Europa / Zentropa


Director: Lars Von Trier

Released: 1991

Writers: Lars Von Trier, Niels Vorsel

Featured Actors: Barbara Sukowa, Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier




Von Trier:

My parents were eager to tell me that Santa Claus did not exist. When everything must be so explainable and open, it is hard to be a child. It was only as an adult that I could permit myself the luxury of believing in Santa Claus. I was taught there was no deeper meaning to be found in existence. When one is dead, one is dead. A person is just a pile of molecules.

  • Started making films at the age of 10
  • He got a part in a youth-oriented TV series at the age of 12
  • He dropped out of school at the start of 7th grade (his own decision – supported by his parents, who allowed him the freedom to do as he felt he needed)
  • At 18 he began painting and passed his equivalency tests and enrolled in University
  • He began making narrative shorts (financing them through odd jobs) at the age of 19
  • Entered the Danish Film School at 20
  • During film school he was obsessed with German Expressionism & German Culture – not politically correct for a Dane
  • The Danish Film School was organized in such a way that the students were obliged to work together and cultivate a spirit of solidarity – in line with the Danish traditional belief in the importance of the ‘group’ – lots of discussion and debate
  • In film school he was perceived as arrogant and aloof, unpredictable & shy
  • He showed great enthusiasm for the films of Dane Carl Th. Dreyer, particular a Dreyer film called Gertrud (1964)
  • From Dreyer he took the modus operandi “…to find a style which is perfect for the individual film…that atmosphere, that treatment, the people and the topic.”
  • Von Trier claims to have a telepathic connection with him (Dreyer)

Europa (Zentropa in the USA) Production Notes

  • The Third Part of the Europa Trilogy (The Elements of Crime & Epidemic were the first two)
  • Linked to his graduate film Images of a Relief (1982)
  • Uses front & rear projection & selective colorization – allowing for its own emotional geography – a painterly way to approach filming
  • Projection processes done on set not in the lab – contributing to the film’s consciously old-fashioned, ‘pure film’ look – no digital effects were used
  • Von Trier cast himself as the Jew (a quite common casting choice since he believed himself to be half Jewish – his father was a Danish Jew…however…see next note)
  • As his mother lie dying (film in pre-production), she called him to her deathbed and told him she had an affair with a colleague because he was from an artistic family and she wanted a child with artistic genes…he was Lars’ biological father and he was not Jewish…Lars thought it was all rather ‘spooky’.)
  • His biological father was named Fritz Michael Hartmann – and this man was not interested in being connected to Von Trier (see Zentropa for name games)

Themes, Styles & Characters

  • Examines issues of postwar complicity and guilt – a trip back to Germany in year zero
  • Likely, the aesthetics over-ride plot concerns – an aesthetic exercise in the illustration of the sub-conscious
  • the film employs dream-logic, unfolding subjectively and expressionistically from the central character’s point of view
  • Von Trier employs many noir conventions: shadowy business men, a femme fatal, etc.
  • Von Trier once explained how he created such strong involvement from the viewer with his movies by placing his movie world in about the middle of the real world and the imagined world
  • the actual common thread that ties them [Von Trier’s films] all together is in the core of his narratives unfolding from within existentialism’s phenomenological analysis of human consciousness.
  • Katharina seems to embody the glamorous but extremely complex soul of Germany
  • Leo is the gently bred North American eternally out of place in Europe & represents arrogant idealism — he comes from a raw culture with an immature understanding of the German psyche. In his relationship with Katharina, he is a fumbling naif who does not understand the language of women in love.
  • Zentropa’s night train is pounding on relentlessly on a guilt trip from which no sensitive soul can return unchanged. And Leo is in danger of falling victim to his own naiveté while riding a one-way ticket to self-destruction.
  • Metaphorically, we are railroaded into a manufactured reality that is like the movie-going experience itself — sitting in a dark compartment, watching an imitation of life go by dream-like on a rectangular screen that could be a train window. But Leo’s uncle Kessler (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard), who seeks oblivion in his bottle of schnapps, believes that inglorious reality is best unseen and forgotten, and keeps yanking down the window shades and barking: “There is nothing to see!”
  • Ambiguous shadows and grotesque humanity intent on insane rituals and protocols that reveal a society trying to redeem itself, make order out of chaos, and salvage some honour and pride from total defeat. The endlessly rolling railway track, the femme fatale with a dark secret, the rain-swept night, the voice-over narration by Max Von Sydow are loaded motifs.
  • Densely atmospheric and metaphysical, Zentropa is also high on cinematic tricks reminiscent of Welles and Hitchcock. Von Trier makes clever use of visual techniques such as colour and monochrome mixing, back and front projection, and roaming camera shots unrestricted by walls or floors in Escher-like distortions of perspective