive precise and orderly examination. Lars Von Trier’s artistic integrity cannot be challenged, due to his ability to make such a striking and enticing film.