Blu-ray Review: Lars von Trier’s Europa Trilogy

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Lars von Trier | CAST: Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Me Me Lai, Lars von Trier, Niels Vørsel, Udo Kier, Barbara Sukowa, Jean-Marc Barr, Ernst-Hugo Järegård
RELEASE DATE: 1/17/23 | PRICE: Blu-ray $66.47
BONUSES: Audio commentaries featuring director Lars von Trier and others, 1997 documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier, 2005 interview with von Trier about the trilogy, making-of documentaries for all three films, programs on the films featuring interviews with many of von Trier’s collaborators, two short student films by von Trier: “Nocturne” (1980) and “Images of Liberation” (1982), 1994 Danish television interview with von Trier
SPECS: NR | 321 mins | Drama | 1:89/1.66/2.39 | monaural/stereo |

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

The brilliant, visionary and unpredictable Lars von Trier has had a filmmaking career that can be broken down into a succession of formal and informal trilogies. From his three first features, found here, to his “golden heart” trilogy (which may or may not have concluded with his outrageous The Idiots), the Dogville films (intended as a trilogy, stopped after the second installment), his three films about depression starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, and the recently completed Kingdom trilogy. (There are even three one-offs: Medea, The Boss of It All, and The House That Jack Built.)

That pattern often manifested itself by the time of the second or even the third film, as was the case here. In one of the many supplements found here, he notes that the first three films became a trilogy “when the third film was completed, of course.”

Two of the films in the trilogy are dazzling visual achievements, the other is an enjoyable experiment. All three end up sketching a dystopic Europe that blends classic genres (the film noir, the medical drama and the war drama) with a very modern visual approach. The other common thread is hypnosis. In the first and third films, the protagonist (and we) are hypnotized; in the “interlude” second film a character being hypnotized triggers the apocalyptic conclusion.

The first film, The Element of Crime (von Trier’s 1984 debut feature), is a bravura piece of filmmaking that still startles on repeated viewing. Rendered in a yellow monochrome that spans from bright golds to dark browns (and includes the occasional object shown in color), the film is an immaculately noir tale with visuals that borrow primarily from Tarkovsky, but also echo Lang, Welles, Scorsese and others.

The plot concerns a police detective, Fisher (Michael Elphick), who is called back from a stay in Cairo to solve the killings of young girls selling lottery tickets. He still follows the rules set out by his former chief (Michael Powell favorite Esmond Knight) that involve identifying with the criminal in order to solve the crime. As is always the case in noir scenarios, Fisher begins to identify so heavily with the criminal that he turns homicidal.

The monochromatic color scheme is so refined that Element has often looked terrible in its home-entertainment incarnations. The VHS release was close to unwatchable; the initial Criterion DVD release was a vast improvement but it was still too dark. The restoration here is brighter and aligns better with the way the film looked in theaters.

One interviewer in a supplement here refers to Epidemic (1987) as an “interval” between two masterworks. That description is apt, as the film is von Trier’s own small-scale , with he and his co-scripter, Niels Vørsel, trying to figure out what to write next.

The Element of Crime (1984)

Thus, we watch the conception of the script in grainy 16mm B&W and the film being written in sharper, stylized 35mm. The transitions here are especially jarring, as the 35mm scenes look great in this restoration, while the 16mm ones look somewhat “snowy” and imprecise (as most 16mm source materials end up looking in high-definition restorations).

The film-within-the-film is about a  heroic doctor (von Trier) who is trying to contain an epidemic that he himself is spreading. The two plots intermingle in the remarkably intense final scene, where the filmmakers witness a hypnotism session that involves a real-world breakout of the previously fictional epidemic.

The hypnotism scene is the best thing in the film, but a few of the sidebar sequences are impressive, including a guest-star appearance by Udo Kier as himself, telling a horrifying story about something his mother witnessed. This was the second (after the telefilm Medea) of many times that Kier was a scene-stealer in a von Trier film.

The third film, Europa (1991), is an old-fashioned melodrama crafted with modernist techniques, the foremost being a very trippy use of back projection to create a dreamlike tone. This tone is instilled from the opening, as the commanding, offscreen voice of Max von Sydow puts the protagonist (and, by extension, the viewer) under a hypnotic spell, and then recounts his doomed journey in a stylized post-WWII Europe.

