Thursday, February 10, 2011

Europa. (1991) Lars von Trier

I'm gonna have some splainin' ta do.

So before I talk about Europa and why I think it's worthwhile (or not), let me first approach the confessional booth like a dogme filmmaker breaking a vow of chastity:

I've been aiming to only cover black and white films this February. This film is not entirely black and white. It is, shall we say, mostly black and white. But splashes of color are gingerly brushed in as the mood of the moment dictates. (And together, the two styles are an engaging combo, I might add.)

The film is still in line with themes I've been aiming for this February. At least, it feels like it is in my head. The monster movies have been out there. Lynch is most certainly out there. And if in my last post I called Eraserhead the film I'm still most fascinated with, then Lars von Trier is the director I unapologetically remain most fascinated with.

Europa, called Zentropa when it came to theaters two decades ago, was a step into the big-time for von Trier. It was the third film in his first trilogy, but it would break out of Scandinavia in a way the first two films never could. Made with a bigger budget, a more polished film crew, and shot mostly in a foreign land (Poland) with 500 extras on the set, it would send the great Dane into notoriety at Cannes for one of his first great wins on the world's greatest film stage.

Poland in 1990 was a perfect choice for locations that looked like Germany at the end of the second World War. I was in Poznań playing music in the winter of 1990 and I assure you there were places that still looked devastated. I remember taking a taxi through the outskirts of the city late one night, and my view through the falling snow was that of dilapidated buildings, even 45 years later.

The location and the setting are worth mentioning because the strength of Europa is in its presentation -- not just that of a land that still looks wasted from war, but the way that place is captured and presented to its audience. The strength of Europa is in von Trier's urge to present an engaging film experience, mostly through sight and sound. The story, though good, is somewhat in the background to the actual experience at hand.

We meet Leo, an American in Germany, working for the Zentropa train line. During the war, Zentropa was used for transporting Jews in cattle trains to concentration camps. The war has ended, the German nation is in disarray, and these days much of the train's use is in transporting American officers first class as they watch out for "werwolfs" -- a resistance that won't end the fight even though the war is officially over.

Leo came to Germany as some kind of human symbol of peace and unification. He seems genuinely interested in lending a hand to the country. He's somewhat innocent, maybe naive in his desire to be a comfort to a traumatized land. He quickly learns that the war may have ended, but it doesn't mean there aren't sides that still want him for their cause. He falls in love with a woman who seems to flirt in the camp of the werwolfs, and like a sheep to the slaughter he feels a tug from both sides, when all he wanted was peace for all.

Europa might be about Germany and the war, and it might actually be about post-WWII Europe in general, but it has the look and feel of a classic American film noir. Well, strike the word "classic" from that last sentence. It's a noir, but updated with every trick in the book that a film can pull off half a century after classic noir. If you haven't seen Europa, it might help you to know that my recent viewing reminded me of another film that carries the same style: Sin City. Although that film is far more bloody and violent, it seems like it must have borrowed heavily from Europa.

The visuals are key to the enjoyment of this film, and that's what I remember from when I first saw it twenty years ago: Silhouetted lighting sets the visual tempo of a noir, but the modern is captured in subtle split screens, front projection against matted backgrounds, remote control cameras rotating on ceilings, and shots that seamlessly glide through windows, turning corners for an entirely different view. Walking platforms are often used as characters stroll along in color against archived film or black and white Poland in the background. The trick visuals and lighting are extraordinary in Europa, and it's fun to see von Trier in his youth and in his element. At this time in life he's still experimenting, still looking for the "zip." He's already trying to prove he's the greatest director in the world.

The shots are hypnotic, matching a hypnotist who narrates. This is one for the film school students still looking to be impressed.

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