A provocateur rises to prominence in a biting and hypnotic trilogy of European alienation
In a feat of cinematic kismet befitting both directors’ bodies of work, Criterion has bookended 2022 and 2023 with a pair of debut trilogies from two of Europe’s most notorious auteurs. Both Michael Haneke’s Trilogy and now Lars Von Trier’s Europe Trilogy both use the power of cinema to interrogate the historical landscape of the directors’ homelands. Where Haneke’s thematic concerns are rooted in a strict, ascetic immediacy, however, Von Trier revels in a thematic and formal excess. The daring Dane wears his thematic influences on his sleeve, cribbing from Andrei Tarkovsky to Carl Theodor Dreyer, Alfred Hitchcock to Ridley Scott, and casts the wealth of cinematic knowledge into a nihilistic formal maelstrom to paint an anarchic psychological portrait of Europe through the 80s and 90s. The experience of Von Trier’s films, though, is similar to Haneke’s in the sense that Von Trier also makes his audience unendingly conscious of the artifice unfolding before them. From Epidemic’s copyrighted title perpetually seared onto the top left of the screen throughout the runtime, to the rear projection and pops of color throughout Europa, Von Trier detaches his audience from any sort of reality they can grab onto, be it the reality they live in, or the “reality” he creates for them.
Fittingly, hypnosis plays a major role in all three films, as characters plumb their inner depths to find a meaning to their pasts–one that they’ve seemingly locked away from themselves. In Element of Crime and Europa, hypnosis allows the characters to reveal the truth about their reality–one murderous, one more deliriously fragmented in the wake of national tragedy and lost love. In Epidemic, hypnosis literally unlocks the ending of the film we’re watching, both in-universe and as an apocalyptic denouement for the creators. It’s a thematic device that provides a thin pretense for Von Trier’s ambitious formal dynamism, exploring the ersatz incongruity of his images to arrive at unexpected, provocative places.
The effect is understandably polarizing for many–and to be frank, there was as much I couldn’t stand about The Element of Crime and Epidemic than what I could appreciate of them. Much of The Element of Crime is delivered in hypnotic monotone amidst a visual monotony, smothered in amber lighting with pops of occasional blue, with the wreckage of Von Trier’s dystopian Europe a hellscape of orange shadow. However, there’s something irresistible to the film’s oppressive pulp–the tease of detective Fisher’s search possibly coming to an end reaches out to viewers like a call of the void. Nearly killing film culture’s future craving for meta-fiction in its crib, Epidemic’s non-stop self-referentiality nearly drives one mad; however, the film “Lars” and “Niels” create is no less compelling even as the world “outside” the film attempts to fizzle out its thematic ambitions by calling them out before or even as they happen.
Where this box set finally won me over completely, though, is with Europa. A powerful parable that harkens other Von Trier films to follow like Dogville and Breaking the Waves, Europa is unabashedly melodramatic and passionately sincere, even as that sincerity is subverted from moment to moment through its director’s formal anarchy. Depicting a German-American’s employment as a sleeping car conductor on the first German passenger train to run after World War II, the Zentropa train that forms the world of Europa acts as a feeble barrier between its principal characters and the ravaged world beyond. Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) believes his attempts at “showing [Germany] kindness” may be key to helping the country recover from the depravity of the last few years, but his naive sincerity is quickly weaponized by his family, his employers, the U.S. Government, and a band of German freedom fighters opposed to the occupation. Framed as Kessler’s descent into the traumatic memories of his past, however, the world of Europa is a fittingly alien dream-fusion of Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, blending personal and national trauma on an elaborate scale with nonstop visual flair.
In a culmination of Von Trier’s experimentalism across the set, the relentless formal style of Europa allows the film to become even more than the sum of what should be ill-fitting parts. As jarring and distancing as they might be, the rear-projection techniques allow for feats of visual storytelling that would feel out of place under any other auteur’s purview. Here, characters feel one layer removed from the world they inhabit, even more so when “their” layer allows for an alien burst of color amidst a world of monochromatic drudgery. It plays wholly into the unpredictability of the characters’ ever-liquid motivations, a never-ending sense of chaos that refuses to fit into the boxes the recuperating society of Europa attempts to build for itself. Coupled with the unrestrained tributes to classic noir films of the 1940s and 50s, an approach we would expect to be distancing in fact reaffirms why we’re drawn to these seedy stories in the first place. Through noir, Von Trier interrogates a culture of evasive culpability in the wake of horrible atrocities. To Von Trier, this national guilt and the subsequent sifting to find the “most” guilty can’t be pinned down by dubious questionnaires and the just-as-dubious answers offered by both perpetrator and victim. It’s a formal and thematic sense of nihilism that somehow circles back into an emotional, endearing portrait of genuine humanism–one that, despite the vehement provocative nature of Von Trier, manages to rear its head throughout much of his subsequent work, notably Melancholia.
