on 11 January 2016
At last, the first trilogy of Lars von Trier has been released by Tartan Films. In an excellent transfer visually and in its audio quality, the European Trilogy is faithfully reproduced in here. Displaying in here all his love for the German art (German expressionism, Nazi aesthetic) and for other film genres like Film Noir and Thrillers, and Apocalypses, Lars von Trier offers a foray of what he would reveal in his future films. Impressive technical effects, though all of them suffer the same weakness he later recognized. An emotional coldness that hurts the access of this film for audiences. Something that his family life taught to him. Until an important revelation on his mother's deathbed about his real biological father made him search for a quest of truth that would soon glitter out in his future films.
Though with the special features inside, like the future film Nocturne, and other documentaries like how his crew defends him as a very nice and decent human being, offer very accessible and human analysis of the genius that is Lars von Trier both as an artist and as a philosopher.
Element of Crime (3/5)
"The worst thing that can happen in the name of science is when the system becomes all-important" - Lars von Trier
Before doing his wonderful "Kingdom", then his "Golden Heart", his "American", and his "Depression" trilogies, Lars von Trier did another series of movies he called "The Europa trilogy". Movies that revolved around Europe's social issues in a possible future; which he started in 1984 and completed in 1991. Among them was his first movie, "The Element of Crime", that he presented at Cannes in 1984, where the jury awarded him a technical prize, but no Golden Palm mostly due to the hostile reaction of Dirk Bogarde, President of the Jury that year. Then again, several members of that same jury were sympathetic toward the filmmaker, among them Isabelle Huppert who, ironically, would end up seeing and awarding Lars's Antichrist when she would be President of Jury in 2009.
As a fan of Lars von Trier, I have appreciated many of his movies for their rich stories, the excellent acting and editing, but also their humanity, their sincerity, their emotions, and the excellent roles his female actresses always get to play. Movies where he got to express, as Katrin Cartlidge once explained, his "emotional side". Which he then cohabited with his "technical side" during his "Depression Trilogy" (Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac). Technical side that was very present in "Element of Crime". Too much present.
Indeed when watching the movie, I felt that in focusing too much on his camera effects, his lighting, and his cinematography, Lars had neglected the storyline and the characters. In other words, the human side of the story. Because if I were doing a film noir like Element of Crime, which concerns a detective who tries to stop a serial killer from attacking little girls, I would focus a lot on the characters' pain and emotions. But here, we don't have any of that. The story is cold, detached, and the acting's wooden. Giving me the feeling that in focusing too much on his special effects, Lars had inadvertently installed a glass panel between himself, the audience, and the characters. Making us indifferent to the story and to the characters , but also distorting their real reactions, making them on screen wooden, forced, and frigid. Not only that, some of the dialogues were very confusing, had nothing to do with the story, and dragged the movie instead of advancing it. Making me wonder if the movie wouldn't have been better if trimmed to a shorter length.
Now I don't deny the visual qualities of the movie. Using no computer effects, but many lights, smokes, monochrome palettes, and human pyrotechnical effects, Lars has done here one visual spectacle of German expressionism. But as a story, I felt "Element of Crime" could have been better, and he admits it in the book "Trier on Trier" he did with Stig Bjorkman. In that book, he admitted his script mistakes, his detachment to the characters, to the story, but also the terrible dialogue.
So personally, I take "The Element of Crime" as a pre-version of the Lars von Trier we all know today. The remains of a Lars von Trier that had followed the philosophy his family had taught him all his life. Which was to refrain and condemn his emotions. A stupid philosophy he broke off when doing the Kingdom, then his masterpiece of a movie called "Breaking the Waves" he did with Emily Watson, Katrin Cartlidge, and Stellan Skarsgard.
PS: During "Element of Crime", one to the characters narrates the tale of "The House that Jack built". Detail that ironically foreshadows his upcoming TV series, but also his upcoming "fairy tale" storytelling done in a modern setting.
"You have read the words! Enter the film! Enter Epidemic!" - The medium
Before the Danish film director Lars von Trier got his worldwide success with The Kingdom and his marvelous Breaking the Waves, he made a trilogy called The trilogy of Europe. Movies whose titles start with the letter E and dealt with the traumas of Europe. Past, present, and possible future. And in the eighties, with the Cold War and fear of attack, there came the panic of imminent death from a nuclear apocalypse. Something that medicine could not cure. And with the apparition of AIDS in the worldwide language, death through an incurable illness could be an unpleasant possibility. So with this film, Lars von Trier and his co-writer Niels Vorls attempt to dive into that subject matter. That is a plague epidemic that spreads through Denmark, Germany, Europe, and, as a possibility, the world. Catastrophe scenario that, in Hollywood, would involve lots of death, guts, and gore. The kind of script you'd see in a zombie film like Night of the Living Dead.
