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A magnificent and unforgettable film, alas, on a flawed DVD
on 14 August 2002
This is easily one of the most striking and memorable films I have ever seen. It draws the viewer in immediately and tells a well-paced, rewarding and dark tale of a cruel and tragic time in Europe's recent history, from an unusual perspective. In 1992 as I watched it unfold in the cinema I was convinced it was the best film I had seen in perhaps ten years...and the final scene left me literally speechless and rather disturbed during the 30-minute drive home with my partner afterwards. This is not easy to do.
"Europa" (renamed "Zentropa" for its non-European cinema release) is a stunning conclusion to eccentric Dane Lars von Trier's so-called "Europa Trilogy", begun with "The Element of Crime" in 1984 and continued with "Epidemic" in 1988. Why Tartan Video have chosen to release only two of these three films at this point on DVD seems somewhat of a mystery.
Filmed in Denmark and Poland, with German, French, American and Danish actors (and a Swedish narrator!), in the English language with occasional passages of German, this is truly a multi-national effort.
von Trier presents us with a dark, wet, dreary, frequently-sinister and mainly-monochrome world in which there are few happy endings, brutally realistic vignettes of human nature and no easy solutions. The end of WWII has left Germany a broken, violent, mean, amoral and mercenary place, its remaining people deeply brutalised, its society and industry almost totally destroyed by the invading and retaliating Allied forces. The American occupying force is reorganising ex-Nazi Germany's industries and economy and offers the only stability of law, and it is clear that Compromise is the order of the day if Germany is to find its feet as a nation again. The society is divided between those who welcome the efforts of the American occupiers and the "Werewolves", those who still harbour Nazi sympathies and wreak vengeance on those of their German countryfolk who collaborate with the Americans.
Into this situation arrives Leopold Kessler (played by French actor Jean-Marc Barr), a young American of German origins. During WWII, he had taken a pacifist stance and refused to fight in the US Army, deserting instead. Now he has come to Germany in the belief that he can make a positive difference to help rebuild Germany in this uneasy peacetime. His dour and war-embittered uncle finds him a job on the newly-relaunched Zentropa national railway (which was used to transport Jews to death camps during the war) as a trainee sleeping-car conductor. Effectively an American foreigner, his presence is resented by many. He quickly falls foul of a deeply inflexible and perfectionist German work ethic (the most often-used German phrase in the film translates into English as "those are the rules"). As an idealist, he falls between the two camps into which Germany is divided and, particularly once he falls in love and becomes involved with the story of the Zentropa-controlling Hartmann family, finds that his idealism is making him a well-intentioned pawn of both sides in the struggle for power.
Critics of von Trier's feature films often argue that his films are lacking in "humanity", and that they therefore simply follow a cynical formula to manipulate an audience. But surely this criticism is more fairly aimed at most latter-day Hollywood "human interest" films, and whatever one's views of von Trier as auteur, there is much to emotionally affect most viewers in this grandly surreal cinematic postcard from late-1945 Germany, which frequently stylistically quotes many of von Trier's own idols, from Welles to Hitchcock and many more. Here, von Trier borrows heavily from the epic style of so many wartime and post-war romance/thrillers (Third Man, Casablanca, etc), adding his own signature twists and curveballs along the way, and it certainly pays off! Beautifully composed throughout, this one bears many viewings.
von Trier makes frequent and powerful use of front/rear-projection techniques, as well as selective and judicious use of colour, to tell the story with an added dreamlike quality. This is initiated at the film's memorable beginning, as Max von Sydow's hypnotic introductory narration invites the audience to sink into a celluloid dream.
The film, then, is worth 5 stars. This disc, however, is another matter. The film notes are interesting reading, and the print of the film seems almost pristine....The occasional English subtitles are optional, which is nice. However, while the feature is anamorphic widescreen, it has been zoomed from the film's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 to approx 1.78:1, presumably to neatly fit widescreen TVs. This makes a nonsense of many of von Trier's beautifully-composed widescreen images, with so much information missing from either side of the frame. Ironically, the included theatrical trailer is in anamorphic 2.35:1...why? To show us what we're missing in the main feature? The point is rammed home when the image flattens out to 2.35:1 at the end of the film to accommodate the end credits... There also appear to be one or two instances of monochrome being substituted for a splash of von Trier colour, e.g. in one shot in the Ravenstein scene.
So, a thoroughly engaging and affecting film which should reward all who see it is finally released to DVD for the first time, on a seriously flawed disc. ...the von Trier film-buff deserves better. If you must have this film now, in whatever aspect ratio, get it. ...