Friday, November 19, 2010

Europa (1991) by Lars von Trier

"You will now listen to my voice. My voice will help you, and guide you still deeper into Europa. Every time you hear my voice, with every word and every number, you will enter a still deeper layer, open, relaxed and receptive. I shall now count from one to ten. On the count of ten, you will be in Europa. I say; One, and as you focus your attention entirely on my voice you will slowly begin to relax. Two, your hands and your fingers are getting warmer and heavier. Three, the warmth is spreading through your arms, to your shoulders and your neck. Four, your feet and your legs feel heavier. Five, the warmth is spreading to the whole of your body. On six I want you to go deeper. I say; Six, and the whole of your relaxed body is beginning to sink. Seven, you go deeper and deeper and deeper. Eight, on every breath you take, you go deeper. Nine, you are floating. On the mental count of ten, you will be in Europa. Be there at ten. I say; Ten."

And on the narrators command we are transported into Europa; Lars von Trier's dark and brooding film noir masterpiece that deals with themes of guilt and manipulation in post-war Germany. The protagonist is Leopold Kessler, an idealistic American of German descent who has come to Germany to work with his uncle as a first-class sleeping-car conductor. There he meets and is seduced by a strikingly beautiful young woman named Katharina, whose father owns the rail company Leopold now works for. As he is drawn into Katharina's world he encounters the problems Germany is trying to face; a sense of national guilt over their countries actions during the war, a dark depression settling on Germany's national psyche and the realities of living in an occupied and defeated country. The occupiers, meanwhile, concern themselves with administering tests to determine German citizens culpability in Nazi actions during the war, and dealing with the insurgence threat of the 'Werwolf' (a group of commandos and Nazi sympathisers set on sabotaging Allied interests). But as Germany faces it's past, so must Katharina, admitting to the now smitten Leopold that she used to be a member of the dreaded Werwolf group.

In a way, the story is almost incidental in the face of the spectacle of Europa. The plot is a standard thriller affair wrapped in allegory, with characters, music and cinematography so deeply recalling film noir that you have to wonder whether von Trier is offering up a pastiche or a homage, but it's through his wonderful cinematic technique that Europa becomes something truly unique. Using all sorts of visual trickery such as double exposure, superimposition, aft and foreground projection, highly-choreographed, Hitchcock-esque camera movements and splashes of unexpected colour in the deep and oppressive high-contrast black and white world of Europa (a technique Spielberg would later ape to widespread acclaim in Schindler's List), von Trier presents a composite image that shows the films larger themes. Through the hypnotic presence of Max von Sydow's narrator who commands Leopold on his journey, the clever use of colour and interleaved images, the familiar plot and noir sensibilities, the way the occupying US forces manipulate the situation for their own gain and the way Katharina manipulates Leopold, the viewer is in turn expertly manipulated and taken along for the ride. The plot offers no surprises, everything is foreshadowed and hinted at via one method or another, but through von Trier's manipulation the scenes remarkably lose none of their impact. Undoubtedly Europa is a cinematic masterpiece, but more for von Trier's technique and than anything else.

No comments: