10 February 2006 | UlrikSander
The culmination of Lars Von Trier's period of perfectionism -- 9/10
Storyline: Max von Sydow's voice-over narration hypnotizes the protagonist (and audience) back to 1945 where our protagonist the young American ideologist Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) has just arrived in post-WWII 1945 Germany to help rebuilding the damaged country. Uncle Kessler (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) supplies Leopold with a job in the big Zentropa train corporation, but soon Leopold falls in love with Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa); daughter of Zentropa owner Max Hartmann (Jørgen Reenberg). Leopold soon finds himself caught in a web of corruption, being taken advantage of, losing his ideology, and is forced to chose between pest or colera.
Mysterious, mesmerizing, manipulative, noirish, haunting, beautiful, and ugly. These are some immediate, grandiose, descriptions that come to mind when thinking of Lars von Trier's 1991 masterpiece EUROPA; the final chapter of the Europa trilogy. In USA it was retitled ZENTROPA so audiences wouldn't confuse it with Agnieszka Holland's EUROPA EUROPA from 1990 (equally a WWII drama). The Europa trilogy also consists of FORBRYDELSENS ELEMENT from 1984 and EPIDEMIC from 1987 (the infamous experiment that only sold 900 tickets in the Danish cinemas). The trilogy thematically deals with hypnotism and loss of idealism, although the themes of this trilogy are not as essential as the visuals. In the opening-shot of EUROPA we see a locomotive moving towards us while our unidentified narrator literally hypnotizes us: "On the mental count of ten, you will be in Europa. Be there at ten. I say: ten". A metaphor for movies' ability to transport us into a subconscious dream-reality.
EUROPA utilizes a strange but extremely effective visual style -- that famous Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky is Trier's main-influence says it all. It's a black-and-white movie occasionally intertwined with red in form of blood, a red dress etc. According to rumors this inspired Steven Spielberg to use the similar effect in SHINDLER'S LIST from 1993 (coincidentially another WWII drama). Furthermore Trier uses so-called Dutch angels and reinvents background-projection by adding separately shot co-operating layers upon layers, but unlike old Hollywood movies that incorporated it for economical reasons, Trier uses it for artistic reasons. These carefully executed strange-looking visual techniques underline that we are in a dream-reality, we are hypnotized; the universe of EUROPA is not real! EUROPA is often criticized for weighing advanced technique (such as multi-layered background-projection) above plot and characters, but hey that's what reviewers criticized Stanley Kubrick's 1968 visual masterpiece 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY for -- nowadays it holds an obligatory place in all cinema-history books.
EUROPA also gets accused of historical incorrectness. Apparently Trier assigns the Nazis' Werewolf terrorist-group too much historical significance. According to various online-sources that's correct (a fascinating subject - try Googl'ing it yourself!), yet Trier's purposes are neither educational nor portraying history accurately. EUROPA is a never-ending nightmare. Leopold Kessler is hypnotized, therefore the universe that the audience encounters is a distorted reality. Equally it shows how our memory deceives us -- a 100% accurate reconstruction is a lie! Although young audiences who experience EUROPA are too young to have memories from WWII, we have a collective memory of it from various BBC documentaries, so these small inaccuracies actually serve a purpose: they inform us us that we are not in post-WWII Germany 1945, but in Leopolds memory of it.
All three Europa trilogy chapters portray young ideologists with noble intentions forced into corruption and losing their ideological innocence. The ambiguous endings of FORBRYDELSENS ELEMENT and EUROPA show the ideologists getting forever caught in their hypnotized realities. Before, during and after shooting EUROPA in 1990 in Poland, Lars von Trier and co-writer Niels Vørsel were extremely interested in WWII. It shows. It's packed with extremely beautiful shots catching the atmosphere of the time-period spot-on. A great example is the old Polish church (EUROPA was shot in Poland primarily for economic reasons) in the last act of EUROPA. As with 2001: SPACE ODYSSEY I think EUROPA will receive it's rightfully deserved place in cinema-history. Its method of twisting old film-noir love-affair clichés and visual techniques is so unique, strange and completely different from anything you will see from Hollywood nowadays, or any other dream-factory for that matter.
EUROPA is an essential movie in the Lars von Trier catalog. Some write it off as pure commercial speculation, but that would be catastrophic. It's right up there with other Trier classics and semi-classics such as FORBRYDELSENS ELEMENT from 1984, the TV-series RIGET from 1993 and DOGVILLE from 2003. It's a unique experience from before Trier cared for his actors, and before the Dogme95 Manifesto. Watch it! "On the count of ten..." 9/10