Europa: Criterion Collection
December 15, 2008
Most people associate Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier with the kitchen sink realism of Dogme films Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000), or the minimalist theatricality of Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005). However, before these films made him an international sensation, he was known for making very stylish films and this culminated with Europa (1991), which mixed black and white with colour and used rear-projection with surreal effect.
It is October 1945 and American Leopold Kessler (Barr) gets a job as a sleeping-car conductor for the Zentropa railways in Frankfurt, Germany. The specter of World War II still hangs heavy over the country and manifests itself in the hungry, desperate faces of people running alongside the train as it pulls out. It also manifests itself in the sight of two people hung by the neck with signs that read “werewolf” hanging off their bodies.
These shots set a tense, uneasy vibe early on that is reminiscent of a horror film, complete with a rear-projected German wasteland. Then, Von Trier plays with our expectations by messing around with the visuals. Kessler meets a mysterious woman named Katharina Hartmann (Sukowa) and with the black and white film stock she resembles a film noir femme fatale. However, Von Trier tweaks this by cutting to Kessler and he’s in colour while the background remains in black and white. It reminds one of the mixing of black and white and colour in Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish (1983) and Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), only upping the ante to an even more extreme level.
Europa is a post-modern mish-mash of various cinematic influences and styles as the director himself said, “Of course I borrow, for a moment, Hitchcock’s camera and place it in a landscape by Tarkovsky, but something happens in that process.” After this exercise in stylistic excess, it is no surprise that Von Trier decided to strip it all down with Breaking the Waves. In retrospect, what else could he have done?
Giving Europa an even more dreamy/nightmarish atmosphere is the ominous voiceover narration/hypnosis of Max von Sydow as he intones in the film’s opening frames, “You will listen to my voice. . .On the count of ten, you will be in Europa.” Is the entire film nothing but some Franz Kafa-esque nightmare taking place in Kessler’s head? It is hard to say as Von Trier offers no easy answers, forcing the viewer to surrender to the powerful visuals of Europa. Along the way, he references all kinds of films – if not explicitly, then in terms of mood and atmosphere, creating a truly avant garde film noir.
The first disc starts off with an audio commentary by director Lars von Trier and producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen. They talk about the film’s troubled beginnings and the struggle to get financing. They laugh and joke like old friends and tell all kinds of filming anecdotes, pointing out some of the techniques used to get certain shots. This is quite an entertaining and engaging track.
“The Making of Europa” is a 39-minute documentary made in 1991. Europa was seen as the last film of a trilogy that included The Element of Crime (1984) and Epidemic (1987). Von Trier shows how many of the images in the film were inspired by ones out of children’s’ books. He shot the fore and backgrounds separately and then merged them together which took some time. There is footage of Von Trier shooting exteriors in Poland. This doc really conveys what an impressive and technically challenging film it was to make.
Also included is a theatrical trailer.
The second disc begins with “Trier’s Element,” an interview with the filmmaker, including footage from the set of Europa and the press conference at its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991. He comes across as very smart and shrewd about how he is perceived. Von Trier comes up with some real gems like, “I like to turn shooting into something of a happening.” This featurette provides fascinating insight into his philosophy and working methods.
“Anecdotes from Europa” is a short documentary about the film’s production with the cast and crew talking about the experience. Jean-Marc Barr talks about what drew him to the film. Producer Peter Jensen talks about the challenge to get the film financed. This is an excellent look at how Europa came together.
“From Dreyer to Von Trier” features director of photography Henning Bendisen talking about working early in his career with the legendary Carl Theodor Dreyer and his later, final films with Von Trier. He also talks about his approach to filmmaking.
“The Emotional Music Script” is an interview with composer Joachim Holbek and he talks about his approach to the score for Europa. He says that he was influenced by modern ballet. Von Trier asked him to work on the film and discusses what it was like to collaborate with the director.
“Lars von Trier – Anecdotes” features various crew members, who have worked with the director over the years, sharing stories about him. As someone states, “Lars likes people to think he’s an asshole.” He’s also described as “a bit of a provocateur” and “a pain in the ass” by another. Early on, he hated working with actors and hardly spoke to them but has mellowed somewhat over time. However, one gets the feeling that his tyrant image is just that.
“A Conversation with Lars von Trier” was done in 2005 about the Europe trilogy. He talks about when he first got the idea to do three films. This is a pretty in-depth conversation that runs over 40 minutes. It is evident that he has lost little of the bemused provocateur over the years.
Finally, there is “Europa: The Faecal Location,” which features amusing footage of the cast and crew’s hotel rooms while shooting on location in Poland and the things they did to amuse themselves when not filming.