The unquiet twin spirits of Fritz Lang and Franz Kafka preside over Europa
, Lars von Trier's sardonic, saturnine vision of just-post-WWII Germany. In 1945 Leo Kessler, a young American of German descent, returns to the shattered land of his forebears to help in its reconstruction. Through his uncle, who works for the huge railway network Zentropa, he gets a job as a trainee sleeping-car conductor and also meets the seductive Katharina Hartmann, daughter of Zentropa's owner Max. But acts of sabotage and murder are being planned by unregenerate young Nazis calling themselves Werewolves, and very soon Leo's hapless innocent abroad starts finding out that, in this time and place of shifting loyalties, nothing and no one are what they seem.
As if to accentuate this mood of nervous ambiguity, von Trier constantly switches from black and white to colour, and from English to (subtitled) German dialogue, often right in the middle of a scene. The cast boasts several iconic figures of European cinema, including Barbara Sukowa (a Fassbinder favourite) as femme fatale Katharina, and Eddie Constantine (from Godard's Alphaville) as a manipulative American colonel, while a literally hypnotic voice-over is spoken by the great Bergman actor Max von Sydow. There's more than a hint that von Trier intends a mischievous side-glance at today's Europe, and today's European film industry, in resentful thrall to the might of Hollywood. And while Europa is gripping and richly atmospheric, it's never without humour. The long, final episode is a tour de force of tragicomedy, with poor Leo juggling the competing demands of love and loyalty, life and death, while being harassed by his uncle who, horrified that Leo has lost his official peaked cap, forces him to wear a knotted handkerchief on his head, as well as by a pair of punctilious railroad inspectors demanding to know how long it takes him to make up a sleeping-car bunk. Lang and Kafka, sure, but maybe a touch of the Marx Brothers, too. --Philip Kemp