Directed by Lars Von Trier
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 107 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 3.0 English/German
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: December 9, 2008
Review Date: November 25, 2008
Lars Von Trier’s stylistic but empty examination into the guilt associated with the Allied occupation of Germany after World War II makes Europa a somewhat frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying experience. Relying on a host of cinematic touches to add a layer of mystery and other-worldliness to his story, Von Trier instead succeeds in turning off the viewer with his overabundant FX slight-of-hand and focusing on a protagonist who’s singularly and spinelessly irritating.
Conscientious objector Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) has sat out the war in America but returns to Germany in 1945 to apprentice as a first class conductor on a German train line, the Zentropa. During the course of the film, the hapless, naïve youngster is pushed and pulled into a number of ugly, disagreeable circumstances not of his choosing (and a quickie marriage to a woman he barely knows played by Barbara Sukowa), but his weak will prevents him from acting on his own at least until he‘s given a final chance to prove himself.
Lars Von Trier and Niels Vorsel have collaborated on the screenplay and have concocted a Kafkaesque protagonist bullied and manipulated into the most ridiculous circumstances. Their views of the brutal occupation of Germany after World War II have very definite weight and gravitas, but their message is blunted by making their leading character such a spineless pushover, a man who is constantly maneuvered into a series of ever-growing disasters leading to assassinations, suicides, and eventually sabotages, the latter to save a cold, calculating wife who’s as guilty of leading him down the garden path as everyone else in the film. Von Trier’s camera eye is quite sophisticated, and there are several scenes shot from arresting angles (the initial lovemaking shot from above filmed in counterpoint to a death happening on another floor of the same house; a death among the sensually waving river plants which immediately brings to mind Shelley Winters’ death in The Night of the Hunter, gently falling snow during a church service in a cathedral with a bombed-out roof) which have a quiet, surreal beauty. On the other hand, the director uses front and rear projections to combine his mostly black and white movie with muted color inserts to little purpose and which take the viewer right out of the film on a regular basis.
Leading man Jean-Marc Barr has presence galore, but it’s ineffectual in such a milquetoast role. Barbara Sukowa’s calculating Kate is stone-faced and unappealing and lacks the sultry quality that would have drawn the weak Leo to her. Jorgen Reenberg gives a haunting but too-brief performance as the train magnate suffering from guilt over his role in transporting political prisoners to the death camps while both Ernst-Hugo Järegärd as Leo’s feisty uncle and Eddie Constantine as the blustery Colonel Harris make much of their small, underwritten parts.
The film’s 2.35:1 original Panavision aspect ratio is faithfully delivered in this anamorphic transfer. The black and white photography is mostly luminous with sharp edges and excellent clarity. When the color inserts occur, unfortunately, the grain level jumps irregularly and makes unsatisfying matches with the black and white imagery. Black levels are variable, too, though often they reach a very acceptable depth. Half of the film is in English, but when subtitles appear, they’re in white and are easily read. The film has been divided into 16 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 3.0 surround track is usually solid, but the music by Joachim Holbek (with an assist by Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo theme) is sometimes too overpowering for the rest of the mix drowning out voices in the center channel. Very deep bass is often impressive in the mix but as with the music can be a bit overwhelming.
The audio commentary between director Lars Von Trier and producer Peter Aalbeck Jensen is in Danish and is subtitled. The two men have an affable relationship as they methodically go through their paces commenting on the film and its production problems.
“The Making of Europa” is a 39-minute 4:3 documentary that describes all three of the films that are part of the Europa trilogy, shows the elaborate storyboards used to plot out the film, shows on-the-set shooting in both Poland and Denmark, and describes the extensive use of projections and superimpositions that give the film its quirky quality.
The theatrical trailer is presented in anamorphic widescreen and runs 2 ¾ minutes.
The other bonus features are contained on the set’s second disc.
“Trier’s Element” is a 1991 43 ¾-minute documentary which features clips from the other two parts of the Europa trilogy along with extensive clips from Europa. Also covereted in the feature is the film’s debut and sensational reception at the Cannes Film Festival along with the director talking about his next film project, a movie which will be shot over a thirty-year period.
“Anecdotes from Europa” gathers together interviews from actors, the producer, the assistant director, the co-writer, and the production designer talking about their memories of making the movie. Filmed in 2005, these reminiscences are in nonanamorphic letterbox and run 20 ½ minutes.
“From Dryer to Von Trier” is a lovely remembrance from the film’s cinematographer Henning Bendtsen on working with two famous directors during his lengthy career. This anamorphic featurette runs 13 ½ minutes.
“The Emotional Music Script” focuses on composer Joachim Holbek who brought his experience of composing ballet music to this, his first feature film assignment. Again, there are lots of film clips from the movie to illustrate his blending of sight and sound in this nonanamorphic letterboxed 12-minute featurette.
“Lars Von Trier Anecdotes” gathers together interviews from the film’s costume designer, a former film school teacher, the film editor, the producer, the art director, the production manager, and three actors all talking about working for the director on various projects. This feature runs 17 minutes in nonanamorphic letterbox.
“Conversation with Lars Von Trier” is a dialogue about the Europa trilogy between journalist Bo Jensen and the director filmed in 2005. The 4:3 presentation runs 43 ¾ minutes.
“Europa - The Faecal Location” is a silly 10-minute discussion of the hideous water and sewage conditions in Poland during location filming there complete with some poor quality home movies illustrating the backed-up toilets and slow-running showers.
The enclosed 13-page booklet contains some stills from the film, the cast and crew credits, and an essay praising the film by author Howard Hampton.
Europa is a cinematic curio which will likely generate as much positive as negative feedback. It’s definitely unusual, and Criterion has presented it in a package with generous bonuses and a first rate transfer. Fans of the director will no doubt be thrilled to get this third part of his Europa trilogy looking and sounding so beautifully.