Monday, January 11, 2010
Europa (Zentropa) A Film by Lars Von Trier (1991)
How does a filmmaker induce a state of hypnosis in his audience, partial or otherwise? Ask Lars Von Trier, master of subtlety, and he'll tell you the easiest way is to literally attempt hypnosis via a blurred, repetitious image and a lulling narration. Such is the case with Europa, whose first five minutes are spent in this very manner, with Max Von Sydow's almighty basso advising us within a hesitated countdown to sink deeper into our own bodies, over a rapid traveling shot pointed straight down at a pair of train tracks. The intention is clear: Von Trier wants his audience to watch the fast approaching film (if we're going with the train analogy) under a spell. He does not want the film to be viewed under the consciousness that marks one's waking life, but rather a notch or two in the direction of the subconscious. This move is designed to approximate the somnambulistic quality of his lead character, Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an American pacifist who comes to postwar Germany in 1945 to take a job with his uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) as a sleeping-car conductor. Kessler tries with all his might to remain neutral to the simmer of political activity in the film, yet he is unknowingly pulled in several directions. He has come to Germany blindly, a stubborn American with scant knowledge regarding the state of the war-torn country he is entering.
Europa is the first film to introduce Von Trier's seemingly unfounded anti-Americanism, and his ploy of hypnosis comes off as a clumsy attempt to let the audience sympathize with Kessler. Given Kessler's intended lack of involvement, it is very likely that Von Trier is indicting Americans for not taking action against the Germans early enough, for allowing the continuation of the Holocaust. The biggest crime, then, is not taking a stance. This neutrality is put to the test however when Kessler finds himself romantically involved with the stone-cold, impersonal Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa), the daughter of Lawrence Hartmann (Udo Kier), the owner of the Zentropa train line which Kessler now works for. With the purpose of verifying his honest and non-judgmental nature, Katharina reveals her connection to the Werewolves, a subversive terrorist group who murders members of the allied forces. Kessler accepts her dissidence, if hesitantly, and marries her. Obviously, as the film progresses and Kessler becomes further entangled in the political plotting of those around him, he is forced into making a decision.
This is the general framework that the film follows, but it's nearly impossible to keep up with the minute-by-minute interactions of characters and new scenarios. Looking at the list of characters in the film, I find myself having trouble remembering half of them. I'd like to think that this is a natural byproduct of Von Trier's intentionally choppy, hazy narrative progression rather than my own viewing deficiency. Since we are experiencing the film through the eyes of Kessler, it is as much of a blur for us as it is for him. Von Trier blatantly intends for this confusion to occur, but whether that enhances the experience of the film is questionable. The only film to spectator relationship that occurs is a manipulator to manipulated one, guided along by Von Sydow's omnipresent narration, hinting at the construed artifice of the story (his voice exists on its own plane, frequently mocking the action or summarizing it objectively and only occasionally breaking through the barrier to speak directly to Kessler) and lending the story a sense of inevitability and fate. Since Von Trier's aspirations clearly amount to inducing a dream-state, a fantasia of a re-envisioned historical moment, this screen relationship is detrimental, for we are not manipulated in our dreams.
It is also troubling that Europa calls attention to itself so often. This has long been one of Von Trier's great weaknesses, his aggravating propensity to add unpleasant, distasteful elements to an otherwise interesting, well-constructed aesthetic. The maladroit attempts at hypnosis aside, Europa - which is shot in black-and-white for its majority - luxuriates in mindless switches to grainy color. Von Trier's application of color never achieves a rhyme or reason aside from his own giddy desire to mix things up. It would be inaccurate to say that black-and-white resembles nightmare while color resembles reality, or vice versa, because neither possibilities are backed up on screen; color is used so infrequently and in such unusual circumstances (one brief close-up, the middle of a scene which was previously in monochrome, not to mention individual frames which include both black-and-white faces and color faces) that it defies logic. The film also wears an influence in German Expressionism, Film Noir, and early silent cinema on its sleeve. A brief, superimposed image of Kessler sprinting across a back-projected clock embodies the classic Film Noir theme of racing against time, the luscious (and rather Hitchcockian) black-and-white imagery and use of looming close-ups recalls Murnau, and Sukowa's icy performance as the quasi-femme fatale seems to resurrect Marlene Dietrich (although, to be sure, it wasn't until 1992 that Dietrich passed).
For all of these cannibalistic elements, I couldn't help but imagine how well Europa would play alongside Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009) in a double feature. Both films utilize diverse tactics from film history to ostensibly strengthen their central conceits, both are revisionist, somewhat absurd World War II stories, both deal with a group of radical political activists (the Werewolves and the Basterds), and both involve an explosive finale resulting in the death of a mass of people (in Europa's case, this means the explosion of the train on a bridge, leading to an admittedly breathtaking scene of slow, painful drowning set to Von Sydow's God-like voice). Each work has its own merits as well as its own frustrations. In the end though, Inglourious Basterds would have to screen second, to emphasize how comprehensible, measured, and exciting it is by comparison.