ZENTROPA (Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden, 1991) ***
Known in Europe as "Europa" and renamed to avoid confusion with the recent hit, "Europa, Europa," "Zentropa" takes its name for an imaginary, huge rail network created in 1912 by the Hartmann family in Germany.
Before the Nazis' defeat, this railroad line transported Jews to their doom in Auschwitz. Now its owners want to make it again into a spreading, money-making monster on wheels.
In October 1945, only months after Germany's surrender, Leopold Kessler arrives in Frankfurt. He is played by Franco-American Jean-Marc Barr who had smaller parts in American and British films and the lead in the French "The Big Blue."
Leopold is a naive American of German ancestry, a pacifist and idealist who wants to do some good for the post-war world. Becoming a sleeping-car conductor trainee thanks to his officious German uncle, a superconductor, he gets involved with Katharina (Barbara Sukowa), the railroad magnate's daughter, Nazi "Werewolf" partisans who sabotage installations and murder Germans who collaborate with the occupiers, neo-capitalism, corrupt U.S. Occupation force, indirect patricide, assassination by 8-year olds, and more....
Katharina may or may not be a Werewolf, Leopold will or will not submit to blackmail and blow up a train. And still more in a movie that is an absurdist political thriller, nightmarish in a rather Kafkaesque way. It is not for nothing that the names Kessler and Katharina's start with a K.
The film deals with Teutonic humbling, ambition, unreconstructed nationalism and a period of adjustment. It paints a somber picture of Germany and to an extent, by implication, of the unified Europe-to-be of some fifty years later.
The Germans are either opportunistic in their will to reconstruct or are unreconstructed Nazis. In all cases they are, as personified in the martinet uncle, fanatics of method, authoritarianism, codes, meticulous order and procedures. And of course, they are enamored and respectful of uniforms.
Some of this works in the film, much of it is heavy-handed in its humor, except for scenes of Leopold in a submerged train that wink amusingly at connoisseurs, since the actor was a star diver in the insufferable "The Big Blue. "
Heavy too is the sense of tragedy, while much else is fuzzy, haughty and pretentious. Bits and pieces, references and often remote influences from older movies abound, though not always obvious: Hitchcock's train movies ("The Lady Vanishes," "Strangers On A Train," "North By Northwest") plus "Vertigo"; "Citizen Kane"; melodramas by Fassbinder and by Douglas Sirk; "Metropolis"; "Blade Runner"; and several lurid Hollywood pop movies.
Not least among those filmic quotes is Rossellini's "Germany Year Zero" which meant 1945 and whose realism "Zentropa" turns upside down in favor of un-realism, de-realism and stylization. Von Triers's picture however is quite a platform for arch-stylized (and arch), dazzling, bold audiovisual pyrotechnics.
Danish filmmaker Von Trier (b. 1956), a "wunderkind" film student in Copenhagen and an innovative technician, came to attention at the Cannes Festival with his first feature,"The Element of Crime," a movie of amazing visuals but wretched narrative values. The low-budget "Epidemic" followed in 1987 and the multi-national "Zentropa" in 1991. The three are supposed to make up a trilogy on post-war Europe.
With its big budget, "Zentropa" does amazing things with images. It is like an extended, imaginative music video -- no surprise since Von Trier has made several, as well as dozens of commercials. Mastery of the Panavision screen, superimpositions, front and back projection, composites (at one point, seven layers), use of odd angles, shooting through water, graphics, juxtapositions make up something like a film lexicon with post-modern additions.
The movie is shot beautiful black and white that occasionally switches to color and, most impressive of all, can add color to the very same black-and-white shot. On the other hand, as a drama, the film and its characters (the latter kept at arm's length), are uninvolving. Sukowa especially is poorly dubbed, has an unpleasant voice and speaks lines that prove that the writers are fluent in English but in a non-native, unnatural and awkward way. There is also facile, complacent symbolism and parallelism in the otherwise striking visuals.
To top all this, the film opens with the voice of Max Von Sydow addressing the public in sepulchral English, and trying ( I am not making this up) to hypnotize it. It is ludicrous. This voice then switches regularly to directions and exhortations to Leopold, and the ludicrous becomes ridiculous.
And to top that, the film has a mean spirit. Von Trier, in much of his work, is fascinated by the German mentality in the Big Brother next door to his native Denmark. What comes through however is contempt for both Germany and the U.S.A. Leopold is the dumb innocent abroad. (Trier said that what he had in mind was to make Kafka's "Amerika" in reverse). Eddie Constantine, an American icon in European films, plays a Colonel who is The Ugly American, a tool of postwar U.S. interests that cheat on de-Nazification when it suits their purposes. Here as elsewhere Von Trier often comes close to political truths, but undermines himself through messiness, grotesqueries and excesses.
Von Trier's estheticizing is both his doing and his undoing. His film astounds yet irritates. The man is arrogant, pretentious, petulant, enormously gifted visually and technically, but with far more form than substance.
At the 1991 Cannes Festival Awards ceremony, first to be announced was the Technical Commission's prize to Von Trier for this film. Von Trier, royally ticked off at getting a mere technical prize, referred from the stage to the Jury's President Roman Polanski as "the midget," and went on to more scornful remarks. Then, disdainfully, he handed over the award to his technicians. He should have thought ahead because minutes later he was hoisted by his own petard when he shared the Jury Prize (roughly the bronze medal) Trier with the clear, touching and humanistic "Out of Life" by Lebanese-in-France director Maroun Bagdadi.
Written October 20, 1992.