Lars Von Trier made his first three features as a trilogy because, as he told people, filmmakers are taken more seriously that way. But what makes a film trilogy a trilogy? The answer has to be more than simply “three films”.
Lars Von Trier’s Europe Trilogy is now available from Criterion as a Blu-ray set, so we can look for what unites the films. They don’t share stories or characters. They’re each some kind of report on life in Europe and a grim dystopian dossier it is, not unlike Michael Haneke’s Trilogy reviewed here. (You see what we mean about trilogies being taken seriously?)
Von Trier’s Europe Trilogy could just as easily be called the German Trilogy since the films are set partly or entirely in Germany, or the Hypnosis Trilogy since hypnosis is a factor in all three. As some critics in the set suggest, the films could be a Trilogy of Fascination. They aim to hold viewers spellbound with formal visual styles more important than the stories, so they fly in the face of most Art House fare. They prefer the expressive and modernist to standards of serious realism. Let’s have a closer look.
The Element of Crime (1984)
Although a Danish film, The Element of Crime presents itself in English with an English title and actors. This is part of Von Trier’s strategy to aim for international commercial success, no matter how arty and experimental things get.
The images begin with mysterious fragments of 8mm home-movie travel films acquired by Von Trier. We see a donkey struggling to stand up, and if we’re hopeless film buffs, that may remind us of two films of 1966, Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Andrei Rublev and Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar. We also hear a voice telling us we’re in Cairo and addressing us by the symbolic name of Mr. Fisher, an appropriate name for an investigating detective or an apostle.
At last, we see who speaks: a portly unnamed therapist (Ahmed El Shenawi) who sits looming with a monkey on his shoulder in front of geometric shadows cast by Moorish screens. To the left is a round whirring fan; to the right, a nurse in a nun’s wimple stands like a statue. As a result of shooting with sodium light in 16mm, the image has a grainy sepia-yellowish tint that will continue unbroken for the whole of The Element of Crime. The style doesn’t even vaguely resemble other features of 1984 in texture and tone.
“All I know is Europe has become an obsession to you,” says the doctor to us and Mr. Fisher. Is the monkey his spirit animal? Does the monkey have anything to do with the cowering lemur in the final shot? The therapist explains that Mr. Fisher has just returned, in a state of collapse, from two months in Europe, which he hadn’t visited in 13 years. To help him, the therapist will use hypnosis to make him recount what’s happened. “You are going to see Europe again for the first time in 13 years,” prods the doctor.
“I am going to see Europe again for the first time in 13 years,” repeats Fisher dutifully, his first words spoken in the film. From that point, we supposedly see the memories of Fisher (Michael Elphick). If we see them, we must be inside Fisher’s mind. Does the doctor see them too? That would be a neat trick. At certain points, the doctor asks godlike questions for clarification or to hurry things along. In other words, this whole conceit is extravagantly artificial and unrealistic, and we can never be sure how reliable are Fisher’s assertions and omissions.
Emerging in George Orwell’s famous year of 1984, during which Michael Radford made a serious film version of Orwell’s novel, The Element of Crime is perhaps even more successful as a near-future vision of collapse, entropy, and desultory fascism. These elements are elaborated around a standard detective story from old noir films.
Fisher is an ex-cop recalled from exile to investigate the killings of little girls who sell Lotto tickets, a perfect analogue to the randomness of life and fortune in this milieu. The new police chief, Kramer (Jerold Wells), is simply a violent thug who looks like the skinheads around him.
Fisher’s decrepit mentor, Osborne (Esmond Knight), superannuated and disgraced, wrote a book called The Element of Crime on the theory that a detective must methodically retrace a criminal’s actions and, in a sense, become the criminal to understand him. In retracing the journeys of a deceased suspect named Harry Grey, Fisher picks up a femme-fatale named Kim (Meme Lai), who may or may not know about the crimes.
While the initial shot of the therapist is lengthy and static, and presumably from Fisher’s point of view, most of the lengthy shots will be mobile, sometimes astoundingly, seductively, snakily so, conceived in Von Trier’s careful storyboards from high angles or creeping along the floorboards. The masterful cinematographer is Tom Elling.
