Via Correspondence: Europa
Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, and Max von Sydow
The Story: An American man of German descent travels to Germany in 1945 after the war. He lands a job as a sleeper car conductor on a train and befriends a woman whose family is connected to Zentropa, a rail company. The man finds himself caught up in a delicate political play as tensions remain high after World War Two has ended. Mostly black and white featuring splashes of colour.
Jason: Lars von Trier is a director whose films, no matter the feeling afterward, always interest me. He's a curiosity. He's been labeled a misanthrope and, due to some poorly thought comments at the Cannes Film Festival, a Nazi sympathizer (reading up on Europa) I saw that when he didn't win the Palme D'or in 1991, he flipped everyone off and stormed out).
There is always a brooding darkness, even in his pseudo comedies like The Idiots, but I don't see him repeating the same kind of darkness from film to film. In Europa, I thought it looked at postwar trauma and paranoia in a unique and unsettling way. The opening narration adds a dreamlike quality, hypnosis, that suggests, even further than the fact that we're watching a movie, that none of this is real. It's almost set up like a simulation. And throughout the film, whether it's with the punctuation of colour splashes or the jumps in chronology at the behest of the narrator, we are reminded of this.
I'm curious, Isaac, as someone who has had two very strong opposing reactions to von Trier's work (you've seen Dogville and The Kingdom, only, right?), what was your immediate reaction?
Isaac: That's right, I enjoyed The Kingdom and strongly disliked Dogville. Both movies are weird as hell but I find the aesthetic weirdness works to enhance the story of The Kingdom while working against and overshadowing the story of Dogville. For me, Europa fell somewhere in between. I didn't really have strong feelings for it one way or the other. Aside from a few stand-out moments, I found most of it to be pretty dull.
The movie has a film noir feel - both in its look and soundtrack - that I enjoyed, but it had none of the tension or visceral thrills of the genre. The story almost seemed like an afterthought. It felt like a film more interested in esoteric symbolism than narrative. There were a few high stakes thrown in and many of the events would seem tense on paper but they lacked any suspense on film. And at times, the pace was agonizing.
The characters are thin and uninteresting. I suspect this may be intentional in the case of the lead. The narration describes his actions in the second person, as if it is talking about the viewer. This reminded me of the way those old Choose Your Own Adventure books were written. The narrator would say things like "the phone is ringing...it is for you...you answer it." So maybe they wanted the lead to be a blank slate in order for the viewer to transpose themselves into the story. Whatever the case, it didn't work for me. I was not invested in the characters or any of the subplots.
Jason: I definitely responded more favourably than you did. The atmosphere set up from the dreamscape opening of the beginning, with Max von Sydow's haunting and almost robotic narration, gave it a texture of curiosity that was mostly maintained throughout the movie.
I can see your issues with characterization, as they are mostly ciphers with very little depth. Kessler, our protagonist, is especially a blank slate, as you put it, but I think it is more in order for him to be an audience surrogate and everyman type character. He's the fish out of (and, ironically in) water. And because the movie works mostly on dream logic, he doesn't question much of what is asked of him or put before him. He may be apprehensive, but it's not until the final act with the bomb where he actually takes any kind of stand. And even then, he contradicts himself.
This takes us to which is probably the most identifiable theme. The importance, real or imagined, of taking sides. Kessler is portrayed much more as an observer (again, the audience surrogate) and shies away from making any concrete decisions. He's disgusted by the hanging corpses and the murderous children (in a really striking scene on the train) but he still doesn't condemn or support anyone overtly. In his conversation with the priest, the priest says the worst sin is to not take a side, to not take a stand, even if it's the wrong one. This seems to go in one of Kessler's ear and out the other, and is largely responsible for his demise.
Isaac: The scene where the child kills the old man was one of the stand-out scenes for me. Throughout the film, von Trier plays with rear projection. Most of the time I found it arbitrary, gratuitous and distracting but in this scene it worked really well. We see the child in colour, slaying the black & white projection of an old man (sometimes, describing scenes from this movie does feel a lot like vainly trying to describe a dream). Blood splatters the screen, the physical proportions of the characters change as though seen through a funhouse mirror. It's a hell of a sequence that perfectly captures the dream-like quality you talked about. The scene seems to be from the young boy's perspective and the disorienting rear projection adds to the surrealism and disorientation he's experiencing. It had little dramatic weight for me but I agree it was a striking scene.
The gratuity is a big part of my distaste for a lot of what von Trier does. He seems to use quirks and arty flights of fancy in the same way someone like Michael Bay uses CGI effects. It's just wall to wall weirdness and subversion of cinematic convention, which I'm all for, but von Trier lathers it on so thick that I'm numb to it before it has any real effect on me. It has the same effect on me that overly purple prose does in fiction. There are exceptions, but for the most part I don't like it when artists call attention to themselves and their cleverness at the expense of their art. Story is divine but story-tellers are human. The best a story-teller can do is get out of the way.
The main character Kessler is an example of this. Sure, there are lots of reasons to explain his lack of character, his inactivity, and his indecisiveness but that doesn't change the fact that we have a boring, wishy-washy protagonist with no discernible character traits. He's passively involved in a terrorist plot with no suspense and a love story with no emotional resonance.
