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.