Seduction by locomotive. Gliding on silvery reels of steel, tricked out with Lars von Trier’s stated panoply of “front and back projections, double exposure, and clearly choreographed camera movements to break down the realistic frame,” Europa ravishes with its elaborately storyboarded tunnel vision. Herr Director is the soul of discretion and modesty: “Of course I borrow, for a moment, Hitchcock’s camera and place it in a landscape by Tarkovsky, but something happens in that process.” What’s unique about this hyperderivative movie is how fluidly it melds the postmodern with the old-fashioned, so the anachronistic and satirical elements don’t cancel each other out but mysteriously enhance the suspension of disbelief. The alchemy of highly metabolized artifice and absurdist chic in this international 1991 production fabricates a playful architecture of doom from cinema and pop culture’s baggage compartment: a trans-Europa express that has the homespun warmth of Kraftwerk, the pious ethics of Dr. Mabuse, the meek introversion of Diva, the down-to-earth attitude of Vertigo, and the courtly manners of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.”
The words—make that deep cushiony-leather tones—of the film’s narrator-analyst-hypnotist suck us in, an enticing murmur beckoning us back, back, into a past that never was. In Europa (or Zentropa, as it was known in American release) but not of it, we’re again children in a bedtime-story world, listening to clarion notes ringing like a broken alarm clock. Asleep or awake? Can’t tell. Either way, something bad is going to happen. Something exciting, too, a consummation devoutly wished, or dreamt. Christmas morn, Germany, 1945: everything in the mind’s eye glistens, even the ruins—especially the ruins. Goose bumps are on the march as we tingle with an eight-year-old’s delicious anticipation of receiving his first model train set from a wicked stepmother in a gossamer negligee. Europa infantilizes as it seduces, dispensing the irrational in smartly streamlined doses, using sophistication as an overpowering tool for reducing the moviegoer to virginal putty in the director’s hands.
When von Trier made Europa, he was still very much an unknown quantity—a wunderkind without portfolio. The Element of Crime (1984) was a knockout first feature, a heavily calculated calling-card film: the Danish director made it in English, and utilized a stylized sepia look and mock-noir tone that in retrospect seem to anticipate much of the mental landscape of the graphic novel. He then made Epidemic (1987), a more “private” film no less adroit at juggling wholly incongruous elements (Dreyer, Wagner, horror show, self-referential in-jokes): your garden variety Scandinavian art film that mutates into Army of Darkness. What links the three “E” films is the puckish consciousness of their own cinematic apparatus, a sensual morbidity, and that stubborn, irrepressible hypnotism fetish.
From the start, attaching the tacky “von” to his name like a forged royal crest, the director set out to establish himself as a chameleon with no commitment to any particular style or aesthetic except that of self-reinvention. In this he resembled David Bowie more than any cinematic figure: performing the role of auteur to the droll, fiendish hilt, directing with the histrionic pantomime conviction of someone lip-synching “The Man Who Sold the World.” Europa wrapped up the very loosely constituted end-of-European-civilization trilogy (the coroner’s report indicating either suicide or “death by misadventure”), and it marked his last thorough engagement with cinema as entertainment (even if as a baroque agent provocateur). But with Breaking the Waves (1996), he found his true cruel vocation in a glamorized Bergman-Dreyer synthesis of female martyrdom and devoutly heretical melodrama. Notwithstanding the “vow of chastity” feint of his pseudoexperimental The Idiots, he has secured his everlasting niche in film history as the master of high-profile abasement. What can an unbeliever say in the supremely confident, upside-down smiley face of Dancer in the Dark or Dogville (the very title mocking his Dogme manifesto) or Mandingo (oops, I meant Manderlay) save to note that when poor Britney Spears shaved her head in public, she was either paying him fruitcake homage or auditioning for a starring role: Toto, I don’t think we’re in Europa anymore.
