“Europa” - Lars von Trier (1991)

“For the first time, you experience the fear of being on a train . . .
 . . . with no possibility of getting off
 . . . and no idea where the journey may end.”
These words to the protagonist from the hypnotic voice of the narrator during Europa (aka  Zentropa, 1991) provide a clue as to why the film is so evocative of our darkest dreams.  The railroad train metaphor has been used by other cinematic masters, such as Alfred Hitchcock (The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest), Josef von Sternberg (The Shanghai Express), Jean Renoir (La Bête Humaine), and Wim Wenders (The American Friend), but here in Europa the narrative poetics of the train ride reach their fullest expression. 

Directed and co-scripted by Lars von Trier, the film won three awards at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, but I would say it has not received its due recognition from the critical community [1].  Part of the reason for this general critical neglect may have been in reaction to the flamboyancy of both the film’s cinematics (it features a vast array of visual pyrotechnics) and its director (he added the ‘von’ to his name in emulation of Josef von Sternberg).  More specifically, complaints have focussed on Europa’s presumed overemphasis on retro-imagery and artificial technical effects (superpositions, distortion, back-projection, mixed black-and-white images with color, etc.) at the expense of a coherent narrative. In my mind, though, Europa, although not flawless, is still one of the all-time greatest cinematic dream rides, and as Leonard Maltin remarked "makes one feel privy to the reinvention of cinema" [2].

I am not going to go much into the technical effects here other than to remark that von Trier –  in collaboration with those who worked on the cinematography (by Henning Bendtsen, Edward Klosinski, and Jean-Paul Meurisse), music (by Joachim Holbek), and editing (by Hervé Schneid) – has effectively employed a number of effects to achieve a powerfully expressionistic atmosphere.  And in many respects this is what the film is all about. What we are immersed in when watching this film is an extended existential nightmare that is conjured up by these expressionistic effects.  In fact von Trier explicitly had Franz Kafka’s novel Amerika in mind, and the Europa title is an allusion to that work.  If you wonder whether Europa is a a horror film, a film noir, or a venture into expressionism or existentialism, the answer is – all of them.

One expressionistic effect that does merit explicit comment is the narration.  The narrator oversees the film’s action and serves as an ambiguously omnipotent inner voice speaking to us (and to the protagonist, with whom we are intended to identify).  The voice could be that of our father, or our inner conscience, or God, or Fate, or just that of the Eternal Mystery behind existence.  It is brilliantly presented by Max von Sydow, who somehow seems perfect for this role.

There are also spectacularly dramatic expressionistic camera angles and other effects throughout the film – sometimes showing things from Leo’s perspective and at other times looking down at him from the top, as if from the aerial point of view of the narrator puppet master.

As far as the story of Europa is concerned, I would say there is a compelling and coherent narrative.  The key to understanding the narrative is to have in mind five groupings depicted in the film:
  • Romantic Idealists.  These are people who believe in high principles and ennobled actions on behalf of the common good.  The embodiment here is the film’s protagonist, Leopold Kessler.
  • Legalists.  They are rule-obsessed pedants who see all of human existence only in terms of an endless set of dictums that must be strictly obeyed.  These sticklers reject the slightest variations from the established rules. An example is Leopold’s uncle.
  • Oligarchs. They are the privileged elites who invoke questionable notions of commitment, dignity, loyalty, and patriotism to justify their own empowerment and privileges. 
  • Opportunists.  They are people who are willing to cooperate but primarily see everything in selfish utilitarian terms. 
  • Nihilists. They are ruthless oppressors who seek the annihilation of those who oppose them.  Their primary emotion is hatred.  In school, these are the bullies.  In Europa, they are the Nazi “wervolves”.
No matter where in the world you may live, it seems that many a boy that first goes to school is the romantic idealist who must confront a social world made of the other four groupings.  And on a naive boy’s first encounter with these other types, it can be a nightmare. 

Note also that I offer the above grouping breakdown only as a guide, and the film’s narrative is not overtly organized according to the above schematic outline.

There are three main phases to the nightmare story of Europa.

1.  A New Job
The voiceover narrator intones sternly but soothingly,
“I shall now count from one to ten.  On the count of ten, you will be in Europa.”
 . . .
“You are in Germany.  The year is 1945."
Leopold Kessler (played by Jean-Marc Barr) is a young American of German descent who has come to Germany just after the end of the war in order to make a contribution to a war-ravaged society.  He was a pacifist during the war (we later learn he was charged with being AWOL), and now he wants to help make the world a better place – “it’s time someone showed this country a little kindness,” he says.  Clearly Leo is a romantic idealist, and in this section he encounters each of the other four social groupings separately.

Leo first meets his German uncle, who is a severe example of a legalist – he is a fussy stickler on everything.  But Uncle Kessler, who works for the Zentropa railway, gets Leo a job as an apprentice sleeping-car conductor and puts him straight to work.

Right away on the job he meets a wealthy passenger, Katharina Hauptmann (Barbara Sukowa), whose family owns the Zentropa railway.   While cordially conversing about Leo’s pacifism, they look out of their train car and see a number of corpses hanging from trees and identified as “werwolves”.  These are so-called “partisans”, who are actually part of a post-war underground group seeking to perpetuate Nazism (hence they are nihilists).

Later Leo is invited to a dinner party at the Hauptmann’s villa, where he meets Katharina’s father Max (Jørgen Reenberg), her brother, and a Catholic priest (Erik Mørk) who is a friend of the family.  Among these oligarchs, there is an interesting conversation.  The Catholic father talks about God rewarding those who fight for their country.  Leo akss what about those who fight for the other side?  How can God reward both sides?  And the priest assures him that God is on the side of all warring parties – He does not forgive those who remain lukewarm and who do not take sides.  This is the creed of the oligarchs.

Another friend of the Hauptmann family joins the party, Alex Harris (Eddie Constantine), who is a colonel in the Occupying US army.  The American military personnel in this film are opportunists.  For example, Alex takes Leo aside and whispers that he knows about his AWOL history, but he can overlook that if Leo will help him keep an eye out for werwolves that are threatening American-led reconstruction.

After the party Leo is back on the job and is fooled into allowing onto his sleeping car two very young boys who are brought by alleged friends of the Hauptmann family.  In fact, though, they are agents of werwolf terrorism, and they proceed to murder a newly appointed Jewish mayor who was a passenger on Leo’s sleeping car.

2.  Love
Now the interactions with the four groupings become more complicated.  We see Leo at a party with the Hauptmann entourage, as the camera voyeuristically circles completely around the dining table examining all the guests.  Katharina flirts with Leo and kisses him when noone is looking. 

Ever the opportunist, Colonel Alex wants to exploit the Zentropa railway for American-led economic reconstruction of Germany, so he needs to ensure that Max Hauptmann is not suspected of past Nazi affiliations.  To do this he coerces a Jewish peasant into testifying that Max helped him hide from the Nazis.  In fact, however, it was just the opposite – Max’s Zentropa railway was the primary conveyor of Jewish prisoners to the concentration/death camps.  The reminder of his culpability leads Max to commit suicide in his bathtub.  At the same time that evening, Katharina leads Leo to a hidden chamber in the family villa and confesses that she used to be a werwolf but has now reformed and regrets that part of her past.  Then she lies down in the bed and seduces him.

Later, after more bizarre encounters with legalist train conductors and oligarchs arranging a secret funeral to dignify the death of Max, Leo is brought before some werwolves and told that he must do another “job” for them (the first one was his unwitting cooperation with the boy assassins on his sleeping car).  He thinks of Katharina and her apparent vulnerability at the hands of the werwolves.  The mysterious internal and controlling voice soothingly speaks to him in almost a whisper:
“You love her. . . .She is so strong and yet so vulnerable. . . “
. . .
”I want you to go forward in time.  Go forward one month in time.  Be there on the count of three. . . “
It is now Christmas time in Munich, and Leo sees Katharina devoutly taking communion during a midnight mass.  On the street later, he approaches her.  She abruptly asks him to marry her, and he willingly accepts.  In short order they are married, have a honeymoon, and share marital bliss in a small apartment.

Clearly Katharina is an enigma.  She is an oligarch, apparently was a werwolf nihilist, and now joins Leo as a romantic.  These have the makings of a femme fatale.

3.  Convergence
In the final phase of the film, all the disparate social forces come together to hound Leo simultaneously.

Leo is grabbed by the werwolves and told that Katharina is their captive.  To save her life, he must plant a time-bomb on his sleeping car while it is passing over the Neuwied bridge, thereby killing everyone on board. 

As the train sets out on its fateful journey, Leo’s legalistic train-conductor examiners decide to conduct their on-sight qualification examination, thereby getting in the way of his concerns.  Colonel Alex is also onboard, further complicating things.  From his train-car window he sees  his beloved, the captive Katherina, calling out to him from another train car that momentarily moving on a parallel track.  She beseeches him to carry out the bombing instructions in order to save her.

Leo goes ahead and places the time-bomb under his sleeping car and jumps out off the train as it heads for the Neuwied bridge.  As he lies on the ground, he hears the voiceover of his inner consciousness speak to him,
“You have carried out the orders.  Now relax. . . . “
But then the voice shifts course and reminds him that what he has just done is not true to who he is  – he must run back to the slowly moving train and deactivate the bomb. This sets the stage for the final dramatic sequences which you must see for yourself.

Throughout most of Europa, Leo Kessler is the naive and manipulated idealist, victimized by more assertive personalities and social forces around him. When the world finally implodes around him near the end of the film, he does blow his stack and finally takes over. 

But the world is not always simply there for the taking.  There are sometimes complexities which we cannot master.  Katharina, for example, embodies our true understanding of a werwolf.  By day she is a normal, loving daughter and wife; but in the night she becomes a savage animal.  There is nothing Leopold Kessler can do about that. 

In the end, the voiceover narrator resignedly intones,
“Follow the river
 As days go by.  
 Head for the ocean
 That mirrors the sky.”   
 . . . .
“You want to wake up . . . to free yourself of the image of Europa.   But it is not possible.”
  1. There is, however, a noteworthy exception.  See  
  2. Leonard Maltin (ed.), Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, (2010), Plume (Penguin), p. 1586.


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