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eurBefore he was labeled by some as a loathsome, provocateur of shocker art cinema, Lars Von Trier was a much simpler creature.  Though he’s spent most of the past decade baiting critics to call him everything from genius to misogynist, he was once a director of simpler fair.  Before he decided to endlessly explore ways in which the innocent souls of women are destroyed by the brutality of the world around them, his work was merely dense, Kafkaesque and weird.  One of his most notable films from the earlier part of his past is “Europa.”  A black and white filmed tale set against a surreal post-World War II backdrop which feels mysterious, looks creepy, but is in the end nihilistic and a little pointless.

The opening scene is hypnotic and trance inducing.  Showing no more than a first person perspective looking down at passing railway tracks, Max Von Sydow’s narration attempts to lure us into a hypnotized state.  It almost works and then the proper film begins. Star Jean Marc Barr plays an American citizen of German heritage who returns to Germany directly after war’s end.  He feel’s a sense of civic duty to come back to the land of his family which has been ravaged by war and degraded in the international community.  With the help of his militantly stern uncle, he lands a job with Zentropa, a railway company shuttling the survivors of Germany back and forth, seemingly always at night.  He becomes involved with a strange woman who may be a spy, learns that the potential for violence is still all around, and becomes a pawn in things he can’t control.  Making things difficult to invest in is Barr, who’s so unobtrusive a presence that he barely registers on the senses.  His character is so flat, so devoid of intuition, so completely bland, the movie feels as if it has a hole right in the middle of it.  He’s a nobody wondering through a
nightmare which slowly begins to encompass him, and then destroy him.  But never once does anyone seem to care, not even in the film itself.  This decision to put up such a void of humanity on display seems like a conscious decision because the real star of this movie is its cinematography.

Von Trier films everything in black and white, with intense compositions which gives the images a foreboding sensation.  It almost all looks wonderfully creepy and dreamlike.  I say almost because Von Trier tries to marry occasional color imagines into his glorious black and white shots and the effect, attempting to be dramatically impacting, is only distracting.  Done before the age of digital perfection, Von Trier had to rely on camera tricks and chemical processes which radically alter his film quality. The color images always look washed out and grainy, completely out of place with abundance of his striking black and white.

This daring visual style keeps “Europa” intriguing on at least a superficial level.  The film is a constant grapple between it’s gorgeous visual sensibilities and it’s turgid dramatic state.  It’s thematic ambitions seem questionable as well.  One is never quite sure who one should be pulling for at any time.  Barr is too dull a character to care for and the rest of the cast is made up of bureaucrats and ex-Nazis who all seem robotic and stand offish.  At times one wonders if Von Trier is attempting to illicit sympathy for the Nazi sympathizers, but all the characters are too thin to apply too much politic to their nature.  They don’t work at all as believable people and if they’re nothing but symbols, then who cares?  The film ends on such a defeated note that one is left with very little to take away from the experience.  The nightmare swallows our protagonist just as he’s waking up and responding to the situation around him.  Finally outraged at the blind, bureaucratic insanity all around him, he picks up a machine gun and lashes out like he’s needed to.  And then the story crushes him.

“Europa” is like a lot of Von Trier’s films in that it’s embedded with fascinating details and made by a unique mind, but it’s difficult to actually like or endear yourself to.  He’s an interesting filmmaker so lacking in any humor, compassion or basic humane sense that it’s no wonder his films often feel pompous and cruel, likely to remain divisive experiences until the end of time.  His technical prowess can rarely be questioned, but the focus of his attention and the way he
carries it out will always ire many, myself included.

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