The Collegian
Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Cinema in Retrospect: 'Europa'

<p>Graphic by Lucy Stefani</p>

Graphic by Lucy Stefani

Editor's note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.   

Lars Von Trier’s 1991 film, "Europa," is an experimental political drama set in Germany immediately after World War II. The film follows Leopold, a German-born American, as he searches for work in the crippled labyrinth of his homeland. His family’s ties land him a job as a sleeping car conductor on the Zentropa railroad working under his uncle. During a chance encounter on one of the trips, he meets and falls in love with the railroad owner's daughter. Her family’s hidden Nazi ties, however, soon drag Leopold into a terrorist conspiracy that threatens to take away everything he has.

While the film’s plot is fairly rudimentary, being at its core a somewhat generic romantic period piece, its framing and presentation raise larger questions about personal interaction with ideology and art. Although Leopold is the film’s perspective character, a separate narrator also presides over the film. This narrator not only provides an expositional foundation for the film but also, using the same dictation, entreats Leopold to follow his hypnotic suggestions. The first dialogue in the film, for example, is the narrator beckoning to Leopold with the lines, "you will now listen to my voice and on the count of ten, you will be in Europa..." Rather than being a passive historian, the narrator takes up the mantle of an active hypnotist, enacting his will into being by inducing Leopold into mesmeric inundation. This puppet master-like role of the narrator, however, is only one of the several systems to which Leopold finds himself subservient.

The crippling bureaucracy of the Zentropa railroad, the coercive fear-mongering of the residual Nazi party and the greedy overreaches of the occupying Allied forces each respectively hold further dominion over Leopold’s life and liberty. For all of these, it is Leopold’s position as an outsider that opens him up for exploitation. Meanwhile, although Leopold’s autonomy is infringed on by the systems he serves, the film makes clear that the final decisions behind his actions are ultimately his alone. Perhaps, if he wants to keep his job, he might be required to jump through a series of absurd hoops. Or, if he wants to cherish the woman he loves, there may be certain rituals he is expected to participate in. However, in each such instance, his actions are purely volitional. Although he receives a nauseating and contradictory series of orders, his desire to obey them is a responsibility of him alone.

In this way, the film is interested in the potential powers and forms of hypnosis: whether it ever be the case that an individual may be influenced to act in such a way that they are unaccountable for their actions. Through Leopold, the immediate response seems to be that it isn't, yet the film's nuanced complications suggest that constructive orders, hypnotic propaganda and narrative revisionism are in many ways unavoidable in the modern era. The most obvious menace in the film is that of the "Nazi werewolves” — those remnant members of the Nazi party who put up a sinister resistance to the reconstructive efforts of the occupying forces — since they represent a threat of bloody physical violence. However, the occupying forces — their counterparts — are also not exempt from inducing violence through their actions. Their retributive measures of demilitarizing Germany frequently tread the line between pillaging and retribution — as they use their positions of power to strip even the most innocuous of industrial edifices in acts of appropriation. The potential violence of such is shown when their efforts lead to the dismantling of a heater in a traveling train car, thus leaving the already wearied passengers no means to ward themselves from the night air’s biting cold.

Whereas the Nazis used ethnic othering to hypnotize the German masses, the Allies lean on a proclamation of punitive purging to hypnotize the same beleaguered populace. The narrator’s hypnotism, being the most literal, not only draws attention to the practice of narrative revisionism but is in turn an equally qualifying example. Despite Leopold’s resistance, the film is decidedly at the behest of its vocal overseer. The narrator connects the audience to both Leopold as a protagonist and the film as a narrativized medium. In many ways, the narrator seems to exemplify the revisionism that is inherent to the act of storytelling. The narrator is a vocalizer of the film’s narrative, which, as all narratives are, is fundamentally exclusionary. It only gives audiences part of the picture, yet lulls them into the sensation that they are receiving the totality.

As easy as it sometimes is to fall into the trance of narrative, the film’s ending reminds audiences to stay cognizant.  Despite his efforts throughout the film, Leopold ends up succumbing to the myriad sirens' calls. At the last minute, he fails to stop the terrorist conspiracy from unfolding, thus allowing a Nazi bomb to detonate and violently derail the train. As water slowly floods his creviced chamber, the narrator calls out to Leopold one final time. On the count of ten, he is told that he will die. While he struggles at first, he gradually gives in and lets his body be pulled along by the currents, soon drowning in a watery grave.

It should not be said that his death is only his fault — exterior factors undeniably played a role; however, it can be equally reasoned that the maintenance of his morality and mortality was within his grasp. As Leopold was unable to do, audiences should take time to periodically reflect on the ideological narratives they encounter daily. If left unchecked, they too can end up getting in over their heads. Systems of governance are often self-interested — it is their prerogative to present themselves as positively as they can, but their denizens have it within themselves to question their provided narratives. Not every narrative is fallacious, but sometimes the most innocent of sheep are conveniently clothed canines.

Contact columnist Henry Skalbeck at

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