“But I thought the war was over.” So muses Leopold Kessler, the idealistic American protagonist of the Danish director Lars von Trier’s 1991 film Europa, set in the broken, festering Germany of 1945. To pitch in with the postwar recovery, young Leo lands a job as a sleeping-car conductor on the Zentropa rail line under the auspices of his parodically fastidious German uncle. In von Trier’s at once flashy and noirishly brooding film, Leo is soon seduced by the Zentropa owner’s mysterious daughter and coerced by the so-called Werewolf partisans into aiding anti-Allied sabotage missions.
Europa, which was released in the United States in 1992 as Zentropa (to avoid confusion with the 1991 movie Europa Europa), comes out on DVD today from the august Criterion Collection with its original title restored. In recent years von Trier has been better known for needling parables about America, or ersatz America, openly aimed at pushing people’s buttons. Dogville depicted good small-town folks turning brutally on an altruistic visitor played by Nicole Kidman; Manderlay conjured up a slave plantation led by Lauren Bacall thriving years after emancipation.
Europa, his early art-house breakthrough, has long been discussed primarily in terms of its bravura visual style. Von Trier makes eye-popping use of rear projection (such as a close-up of a clock forming the backdrop to a shot of Leo running) and intermingled color and black-and-white footage. Lording over it all is Max von Sydow’s puppetmaster-like voice-of-doom narration (“You are in a train in Germany…”). From the movie’s opening countdown, over train tracks flickering down the screen, Leo’s story is a hypnotic journey—into his tragically predetermined future and the world’s inescapable past. Rather than mere artifice, Europa’s separately filmed backdrops (a bit like a seamlessly integrated TV weatherman’s map) express the surreal disjunction of Germany Year Zero. The mixing of color and black-and-white, sometimes within the same shot, harks back to their famous alternating use in the concentration-camp documentary Night and Fog.
In an unusual bit of self-casting, von Trier himself appears in a single scene, playing a character identified in the credits simply as The Jew. While Leo is visiting the Hartmann family (Zentropa’s owners), von Trier’s distracted-looking, bowed character arrives by U.S. military jeep to sign a document vouching for the Hartmann patriarch’s denazification. But as Leo learns later, it’s all a sham: Zentropa’s past is indeed a dark one, and The Jew has been coerced into cooperating. (Of course, none of this explains the dreamlike episode in which Leo is led back into his first-class train through a car that is inexplicably filled with emaciated prisoners, arrayed in bone-tired poses on close-set bunks.)
Europa was released not long after von Trier’s own extraordinary discovery regarding his personal history. Though his ardently leftist parents had largely dismissed organized religion, he had always identified as a Jew culturally, through his Jewish father. But in 1989, von Trier’s mother revealed, literally on her deathbed, that another man—a Protestant—was his biological father. The director has spoken freely about the revelation and his sense of identity; he mentions it in his commentary on the Europa DVD. In a 2000 interview for Danish radio, he discussed both his initial shock and his continued feeling of community and cultural pride, even after converting to Catholicism. But von Trier’s comments about the experience bear a characteristic whiff of mischief-making. “It’s really cool to be among the ones who were always persecuted,” he told the radio interviewer. “I’ve always seen myself as something of an outsider and felt a little persecuted and then it’s very nice to belong to a club of persecuted people.” That’s von Trier being von Trier (and keeping in the playful spirit of an exchange that begins, “When you were Jewish, what was that like?”).
It’s unclear whether von Trier had already written Europa when he learned of his biological father from his mother (who, in another twist, had been active in the Danish resistance). But it’s tantalizing that the man bore the same name as Zentropa’s owner: Hartmann. It’s possible that Europa, long considered an exercise in arty excess, may in fact be von Trier’s most personal film.