Von Sydow’s voice runs throughout the film and turns it into a dream as much as a hypnosis session. The plot is a classic “will he sell out?” scenario, in which an apprentice sleeping-car conductor (Jean-Marc Barr) for a German railroad company becomes involved with the family who owns the company — who may be spies working for a group of Nazi-sympathizing terrorist “werewolves.”

Von Trier’s hyper-stylization underscores and counterpoints the raw emotion of the plot, as our innocent hero continues to be bounced between authority figures like his strict conductor uncle (Swedish actor Ernst-Hugo Järegård, the star of the first two seasons of The Kingdom) and an American colonel (Eddie Constantine).

The most striking aspects of the film are how von Trier and his crew indulge in classical film storytelling without resorting to irony or tongue-in-cheek humor, and how the gorgeous layered visuals tell the story while also existing on their own, like the images in a “dream film.” (One thinks of the classic Surrealist films and the work of Deren and Anger.)

Europa benefits from the 4K restoration done for this collection. (The other two films were restored in 3K.) The images are sharper here than on the preceding Criterion DVD release of the film, with the color shots (and foreground items rendered in color against B&W back projection) registering beautifully.

The set also contains numerous unseen-in-the-U.S. supplements made for a 2005 European set of the trilogy and produced by Michael Sandager, a Danish documentarian who has made many video docs about the work of von Trier.

The Element of Crime disc supplements offer background on von Trier’s early filmmaking. Included are an early short, “Nocturne” (1980), and a short feature, “Images of Liberation” (1982). The copies of these early films look like they are dubbed from a VHS source, but it’s still good they were included, as “Images” was clearly a dry run for the visual experimentation found in Element. Water-laden images, shadow patterns, prominent light bulbs, and striking compositions are rendered in a monochromatic palette that moves from red to yellow to green.

Stig Bjorkman’s 1997 documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier (the only supplement that had been offered on the original Criterion DVD of Element) chronicles von Trier’s life up to and including the shooting of Breaking the Waves. His childhood, which one longtime friend describes as “culturally radical, progress, Communist, Scandinavian, with a little Jewish, Copenhagen, international,” is recounted and we get the rare privilege of seeing Lars the child actor in a 1968 Danish-Swedish show called “Clandestine Summer.”

Although the filmmaker himself starts off the doc saying “I’ll gladly assert that everything said or written about me is a lie,” Bjorkman got the talking heads in the doc (all unidentified for some reason) to discuss the more troubled aspects of von Trier’s personality, including what Lars himself refers to “a self-hate of extraordinary proportions.” In the meantime, we see the filmmaker quietly and respectfully conferring with his actors on Breaking. As for the Europa trilogy, he notes that the common theme is “self-irony,” in that the heroes of all three films try to do something by the book and end messing things up for good.

A short interview supplement features Element cinematographer Tom Elling remarking that, for he and LvT, “the story is just an alibi for making the pictures.” (Meaning images in this case.) Two short docs on Element produced by Michael Sandager explore the Element shoot, with it being noted that the crew began to suffer snow blindness from the lights used on the sets (which were utilized to create the yellow look of the proceedings).

On the subject of blindness, it is also noted that actor Esmond Knight, who was almost entirely blind, had to be directed around the set by a crew member out of camera range moving his feet ahead and behind. This leads to the observation from a crew member that it was “more surreal to make the film than to actually see it.”

A 1984 making-of doc about the film shows von Trier fresh out of film school directing his first feature. It is noted that, while the film shows “a world of decay,” LvT ensured his cast and crew shared his aesthetic vision by playing Wagner’s “Parsifal” and “Tristan and Isolde” on a boom box during the scenes that were shot in a Danish sewer.

It’s fascinating to see figures like the film’s star, Michael Elphick (who made a name on British TV but battled alcoholism until his premature death at age 55), as a talking head, but he has nothing interesting to say, aside from noting the cold weather they were shooting in and how he had “great faith” in von Trier.

