AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
CANNES 1991 – THE 44th INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
EUROPA – ZENTROPA
by Harlan Kennedy
A scrawny-looking Dane with an Auschwitz haircut and murky smile twice mounted the stage on prize night at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. For his third feature film, Lars Von Trier, 34, won a Prix de Supérieur Technique (which he handed to a colleague, saying, "He has worked on all my films and he is very technical") and a Prix du Jury. He didn't look happy at either award. But then, like many of us, he probably thought Europa had a chance at the Golden Palm, and the hell with these palmettos.
Europa, stylistically the most dazzling film seen at Cannes for years, is a trip along the twin scenic routes of myth and history. It's about a journey of illusion that provides lightning glimpses, from a darkling parallel track, of the reality-track humanity so often leaves behind-especially when rebuilding the social-political infrastructure after a world war or related conflagration.
The film is about the present thinly disguised as the past. The "Europe 1945" setting vouchsafes a continent in chaos searching for unity, just like Europe 1991 pre-federalization. And the film is also about the U.S.A. then and now. The postwar world's policeman-peacekeeper, embodied in an American hero played with goofball sweetness by Jean-Marc Barr (Hope and Glory, The Big Blue), is a one-man walking Marshall Plan. His and America's function: to step into any and every international quagmire (call us anytime) and set it to rights.
The tongue-in-cheek all-inclusiveness of the story and setting conveys itself to the style. Europa is a film so extravagantly playful that it seems like a fire-sale of postmodernist tropes. Strewn with narrative non sequiturs and casual apocalypses, it is to postwar Europe what Twin Peaks is to small-town America. Its lexicon of visual artifices-front and back projection, color-and-monochrome mixes, surrealist sets, Wellesian shots in which the camera threads the unthreadable – suggests that Von Trier has studied every breakthrough-baroque film from Citizen Kane to Blue Velvet via Vertigo, and refused to tuck their ornate influences tidily away.
But if Europa is high on metacinema (cinema about cinema about cinema), it's also high on metaphysics. Its young U.S. hero, arriving in postwar Berlin to take a railway job with his German uncle, is coming to play his tiny part in rebuilding Europe. But he's also coming, less wittingly, to plug the West into a culture whose doomy romanticism, enhanced by a world-war Götterdämmerung, is as rich, rotten, and fructifying as manure.
Europa is a deliciously mischievous primer of twilight-imperial Teutonic tones, from Wagner to Wedekind to Kafka. Wagner inspires the film's mock-inspirational music moments, as when the train giantized by low-angle shots is first pulled from its shed. Wedekind is the model for the mercurial sexuality. And Kafka provides the nightmare matter-of-factness: the sense of a social-historical labyrinth patrolled by insane protocols and vetting processes.
Stylistically, the film pays homage to between-wars Europe's greatest cinematic gift to the West: film noir. Shot like a rain-slicked Walpurgisnacht, Europa is about the dangerous charm of Europhilia: its tendency, noted by commentators as diverse as Henry James, Mary McCarthy, and Paul (The Comfort of Strangers) Schrader, to shake the innocent visitor into profundities of self-contemplation.
In his 1984 first feature The Element of Crime, Von Trier pushed a lumpen Anglo-Saxon detective (Michael Elphick) into a Euroworld of shadows and catalyzing intrigue. In Europa Jean-Marc Barr is caught in a tug-of-war between loyalties. For the Americans he's a minor, useful tool to help in Europe's reconstruction. For the unrepentant Nazis he is something else. As an aspiring sleeping-car conductor on Zentropa Railway's Berlin-Frankfurt run, he is required not just to pass the literal vocational tests (with the aid of two dotty Kafkaesque examiners) but to help "switch points," metaphorically speaking, so that postwar Germany can reroute itself onto a branch line of glamorous myth.
Glamour in Europa comes in the shape of Barbara Sukowa, every inch a cod Dietrich, as the beautiful Zentropa heiress who snares Barr into love, marriage, and political connivance. When not tending her guilt-haunted father and his Freudian toy railway upstairs, Miss S works for the so-called "Werewolves" – unreconstructed Nazi sympathizers who carry out terrorist attacks and whose captured members are martyred by hanging.
Meanwhile – in the best ripping-yarn tradition, Europa is full of meanwhiles – the rival mythic branch line being built through mid-Forties Germany is an Allied initiative under guidance from Colonel Eddie Constantine. Constantine, here resembling Dwight D. Eisenhower after a cosmetic-surgery experiment with a bullfrog (it didn't work), is busy passing out "Were you a Nazi?" questionnaires. He fakes their completion when he needs to exonerate and recruit a U.S.-useful German tycoon, like Sukowa's own father Hartmann.
So while history pounds on towards a yet-unguessable future, each of these rival mythic track-layers tries to persuade Germany/Europe to go his way. To continue honoring its brutal nationalistic past (the Werewolves). Or to pretend that it boasts a fully reformed present (Constantine).
The film sees railways as the perfect metaphor for that demotic monomania whereby we each try to railroad reality into a personal or collective mythology. But as used by Von Trier, the railway motif becomes far richer even than this. Trains are popular in movies because they're like the moviegoing experience itself. Inside a sheltered, unchanging capsule, four or five hundred people watch moving pictures through rectangular screens.