Indeed, Europa’s back-projected German wasteland is a more self-conscious—cryptically perverse—variant on the pluperfect trance state perfected by movies like The Wizard of Oz, not to mention Casablanca and Notorious. A completely self-contained universe of seamlessly gratifying myth, eternity at 24 frames per second, it dissolves rationality the way a smokestack melts snow. It calls out from the blackest endless night, where Strangers on a Train is fated to intersect with Wings of Desire. (Only, angels don’t have wings here, Nazis do.) Rainy, bombed-out black-and-white images suddenly hemorrhage color, filling the screen or maybe leaking just enough inky tint to draw our eyes to some small, strategic part of the frame—a bullet on the floor, a train’s emergency brake. The widescreen image has seldom seemed more claustrophobic and imprisoning, a cluttered death row of unsuspecting offenders where orderly rituals, bureaucratic niceties, and institutional rule books are thrown out the window, but to no avail: the stay of mass execution never arrives.
Pellucid, luscious, and overloaded, this celluloid siren song could be Bowie’s “Heroes” arranged by Bernard Herrmann: a male Dorothy smuggled into the sinister post–World War II Oz of The Third Man, which in turn has taken on a touch of the enchanted, decomposing air of Eraserhead. (Von Trier, ever the hustler iconoclast, professed to detest Eraserhead and dislike Citizen Kane but had no compunction about using them for his own ends, salvaging devices from those pictures like a misanthropic scrap dealer.) Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr’s naïf hero, the open-faced image of noxious innocence) is thrown to the Werewolves—dead-end Nazi partisans who refuse to concede defeat, and conduct a campaign of terror, sabotage, and graffiti against the American occupation—as well as industrialist Max Hartmann’s ravenous family.
Hartmann is the soon-to-be-late proprietor of the Zentropa railway line, which idealistic young American émigré Kessler has come to work for as an apprentice sleeping-car conductor. (The term “sleeping-car conductor” alone is charged with enough symbolic significance to sink a more earnest film.) Hartmann’s icy-hot femme fatale daughter Kat (Barbara Sukowa) has ties to the Werewolves herself. A noir perfume advertisement with velvet claws, capped teeth, and luxuriant lupine hairdo, Sukowa isn’t playing a character but a pose of war-weary glamour wrapped in a veil of desperation and mottled danger, channeling Hanna Schygulla channeling Marlene Dietrich—overmatched, inexperienced Kessler has no chance against her wiles. (The prim stiffness of her German-English accent is a disarming quirk, humanizing her scary beauty.) For von Trier, “the past and the image of an actor mean a great deal,” so associations are piled up in tottering wedding-cake layers: Udo Kier not only stands in for Peter Lorre, he brings with him a bread-crumb trail of Fassbinder and Warhol (well, Paul Morrissey) connections.
Approximating and even improving on the omniscient tone of latter-day Orson Welles, guiding us through the convoluted action and plucking the psyche’s strings, there is Bergman’s old knight-errant/magician/alter ego Max von Sydow. Alphaville’s Eddie Constantine, face cratered with age and hard living, plays an American colonel/fixer who is so soft-spoken, considerate, and vacuously fair-minded (“You meet so many sensible Germans these days”) he lulls everyone into underestimating him. Ernst-Hugo Järegård does what amounts to a monstrous revision of Casablanca’s S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as Kessler’s imperious uncle, who is his supervisor on the train, the classic fussbudget turned into a seedy, officious, domineering troll—a brusque, impossible figure out of Kafka, aptly enough since von Trier meant this movie as Amerika in reverse, the wide-eyed young man attempting to make a fresh start amid the bankrupt rubble and incomprehensible oaths (to him, anyway) of the Old World.
Also on board is cinematographer Henning Bendtsen, who had worked with the incomparable Carl Theodor Dreyer, von Trier’s favorite director (prized for his “honesty”; what that word could possibly mean in this house of games, as far from Gertrud as it is possible to imagine, is anybody’s guess). Von Trier hired people not only to execute what he called Europa’s “cartoonlike aesthetic” but to actively resist it as well: “Henning really works against my ideas. It’s the same with some of the actors: I like to have them work against my films because that’s when some interesting things start to happen.” Bendtsen lends the film a spirit of gravitas that counterbalances von Trier’s zippier pop conceptions (Barr racing against the backdrop of a clock, a billboard-sized projection of Sukowa’s face looming over him like a Lichtenstein painting, the tiny boy assassin who shoots a newly appointed Jewish mayor and faces off against the grainy, back-projected image of outsize soldiers). The cinematography refuses to make everything too shiny and hard, forging a tension that gives this dizzying, sometimes maddening film the peculiar equilibrium of a recurring nightmare.
