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.