There are only about 150 shots in the running time of The Element of Crime. Each contributes to the nightmarish clamminess of the film’s vision of a post-disaster Europe where things are flooded and rainy and populated by homeless people sleeping under and over a landscape of junk. Here’s where Von Trier’s visual debts to Tarkovsky, especially 1975’s Mirror (Zerkalo) and 1979’s Stalker, are clearest, plus he throws in one or two napalmed nods to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, from 1979.
References to film history abound. A serial killer of little girls inevitably recalls Fritz Lang’s M, from 1931. An early shot of someone at a window is a re-creation of a similar shot early in 1932’s Vampyr, by Carl Theodor Dreyer, the first great Danish filmmaker. The main character in Vampyr was David Grey. Renaming him Harry in The Element of Crime evokes, for example, Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in the ruined postwar Europe of Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s The Third Man, from 1949.
The spirit of Welles drenches The Element of Crime as much as the rain. The commentary by critics Stig Björkman and Peter Schepelern discusses affinities with Touch of Evil (1958) and Mr. Arkadin or Confidential Report (1955). Not irrelevant is a subset of classic and postmodern noirs, from John Farrow’s The Big Clock (1948) to Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987), in which the detective’s breakdown and identity are part of the investigation.
As a film of the near future, The Element of Crime is as retro as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), complete with bureaucratic delivery tubes. That’s uncanny because Gilliam finished Brazil before The Element of Crime came out. They couldn’t have influenced each other, though both must have been influenced to some extent by Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner. Just to amplify synchronicity, Brazil has a Harry Lime analogue named Harvey Lime.
Why does Fisher now live in Cairo? As much as any reason, I assume it’s because Joel Cairo was a character in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), and he was played by Peter Lorre, who starred in M.
How about a foreshadowing by 34 years? One scene in The Element of Crime has a character reciting the nursery rhyme The House That Jack Built, which Von Trier used as a film title in 2018.
The viewer needn’t know all this to make sense of The Element of Crime insofar as its layers within layers yield any rational story, and it’s unclear whether it does. It feels mostly like a highly stylized dispatch from a nervous breakdown, and the breakdown can be Fisher’s or Europe’s.
Epidemic was made on a bet that Von Trier could make a feature for the absurd sum of a million Danish kroner, or about $150,000(US). Its semi-improvised, faux-documentary deadpan tone, shot in grainy 16mm black and white and concerned with the meta-plot of making a movie, strongly reminds me of Wim Wenders’ The State of Things (1982). I think Wenders’ film is overall better, but that’s not important because Epidemic has things I’m glad I saw.
Most of the “real” characters in Epidemic play “themselves”. That includes Von Trier, his co-writer Niels Vørsel (who co-wrote all three films in the trilogy), Claes Kastholm Hansen (the Danish Film Institute honcho who made the bet), and cult German actor Udo Kier, who tells a moving story about his mother and his newborn self surviving an Allied bombing at the hospital. The handheld, grainy quality of all this material doesn’t prevent it from being lovely and arty.
The characters discuss making a film about an epidemic (in response to AIDS, though nobody mentions it). The scenes they imagine are shown as a film-within-the-film, shot in 35mm by Henning Bendtsen, the cinematographer who shot Dreyer’s two final masterpieces. Von Trier makes a diagram explaining when he needs to inject drama so the audience won’t walk out. A hospital visit, where a pathologist examines a corpse for signs of a new plague breaking out in the last few days, foreshadows Von Trier and Vørsel’s 1994 TV serial The Kingdom.
For the irony at the center of Epidemic, Von Trier explains that his putative film’s protagonist, the idealistic Dr. Mesmer (also played by Von Trier), is secretly carrying the plague germs and therefore spreading what he’s vowed to contain. This idea must be explained verbally since it’s more intellectual than dramatic. All three films in the trilogy subscribe to the idea that the world would be better off if the heroes weren’t trying to do the right thing.
Then Epidemic delivers us to the feverish last half hour, which invokes hypnosis during a dinner at Vørsel’s apartment. The opening narration had told us the film’s central conceit: a real plague occurring as the filmmakers research a plague scenario. The coincidence hints that creativity and belief somehow conjure reality into existence, especially bad reality. That twist looks forward to the cold brilliance in 2011’s Melancholia, in which the nihilistic depression of Kirsten Dunst’s character seems to alter the route of a comet to strike the Earth.
In the commentary with Von Trier and Vørsel, in which they laugh a lot, Von Trier states his theory that hypnosis is a method to remove one’s social boundaries and to access areas of expression and creativity otherwise contained and that he’s always wanted to make a movie where the actors were hypnotized to see what happens. (Werner Herzog has played with hypnotism, but not to lively effect.)
