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Europe trilogy
cast: Lars von Trier, Niels Vorsel, Jean Marc Barr, and Eddie Constantine, and Michael Elphick

director: Lars Von Trier

322 minutes (15) 1984-91
widescreen ratio 16:9
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Tom Johnstone
With these three films, Lars Von Trier established his reputation as Denmark's cinematic enfant terrible. His debut feature Element Of Crime (1984) stars Boon star, Michael Elphick (who also played Phil Daniels' grumpy dad in Quadrophenia), as a detective with a difference. The film depicts a jaundiced post-apocalyptic future of dead horses being dragged about and skinheads submerged up to their necks in water, and establishes Von Trier's fascination with hypnotism in the opening scene of the central character undergoing hypnotherapy. However in Element Of Crime, the effect is merely soporific, rather than mesmeric, though visually striking. The theme is handled far more powerfully in Epidemic (1988), whose climax sees a medium being hypnotised to devastating and chilling effect, as well as an idealistic young doctor called Mesmer played by Von Trier himself. Finally Europa (1991) narrates the life of its central character (like Mesmer, an embattled idealist in a hostile world) as a series of post-hypnotic commands. In keeping with this theme there is a whole disc of extras, entitled Hypnotic Visions, as well as numerous interviews, featurettes, anecdotes and other bonus features.

In one interview Von Trier reveals that he is afraid of being hypnotised, because of the loss of control it entails, which dovetails aptly with another commentator's remarks about the Danish auteur's directorial techniques being akin to hypnotism. On the other hand, the anecdotes about the filming of Europa in Poland suggest that not everybody is as easily mesmerised, as Von Trier might like. At one point the meagrely paid Polish extras went on strike and won a doubling of their wages. The director also admits that their buses were taken away to stop them walking out!

Whatever techniques Von Trier uses to achieve his on-screen ends, his own on-screen presence in the last two films of the trilogy adds to the sense of an ambitious young director keen to leave his own unique stamp on his work. This is especially true of Epidemic, in which he plays himself as well as Mesmer. The film is also literally stamped with its own title in red in the top left-hand corner of the screen, the one note of colour in this otherwise monochrome picture. As well as hypnosis, Epidemic (as its title suggests) reveals a preoccupation with disease in its director, foreshadowing the concerns of The Kingdom (1994). Indeed there is a scene in a hospital, which reassembles the vast Copenhagen hospital which gave the title and setting to Von Trier's epic supernatural TV mini-series.

In the prologue to Epidemic, Lars von Trier and Niels Vorsel are about to submit a film script a week ahead of deadline, but the manuscript, entitled 'The Cop and the Whore' is wiped out appropriately enough by a computer virus. Forced to start again from scratch and unable to remember much about their original script anyway, they decide to write about something else instead: an epidemic. What they don't realise is that, as they complete this new screenplay, a real epidemic is about to devastate Europe. This isn't giving anything away, because a narrative voiceover explains this not long after the beginning of the film. This in no way lessens the shock of the film's climax, a shock that seems to be shared by Lars and Niels (in actuality as well as in the film's narrative), who have instigated the hypnosis of a medium. This scene, a dinner party to impress and hoodwink their disgruntled benefactor, the director and his screenwriting collaborator can barely conceal their smirks, reinforcing the impression of a pair of highly sophisticated and cynical practical jokers.

For Lars von Trier, in this and other films such as Europa and the more recent Dogville (2004) the butt of his sardonic, even vitriolic, humour is the gauche idealist in a hostile and often brutal world. In both Epidemic and Europa, the hero goes on a missionary quest into the heart of Europe, and in both cases, he ends up worsening the problem he sought to solve. Epidemic's Dr Mesmer is unwittingly a carrier, who spreads the infection as he travels towards Europe's centre. Europa's Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) is a German, brought up in the USA. He returns to Germany in 1945 to work as a railway sleeping car conductor, hoping to help heal the wounded nation. Needless to say, he ends up doing the opposite. He finds himself caught between (and double-crossed by): Eddie Constantine's American military commander, who wants him to spy on a cell of Nazi-sympathers; the love of Barbera Sukorov as the daughter of his boss, who may or may not be linked to the cell; and the petty rules and regulations of his job, enforced by his uncle (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard, later to play the corrupt and incompetent surgeon Helmer in The Kingdom).

Lars Von Trier's preoccupation with the horrors of Germany's past, not just the crimes of the Nazis, but also the atrocities inflicted on the German population by the Allies, surfaces most clearly in Europa. However, it is also present in Epidemic, in the scene in which Von Trier and Niels Vorsel visit Cologne and hear an anecdote recounted by Udo Kier about a phosphorous bombing raid witnessed by his mother. Kier, horribly memorable in The Kingdom, also appears in Europa, this time as the disaffected son of Leo Kessler's employer. Von Trier himself makes a brief reappearance too: in the role of a German Jew employed by the US military ostensibly to testify against suspected Nazi sympathisers, he has none of the mischievous puckishness I associate with his appearances 'as himself' in other films, such as Epidemic and the closing credits of The Kingdom. In a typically cruel twist, the Jew has been blackmailed by the American occupying forces to pretend that the railway boss protected him during the Nazi years, because the railways are too important to Germany's postwar reconstruction for the scandal to be exposed. The reason for Von Trier choosing to play this character comes clear in one of the interviews on the DVD, where he mentions he is of partially German Jewish extraction.

Stylistically, there is little hint of the austerity of some of Von Trier's later films made under the Dogme '95 guidelines, such as The Idiots (1998) and Breaking The Waves (1996). Only the sequences in Epidemic where Von Trier and Niels Vorsel are writing and discussing their screenplay have this improvised, quasi-documentary feel. The scenes from the film-within-the-film itself are highly stylised, perhaps parodying that other giant of Scandinavian cinema Ingmar Bergman, whose most famous film The Seventh Seal also had a European plague as its subject matter. The image of the crowds of people submerged up to the necks in water, from the drowned world of Element Of Crime, also recurs in these scenes. In keeping with its story, a kind of existential 'Murder on the Trans-European Express', Europa derives its visual style from 1940s' film noir, whose roots appropriately enough lie in German Expressionism. Von Trier also used some of Alfred Hitchcock's techniques, notably the use of front and back projection to inject vivid splashes of foreground colour into Europa's mainly black and white world.
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