From the Chicago Reader (July 3, 1992). This marks my first encounter with Lars von Trier. — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Lars von Trier
Written by von Trier and Niels Vorsel
With Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Ernst-Hugo Jaregard, Erik Mork, Jorgen Reenberg, Henning Jensen, Eddie Constantine, and the voice of Max von Sydow.
Lars von Trier’s Zentropa is the most exciting failure to come along in ages. This Danish-French-German-Swedish coproduction (known as Europa outside the United States), turning up here over a year after it received both the Jury Prize and the Technical Prize at Cannes, addresses so many fundamental contemporary questions about postmodernism, language, colonialism, the Common Market, coproduction, the future of European cinema, and our collective memory of World War II that one may feel a mite churlish pointing out that its technique ultimately overwhelms the themes and characters. After all, exercices de style worthy of the name are not exactly plentiful these days, and Zentropa is an especially dazzling example — vastly more impressive than Barton Fink or Kafka or Shadows and Fog, to cite only the first rough counterparts that come to mind. It has so much to say and do, in fact, that its failure to get everything said and done has to be weighed against the failure of most other recent movies to say or do anything at all beyond the barest commercial minimum.
“Zentropa” is the name of a German railway corporation, and at the film’s center is the image of a grimy, dilapidated train hurtling through Germany immediately after the end of the war. Films as well as trains have itineraries, and perhaps the best way to begin describing Zentropa is to furnish some of the route it takes (which is quite distinct from its style and its themes):
(1) We hear, over low-angle shots speeding along train tracks at night, the voice of Max von Sydow in a hypnotist’s patter: “You will now listen to my voice. . . . My voice will help you and guide you still deeper into Europa. . . . At the count of ten, you will be in Europa . . . ” The voice and patter recur throughout the film, counting to ten as well as summing up wherever we happen to be in the narrative at that moment; the “you” refers not only to the film spectator but more literally to Leo Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), a young American conscientious objector with German roots who has arrived in Frankfurt in 1945 to get a job with his crochety uncle (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard) and to “help rebuild Germany.”
(2) The job is as a conductor on the first-class sleeping car of a train that once carried Jews to concentration camps and now carries American officers and German citizens across Germany. On his first trip, Leo meets Kate Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa), a mysterious and alluring young woman whose father Max (Jorgen Reenberg) is the director of Zentropa. She invites Leo to a family dinner where he meets Max, her brother Larry (Udo Kier), and a clergyman, Pater (Erik Mork). He learns that Kate has been involved with the Werewolves — an underground anti-Axis group of terrorists and former Nazis — and is asked by Colonel Alex Harris (Eddie Constantine), an American officer, to keep an eye on the Hartmanns.
(3) Harris, who seems vaguely motivated by business as well as political concerns, coerces a Jewish concentration-camp survivor (played by writer-director von Trier) into clearing Max of all suspicion as a former Nazi. But after receiving threatening letters from the Werewolves, Max slashes himself to death with a razor in his bathtub; the gathering for his funeral, held secretly and illegally, is dispersed by American troops. Leo and Kate are married shortly after Christmas, in a bombed-out cathedral.
(4) In early 1946, “year one for Germany,” during the middle of the Berlin-Frankfurt run, Kate calls Leo to report that the Werewolves have murdered her brother Larry and taken her prisoner. Leapfrogging between his elaborate conductor’s exam and an extended conversation with Colonel Harris, Leo glimpses her on a train on the adjoining track, and she informs him that he has to plant a time bomb on the Bremen Express in order to insure her safety . . .
Admittedly, this is fairly standard thriller stuff. To really understand what Zentropa is doing one has to move beyond the narrative itinerary and consider its stylistic beauties: the high-contrast black-and-white cinematography (by Henning Bendtsen, who shot Carl Dreyer’s Ordet and Gertrud), the hallucinatory camera movements, the intricate and often beautiful methods of combining several images into single ‘Scope compositions (including the simultaneous use of color and black and white within the same shots, achieved through various kinds of front projection, rear projection, and superimposition), and the way German and English are used within the same scenes and conversations.
Many of these techniques seem thematically as well as formally related. For instance, color usually occupies the foreground (and black and white the background) and is mainly associated with the stars rather than the bit players. In much the same way English — spoken exclusively by the off-screen narrator, and frequently by most of the characters –f igures in the foreground of what we hear while German pervades the background. (From this we might infer that black and white represents history — including film history –while color represents the present and contemporary commercial movies; correspondingly German represents the European past, and English today’s Common Market and the lingua-franca present, in relation to economics and movies alike.) Similarly, the extended camera movements passing from war-torn buildings to trains (and vice versa) often seem to describe a kind of passage between past and present or between history and nightmare, though it is here that the film’s limitations become most apparent: one isn’t always confident that von Trier knows or can articulate the difference between the two.
