A review of Lars von Trier’s Europa with an eye towards a Toronto International Film Festival retrospective as posted to The Toronto Film Scene.

Originally published on The Toronto Film Scene – November 9, 2011.

Now this might get uncomfortable

Anyone who’s ever seen the films of Lars von Trier knows the feeling all too well. The film starts out normally enough we’re introduced to a young hero, heroine, couple, whatever and their lives seem to be your normal workaday routine.

Then something catastrophic happens and everyone ends up paying dearly for it in the end.

It’s von Trier’s calling card. You may like the storytelling, you may love the artistry, but you’re probably not going to like what you see.

Yet, von Trier has made a name for himself as one of the smartest, boldest and most important auteurs of his time. It’s for this reason TIFF is rolling out Waiting for the End of the World: The Films of Lars von Trier in anticipation of his latest film Melancholia .

But how did it come to this? Certainly von Trier didn’t become one of the world’s leading auteurs by constantly plumbing the depths of despair and evil.

On the other hand, maybe he did.

But the best way to get to the root of von Trier, as we now know him is likely to start with his International breakthrough, Europa .

Released in 1991 to wide acclaim, the film centres on an American, Kessler, who arrives in Germany in 1945 to work as a railwayman because, in his words “it’s time someone showed Germany some kindness.” What this says about the protagonist’s motivations has come under some scrutiny, but von Trier seems to enjoy milking that interplay. He leaves the audience to decide for itself if this character is a monster, a radical or just simply confused.

There’s   a purposeful ambiguity there and if you don’t like it, von Trier has never been the type of filmmaker to even feign apology for his art.

He believed in Europa when he made it (as he famously groused that the film won three major awards at the Cannes Film Festival that year, but not the Palme d’Or) and he’s continued to make unapologetic films since.

I dwell on Europa because it is possibly – though plodding and ambiguous – von Trier’s most accessible feature. The narrative follows a fairly linear track, von Trier opens his narration to the audience to lull them into the feature (as evidenced by Max von Sydow’s narration from the get-go) and even if the plot loses some stragglers along the way, the artistry of von Trier’s visuals should be enough of a lifeline to keep audiences with the tour.

The narration implores the audience to “go deeper” and the further down the well von Trier goes, the more Europa offers the audience to dig out for itself. Kessler can be frustrating because he alternates between being a radical and a subordinate so quickly and frequently that his true intentions become almost impossible to gauge.

But it’s that ambiguity that creates the suspense and allows for the narrative to move forward.

Stylistically, the film is also one of the few where von Trier’s influences seep through before it all became “von Trier”. Europa owes debts to Milos Forman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jean-Pierre Melleville and Hitchcock and its impact can be seen on the likes of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, David Fincher and Alex Proyas.

The film features numerous set-piece shots and astounding trickery between light and shadow, colour and black-and-white and laid the groundwork for some of his most visually-intricate features yet to come.

It’s for this reason Europa still stands out amongst his works.

A new print of Europa will screen alongside The Element of CrimeBreaking the WavesThe Idiots,Dancer in the Dark and Dogville at TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the Waiting for the End of the World: The Films of Lars von Trier retrospective beginning November 9, 2011.