Unfortunately for fans of that horror genre, this is not what happens in Epidemic.
In it, Lars and Niels, playing their own roles as writers, try to summon a new script that they want to present to a Danish Film Institute Executive producer. Abandoning their former detective story with a cop and a prostitute (small nod to Element of Crime!), their new project revolves around a bubonic plague epidemic. Reminder of a crucial past in Europe's medieval history, Epidemic's title appears on the screen the minute the characters start writing their work. Half-diving into scenes from the script then going back to the authors' ups-and-downs trying to write it, the movie happens through this back-and-forth as chapters, an upcoming feature for Lars's future films, appear on the screen. Titles for the days of writing until the eventful meeting, their presence make us dread the dramatic conclusion the movie's narrator warns us about at the beginning. A dramatic irony that the characters are unaware of except us and which epitomizes the thematic of this film. The coincidences between fiction and reality when they blur together and how, when tragedies we take for granted as fictional or of the past do occur, the possibility of escape becomes impossible.
Unlike Element of Crime, whose human interactions were disjointed, confusing, and cold, I preferred Epidemic. Stronger presence of human interactions, emotions, and drama, the story's easier to connect to. This is a movie that presents the reality of scriptwriting, that is the friendship and complicity between scriptwriters as they try to organize their plotline. Speaking of plotlines, it's interesting to see Niels and Lars painting on the apartment's wall their plot's progression because that is what Lars also does in his Zentropa office. A fact that further strengthens the blur between reality and fiction with this film.
At times, the movie fluctuates like a dialogue. With digressions going on subjects like Niels correspondences with American girls to the actor Udo they meet in Cologne and listen to his grief over his mother's death and, as I was happy to see, his condemnation of the racist belief surrounding Germans that they are all Nazis. Which too many people still believe even today and which we got a troubling example through the British reporter Kate Muir from The Times of London who, during Lars's Melancholia press conference (still available on Cannes's website and which I watched in May 2011 the day it happened), dove in right after Charlotte Higgins's (The Guardian) intervention about "Tristan und Isolde" and attacked Lars with this question:
"Kate Muir from the Times of London. My question follows on from the German Romantic thing. Can you talk a bit about your German roots and the Gothic aspect of this film. (Lars:gossip?) And also, you mentioned in a Danish Film Magazine also about your interest in the Nazi Aesthetic and you talked about that, German roots, at the same time. Can you tell us a bit more about that?" (Cannes Melancholia Press Conference 2011, 34:30 to 34:57)
A wordy question that insinuated a sick display of germanophobia as she connected together his taste for the Nazi culture with his "German roots", that is his secret biological father's blood: the German Fritz Michael Hartmann who, when Lars met him, NEVER recognized him as his son and NEVER had any influence in Lars's life and art. A filthy "personal taste-blood" connection she accused Lars of doing during his interview for a Danish film Magazine she never took the time/decency/professionalism to identify in her question at Cannes, but later revealed as the Danish Film Institute Magazine Film #72 in her May 20th 2011 article "No let-off this time for the enfant terrible after "Nazi" rant". Article that she wrote as an excuse for asking her sick blood-racist question and where she has the nerve of twisting the words Lars used to describe Inger Høst's (his mother) deathbed revelation about his biological father being Hartmann rather than Ulf Trier — fact every fan of Lars von Trier knows and which every biography describes and which any common film critic should know regarding Lars as it's the central pillar of his cinema — to state instead that he was talking about his mother being a German. Inaccurate reporting that proves her quill is as much as a "quick-quotes" as her accusation that Lars spoke about his German blood and his taste for the Nazi culture TOGETHER as they were instead mentioned in complete different contexts during the Danish Film Institute Interview. That is his secret biological father during an enumeration of his passion for Nietzsche and his current reading of Thomas Mann to show the irony that his whole life (artistic and private) has revolved around Germany; while for his taste for the Nazi culture in another context where he was describing his opinion that the Nazis' Stuka's artistic design was more impressive and memorable than the British's Spitfire. Artistic belief, not ideological, that I strongly suspect is the real "root" of Kate Muir's attack on Lars as the UK has extreme pride and nostalgia over its military history — especially for World War 2 — and Lars's artistic opinion could be seen, for many British people, as a "whole spiel" which was how she described his Nazi aesthetic interest in her May 20 2011 article I wrote about earlier.
