Lars Von Trier's Europe Trilogy Review

One of the most daring, original and innovative directors in the world, Lars von Trier immediately made his presence known on the Cannes stage soon after graduating from Film School with a trilogy of films of unprecedented ambition and accomplishment. As well as a highly controlled and stylised approach that is unlike anything he would subsequently make, the films in The Europe Trilogy also contains a number of common themes – the nature of evil that lies within every man and its power to spread and corrupt. Often hypnosis plays a part in revealing this nature that remains hidden in a well-meaning idealist. Element of Crime portrays a dystopian vision of Europe’s future - an apocalyptic, dark age where morals are so utterly corrupted that one man’s attempt to unravel them is doomed to failure. In Epidemic, two filmmakers in the present try to make a film about a deadly virus spread by an unwitting doctor trying to bring good to the world. In Europa, set in 1945 we see the post-war guilt of Europe’s evil past and one man’s misguided attempt to set things right.

Tartan’s release of Lars Von Trier’s Europe Trilogy is identical in content to the recently released Danish edition, which already contained all the language options for an international release of the set. The discs are in PAL format and not region encoded.

Element of Crime (1984)

Straight out of Film School and having made a singular impact on Danish Film Industry consultants with his short graduate film Images of a Relief, Lars von Trier was given unprecedented freedom to make a full length feature film. Less interested in the plot of crime films than in their noir look, and with a lack of concern for the hardships his actors have to endure that would be characteristic of the director’s methods in all his films, Trier put everything into the look of the film, shot in stylised monochrome with glistening tones and spot colours. Element of Crime is consequently a stunning film to look at, but is completely devoid of any meaning.

Before it is all but abandoned, the film begins with a nominal plot. In Cairo, police detective Fisher (Michael Elphick) is hypnotised to return back two months to an investigation he was involved in back in Europe – the case of the lotto murders, where a number of young girls selling lottery tickets have been brutally murdered. Fisher’s first stop is with his old mentor, the crime theorist Osborne (Esmond Knight), whose book ‘The Element of Crime’ has been a major influence on his career. Osborne, now retired, has come to repudiate the theories he developed, believing they fail to take into account the true nature of man. The Chief of Police, Kramer (Jerold Wells) also believes Osborne’s methods are old fashioned – this is a different Europe from the one Fisher knew thirteen years ago, one that is teetering on the brink of an apocalypse. Fisher however makes a connection to a case Osborne was involved in just before his retirement, the case of Harry Gray, who is supposed to have been killed after a series of four murders. Fisher has reason to believe that Harry Gray has returned to complete his work.

Element of Crime is practically the definition of pretentious arthouse cinema perpetrated by a young Film School graduate with prodigious talent and nothing meaningful to directed it towards, borrowing techniques and plot devices from classic works of cinema. The Third Man is referenced for its crime plot, with its mysterious central persona of Harry Gray (Harry Lime?), the enlisting the help of his former lover to find him, and the ending where the protagonist ends up writing the final lines of the story himself. This is to say nothing of how it borrows from the underlying darkness of human nature that is captured in The Third Man’s post-apocalyptic ruins of Vienna through its chiaroscuro lighting techniques. Trier admits to A Touch of Evil being an influence and the commentary picks up several other Welles references in the film. Added to this is a healthy dose of long Tarkovsky-like slow pans and images taken directly from Solaris, Andrei Rublev and Stalker. Despite its remarkable appearance that is meant to be moody and convey a similar tone of utter desolation, Element of Crime never gets below the surface of the technique of those references and instead comes across as empty, cold and sterile, the actors and characters no more important than the other props and dead animals placed around the set for visual effect. It can certainly be admired for its style – and for a first film it’s astonishingly ambitious and accomplished - but Element of Crime truly is a dull, soulless, empty film and a preposterous and pointless waste of time and talent for all concerned.

