Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s five days of Lars Von Trier, as we single out some of the Danish director’s more unheralded triumphs in honor of his latest, Nymphomaniac.
In some parallel universe, is Lars Von Trier still making movies like Europa? Before reinventing himself as a disciplined provocateur, prone to prankish experiments and devoted to strict formal guidelines of his own invention, the Danish director just wanted to dazzle. The final installment of his first trilogy, this throwback WWII noir—retitled Zentropa in the States, to distinguish it from Europa Europa—is as stylish (and stylized) as anything Von Trier made before or since. Had he not found his true calling in courting controversy, he could have built a fine future on the smoldering wreckage of cinema’s past.
Shot in moody black-and-white, with occasional flashes of vibrant color, Europa sends an American do-gooder, Leopold (Jean-Marc Barr), to snowy postwar Deutschland, where he secures a position aboard the newly revived Zentropa train line. It’s here, in his capacity as an overnight engine driver, that he becomes torn between two opposing factions: the new German government, eager to forget the sins of the recent past and comply with the American military, and a pro-Nazi, anti-occupation terrorist group, the Werewolves. Complicating matters further is the young man’s romance with the mysterious Katharina (Barbara Sukowa), a femme fatale of the Marlene Dietrich variety.
Von Trier has long been distrustful of ineffectual ideologues, a group to which the patsy Leopold plainly belongs. (“It’s time someone showed this country a little kindness,” he dopily declares to Katharina early on, aligning himself with the weak-willed Tom Edison of the director’s later Dogville.) The film condemns the polite neutrality of its hero, daring to suggest that picking a side—even when it’s the wrong one—is better than staying stuck in the middle. There’s also the faint suggestion that Von Trier is conflating his naïve character with his captive audience, especially given the way the omnipotent hypnotist narrator (Max Von Sydow) keeps referring to “you” instead of “him.”
But if Europa is meant as medicine, it’s medicine that goes down smoothly, thanks to generous servings of virtuosic showmanship. Reaching deep into the medium’s bag of tricks, Von Trier employs expressionistic angles, thick shadows, rear and front projection, old-fashioned superimpositions, and allusions to the wintry graveness of Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Are Among Us. He also stages a darkly comic, runaway-train finale worthy of Hitchcock. The director would go on to make much more powerful, challenging films in the years that followed. But Europa suggests that we lost a playful genre pro when Von Trier started seeking inspiration in manifestos instead of his local video store.
Availability: Europa is available on Criterion DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to stream on HuluPlus.