SOMETIMES MORE thematically or technically fascinating than it is unequivocally good, Lars Von Trier’s ‘Europa’ is nonetheless an excellent candidate to bear the name of an entire continent. It could not possibly have been made by a director from anywhere else—even the British Isles are too removed from the mainland to tell this tale. The governments of France, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany all contributed to this film’s development, which stars actors from all of the above and weaves constantly, almost capriciously, between English and German dialogue, often between the same actors. It is difficult to say whether ‘Europa’ is more a drama or a comedy. For its first hour it seems a heavily stylized portrait of post-WWII Germany where the set-pieces look deliberately like set-pieces, the actors move with a 1940s woodenness, and as the director himself attests, “you won’t find much passion in this film.” It is a naïve newcomer’s chronicle of a tortured nation: its zombiefied elite, bereft of pride and direction, forced to reconcile their future with the scrabbling immediacy of the poor, disenfranchised, and disconnected.
Our narrator for this experience is the placidly wise voice of Max Von Sydow, speaking English with perfect grammar and a slight, untraceable accent. His voice becomes that of Europa itself while his hypnotic commands patch this cold narrative together and ease or acceptance of its dreamlike processions. With typical severity, Von Trier’s direction abruptly cuts between rich black-and-white and grainy color, such that any given scene may combine the two in accord with his symbolic whimsy, but neither ever feels contemporary. The plot leaps between stuffy, highly choreographed sitting room subterfuge and the grand scale melodrama of star-crossed reunions at a midnight mass, before a throng of onlookers, beneath wave after wave of conspicuously fake precipitation. ‘Europa’ is a chronicle of ages past, paying homage to various modes of filmmaking and acting that were cast aside on the inexorable march towards realism, following war after war. This perspective is critical, for however false ‘Europa’ may look it is not due to any dearth in technical skill. To the contrary, ‘Europa’ is a wealth of clever crosscuts, long tracking shots, superimpositions, and any number of other tricks that run the gamut of film school curricula. Although ‘Europa’ was not shot on a large budget, we may be sure that Von Trier chose his methods more for art than for cost. These techniques make the film highly reminiscent of a graphic novel, or a visualization of 40s pulp fiction, but with a much greater concern for the environment than the ego of the individual. (It’s also worth noting that Von Trier’s blending of black-and-white and color for a WWII-related plot predates Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ by two years.)
Our protagonist, the subject of this hypnotic episode (and as close to a cypher for American viewers as Von Trier will allow) is Leopold. He is well-intentioned, having come to Germany to ‘show some kindness’ to its people after such hardship, and seems to do so out of a Good Samaritan naïveté instead of delusions of self-sacrificing grandeur. A decent man indeed, but susceptible to manipulation by forces he prefers not to acknowledge at first; by the time his attention is roused it is far too late. Through this transition, ‘Europa’ replaces its lurking uneasiness for high-strung action and increasing absurdity. Once Leopold reaches his fever pitch, pulled violently from several different directions at once, each faction has become a caricature—the anal-retentive German hierarchy; leonine and smug American military; a may-or-may-not-be-a-damsel in distress—and Leopold the butt of its joke. One can hardly consider the final sequence on the train as anything but comedy, albeit in a blackened vein. Until Leopold’s breaking point.
And there Von Trier’s genius flashes through. The unresolved poignancy of this end—a patently real conclusion to an increasingly surreal narrative—is the only way out for Leopold, but it hides itself until the last possible moment. Even as Von Sydow calmly tells us how the film will end, we resist, as Leopold does, until acceptance settles in like the weight of water. Or perhaps it is forced upon us, but the method is moot. The river flows on: some above, some below.