In the end, her question and accusation at Cannes had the result of making Lars uncomfortable — as he was Jewish but not practicing, as his family is raised under that culture (ex:children' names) just like he was by his parents as a child — and made him reply with sarcastic Danish and Jewish jokes (badly formulated and without a punch because of that stressful situation he did not expect and which made him nervous) where he was trying to pinpoint out the germanophobic nature of her question that implied that "German equals Nazi" and how her question hurt/insulted his Jewish background and faith his parents raised him in, his denunciation of the holocaust in his Europa film, and his interest that he had years before knowing the truth about his biological father. A reply which reporters/artists didn't understand, or knew but did not want to admit, or heard but instead wrote/stated the opposite in complete bad faith to up their sales and images like the Rita Skeeters they behaved that day. A situation that infuriated people in the public I spoke with and other fans like me as we saw the conference on Cannes's website, on YouTube, and clearly reported on blogs and other websites detailing the affair; condemning the reporter for what had happened that day as Melancholia's conference was going well before her confrontational intervention-question, had none of the lousy atmosphere Lars suffered in other Cannes years (ie: Antichrist), and that her sudden question as the second-to-last reporter didn't allow a proper comeback for what had just happened. Ending the conference on a sour note that made fans and people in the public I spoke with (ex: Film Institute employees, University students, shop employees, etc.) think that Cannes should have sacked "her" and not Lars and that the moderator should have intervened and confronted the reporter over her statement and its racist insinuations; ordering her to either specify what she wants, or retract, or reformulate, or pass the mike to someone who has something intelligent to ask. In short, the large majority of the Public and of the Web demonstrated a sympathy and defensive support towards Lars which must have infuriated Kate Muir as she wrote in September 30 2011 a headmistress editorial subtly entitled "Stop indulging Lars von Trier and his grotesque stunts" that proved she did not expect that reaction-and-devotion for Lars from the public and his fans. Although it reveals the cunning/spiteful/two-faced nature she revealed in her articles and which contrasted with her behaviour at Cannes where she had asked her question with a candid and over-kindness/gallantry that I had instantly recognized as phony because it wasn't natural and honest, making me therefore not trust that journalist at all and extremely suspicious of her as she spoke. Not only that, a friend felt that the reporter's behaviour at Cannes made that woman, along with her racist question, more dumb than intelligent as she described Kate Muir as a "C-four-letters-curse-word" that I will not write, but which I quite agree with. Again everything that I just mentioned in this paragraph is an opinion of mine on this whole incident that had an impact on Lars's filmography like the movie Nymphomaniac, but it is an opinion which many family members, co-workers, friends, shop employees, and people I met on the street strongly believe and share with me. In conclusion, this scandal is an event that pinpoints to the kind of prejudice Lars mentions in Epidemic, which he would end up being a victim of, as his movie forewarns that even decades after the end of the War and in the 21st century, there will still be people who think all Germans and those with German blood are Nazis.
As for the technical aspects of this film, Lars is again a master at work. Strong black-and-white as in Night of the Living Dead, delicious lighting, well induced sound effects, and soundtracks with Tanhausser's overture, the movie's machine is perfect. Nothing to reproach at. Nothing clunky for our eyes and ears.
However the restraint in some of the performances makes the film a bit more difficult to appreciate it. Indeed, Lars and Niels sometimes are very timid in their way of acting out their scenes. Though of course, that restraint might be to make their performances more real rather than theatrical, the way the movie presents their feelings makes it a bit more colder than necessary. And of the cast members that do release that energy, Udo Kier and the medium's wife add pain and sadness. Emotions that enrich this film some might find too cold for the dramatic tension in this film. But which the climax explodes toward us.
As for the sound, it is in mono and the definition is, even though not in HD, very enjoyable on a HD TV screen. In particular for a large one.
In the end, this movie is, although better than Element of Crime, still more restrained than necessary and I think that it could have had more humanity in the story. Nevertheless, a fine rendition in Lars's filmography that displays future elements in Lars's works. Which are Hand-held cameras, Wagner soundtracks, the Kingdom hospital, and an apocalypse, and main characters that are self-portrayals of him. Like how Madame Bovary is Gustave Flaubert.
