Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: Europa (1991)

Europa (1991) ****
Directed by: Lars von Trier.
Written by: Lars von Trier & Niels Vørsel.
Starring: Jean-Marc Barr (Leopold Kessler), Barbara Sukowa (Katharina Hartmann), Udo Kier (Lawrence Hartmann), Ernst-Hugo Järegård (Uncle Kessler), Erik Mørk (Pater), Jørgen Reenberg (Max Hartmann), Henning Jensen (Siggy), Eddie Constantine (Colonel Harris), Max von Sydow (Narrator).

I am of two minds on Lars von Trier. On one hand, he is one of the most daring, innovative and ingenious filmmakers of his generation. No matter what one thinks of films like Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville or Antichrist, you cannot really remain neutral on them. He forces audiences to think, and react, and shoves his style down your throat for you to choke on. Personally, I have loved most of his films (I could have done without The Idiots and The Boss of It All, but other than that, it is a solid filmography), but I completely understand why people hate them. On the other hand, Lars von Trier seems like a spoiled child, who simply wants to piss people off. There is a certain degree of this in his films, but it is much more prevalent in his media interviews. The famed director has recently proclaimed “persona non grata” at the Cannes Film Festival (where he has debuted almost all of his film since his debut in 1984 – The Element of Crime) because he expressed sympathy for Hitler and proclaimed himself a Nazi. Now, if you actually read what he said, you’ll probably come to the same conclusion that I did – that this was just a poor joke gone horribly awry, but this is in essence what Trier has done his whole career – say incredibly stupid things. He’s like Sacha Baron Cohen playing Borat, or Joaquin Phoenix playing himself, except he lives like this all the time. You cannot take anything the man says seriously – even about his own films, because often what he says about them, and what’s onscreen is completely opposite of each other. The man simply enjoys pissing people off. This was true even in 1991, when the young filmmaker’s Europa won three prizes at the Cannes Film Festival – the Technical Grand Prize, Best Artistic Contribution and the Jury Prize (which is essentially third in the festival, losing the Palme to the Coen’s Barton Fink). So incensed was he that he did not win the Palme, that his acceptance speech was to give the jury the finger, and storm out of the awards ceremony. So when judging the work of Lars von Trier, I think it is necessary to separate the artist from the art – much like one has to do with Roman Polanski. Think Lars von Trier is a spoiled child or an asshole all you want, but I prefer to judge his work by what he puts on the screen, not on what he says at press conferences.

Europa is the most stylized of all of Trier’s films. The film is the complete opposite of the Dogme 95 films that he became known for later in the 1990s (and that thankfully, he has left behind as he went as far with them as he could). The film is hyper stylized, switching between color and black and white (often in the same scene), and using rear projection in some truly unique, innovative ways. The film is like an old Hitchcock movie, crossed with Franz Kafka – a surreal, paranoid thriller set just after WWII, in Germany where an idealistic young American, Leopold (Jean-Marc Barr) comes to Germany to show its people “a little kindness”. He takes a job as a sleeping car conductor on the Zentropa rail line  - the same rail line that was used to shuttle Jews to Concentration Camps during the war – and quickly gets in over his head. He meets, and falls in love with Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa), the daughter of the owner of the Zentropa railway. She seduces him, and soon after they are married, he becomes unwittingly involved with a pro-Nazi conspiracy, that aims to destroy the recently restored peace.

The storyline of Europa is purposely complex and confusing. People come in and out of the plot at various times, for various reasons, that serve to muddle the goings on. On one level, the film is very much inspired by the old Hitchcock movies, where a seemingly innocent man gets caught over his head. On another, the film is certainly inspired by Kafka – as seen in scenes involving Leopold’s hapless uncle, and the men who have come to give Leopold his “test” to end his probationary period. Comedy and tragedy are hand in hand here.

But, this being a Trier film, the morals are more complex than that. By the end of the film, when everything comes out, Leopold is accused of being the worst of anyone in the film – either pro-Nazi or anti-Nazi. “But I haven’t done anything!” he complains, and is told “Exactly”. Leopold has sat out the war, and is now sitting out its aftermath, trying to make everyone happy, be everyone’s friend, and in doing so is worse than anyone else. At least they all believe in SOMETHING.

Yet for me, when I think back on Europa, what I remember most are the visuals. They are intricate and complex, every shot visually fascinating and interesting. You could get lost in the visuals of the film, and simply sit back and ignore the plot and marvel at what exactly Trier has put on the screen. Trier’s first film The Element of Crime was a similar visual extraganza, but this one brings it to the next level.

Perhaps that is why Trier soon abandoned this hyper stylized work for the Dogme movement, and why, he abandoned the Dogme movement later on as well, and why after two films shot on an empty soundstage, he moved back to more traditional filmmaking with Antichrist, and supposedly his latest film Melancholia. Trier seems to like experimenting with his films, but eventually, he gets bored and moves on – trying to find another challenge for himself. I like the fact that Trier reinvents himself as a visual filmmaker every few years, even as his films remain thematically all part of a series – a progression. He is one of the most interesting filmmakers anywhere in the world right now. Yes, he’s an asshole. But then lots of people who are far less talented than he is are as well. Perhaps the price we have to pay for his films, is to listen to the man speak.

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