The closest Von Trier came to committing his idea occurs in the dinner scene of Epidemic, which is both hypnotism and acting. Again two people play themselves: professional stage hypnotist Svend Ali Hamann and his medium, Gitte Lind, who studied pages from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). Under hypnosis, she enacts a monologue of escalating hysteria and horror that’s one of the most riveting stunts in cinema. If any viewers were restless and fidgety during the previous material, some of which could easily be cut without our noticing, we devote our full attention now.
Originally released in the US as Zentropa to avoid confusion with Agnieszka Holland’s Europa, Europa from 1990, Europa is one of the most visually innovative films of its decade. Its main idea of layering images over each other, creating a background separate from the foreground, is incredibly useful yet has almost never been used.
Hans-Jürgen Syberberg had done this, for example, in 1977’s Hitler: A Film from Germany. Michael Verhoeven used it to some extent in another German film of the moment, The Nasty Girl (Das schreckliche Mädchen, 1990). Von Trier’s ravishing exploration of the idea arrived at the same time as its most brilliant apotheosis, Peter Greenaway’s video-inspired Prospero’s Books (1991), which I consider one of the great achievements in cinema, and good luck finding it.
Europa opens with the viewer being hypnotized by the voice of narrator Max Von Sydow, who addresses us in the second person. “On the count of ten, you will be in Europa,” he declares as we see black and white images of train tracks passing rhythmically down the screen. It may occur to us that this imagery corresponds with film frames passing through a projector.
We’re informed that we’re Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an idealistic American pacifist who has arrived in 1945 Hamburg as occupied by the American forces. We gather that this passive and unconscionably naïve Leopold had some AWOL incident, and now he’s gotten a job as a sleeping-car conductor through his cantankerous, rule-following, alcoholic Uncle Kessler. Uncle is played by Ernst-Hugo Järegård, a beloved and illustrious Swedish actor who would star in The Kingdom.
Leopold meets the Hartmann family that owns the railway company called Zentropa. It’s a fictional company that became the name of Von Trier’s production company. Von Trier uses the railway not only as a metaphor for Germany but as an example of how important industrialists were “cleared” of Nazi collaboration by Allied administrators.
The Hartmanns are used as a microcosm for German impulses, as represented by weary and mortified father and owner Max Hartmann (Jørgen Reenberg), his femme fatale daughter Kat (Barbara Sukowa, best known for working with Rainer Werner Fassbinder), and his disappointing and disgusted son Larry (Udo Kier). A well-known Danish actor, Erik Mørk, plays their Catholic priest. Von Trier appears as a Jew blackmailed into vouching for Herr Hartmann.
Completing the international all-star cast is gravel-voiced Eddie Constantine as Colonel Harris of the US Army. While this American actor isn’t very well-known in his own country, he’s iconic in Europe for a series of French films about tough guy Lemmy Caution. He repeated the role of Caution in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), which is probably Constantine’s most famous film, to the Art House crowd.
Von Sydow’s reverberant godlike voice moves us (or “directs” us) through each boxcar of Europa‘s plot, serving as a transitional device for a series of melodramatic turns and betrayals that are violent, melancholy, and sometimes unreal. Europa‘s hypnagogic premise makes this possible. The climax combines dreamlike vertigo with mordant humor about German precision and an escalating sense of horror and suspense about the fate of the train, which is also the fate of Europe. Leopold will learn too late that wearing a uniform both makes one a follower and gives a seductive impulse to power.
Immeasurably contributing to Europa‘s unrealism is the way foregrounded characters, who are occasionally in color, interact with the black and white rear-projection. Most of the film is shot by Bendtsen in voluptuous high-contrast black and white. Joachim Holbek’s richly melodramatic, old-fashioned score channels Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo in one scene, and the closing credits feature a dramatic song delivered by Nina Hagen. Its Wagnerian quality echoes the fragments of Tannhäuser used in Epidemic.
All these elements add up to a gripping, seductive melodrama and postmodern noir infused with thoughtful, basically pessimistic observations on history and philosophy. Europa is the most celebrated film of the Europe Trilogy, and deservedly so. The extras are mostly holdovers from Criterion’s 2008 DVD release of the same film.
Watch the Europa trailer here.