Element of Crime is a difficult film to transfer to DVD and has been badly served before in the format, but here the dark tones and coloured washes are perfectly presented, anamorphically in the original 1.85:1 ratio. It looks absolutely marvellous, with not a mark, flicker or artefact of any kind. Simply perfect.

There is a choice of audio tracks – the original Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track and a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix. The tone is very low, deep and reverberating making dialogue often difficult to make out. The echoing quality is more pronounced in the 5.1 mix and is only slightly clearer in the 2.0 mix. It’s actually much better in the brief snippets we hear during the commentary tracks.

As the film is in English, it is deemed that no English subtitles are necessary, which is unfortunate since the dialogue is not always perfectly clear.

The film comes with a fabulous selection of extra features. Two commentary tracks are provided. The first Commentary features Lars von Trier, cinematographer Tom Elling and editor Tómas Gislason, in Danish with English subtitles. This commentary confirms that the film was an exercise in technique and any discussion of the plot is summarily dismissed. It’s a far from illuminating or even comprehensible commentary, with everyone talking over one another with interjections and in-references. The second Commentary by Trier biographers, Peter Schepelern and Stig Björkman is much more interesting, balancing anecdotes about the making of the film and the actors with references it makes to other films, and placing the work well in relation to Trier’s other films and Danish cinema of the time. A documentary About Lars von Trier and The Element of Crime (30:21) contains fascinating and extensive archival behind-the-scenes footage, but with some pretentious interview comments from Trier, they make the film look even more an indulgence in futility. In Anecdotes from Element of Crime (19:16) crew members and production team recall the difficulties of working on a film like this almost exclusively at night, in the rain, during the winter outdoors or in a filthy underground sewer. They also recall the more horrific circumstances of the slaughtering of the animals on set for the film and splitting them in half to make it look like there were more of them. The original Trailer (2:05) shows the attraction of the film, but then any sequence from the film would look just as impressive. All the extra features have English subtitles, apart from ‘Anecdotes from Element of Crime’, which on my copy of the set mistakenly appears to have a second German track where the English track should be. I had to use the French subtitles to understand that one.

Short film - Nocturne (1980)
A hidden extra can be found by clicking on Lars von Trier's picture under the Special Features menu. Made with Tómas Gislason and Tom Elling, Nocturne (8:36) - a short film showing a woman suffering from vivid nightmares - is an effective mood piece filmed very much in the style of Element of Crime (and consequently showing a Tarkovsky influence). The quality is reasonably good considering the source of the material, with only a few frames showing signs of serious damage. The film comes with a very funny Commentary by Lars von Trier and Tómas Gislason, talking about the filmmaking theories it conforms to. There are additional Commentary Outtakes (5:33) where the tapes runs on after the film ends to hilarious effect.

Epidemic (1988)

Epidemic arose from a challenge between Lars von Trier and Claes Kastholm of the Danish Film Institute, Trier betting - in order to get funding for another film - that he could make a film for less than one million Danish Kroner (about £100,000). The result is an intriguing film, but not a very good one, showing at least what Trier could do under self-imposed limitations, paving the way for The Kingdom and showing roots that would lead to the Dogme Manifesto.

Under pressure to make a deadline for an executive from the Danish Film Institute (Claes Kastholm), a writer and film director (Niels Vørsel and Lars von Trier) find that they cannot retrieve the screenplay they have been working on for over a year from their computer, so they start a new one from scratch to present to Claes in five days time. The new screenplay is called ‘Epidemic’. Inspired by research of plague accounts in the cellars of the University Library, the script takes shape. Dr. Mesmer (Lars von Trier) plans to leave the enclosed safe house where a group of doctors have taken over the running of a country suffering from a terrible epidemic. Lars and Niels then visit their friend Udo (Udo Kier) in Cologne, passing through the industrial heart of Germany. Inspired by their trip, they weave in a story Kier’s mother has told him about his birth during the war, and they also find a name for their epidemic - DIN (Deutsche Industrie Neu it seems from the commentary). Eventually they have a 12-page script to present to the Film Institute executive, but over dinner, a guest unexpectedly brings the film into the real world.

