Prior to making his mark with Breaking the Waves, Lars von Trier delivered this brilliant and innovative postwar noir which we'll be screening for our 2nd Mubi Mondays event.
Waspish provocateur or unruly innovator? It's hard to decide which of these two tags deserves higher weighting when considering the turbulent career of Denmark's Lars von Trier.
Certainly, with his high-profile press conference blunders, mischievous lapses in taste, combative stylistic decisions and a regular recourse to shots of non simulated sex in his films (The Idiots, Antichrist and, it's being reported, his forthcoming The Nymphomaniac), his desire to needle and prod initially appears more pronounced than any sense that he's operating as a rigorous artist committed to a search for fresh formal constructs.
But that would be wrong. Right back to his early days as one of the bright sparks at the National Film School of Denmark, Von Trier presented a clear desire to stand out from the crowd, and it's this restless charge for iconoclasm that makes his cinema so exciting. He does everything bar descending from the screen and shaking your seat for a reaction.
And so it is with 1991's waking nightmare, Europa, the audacious concluding chapter to his Europa Trilogy, which began with his high-style whodunit, The Element of Crime in 1984 and continued with the quasi-surreal meta-disaster movie, Epidemic, in 1987.
Although latterly, von Trier has been less blunt in his allusions to other films (1997's The Idiots contains numerous subtle nods to Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dancer in the Dark offered a broad appropriation of Hollywood musical conventions), Europa wears its influences with pride.
Jean-Marc Barr plays Leopold Kessler, an American looking for work in Germany directly after the conclusion of World War Two. He gets a job as a sleeping car conductor for a sinister, ramshackle train company called Zentropa, though it's not long before he's subsumed by a terrorist plot that's being instigated by a band of politically slippery freedom fighters.
Its story is almost identical to Carol Reed's sublime examination of moral decline in Europe during the post war years, The Third Man, as Leopold is forced into a position where the love and friendship that helped to hurriedly consolidate his political allegiances is soon revealed to be devastatingly hollow.
In the same way the cocksure Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) is eventually hung out to dry by his old pal Harry Lime (Orson Welles), so Leopold Kessler is emotionally duped by femme fatalish train company heiress, Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa).
Where Reed's film lends a narrative backbone, the derivation of Europa's style is all together more ambiguous. The casting of Sukowa suggests a nod to Germany's Rainer Werner Fassbinder, especially as she played the lead in his brilliant 1981 film, Lola, which also dealt with the idea of an innocent patsy getting tangled up in shady political shenanigans. The nods to classical noir and German expressionism ally it to Fassbinder's masterful Veronika Voss (also, incidentally, the final chapter of a cinematic trilogy).
But it's von Trier's innovative use of back projection which really makes Europa a film worth treasuring. Initially, we see Kessler and his comically cantankerous uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) wandering through a train factory and there's almost a kitsch quality to the manner in which they're jogging on the spot in front of a back projection. It's as much a piece of artsy posturing as it is a sincere remembrance of archaic moviemaking techniques.
Later, von Trier goes further, not simply by toying with the perspectives and anchoring the background image on an entirely different visual plane, but mixing colour with monochrome within the same frame. The film opens with Max von Sydow intoning a hypnotic incantation, suggesting that the film itself is taking place is some kind of heightened dream world, that one might have to be ushered into a state of induced delirium to want to work in Germany after the hostilities.
If Breaking the Waves was von Trier's first great film, Europa is arguably his first really, really good one. And he knew it was. Agitated when the film was awarded a Special Jury Prize (of a bronze medal) at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, von Trier thanked jury president, Roman Polanski, by referring to him as 'the midget'.
Maybe Europa represents a tipping point in von Trier's career, a switchpoint where, for the first time, he managed to package his frenzied technical gifts into a picture intended for mass consumption. Provocateur or innovator? Maybe there's a third answer: showman.
See Europa at our second Mubi Mondays event. Details and tickets are here.