Friday, May 22, 2009

DVD of the Week: "Europa" (Lars Von Trier, 1991)


by Brandon Colvin

In the wake of the recent Cannes tumult over his apparently incendiary horror film/Strindbergian chamber drama/brutally ironic comedy, Antichrist, Lars Von Trier has proclaimed himself (with a certain amount of sarcasm) the “greatest filmmaker in the world” – a controversial statement from the man who might be cinema’s most outrageous enfant terrible. My favorite Von Trier film, however, isn’t as transgressive as his Dogme and Dogme-esque films (Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998), Dancer in the Dark (2000)) or his experimentations with the stage and artifice (Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005)). Instead, Europa (1991) – the last film in Von Trier’s early trilogy also containing The Element of Crime (1984) and Epidemic (1987) – is a film that presents a classical Hollywood aesthetic wrapped in a Kafkaesque dream, a film that Entertainment Weekly fittingly described as “one part Casablanca, two parts Eraserhead.” Astonishingly, Europa actually lives up to its pedigree.

Finding the Danish auteur operating in a more robustly traditional mode of cinematic storytelling, Europa unravels the twilight reality of a surreal post-WWII Germany as American neutralist Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) takes a job as a sleeping car conductor on the Zentropa railway via the nepotistic actions of his uncle, a former Nazi. Photographed in vigorous and precise black-and-white, Leopold’s journey into the twisted circumstance of a defeated, yet defiant Germany is complicated by his romance with Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa), a relationship that plops him in the middle of an entanglement with a group of nationalistic terrorists known as the “Werewolves” and plunges Leopold into a power struggle that coaxes him out of his pacifistic complacency. Receiving less attention that many of Von Trier’s later, more abrasive works, Europa is disappointingly underrated (despite its recent Criterion release) in Von Trier’s oeuvre, and is relatively unseen considering its availability. I would advise queueing it up on Netflix to tide you over until Antichrist hits the states. I promise that by the time Max Von Sydow finishes his opening narration, you will be utterly hypnotized.

4 comments:

Chuck Williamson said...

Amen, Brandon. This movie is amazing, and surprisingly under-appreciated.

I believe one critic described ANTICHRIST as "baroqucoco," or something to that effect, and I believe EUROPA fits under that heading quite comfortably as well. Von Trier proves himself to be a virtuosic formalist with this film, and while I love his Dogme films (BREAKING THE WAVES will probably always be my favorite), but a small part of me looks forward to seeing Lars completely unrestrained again. This, along with THE KINGDOM (which is at the top of my Netflix queue right now), would probably make for the perfect primer to prepare everyone for the forthcoming release of ANTICHRIST (which I would probably kidnap a small child to see right about now).

Jacob Shoaf said...

IFC apparently bought the rights to Antichrist and they claim they'll bring it stateside unedited. Now we play the waiting game...

(And I'll get to this movie after finals week.)

James Hansen said...

Chuck- KINGDOM is fucking AWESOME. Prepare to be amazed. I'm a bit of an LVT fan boy (I've seen them all except for EPIDEMIC). I like EUROPA quite a lot too, but I'll take KINGDOM if I have to choose. Its funny to watch his "development." He really is a formal master in these early works and then switches gears really quickly and masters that too. Maybe he is the greatest filmmaker in the world...


Jacob- Watch away!

Also, anyone interested in his challenging of formal technique and playing with rules (cf. Dogme manifesto), the documentary THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS is well worth a watch.

Jeremy Richey said...

Great article Brandon, I have only seen this on once and it was years ago so you have made me want to give it another look. I really need to watch The Kingdom again.

I would be hard pressed to name my favorite Von Trier film but it would probably be a three-sided coin toss up between Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville. Predictable I know...also, I will join Chuck in on kidnapping that kid to see AntiChrist. I can't freaking wait.