This two-plane reality – the "safe" capsule-habitat and the "dangerous," changing view outside-is at the heart of Europa's stylistic strategy. One running gag involves the hero's constant pulling-up of windowshades, only for them to be yanked down again by the movie's batty authority figures. "There is nothing to see!" his uncle keeps snapping. Another leitmotif is Von Trier's use of back and front projection and superimposition to vary the visual dynamics of conversation scenes. Barr and Sukowa, though talking to each other in the same train compartment at the same time, take turns at being the "filmed" image on a rear screen. The neo-Hitchcockian joke is relished by Von Trier. "What you say seems to come from a place far away," croons a foreground Sukowa, in color, to a lost-looking Barr rear-projected in black and white.
The director uses the technique not just for dialogue but for high drama. A Werewolf boy is planted on the train to assassinate a mayor. As the bullets he's loading accidentally fall to the floor, a change-of-shot shows them magnified and colored in the foreground while a monochrome projection depicts the startled passengers in the background. The ensuing shots elaborate the visual conceit in a whirlwind montage, adding surreal distortions of perspective: e.g., boy (color, foreground) firing at giant, door-bursting train guards (black-and-white, back-projected).
Even these descriptions simplify the multiplicity of techniques in use. "Sometimes, Von Trier has pointed out, "we have up to seven layers of images in black and white and color. We can thus combine two or more images filmed with different lenses, such as a background shot with a telephoto lens and a foreground shot with wide-angle."
Von Trier grants himself the license to be oneiric from the movie's opening. If hallucination is one device in the film, hypnosis is another. "At the count of ten you will be in Europa," drones the voice of Max Von Sydow, as soothing as Dr. Mesmer, over a film of a moving railtrack. And the somnambulant Swede continues to strike up throughout the film with phrases like "Go deeper" and "Deeper still:' He's even there at the train-crash-and-death-by-drowning finale; when Barr, having blown himself out of the train's protective capsule of illusion, goes "deeper" indeed, into the waters of release and annihilation.
The use of a narrator, albeit a bizarre one, allows the film to be a caprice within a caprice. The tone of Europa is at once deadly serious and completely nonsensical: a New Yorker Glen Baxter cartoon crossed with a Jorge Luis Borges story. If the hero's train journeys are a parody-metaphor for human determinism – the hypnosis of historical helplessness – the punctuating outside-world scenes in Hartmann's mansion or amid the debris of war-wracked towns are cartoon-hallucinatory cutaways.
Here, in the waiting-rooms of history, mad powerbrokers sort out the world's next itineraries. By virtue of his multi-layer narrative and multiplane visuals, Von Trier can push the film's tone in almost any direction at almost any moment. It's like the finger-snap comedy-tragedy alternations in Pirandellós Six Characters in Search of an Author.
The film's most sheerly brilliant switchbacking sequence is set around Hartmann's midfilm suicide. The sequence starts and ends with two single-shot coups de cinéma. In the first, the camera descends from the toy-railway room, where Barr and Sukowa are about to make love, through the floor into the bathroom below, where the monochrome image (now revealed as a back projection) is broken up by a colored hand-and-razor rearing up in the foreground. In the concluding shot, color seeps into a black-and-white shot of Barr, Sukowa, and others rushing to the locked bathroom door, while the camera simultaneously rises to a point above the wall to watch a sea of red blood flood out under the door.
Von Trier's strategy with color is to sketch or splash it in at high-intensity points. (Or to highlight a key object, like a red communication-alarm on the train.) Once this surreal license with color has been taken, Von Trier tries even bolder style-stretchers. The back and front projection serve not just to tweak reality into subtle distortions but to skywrite startling artifices. In one shot Sukowa's face, filling the screen in soft-focus monochrome, becomes a reverie-backdrop for Barr sitting in a small corner at screen left. And later a single word – WEREWOLF – is unscrolled giant and genielike behind Barr as if his mind has just been rubbed by the idée fixe to ejaculation point.
Von Trier even uses multiple-projection for narrative ellipses. The midnight sky and river against which Barr and Sukowa stand in one scene, gazing into each other's eyes, dissolves into the magnified face of a priest, to whom the couple then turn to announce their marriage vows.
What's exciting about Europa is the sense it conveys of a knock-on stylistic freedom. One poetic license prompts another, yet the film never collapses into a heap of illusionist tricks. One reason is the skill with which we are outflanked and surprised. The other is that the very subjects of this movie are chaos and illusionism. What Von Trier is examining, in the guise of a story about the immediate postwar West, is the chaos and illusionism of the present-day West.
At its broadest, this relates to a world where frontiers are in flux as never before in the 50 years since V-E Day. At its narrowest, it comments on the pentecostal pluralism of modern cinema itself. Europa is a coproduction with a vengeance: a Danish-Swedish-German film with a Canadian star and Polish locations. Yet far from providing (like most coprods) two hours of gobbledy-gook dubbed into Esperanto, the film uses its multination cast and bilingual dialogue (German, English) as an ironic, many-colored sonic palette.
As the pre-millennial Western world melts into political and cultural harmony (we should be so lucky), here is a film-maker celebrating the mad determination with which human beings stay different while swearing detente. Europa is about the Tower of Babel nervously eyeballing the United Nations Building; and about the world's need to build a line connecting the two. "The train now arriving at Platform 2000...."
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JULY-AUG 1991 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.