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  • The Holocaust Repressed: Memory and the Subconscious in Lars von Trier’s Europa1
  • Udi E. Greenberg


Against the background of a dark screen, a hypnotizing voice speaks to the viewers, slowly counting up to ten and then inviting them to “go deeper” and sink into the shady thriller that will soon begin. Thus begins Lars von Trier’s 1991 movie, Europa, and, indeed, many enthusiastically accepted the invitation, calling it a masterpiece of modern cinema.2 However, attention quickly moved to von Trier’s next projects, and the intensity with which the media dealt with his Dogma 95 manifesto overshadowed his earlier works, including the “Europe Trilogy,” of which Europa is the closing film. As a few students of cinema have noticed, despite some adept attempts to analyze the film’s plot and complex symbolic language, the trilogy still suffers from a dearth of critical attention, and relatively little has been written about it. 3

The film’s plot is quite simple. Leo Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), a young American man of German origin, arrives in Germany in 1945, wishing to find a job in the civil infrastructure and take part in the reconstruction of the devastated country. With the help of his uncle (Ernst-Hugo Järegård), who works on the night trains of the Zentropa company, Kessler finds a job on the first-class coaches, where he meets the daughter of the company’s owner, Kata Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa), who quickly becomes his lover, and later, his bride. Soon a net of intrigue is quickly spun around him. An American colonel (Eddie Constantine) asks for his assistance in sleuthing on the locals, while simultaneously the Nazi Werewolf underground, in which his wife was formerly a member, involves him in their sabotage against the occupation, a plot that ends when his train is bombed while crossing a bridge and he drowns in the water below.

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Much attention has been devoted to the film’s unique visual language and to the dialogue it creates with the postwar imagery. Many of the scenes allude to images in films of the Forties, through the use, for example, of incommensurable perspectives between the actors and the background. Von Trier achieves this disorienting effect by filming the entire landscape in Poland, while shooting the actors separately in studios in Denmark.4 Different writers have found in the film a complex net of references ranging from Sergei Eisenstein5 to Andrei Tarkovsky and Orson Wells;6 from Billy Wilder’s “ruin films,”7 through Hitchcock’s horror stories,8 to even Woody Allen’s comedies.9Commentators have been struck particularly by the constant change from black-and-white to color. The attempt to understand the connections between this visual language and the historical plot requires, however, an explanation of the film’s basic organizing motifs, beginning with the hypnotic address to the audience. Max von Sydow says in voiceover that he will slowly take “you” deep into 1945 Europe. His narration of the protagonist’s acts (“you are having a bad dream,” “you will now wake up,”) then follows Leo throughout the film to its tragic end. By merging the identities of the protagonist and the audience, this peculiar second-person motif restricts its own power to historicize—the images, sounds, and narrative order—to the symbolic language of an inner psychological drama. There are other symbolic languages at work in the film, as well, and explaining them will illuminate how provocatively Europa conceptualizes the relationships between cinema, psychology, and history. [End Page 45]

Between Europe and America – Political Criticism

Set at the beginning of the Cold War but appearing at its conclusion (1991), the film was immediately interpreted as a political document of its time. The fact that the film takes place in the American occupation zone, and that the characters have intensive discussions of German-American relations, has led many instinctively to view Europa as a reflection on the relationship between Europe and the U.S. Some critics have found it a harshly anti-American film, focusing on von Trier’s depiction of the cynical, cruel American colonel, who delights in humiliating...


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