Epidemic is not a good film, as the writer and director are happy to admit as much in their commentary track for the film. It sees Trier experimenting, breaking down the walls and artifice created by filmmaking, and despite the protestations of the filmmakers that they can’t remember what they were trying to do and that it was all unplanned, the film does to some degree achieve this quite well. The hypnosis sequence that ends the film is particularly striking and the most memorable element of the film. It still doesn’t make for an interesting film, that’s for sure, but as an exercise that would free the director to later make The Idiots and The Kingdom, it’s certainly of more value than Element of Crime or Europa, but probably of interest only to Lars von Trier followers. Anyone else will be put off by the pretentious pose of the film’s message and the smirking cleverness of the entire filmmaking team – even as actors they can’t keep a straight face - improvising their way through this nonsense.

The video quality is, in a word, perfect. Filmed in black and white in a mixture of grainy 16mm (photographed by Kristoffer Nyholm) and luminous 35mm (by Dreyer’s cinematographer on Ordet and Gertrud, Henning Bendtsen) and presented here in anamorphic 1.66:1, the film never looks less than striking. The title of the film in red capital typeface remains on the top left of the screen throughout the entire film. Flawless.

The film comes with the option of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks, and both are fine – the 5.1 mix giving a little more space up front, with no real use of rears or sub. The sound is generally fine and accurate, within the limitations of the budget and the equipment used.

English subtitles, as well as a number of other languages are presented in white font and are of course optional.

Again, there are more extra features than you could possibly imagine necessary for a film like this. The best is the Anecdotes From Epidemic (17:08), which brings together cast and crew interviews (although Trier is absent), talking about their recollections of making the film. A very short Trailer (0:50) consists entirely of the film’s title turning from white to blood-red to the backing of the end theme music – surely one of the worst songs ever written – “The end is near/ The plague is here/ Epidemic – we all fall down”, sung to an 80’s disco beat. A full-length Commentary by Niels Vørsel and Lars von Trier is less than fascinating, both men trying to figure out how they made the film from a one and a half page script, and with hindsight, they can understand its lack of success. They seem to have a good laugh at a number of scenes, particularly those with Claes Kastholm, having a very different memory of his scenes than the man himself in the earlier interviews.

Images of a Relief (1982)
Another hidden feature, Lars von Trier's graduation film can be found behind the Alka-Seltzer in the Special Features menu. Images of a Relief (52:06) is made again with Tómas Gislason and Tom Elling, and bears all the hallmarks of Element of Crime and Europa, again heavily influenced by Tarkovsky and some of the elements reminding me of Bertolucci's The Conformist. The story - seeming to be based around the sufferings of a group of suicidal German troops at the hands of partisans at the end of the war, is almost incoherent. The picture quality here however is rather too murky for the chiaroscuro lighting. Still, it's a very nice extra to complete a comprehensive package of Lars von Trier's early work.

Europa (1991)
With Europa Lars von Trier claims that he set out with the intention to make a masterpiece, since he doesn’t believe they happen by accident. With a more traditional dramaturgical form, the film was designed to attract attention, appeal to audiences and win awards. He certainly achieved his aim of attracting attention and winning awards, but as far as appealing to audiences with an accessible storyline or even achieving anything like a masterpiece, the film falls well short.

In line with Trier’s interest in hypnotism and his belief that film is a form of hypnosis, Europa opens with the deep intoning voice of Max von Sydow seducing the viewer into the film. In the ruins of Germany after World War II, an American, Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), arrives in Frankfurt to take up a job that has been set up for him by his uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård). He is to work as a sleeping-car conductor for the Zentropa rail transport company. On his first trip he meets and falls in love with Kat (Barbara Sukowa), daughter of the owner of the company, Max Hartmann (Jørgen Reenberg). During the war Zentropa transported Jews to concentration camps, and after the war, they transported German soldiers around the defeated country. Hartmann finds it hard to reconcile the guilt of his actions, but keeping the trains moving in the devastated country is essential, so he is given whatever help is necessary by an American Army officer, Colonel Harris (Eddie Constantine). The whole post-war infrastructure is under threat from partisans and saboteurs, known as ‘werewolves’, and soon Leo finds himself inadvertently mixed up in their activities.