It's atmospheric and dreamy but for no real reason that I could tell other than to be atmospheric and dreamy. It reminds me of a type of instillation art. The kind of art that doesn't actually have anything to say but baits people to pontificate about its deep and important messages. The kind of art where there is no right or wrong answer, whatever the viewer brings to it is what completes the piece. It's just not my kind of art. I've always been more of a John Lennon fan than a Yoko Ono fan.
Jason: I'll agree that a lot of von Trier's work seems to hinge wholly on a notion or an idea. I thought The Idiots was even flimsier in its exploration on the themes it was exploring. It's like he has tunnel vision and sometimes can't connect with a deeper core. That said, I don't think his style is necessarily gratuitous. The colour flashes coincide with rises in emotion, and I'd argue tension. The facade of the film, if it works for you as a viewer, should generate that lack of balance. Throughout the entire film, everything felt askew. Where you were bored or disinterested, I was curious and rapt.
I like that he plays with form, and while his whims are sometimes misguided I have appreciated every one of his films that I've seen to various degrees. I think we do connect on his clumsiness in regards to creating a satisfying narrative, but I am in for the weirdness. You make the comparison to Michael Bay, which is an interesting one, but I watch Bay's movies and contempt and boredom where with von Trier I maintain that sense of wonder about what's around the corner. Is the discovery satisfactory? Not always, but in this case it was. Is Europa ultimately exploring anything interesting about choice and conviction of character? I'm not sure. It has piqued enough of an interest that it will garner a second visitation down the road -- which I'm guessing you'll pass on.
(As a brief aside, I saw the film A Field in England last week, and that hit me more on the weird for the sake of weird scale than this. I still enjoyed a lot of what I saw, but it seemed pointless by the end).
One more question for you, will you willingly watch any of von Trier's other movies or will I have to force you like I did with this one?
Isaac: I'll definitely give him another shot. Like I said, I really enjoyed his miniseries the Kingdom. It had a lot of the von Trier-isms I've complained about here but it was so intriguing and entertaining that I was fine with it. As a horror fanatic, the haunted hospital setting was right up my alley and the off-the-wall, head-scratching absurdities made it all the more effective and disturbing. If a movie fails in one area but fascinates me in another, I'm along for the ride. I think the problem with Europa was that there wasn't enough for me to latch onto.
I have a deep WWII interest but the movie did nothing to scratch that itch. I love film noir but it didn't satisfy in that area either. I was intrigued by the film's depiction of what monsters the allies had become in dealing with the Nazis but that was only touched on and not thoroughly explored. The theme of taking sides that you mentioned could have been expounded on as well. It has interesting possibilities, especially with the historical backdrop of WWII where, all the way down the line, people were taking sides. There's a story to tell in who took what side, who floundered in inactivity and who sat on the fences, but I found the film brought these notions up and then dropped them.
To avoid being entirely negative, I did say there were standout moments. Some of the imagery wowed me and will probably stick in my brain. There is a fantastic overhead shot of a group of people pounding on a bathroom door. The man inside has slit his wrists in the tub. It's overflowing with bloody water and we look down from above the rafters. The folks pounding on the door are on the left of the frame while on the right we see the red water pooling up against the door. There is also a love scene on a model train set and something about the image of two giants copulating on a tiny freeway, crushing telephone poles and derailing the train amused me.
Here's a Shyamalan twist for you, I loved the end. Kessler's slow drowning while the narrator counts down from ten - "On the count of ten, you will be dead" - was as beautiful as it was horrifying. It got me thinking about another weird movie I saw years ago, David Lynch's Lost Highway. I watched it one time fifteen years ago and while I didn't like it there were a few images that I can clearly recall to this day. They've burrowed into my subconscious, so on some level the film worked. It stuck with me where many films I probably liked better have faded from my memory. Sometimes you have to let a film marinate before you can know its true power and sometimes a film can work like an album with one or two good songs on it. If those one or two songs are really strong, it's worth having that album around.
Jason: The ending is really strong. There is something about knowing what is coming and being powerless to change it that strikes a deeper chord with me than a sudden change of course. A good twist can enhance, but more often than not twists seem arbitrary.
I think one of the problems might be that you and von Trier simply care about different things when it comes to narrative. He wants to go heavy on images and visual tone and odd angles, while you want the story to come first. You seem fine if a movie has all those elements, as many film noirs do, but if it takes centre stage over a compelling narrative it tends to lose you. I love that analogy about the album with a couple good songs. Really helps put your point in a different context, and while I think Europa holds up more on the whole than you do, I could probably come up with a long list of movies that do fit that description. We have pointed to several of the great sequences in this movie, there are many that stand out, but one we didn't talk about was the opening shot of the railroad tracks. This really helped set the dreamy tone suggesting what was to come was something just slightly off the rails of reality.
Europa is available from the Criterion Collection on DVD. It can also be viewed on Hulu Plus if you happen to live in the United States.
Isaac's choice for our next movie is Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? from 1962 starring Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.