Lars von Trier, a Danish director born in 1958, made Zentropa as part three of a trilogy on the theme of Europe, preceded by The Element of Crime (1984) and Epidemic (1987); he’s also directed many commercials and music videos and a feature called Medea (1988). (To the best of my knowledge, The Element of Crime is the only other feature of his to have reached the United States, though I haven’t seen it or his other work.) Apparently Zentropa isn’t the first time he has dealt with Germany and the immediate postwar period. When questioned about this interest in an interview, he replied:
“Germany has a great deal of importance for the Danish people; Denmark is a small country and it’s our biggest neighbor. From our point of view, Germany is Europe. The War period had a great deal of influence on my childhood; there was a lot of talk about it at home. My mother had been in the Danish Resistance movement and had to go into hiding in Sweden with my father. Over the last few years, I’ve realized the deep humiliation caused by the Occupation. A lot of countries were occupied like ours but the Danes hardly put up a fight. . . . I must admit that I’m shocked by the German reunification and the idea of a large Germany really frightens me.”
As far as I can tell, no Danish character ever turns up in Zentropa; but the film shows an unmistakable hostility toward both Germans and Americans, who are seen as bullies, lunkheads, or both. Germans are portrayed as infinitely corrupt; Americans are either equally corrupt (Colonel Harris) or ridiculously gullible and innocent (Leo). And because the narration virtually equates the film spectator with the hero — and, by extension, the hypnotic power of cinema with the unlimited power of the United States — there’s a sickly feeling throughout the film that “making movies” and “sleeping with the enemy” are virtually equivalent, at least for “smaller” filmmakers from “smaller” countries. The fact that Zentropa is a Danish-French-German-Swedish coproduction aiming to succeed in the international market, and that it therefore has to use English as well as German (but not Danish) to communicate, places von Trier in a conflicted position: a certain amount of self-loathing — or at least self-denial — seems unavoidable. As in The Double Life of Veronique, the very facts of coproduction and bilingual dialogue establish not only the film’s form but its subject — though in this case, the problem of how to survive in a postcommunist world without state subsidies may hit even harder.
“Germans killing Germans,” Colonel Harris says with a bored smirk to Leo at one point, alluding to a shocking and bloody death that occurred earlier on Leo’s train. “That doesn’t break my heart.” The fact that this unfeeling line is uttered by Eddie Constantine — an American emigré actor best known for his bullying gumshoe Lemmy Caution in a series of crummy French thrillers immortalized in Godard’s Alphaville – only adds to the piquancy of von Trier’s colonized situation, which entails a total repression of his Danish identity in order to make it into the world film market. (It’s a much wider problem than is generally acknowledged, and as widespread in avant-garde and art-house practice as in the mainstream. Such “small country” filmmakers as the Swiss Godard, the Canadian Michael Snow, and the Belgian Chantal Akerman all had to make films in New York or Paris before they could start to get international recognition, and to this day Godard and Akerman are still widely misperceived as French.)
In fact the rage at being a colonized Dane seems central to Zentropa, but you won’t find it alluded to anywhere in the dialogue. (That might be all it would take for American distributors to find the film “esoteric” and reject it, as they do thousands of other foreign features annually.)
Yet the degree to which von Trier is alienated from his own culture and language is nothing compared to his remoteness from the experience of World War II. Apparently the cause is the usual postmodernist amnesia. Despite what he says about his family background, most of Zentropa seems to come less from history than from literature: Kafka’s fiction of the late teens and early 20s; Michel Butor’s 1958 second-person novel set on a train, La modification (translated as A Change of Heart); and other movies (Sternberg’s 1932 Shanghai Express, Reed’s 1949 The Third Man, Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo, Fuller’s 1959 Verboten!, Welles’s 1963 The Trial, Penn’s 1965 Mickey One, Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner). Undoubtedly several other novels and movies form part of the blend, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if none came from 1945-’46. And I’m sure that the version of Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” played during a party sequence was recorded many years after the mid-40s.
Utterly divorced, in short, from both his native tongue and culture and the period he passionately wants to describe, von Trier has only his ravishing technique to fall back on. What his camera does ultimately counts for more than what his characters do, and his feeling for poetry and allegory overtakes his capacities for story telling. Little of the agony of the Holocaust finds its way into this movie, but I won’t soon forget the nightmarish images of people clinging to a train on every side as it barrels through an endless night, or the movie’s weirdly compressed perspectives — “prismatic and a quagmire at the same time,” as critic Manny Farber once described similar “efforts with space” in Welles’s Touch of Evil. It’s noted twice in the film that, thanks to the hypnotic passage of railway cars over tracks, one sometimes can’t tell whether one is moving forward or backward, and in terms of mood if not meaning, von Trier often turns this fact to his advantage. As history Zentropa may be bunk, but as a comic nightmare about the present it gnaws at the imagination and ravishes the senses; it might even be said to live.