Once again, Trier’s film is little more than an exercise in filmmaking style, mixing dark, heavily contrasted black and white photography with spot colours and a striking use of back projection techniques. Despite not being as original as you would be led to be believe - Trier cites Hitchcock’s prosaic use of back projection, in order to make his own use look original, but it had already been used for avant-garde effects by Ingmar Bergman in films like The Silence and Persona - it is impressively employed here, though often unnecessarily, such as in the scene where Leo and Kat first meet on the train, walking on and off screen from the colour foreground and carrying on conversations to a black and white projection in the background. It achieves nothing except to dazzle at its ingenuity and cleverness. This is unfortunately true of most of the film and although at times the film does manage to capture a Kafka-esque edge of absurdity in its exploration of guilt, it’s more often long, boring and pointless, with absurd characters and blank, inexpressive acting. Worst of all are the film’s delusions of grandeur. It takes more than a few superficial imitations of the techniques and epic qualities of the works of Tarkovsky and Bergman to make a true masterpiece.

The video quality of Europa is still good, but rather disappointing after the picture-perfect transfers of Element of Crime and Epidemic. Certainly the grain in the image would be expected with the blown-up back projections that are frequently used in the film, but the grain also extends to the regular black and white and colour photography, which also shows some light flicker or compression artefacts. There is moreover a faint band of brightness or fading down the extreme left-hand side of the frame, which is quite noticeable considering the darkness of most of the film. Otherwise, there is little or nothing in the way of marks or scratches and the film, presented anamorphically at 2.35:1, remains mainly sharp and clear with good, strong tones and a fair amount of shadow detail.

The original Dolby Digital 2.0 track is included, along with a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, which has more body and clarity, without redesigning the sound stage to any great extent. Both tracks are clear in the main – train sound effects and explosions rumbling nicely, although I found Barbara Sukowa’s voice more echoing and difficult to make out in the 5.1 version.

Dialogue in Europa takes place mostly in a mix of English and German. Optional English subtitles are provided only for the German passages, with no hard of hearing choices.

Europa comes with a full-length Commentary by Lars von Trier and producer Peter Åalbæk Jensen. With these two irreverent characters, the commentary is amiable enough as they ridicule old friends and members of the cast and try to dredge up facts about the filming and production – but it’s not that essential a commentary. There is also a Selected Scenes Commentary between Lars von Trier, Jean-Marc Barr and Udo Kier. Again it’s a bit of fun, but it repeats a lot of Trier’s comments from the main commentary, and even though it is edited down, there are still a lot of gaps and not much of great interest said. You can see why it is presented edited down like this, but the full commentary can also be heard just by selecting the relevant audio track while watching the film. The Making of Europa (38:58) covers the film very well, examining its making from the storyboards, looking at its technique and influences and showing how some scenes were filmed in Poland and in Copenhagen. The feature is narrated with a few interview clips. The Anecdotes from Europa (20:36) featurette is excellent, crew and cast recalling several amusing incidents during the shooting and even including some funny home-movie footage of their residence in Poland. The Trailer (2:35) looks well, presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Hypnotic Features

Disc 4 of the set contains a number of extra features on Lars von Trier’s work and the Zentropa company in general that are not specific to the three films in the trilogy, but are mostly from the period the films were made.

Trier’s Element (43:54)
This documentary is based around an interview with Lars von Trier and clips from the three films in the Europa Trilogy. The director talks about the very loose connections between the films, specifically talking about the latest film Europa, how he has had to deal with subsequent success and acclaim and about his relationship with the film industry itself. Trier is amazingly frank and honest about his intentions and his own feelings on these early films.

