Framework: Lars von Trier’s Europa

Our DIY film school series continues with this look at the 1991 Cannes prize-winner.

Framework is a year-long DIY film school; 52 essential films to expand your consciousness.

Delving into the cinema of Lars von Trier can be intimidating. The Danish filmmaker, known infamously for sassy outbursts and intolerable comments at various Cannes film festivals, is no stranger to controversy. Von Trier’s films are intense and brooding, mainly explorative of trauma and sorrow as they uncover emotional layers deep within the characters’ (and viewers’) psyches. His work is a cinema of games, where artistic vision is executed within its own sporting rules. Is it pretentious filmmaking? Perhaps. But when pretentiousness is stumped by visual eloquence, it can be difficult to look away.

Von Trier’s modus operandi is to create three sequential films that can be thought of as a thematically linked trilogy. The first trilogy in his filmography begins with The Element of Crime (1984), then Epidemic (1987) and finally the Cannes Jury Prize winner of 1991, Europa.

Jean-Marc Barr plays the seriously idealistic Leopold Kessler, an American who travels to post-war Germany, in  the “Year One” of 1945. His travels abroad comes with the intention of “showing kindness towards Germany” in its devastated state. Hired as a conductor on the Zentropa train line, Kessler becomes entangled with American occupiers and the remaining Nazi partisans, who call themselves werewolves.

His desire to maintain peace between both parties in the fragile war-torn Germany pushes him into the position where his political loyalties are questioned. Kessler is a character under duress, and von Trier has chosen to extend the burden of his protagonist by using him as a vehicle to revisit Germany’s recent history, and to unearth memories of war at a time when Germans just wanted to forget.

Europa is an exceptional, visually stunning film that grows exceedingly complex and experimental as it progresses. The monochromatic black and white image begins to absorb soft colour. In a reference to film noir, rear projection replaces simple framing and delicately emphasizes the artifice of the film, separating it from its very real historical ties. Traditional forms of editing are replaced by a type of dancing camera that moves through film space, similar to an elaborate dream.

However ethereal Europa may seem (even the use of hypnotic narration in employed), it is not a dream; it is a dystopian world that comes to a close in overwhelming tragedy. More importantly, Europais a creative interpretation of a time that should never be forgotten. ■

A special edition box set of Europa, stocked full of extra features, is available through the Criterion Collection. It is also available to rent at Boîte Noire and Le Septième in the east, Avenue Video in the west and can be streamed at the online cinémathèque.

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