Diagram this supremely excessive movie on a blackboard, and you’d have so many overlapping lines of attack, equations, and breathless opposing plot points it would look like a pack rat’s nest. The screenplay ran to 600 minutely detailed pages, with 200 pages of storyboards. Or maybe it was 1,000 pages altogether: like the “big one” in a fisherman’s yarn, it grew with each recounting. No wonder Europa’s catchall web of allusions, artistic cannibalism, and widespread déjà vu can induce a certain motion sickness, or possibly emotion-deficit syndrome. (Maybe it should come with a box of Dramamine, though come to think of it, that’s what von Sydow’s voice is for: relax, as ’tis written in the Liverpool Book of the Dead, and float downstream.)
Some people are seduced, others feel molested—as if the sanctity of the film medium itself had been violated, or one of its priests had violated them. The suspicion cannot be escaped that von Trier is up to no good with his wizardly trick shots and corkscrew dollies and willingness to play the good old Euro-anguish, last-train-from-Auschwitz blues for black laughter. J. Hoberman approvingly thought this brazen effort to revive “the primitive magic of popular cinema” aspired to Fassbinder’s “flashy hubris.” It’s not laughing at the victims of history but the marks, the suckers, the idealists, the lofty Wagnerians, the sectarian rationalists—the good volk who vant to believe in some Supreme Abstraction at any cost. Which makes Europa a gloss, inadvertent or not, on the gnarled, epochal, transcendentalist mausoleums (crematoriums?) such as Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Hitler: A Film from Germany and Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma: in the analyst-dictator attitude struck by von Sydow, Freud and Hitler, the twin poles of the twentieth-century mental landscape, at last meet. Below the subconscious mind, anticonsciousness: the death instinct rising up out of all that philosophy and poetry and romantic violin music in Europa’s mini Götterdämmerung—a slapstick Götterdämmerung at that.
David Thomson wrote in the 1994 edition of A Biographical Dictionary of Film (on the basis of this and the earlier Element of Crime) that von Trier was “brilliant in a way that gives the term a bad name. He knows no reality—only film. His movies only refer back to the accumulated culture of all those split seconds.” Couldn’t you say as much about Godard and Eisenstein and half the great movie-mad directors? (Ideology isn’t a higher form of the real, it’s the opiate of the intellectuals.) Thomson claimed von Trier’s hollow-point aesthetic “may have more to do with personal and private dysfunction” than anything else, but if this is a sickness, it’s just a slightly more advanced stage of the then emergent Movie Brat epidemic that included the Coen brothers (Barton Fink could be avant Hollywood’s answer film to Europa: insufferable nebbish lead, pinball formalization, Faulkner-Odets potshots, stereotype-mongering, and a classic hallway rampage), Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, P. T. Anderson, and countless Asian auteurs past and present. Pop metaphysicians who push the malpractice envelope with every project, they’ve cultivated a raffish, raked-over milieu that indiscriminately scrounges off art films the way art films once borrowed from B movies and pulp.
Europa triumphs as the last beautiful, untrustworthy gasp of film noir and the first salvo of a postmod metathriller genre that never quite got around to materializing (a clueless Kessler of a film such as Soderbergh’s The Good German exists only to make von Trier’s opus look that much better). Europa deploys the trappings of grandiosity and genius in order to trap us—to make us surrender our better judgment and give in to the cheapest ploys in the book. Then it lets us know that, just like the deserving-exactly-what-he-gets sleeping-car conductor, we’ve been had seven ways from Sunday. What makes this Welles/Ed Wood mock-up such an ebullient ride right to the bottom of the river lies in how persuasive a simulation it is of a (if not the) greatest-movie-ever-made, and in the weirdly complementary sense that this whole enterprise is just one over-the-top slip away from unraveling into a finely wrought Plan 9 from Occupied Europe.
Howard Hampton is the author of Born In Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses.