Europa (1991): The Fitting Finale to Danish Auteur Lars von Trier's Europe Trilogy

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews 

europa, zentropa, directed by lars von trier
Europa (1991) - By Lars von Trier

Our Rating: 9.5
IMDb Ratings: 7.6
Genre: Drama | War
CastBarbara Sukowa, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier
Language: English |  German
Runtime: 112 min
ColorBlack and White Color (Pathécolor) 

Europa is a 1991 motion-picture directed and co-written by Danish auteur Lars von Trier. Europa, released as Zentropa in the US, is the third and final part of von Trier’s highly acclaimed Europe Trilogy—the other two being The Element of Crime (1984) and Epidemic (1987). Europa won several awards at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival including the Jury Prize but failed (to von Trier’s chagrin) to win the coveted Palme d’Or, which was awarded to Barton Fink. An expectant looking Lars von Trier gave the jury the finger before walking off the arena in high dudgeon. Renowned for his versatility and empirical outlook towards cinema, von Trier is undoubtedly the greatest filmmaker to have emerged out of Denmark since Carl Theodor Dreyer.

Jean-Marc Barr as Leopold Kessler in Europa, waiting for the train's arrival, a beautiful view of full moon, Directed by Lars von Trier
Jean-Marc Barr as Leopold Kessler in Lars von Trier's Europa 
Europa is a tale of a young American named Leo who undertakes a journey to US-occupied Germany immediately after the end of World War II. Leo, driven by his youthful naivety, hopes to resuscitate the moribund spirits of the war-torn people of Germany by showering them with some “kindness”, which according to him is "long due". While Leo looks keen in playing an active part in the reconstruction of the nation decimated by the callousness of human ambition, everything about the timing of his infantile decision seems quite ominous. Leo is received by his finicky uncle, a railroad employee, who helps him get the job of a railway conductor. 

Europa, directed by lars von trier, Katharina meets Leopold
Europa: Katharina Meets Leopold
Jean-Marc Barr as Leopold, Barbara Sukowa as Katharina, Sharing an Intimate Moment in Europa, Directed by Lars von Trier
Leopold and Katharina Share an Intimate Moment
On his very first night on the train, Leo meets the irresistible Katharina Hartmann—the daughter of the Zentropa railroad owner, Max Hartmann. Zentropa railroad, once a powerful tool in the Fuhrer’s arsenal, now remains the greatest hope of the US-aided revival of Germany. The once pro-Nazi Hartmann family is now looked upon by the Americans as a great ally in the reconstruction of the German railroad. The war may have been ended but its aftereffects are all-pervasive. The Hartmann family, like any other German family, wants to bury the hatchet, but their pro-Nazi roots continue to haunt them. Leo, bewitched by his infatuation for Katharina, is dragged into the middle of the ongoing tussle between the American forces and pro-Nazi militia known as “Werewolves” as he is forced to choose a side. Leo’s choice would not only decide his fate but also the fate of the ones he love. 

use of multi-exposure in Europa, mayor murdered by a revolutionary kid, Directed by Lars von Trier
A Still from Lars von Trier's Europa
A Breathtaking View of a Train Passing Through a Tunnel, Europa, Directed by Lars von Trier
A Breathtaking View of a Train Passing Through a Tunnel 
Most of the movie is shot in black and white with the exception of few scenes which are either in color or in a blend of color and black and white. Europa, with its bizarre, convoluted, agonizing plot and unconventional cinematographic effects like multiple exposure, optical illusions and misdirection, serves to be a completely unique experience that transcends genres and blurs the lines that separate the “real” from the “surreal”. In Europa, Lars von Trier touches upon a wide array of motifs that are not limited to a genre in particular, but encompass the vast expanse of territory that comprises a multitude of genres including film-noir, magic-realism, drama, suspense, and war. In the peculiar manner Lars von Trier etches out Europa’s narrative, one can easily perceive it to be taking place in the subconscious of the protagonist. Europa begins with a voiceover that hypnotically seems to control the actions of the protagonist. At different points in the movie, Leo is mysteriously guided by the eerie voice of the narrator which ironically seems to have a calming influence on his increasingly perturbed senses.

An Optically Modified Sequence of the Train passing in front of the eyes from Europa, Directed by Lars von Trier
An Optically Modified Sequence from Europa
Europa is rife with symbolism and allegory that’s often difficult to comprehend, especially during the first viewing. The tedium of the moving train can be looked upon as the pain and suffering experienced by the German citizens under the Nazi regime. The opportunism shown by the people in exploiting Leo’s largess alludes to the expedient ways of the US-led Allied Powers in tackling the Nazi upsurge. The Allied Powers tolerated the Nazis in the early going hoping that the latter would wipe off communism—a tactical blunder that allowed Hitler and his allies to immensely grow in power ultimately contributing to the Second World War. 

Lars von Tier (center) Makes a Brief Appearance as a Jew in Europa, Directed by Lars von Trier
Lars von Tier (center) Makes a Brief Appearance in Europa
Barbara Sukowa as Katharina Hartmann in Europa, love making scene, Directed by Lars von Trier
Barbara Sukowa as Katharina Hartmann in Europa
Lars von Trier’s Europa has a great assemblage of international actors that includes the likes of Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, and Eddie Constantine, while veteran Swedish actor Max von Sydow is movie's narrator. Lars von Trier himself makes a brief appearance as the Jew who vouches for Max Hartmann. Almost everyone in the cast manages to leave a lasting impression on the movie. Jean-Marc Barr perfectly fits into the shoes of the naive American youth, Leopold Kessler while Barbara Sukowa as the glacial Katharina Hartmann truly personifies a femme fatale. Undoubtedly, the USP of the movie is Max von Sydow’s voiceover that gives the movie its much desired eerie tone. von Sydow’s hypnotic voice seems to have a similar effect on the protagonist as well as the viewer. As the voice commands Leo to go deeper and deeper into the abyss, we also experience the same magnetic pull that makes us sink deeper and deeper into the movie's narrative as the escape seems impossible.

A Still from Europa's Finale, Leopold drowning, multiple exposure, Directed by Lars von Trier
A Still from Europa
A Still from Lars von Trier's Europa, Leopold and Katharina marriage, Directed by Lars von Trier
A Still from Lars von Trier's Europa
Europa’s breathtakingly rich cinematography makes it a visual treat. The credit for Europa's visual brilliance must undoubtedly go to the trio of Henning Bendtsen, Edward Klosinski and Jean-Paul Meurisse. In my half a decade long tryst with the International Cinema I have never been more mesmerized by a movie’s visual brilliance. Renowned critic Roger Ebert says of Europa, “The best moments in the movie are the purely visual ones.” It indeed is true! But, anyone who has consciously experienced Europa would agree with me that its brilliance is not merely limited to its cinematography. The movie’s mystical background score, written by Joachim Holbek, immensely adds to the eeriness of the movie, inexplicably reminding one of the Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme) in Star Wars. On the top of it all is Lars von Trier's vigilant direction: von Trier uses his great imagination to conjure up an absurd world governed by Kafkaesque existentialism.  

Jean-Marc Barr as Leopold Kessler scolded by his finicky uncle in Lars von Trier's Europa
A Still from Europa: Leo and his Finicky Uncle
Overall, Europa serves to be one of the greatest cinematic experiences of our time. But, Europa is not meant for dabblers whose sole purpose is to embark on an entertainment ride. On the contrary, Europa takes us on an intellectual odyssey, rife with the excitement of the unknown and the unexpected, to a world of breathtaking visuals and bizarre juxtapositions. But, please don’t mistake Europa for a mere exercise in style, for it has something for almost everyone: be it intrigue, eroticism, espionage, or dark humor. Europa thrills, excites, entertains but, most importantly, it makes us think. Highly recommended!

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  

Note: The readers are encouraged to watch Europa back to back with The Element of Crime. The review of The Element of Crime can be read here

For more information on the title, please click on the following links:

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  1. HaricharanpudipeddiJuly 19, 2012 at 12:25 PM

    Brilliant review as always :) I'm yet to watch this film which I'm sure I'll very soon. I think this is one of the foreign films I should add to the list of must-see foreign films.

  2. Thanks a ton, Hari! Btw, I assure you that you won't be disappointed :-)

  3. Nicely written article.

  4. I am really glad that you liked it :-)

  5. Brilliant review as usual. I have heard about this movie, but still haven't watched this trilogy.

  6. Thanks for showering your kindness as usual. As of now, I have only watched Europa but would be watching the others soon :-).

  7. There is so much to watch, where is the time. Excellent post :))

  8. So true... sometimes the feeling is just too overwhelming!!! Even after having watched a lot of them, I still feel just like reaching the tip of the iceberg!!! :-)

  9. 365 moviesandsongs365July 22, 2012 at 3:11 AM

    The "subconscious of the protagonist", that's an interesting thought.
    Max von Sydow's voiceover was a fascinating choice, and actually all three films in the Europa trilogy can be interpreted as hypnotic.
    ps I think you mistyped, 9.5 IMDB rating(it is in fact 7.6). Otherwise excellent work!

  10. Thanks a ton for bringing it up to my notice.... the mistake has been rectified. In Europa, Max von Sydow's voiceover was indeed of great impact, for it adds a whole new dimension to the movie. Btw, thanks for the recommendation :-)

  11. Murtaza, your review is enticing me to see the film. Its got touches of surrealism and visual brilliance which seem like a stimulating watch thats makes you reflect on history and mankind. Your list of directors are most of my favourites too. Would love to share with you a blog post of mine of Bergman's scene analysis for the film "Persona". I was taken by its simple yet symbolic acting choreography.

    Sharing your review on my FB page.

  12. Thanks for sharing the link. Persona happens to be an all time favorite of mine which I am yet to decipher fully. I am certain that your article will help me gain a better insight into the film!!!


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