Portrait of Lars von Trier (31:59)
Again a fairly lengthy and in-depth interview with the director traces his career from his early interest in cinema, with clips from his short student films, through to the challenges that keep him working today.

One Day With Peter (15:00)
A funny and unusual feature, this takes a look at the family and friends working environment of the Zentropa Studios under the running of rather laid-back producer Peter Åalbæk Jensen.

In Laboratorium des Doktors von Trier (1:04:50)
Made in 1998, this documentary casts a wider look over Trier’s work and certainly puts the films in the Europe Trilogy into perspective. Trier is interviewed and talks about his change of technique and his new approach to filmmaking in Breaking The Waves, The Kingdom and The Idiots and the liberating influence it has had on him as a writer and director. The documentary also contains interviews with many of Trier’s cast and crew, including Henning Bendtsen, Emily Watson, Jean-Marc Barr and Jens Albinus and includes footage from rare Lars von Trier material, from television ads and short films to Medea.

Lars von Trier Anecdotes (16:51)
Using additional footage from the various Anecdotes From … featurettes made for each film, this presents a portrait of the director from the comments and different viewpoints of cast and crew who have worked with Trier.

A Conversation with Lars von Trier (43:48)
This is an in-depth interview with the director, specifically about each of the films in the trilogy, but seen in perspective a number of years later. Trier admits to the various influences and the over-emphasis on style and technique over content, but doesn’t quite go as far as completely disowning them and there are elements there that he still identifies with. More important than the ‘how?’ that most of the features show, the interviewer asks the tough questions like ‘why?’ and leaves the director struggling for justification.

Europa – The Faecal Location (10:13)
This shows more of Tómas Gislason’s home-movie footage of the conditions of the Polish hotel the crew stayed at during the making of Europa.

Storyboard of Element of Crime (11:05)
Cinematographer Tom Elling talks about working with Lars to put the visual feast of Element of Crime onto the screen and there are some storyboard comparisons here.

The Emotional Music Script for Europa (11:56)
Composer Joachim Holbeck talks about his approach to the music, working with Trier and the difficulties with scoring certain scenes in the film.

From Dreyer to von Trier (13:33)
Henning Bendsten, cinematographer on Europa and part of Epidemic talks about his work with the legendary Carl Th. Dreyer on the masterpieces Ordet and Gertrud and reveals the secret of Trier’s tuxedo.

As well as a Europa Promo (3:42) (more of a Lars von Trier promo), trailers are included for the director’s other films, Breaking The Waves (2:01) powerfully scored to Deep Purple’s Child In Time; a nicely errie and strange trailer for The Kingdom (1:29); a compelling taster for The Idiots (2:23); the highly emotive trailer for Dancer In The Dark (2:05); the intriguing confessional for Dogville (2:01); and an overview of the setting for its follow-up, Manderlay (1:54). The picture quality on all trailers is first class.

There are certainly fans of Lars von Trier’s early films in this Europe Trilogy, and the films are fascinating exercises in style that show the ambition of a talented young director willing to take chances and push himself to be fresh, daring and always original. Personally I find the over-stylisation distancing and far less effective when compared to the director’s immediately subsequent works, The Kingdom, Breaking The Waves and The Idiots which have a much freer human element than these rather empty and soulless exercises in style. Even taken thematically as a trilogy, the films don’t bear up to close scrutiny or gain any greater significance, as you would be hard pushed to recognise the past, present or future of Europe in these often obscure, arthouse films. Although Trier’s current USA Trilogy (Dogville, Manderlay and Wasington) - coming from someone who has never been to the States - could hardly be said to accurately portray the reality of America as we know it, the stripped-down style of those films seen so far does at least reach an essential truth about human nature and is conveyed much more convincingly than here, smothered under technique and effects. Despite the incredible tedium of watching the films themselves, the set must be recommended as essential viewing for anyone interested in one of the most important and innovative directors working in cinema today, particularly with the superb presentation the films are given here on DVD and the exhaustive number of highly relevant and fascinating extra features.

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