Despite a belief that, with all of our sins and vices, humanity is far from worth saving–Von Trier finds something worth caring about amidst his cinematic rubble, even if it may be too late to do so.
Criterion has restored each film in the Europe Trilogy from their original camera negatives, and transferred from their new restoration to 1080p HD for this Blu-ray release. The Element of Crime’s transfer is sourced from a 3K restoration in its original 1.89:1 aspect ratio; Epidemic is sourced from a 3K restoration in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio; and Europa is sourced from a 4K restoration in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. All three restorations were conducted by Lars Von Trier’s production company Zentropa under his supervision. The Element of Crime and Epidemic are presented with monaural sound mixes, while Europa features a stereo mix. All films have two subtitle tracks–an English-language track for languages other than English, and English SDH which subtitles the whole feature.
The reverence for which Von Trier himself has treated his past material is evident here. Even at its grimiest, the cinematography across all three films glows with a sharp amount of purposeful detail. Element of Crime and Epidemic’s differing approaches to monochromatic cinematography allows for rich textures in interplays of light and shadow, while the bursts of color in Europa feel dreamily painted in like desaturated watercolors. A healthy amount of 16mm and 35mm grain is present throughout; especially in Europa’s rear-projection sequences, the different blends of film stock heighten the unique distancing effect Von Trier cultivates in each film.
Sound mixes across the films vary in quality. Rich basses of clanking machinery and buzzing fluorescents fittingly echo throughout Element of Crime, but occasionally characters’ dialogue can get muddied into the mix. Shot on a shoestring budget as a dare, Epidemic’s sound mix feels clatteringly unpolished in diegetic sound mixes–an approach that gives way to barreling Wagner tracks in the more “filmic” sections of the feature. Arguably the most polished film in the set, Europa has a rich sonic landscape that’s evenly balanced between the stereo mix, with a rousing score by Joachim Holbek as the standout.
- Archival audio commentaries from 2005 are available for each film in the set. The Element of Crime features director Lars von Trier, film/sound editor Tomas Gislason, and cinematographer Tom Elling, as well as an additional commentary with film scholar Peter Schepelern and filmmaker/critic Stig Bjorkman. Epidemic features an English-language commentary with director Lars von Trier and screenwriter and actor Niels Vørsel. Europa’s commentary track features von Trier and producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen, as well as a selected-scene commentary featuring von Trier and actors Jean-Marc Barr and Udo Kier.
- Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier: A 1997 feature-length documentary by Stig Björkman.
- Storyboarding The Element of Crime: A 2005 archival featurette with cinematographer Tom Elling featuring his collaborative storyboards with Von Trier.
- Ennenstadt Europa — The Making of The Element of Crime: A 1984 archival behind-the-scenes TV documentary about the production of the film.
- Anecdotes From The Element of Crime/Epidemic/Europa: A series of 2005 archival documentaries spread across all three discs, featuring interviews and behind-the-scenes footage with the principal creatives of each film.
- Nocturne & Images of Liberation: two student short films by Von Trier, made as part of his program at the National Film School of Denmark.
- Portrait of Lars Von Trier: A 1991 archival interview for Danish Television with Von Trier, discussing the enigmatic inspirations for his controversial body of work.
- From Dreyer to Von Trier: A 2005 archival interview with Epidemic cinematographer Henning Bendtsen comparing his experiences shooting Europa with his previous work as a cinematographer for legendary Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer.
- The Making of Europa: A 1991 archival documentary about the production of the film, focusing on its role as a closer for Von Trier’s Europe trilogy.
- Lars Von Trier — Anecdotes: A 2005 archival documentary featuring interviews with Gislason, costume designer Manon Rasmussen, teacher Mogens Rukov, and actors Michael Simpson and Ole Ernst, among others, discussing their various experiences with Von Trier over their professional careers.
- The Emotional Music Script for Europa: Danish composer Joachim Holbek discusses the intensive collaborative process with Von Trier on establishing the sonic emotional landscape of Europa.
- A Conversation with Lars Von Trier: Danish critic/journalist Bo Green Jensen discusses the Europe Trilogy with Von Trier in this 2005 archival interview.
- Trier’s Element: Denmark Radio produces this documentary focusing on Europa’s production and premiere at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival.
- Trailers for all three films in the set.
- Booklet featuring an essay by critic Howard Hampton, discussing Von Trier’s nihilistic destruction of cinematic history in each of the three films in order to bring about new insights that are as psychologically arresting as they are formally daring.
Lars Von Trier’s Europe Trilogy is now available on Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection.