Lars von Trier’s fever dream of the wreckage of postwar Europe begins with a portentous Max von Sydow voiceover—not really narration but the commands of a hypnotist/god—as railroad tracks illuminated by a locomotive headlight whiz by. The putative addressee, young Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), is a naïf who arrives in a ruined (and ruinous) Germany in the fall of 1945. “All Germans will hate you,” and quite understandably, Leo is told by the comically officious uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) who procures for him the demanding job of sleeping-car conductor with the newly revived Zentropa railway company, Uncle Kessler’s employer and a metaphor for…something, obviously (the continent, defeated Deutschland, the unvanquished losers of wars through the ages who look for new paths to ascendance?) “It’s time someone showed this country a little kindness,” Leo sappily prescribes, a charitable instinct he comes to regret when his destiny is entwined with Zentropa’s controlling Hartmann family, most darkly with cool siren Katharina (Barbara Sukowa), whose link to the pro-Nazi “Werewolf” terrorists eventually draws the American interloper into the deadly grasp of saboteurs.
The concluding film in a Europe Trilogy begun with The Element of Crime and Epidemic, Europa has a singular look dominated by the actors’ placement in a multi-planed mise-en-scène employing front and rear projection, restless tracking shots, and a few lurid intrusions of color (the reds of blood and emergency brakes) in its silver-and-gray, eternal-night monochrome. Leopold, played with alternating blankness and sweaty ill ease by Barr, is possibly descended from Henry James’s innocent Americans abroad; his identity as a Yank out of uniform—an Other, but not an occupier—seems to make him a natural mark for the violent conspirators, and a confessor to femme fatale Katharina and her haunted brother (Udo Kier). In contrast, an American colonel (Eddie Constantine) who aids the Zentropa patriarch in covering up a Reich-entwined history chuckles, “Germans killing Germans, that doesn’t bother me.”
But despite its visual flair and outrageous episodes (a wintry wedding in a bombed-out cathedral reminiscent of Vertigo, war-weary throngs clinging to railway cars like barnacles, a clumsy child assassin), Europa’s total effect is one of prettified, hollowed-out Kafka. Its playfulness and sleight of camera evoke Welles and wartime romantic thrillers like Casablanca rather than build a resonant metaphor for German guilt and accountability. While this Cannes breakthrough’s inventive tricks aren’t as ugly as the sub-Brechtian shenanigans that followed in Dancer in the Dark and Dogville, von Trier and his three cinematographers fashioned a handmade, retro pastiche with a small, dried-out heart. When Leo walks through his train and encounters visions of concentration-camp-bound prisoners in “carriages [he] never knew existed,” it feels cheap; the German moral tragedy of the Nazi era is obscured by the movie’s ostentatious arsenal of tricks and toys.
The lustrous black-and-white images, along with an indelibly colorful entrance by Barbara Sukowa as a literally smokin’ redhead, are easily the most enduring asset of the film, and they’re frequently spectacular in Criterion’s restored transfer. The stereo mix offers a sharp panoply of sound effects, Joachim Holbek’s Herrmannesque score, and the unnerving intonations of Max von Sydow.
The subtitled commentary track features the director and producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen, who quips about a lighting effect, "That was back when the pictures mattered to you." Both are in jokey, self-deprecatory mode throughout, recalling the movie’s byzantine international financing, an acting teacher slapping juvenile extras, and Udo Kier’s drunken fall down a staircase. The first of two 1991 Danish TV docs is a making-of which compares von Trier to Europa’s narrating hypnotist and chronicles all-night location shooting at Polish railyards and a WWII-damaged cathedral. The other is an interview where von Trier discusses the Europe Trilogy’s theme of idealists failing as saviors, and is seen at his Cannes press conference declaring that he is "not a thinking man."
Retrospective featurettes include competing opinions by the filmmaker’s colleagues over whether he’s a petulant asshole or a playacting sweetheart, and their Europa anecdotes of near-deadly mishaps, receiving canned food from Denmark during their stay in a dire patch of Poland (also memorialized with the bluntly-titled video The Faecal Location), and smuggling guns for the shoot through East Germany. Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen compares working for Carl Dreyer and von Trier, and composer Joachim Holbek talks of how his score’s romanticism complements the actors’ underplaying. Perhaps most compelling is a recent von Trier interview where, after reminiscing about his film-school manias for Tarkovsky and the creation of "fucking mythological" images, he expresses middle-aged qualms about the Europe Trilogy: "They’re stylized in a way I don’t like at all," and Europa seems like "the coldest film I’ve done." Howard Hampton’s booklet essay unleashes a score of pop comparisons (Bowie, The Third Man, Hitchcock) while admiring the movie’s teetering on the brink of becoming "a finely wrought Plan 9 from Occupied Europe."
The future Dogme 95 king’s last work of crafty artifice: less than meets the eye.