To Be Real

Steven Erickson on Lars von Trier's Europa

Lars von Trier, Europa, 1991, still from a black-and-white and color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes.

FLASHY AND DELIBERATELY UNREAL, Europa exemplifies a stylistic path quickly abandoned by its director, Lars von Trier. Four years after the film’s 1991 release, he coauthored the Dogme manifesto. Although von Trier wouldn’t make an official Dogme film until 1998, the manifesto’s influence, its emphasis on technical austerity and attention to narrative, was already apparent in Breaking the Waves (1996) and the television series The Kingdom (1994–97).

Europa takes place in Germany in 1945. Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), a German-American pacifist, has arrived in the country to work as a sleeping-car-train conductor. He soon becomes entangled in the Werewolves, a neo-Nazi terrorist group, who force him to carry out their bomb threats.

The film is full of complex camera movements, conspicuous rear projection, and actors shot in color posed against black-and-white backgrounds. Von Trier would soon leave such stylistic touches behind, but the main innovation of The Kingdom and Breaking the Waves was his usage of realist conventions to tell outlandish stories. Europa criticizes American do-gooder naïveté (in this regard, it’s a precursor to Manderlay [2005] and, to a lesser extent, Dogville [2003]), but one gets the sense that in von Trier’s world, grappling with history comes second to exploring the possibilities of camera movement and editing.

For all its devotion to directorial style, Europa is also impressive for the way it continually juggles narrative threads. The film’s final half hour is a nightmare that should strike a chord with anyone who has spent an afternoon at the DMV; von Trier seems as appalled by the persistence of Nazi ideology as he is by the German dedication to meaningless bureaucracy. One can see why von Trier found the antirealism of Europa—and its allusions to Fassbinder, Godard, Bergman, and American film noir—a dead end. What could he have accomplished if he’d continued to plumb this vein instead of devoting himself to tales of female martyrdom drawn from Carl Theodor Dreyer and Roberto Rossellini? Despite its frequent evocations of the Holocaust, Europa is astonishingly playful, an exciting quality—and one missing from most of von Trier’s subsequent work.

Lars von Trier’s Europa is now available on Criterion DVD. For more information, click here.