The filmmaker, on the other hand delivers a sort of verbal manifesto in the final minutes of the doc, declaring: “I’ve made it my business to show people things which you normally refrain from showing, due to moral reasons…. I hope this film will be seen as an immoral film, in the sense that I want to make people take a stand. I don’t take a stand in my film, and people might place emphasis on this when criticizing [it]. I want people to judge the film for themselves. Or condemn it. Anything…”

The supplements included with Epidemic are entirely new to American viewers, with the exception of an audio commentary by von Trier and Niels Vørsel.

Europa (1991)

A short interview with cinematographer Henning Bendtsen finds him talking about working with von Trier on Epidemic and Europa and how it differed from shooting with Carl Theodor Dreyer on his last two films (Ordet, Gertrud). With Dreyer, Bendtsen notes he determined both the framing and the lighting for shots that often lasted an entire roll of film; with von Trier, he was primarily in charge of lighting, as Lars had storyboards that illustrated what the compositions should look like. Bendtsen’s gift for the fledgling filmmaker? A dinner jacket that Dreyer had given him but which he had “grown out of.”

Another Sandager supplement, “Anecdotes from Epidemic,” finds participants in the film outlining its creation: a bet by LvT that he could make a film for one million kroner (around $300,000 in today’s money). The film ended up running over that amount due to post-production costs, but von Trier came away with what a film historian calls “an underground classic in Danish film.”

Scripter and costar Niels Vørsel notes that the film’s central situation was indeed inspired by the AIDS epidemic, but the most interesting revelation is that the Danish Film Institute producer of the film (the same one who made the bet) took part in the climactic hypnosis scene as an actor without knowing what was going to happen; cinematographer Kristoffer Nyholm (who shot the 16mm scenes) was equally in the dark about what would occur once the hypnotism subject had a nervous breakdown (which, he seems to imply, was fully real).

A half-hour TV interview with von Trier from 1991 finds the filmmaker again confiding personal truths to an interviewer while he simultaneously makes things up. In the latter category is his statement that Donald Duck comics (esp. the ones with Louie, Dewey, and Huey) were his formative fascination and that every city he depicts in his films is a new variation on “Duckburg.”

In the former category are his mentions of his influences for Europa (Hitchcock and Welles) and his statements on the “dream symbols” found in his films — which he says he doesn’t insert intentionally. He later adds that hypnosis and film “work the same way” offering a “delusion” to the participants. He also notes that Europa was indeed “a modern version of an old-fashioned film.”

The supplements on the Europa disc were all included on the original Criterion release of the film, except for an audio commentary in English featuring von Trier, Jean-Marc Barr, and Udo Kier. All three of the participants are in a very good mood. This is evidenced by their snickering and laughing like kids in school at some of the more dramatic scenes in the film, because they remember what it took to get the drama (and numerous visual effects) onscreen.

Lars starts off the track noting that Max von Sydow laid on the floor as he recorded his hypnotic narration track — when it reappears later, von Trier quips “the audience will be asleep!” As the trio see the overlaid images with the intricate interplay of back projection and live action, LvT notes that what took them hours and hours to properly execute would now take five minutes of computer time. He also cites Night of the Hunter as a central influence on the film’s visuals.

Barr informs von Trier at one point that he recently saw the film at a screening in L.A. and the humor in the film still works. (To which Lars responds, “What humor?”) The biggest subject of schoolboy silliness on the track is costar Barbara Sukowa. Barr informs Lars and Udo that she cautioned him at the outset of their love scene, “No tongues!” It is also recalled that she wanted to delve into the background and psychology of her character, leading to Eddie Constantine’s cautionary words to her, “Take the money and run!”

In closing it should be noted that those, like this reviewer, who are von Trier completists, will want to keep their original Europa Criterion disc, as it contains one Sandager-produced supplement that didn’t make the jump to Blu-ray. The 10-minute short, “Europa: the Faecal Location” finds von Trier investigating how poorly the toilets function in a Polish hotel that he and the film’s crew were staying at. (The exteriors and much of the impressive back projection footage were shot in Poland.)

The film’s assistant director then tells a tale of some apples that were offered to people on the set that produced a rash of diarrhea and stomach trouble. One can see why this didn’t make the cut for the Blu-ray box — but it still could’ve been included as a retrievable Easter egg.

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”