In retrospect, it seems astonishing that a mere four years after making the phantasmagoric thriller Europa (a.k.a. Zentropa), director Lars von Trier and a collective of Danish filmmakers would go on to found Dogme 95, a movement founded on an austere set of back-to-basics principles. Had von Trier submitted Europa for Dogme certification, the number of rules he broke—Dogme 95 requires handheld camera, color, natural light and sound, no "superficial action" or genre fare, and more—would have landed him in moviemaking purgatory for eternity. But on second glance, the von Trier of 1991 didn't change as much as it appears. He's always been a bold conceptual artist—or, to detractors, a gimmick-meister—and a postmodernist, anxious to lay bare the artificial constructs that go into making a movie. So Europa, for all its technical razzle-dazzle, still calls attention to its movieness through rear and front projection, double exposures, and a shift between luminous, Old Hollywood black-and-white and shocking bursts of color.
As for the story, it's a bit of a muddle. Employing Max von Sydow as narrator/hypnotist, von Trier takes viewers on a dreamy journey through the chaos and treachery of Germany just after World War II. In an awkward English-language turn, French actor Jean-Marc Barr plays a comically feckless American hired as an apprentice sleeping-car conductor in occupied Germany. The train company, which once aided the transport of Jews to concentration camps, has been reconfigured as a commercial liner, but not everyone in the company or the country is on board, so to speak. Barr winds up amid an underground circle of Nazi dead-enders called "werewolves," who commit terrorist acts to disrupt the Allied occupation. He also falls in love with the daughter (Barbara Sukowa) of the train line's owner, a classic femme fatale.
Europa has been described as a Kafka-esque fever dream, and while that isn't inaccurate, it's also a cover for the film's confounding narrative, which wends through murky noir plotting, a polyglot of accents and performance styles, and surreal interludes. The best approach is not to puzzle too much over the details, and to marvel at von Trier's technical wizardry, which re-imagines the period through a patchwork of vivid impressions. It's too bad the von Trier who made this movie has long since retired.
Key features: Von Trier and producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen contribute a lively commentary track in Danish; three documentaries cover the production, the cast, and the meticulous storyboarding; and seemingly everyone behind the camera gets an interview.