"If the scars of this war are to heal, then we must turn to one another." - Max Hartmann
Ultimate part of his European Trilogy, "Europa" is quite a work of art to look at. Indeed, with German expressionism, Nazi Aesthetic, Film Noir, and Hitchcockian references all melded together, "Europa" is the story of Leopold Kessler, an American who comes in Germany to work on the train Zentropa where his uncle works as Sleeping car Conductor. Hoping to help the fallen Germany while staying in a Neutral political position over the reality he lives in. An opinion that harms him for the worse as he encounters the path of the Hartmann family. Family whose name is in reference to Lars's biological father, Fritz Michael Hartmann. A man who never recognized Lars as his biological father and never had any influences in Lars's life and tastes. A man Lars uncovered the secret truth only when his mother Bente Host told him the existence on her deathbed that this man was his real father. Therefore, making a movie one of the first works where Lars dives in part of himself into his work, which he didn't do in Element of Crime or in Epidemic.
But also, this movie is a tragedy which condemns the taboos of World War II and its post-War period. The culture of silence, of lies, of collaboration, of despair, and of germanophobia that still plague Europe today. Whether from the Germans or the Americans. A movie whose opinion is that in the upcoming future of Europe, World War II will leave a deep scar over the world.
Also, it is a movie of visual and musical references that made Europa one of the most well-received among film critics. Which is understandable as many cinema references populate this film what unfortunately, lacks emotionality and human connection with the characters and with the audience. Making the movie hard to connect with as the technical wizardry of retro-projections, black-and-whites, and color film stocks turn Europa into "a block of ice" as Lars himself told Stellan Skarsgaard. A work so controlled in its presentation and control of its actors that there are no chances for mistakes that make the story more real. More human which is what Cocteau did with "Beauty and the Beast".
However, Europa has the merit of bringing out a talent that Lars would continue in his future films. Strong, determined, and brave female characters. Nothing to do with the sexist archetypes of American TV soap Operas where women think over Prince charming stereotypes and weddings that soon end up in divorces at the end of the season. Instead, Lars's women are strong invididuals with personal agendas and goals; in complete control of their lives and interests. One that Barbara Sukowa plays very well. As much as Udo Kier played her brother Lawrence, and Jean-Marc Barr for the role of Leopold Kessler.
Of the special features in this DVD, which I wish they could release in Blu-Ray, "Europa" offers a Danish commentary with Lars von Trier talking in a very pleasant and not pretentious way with his producer Peter Allbaek Jensen, another interview over the European Trilogy and its hypnotic thematic that, among others, unites the three films. And also a bonus feature where Lars's collaborators defend him as a very nice and kind human being who does movies that unfortunately upset pretentious and obnoxious people. Which I noticed straight away when Lars had his Antichrist Press Conference, first time I ever saw a public interaction with Lars von Trier, and was shocked to see him treated with violence by the reporter from the Daily Mail; one of the most trashiest and filthiest British Newspaper that pollutes the crassest common denominator of the world. Making me therefore realize that the attacks on Lars come from the twisted minds of biased reporters and Lars's replies are just his chance for him to slap back at the stupidity of their questionning. And that a film venue, for all its glamour and poshiness as the Elite of Film Festivals, harbors such idiotic Reporters makes you realize how toxic Cannes's Festival is. With people asking questions of which they already know the answer and treating Lars like they did since his first arrival with "Element of Crime". As a weirdo, a prankster, a fraud, and a manipulator. Though that latter definition would take bigger proportions with Breaking the Waves and Dancer in The Dark as they would start calling him other names like Misogynist.
As a whole, Europa made him receive the technical prize and the Jury's prize, award that would make him call Roman Polanski, head jury of that Festival, as "The Midget"; in nod to his role in ChinaTown. Both in irony and in anger at not receiving the Golden Palm. A calling that I find well deserved; a lack of recognition that however maybe was for the better as had it not been for that, maybe Lars wouldn't have tried to push himself away from all his technical wizardry of his European trilogy and start what he would do next.
Movies centered around himself, his emotions, and his view of the world. Bovarist fables where he would display women as main characters.
Emotional work he would start doing with "The Kingdom", then his gorgeous and spectacular, and incomparable "Breaking the Waves".