Film, Spies, Spy 100 Project

Spy 100, #75: Europa

May 29, 2010

From one cult director to another, Spy 100 moves next to Europa (1991), a striking and ominous modern noir from notorious cinema provocateur Lars von Trier.

Set in the aftermath of World War II, Europa tells the story of Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an American of German descent who returns to Germany in 1945.  Thanks to a family connection, Kessler — an idealistic young man who avoided military service during the war — takes a job with the Zentropa railway, his stated mission to bring some small comfort to a shattered country.   But Kessler soon becomes entangled in the affairs of an important German rail industrialist named  Lawrence Hartmann (Udo Kier), and his daughter Katharina (Barbara Sukowa).  Herr Hartmann is important to the rebuilding efforts of the Allies, while Katharina is suspected of being a “werewolf,” a pro-Nazi terrorist group that targets former Nazis who are now collaborating with the victorious occupying forces.  Unintentionally, Kessler finds himself uniquely positioned to provide intelligence to an American colonel (Eddie Constantine), and when he falls for Katharina, he soons finds it impossible to remain the naïve, innocent outsider in a country full of political maneuvering by jaded, shellshocked survivors.

Von Trier has a reputation for very grim, very dark visions — entirely justified in my experience — and Europa is no exception.  This is a dark, strange, unsettling film, deliberately paced and bleakly mysterious.  Although it does effectively achieve its themes and tonally recapture its era, the film doesn’t have a particularly enthralling story.  Von Trier seems more interested in emotional impact than in story-telling, so anyone going into this looking for standard issue spy narrative is going to be disappointed.  The filmmaking, however, is quite compelling; while the style is obtrusive, it’s also powerful.  The stark black and white photography is occasionally invaded by splashes of color; the sets are quite stagey, even as they effectively sell the scenario; and von Trier achieves interesting effects with superimpositions and rear-screen projection.  The eery visuals are accompanied by effective soundwork, especially the occasionally Bernard Herrmann-like score, and the deep, sonorous narration from Max von Sydow — second-person narration, I might add, which is creepy and appropriate to the story.

The slow pace and obtrusive style are occasional barriers, and the acting — particularly the English-language acting — is largely unconvincing.  But it’s an intriguing movie technically, and a unique window into a dark period of history.  That said, Europa didn’t push any of my spy buttons, really.  I expect fans of weird European cinema will like this far more than your average spy buff.

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