Filmmakers Firsts (Double Edition): Lars von Trier + Terence Davies

#7: Europa (1991) – dir. Lars von Trier

My assumptions about the cinematic output of Danish auteur Lars von Trier were, until last week, based upon my knowledge of films like Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Antichrist and Melancholia, as well as the recent two-part release of Nymphomaniac, volumes 1 and 2. I was surprised to discover that his 1991 film Europa, which was released as Zentropa in the United States (so that the public would not confuse it with another WWII-set film, Agnieszka Holland’s Europa Europa), is not really like his later works. Europa tells the story of an American man, Leopold (Jean-Marc Barr), who comes to Germany during the immediate postwar summer of August 1945. Under the supervision of his cantankerous uncle, Leo vows to show some kindness to Europe after all the suffering of the war, even if his new job is merely as a train conductor.

Udo Kier quite amusingly plays the uncle. (The film is not without a few dashes of humor, including the uncle sneaking drinks while on the train.) The film also stars Barbara Sukowa as Leo’s love interest, Katharina, who is the femme fatale of the piece. Eddie Constantine (of Alphaville fame) appears as an American colonel and the hypnotizing intonations of the film’s unusual second-person narration (“You will now listen to my voice. My voice will help you and guide you still deeper into Europa…”) were recorded by Max von Sydow.

Von Trier sometimes combines images with text, or images with other images (like in these examples, here and here).

Another striking element of the visual composition is the use of both black-and-white and color cinematography, sometimes juxtaposed in the same shot. While the film is mostly in black-and-white, using color occasionally heightens the mood in a scene, especially when placed side-by-side with black-and-white imagery. Relationships between characters, like the love between Leo and Katharina, are enhanced by the use of color (all hand-tinted).

I have a few issues with how the plot develops and the ways in which the story is told, but I do appreciate the film on various aesthetic levels. Joachim Holbek’s score, intended to evoke Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s, adds some necessary emotional qualities. When possible, I will watch Europa again so that I can pay even closer attention to the innumerable carefully crafted details. It is a fascinating drama, rich with dramatic irony.

#8: Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) – dir. Terence Davies

Bleakness has probably never looked so bleak as in this British drama. Terence Davies is well-known for adaptations of novels like The House of Mirth (2000), The Deep Blue Sea (2011) and The Neon Bible (1995), but Distant Voices, Still Lives is a somewhat autobiographical account. It deals with one family’s struggle to overcome a physically and mentally abusive father (Pete Postlethwaite) and then to survive after he dies. The film’s flexible use of character flashbacks, zipping from one person to another (there isn’t one specific main character) gives the plot the fluid feeling of memories swimming through the time stream and resurfacing when certain associations are made.

One of the recurring motifs is that many shots in the film show characters assembled as though they were posing for a portrait. Their stares into the camera lens are often unnerving for the viewer (this viewer, anyway). The still above is taken from a scene in the first few minutes of the film, when the mother and her three children have gathered for the father’s funeral. Even in death his presence is felt as they stand directly in front of a photo of him on the wall.

The characters don’t seem to possess much personality. This shot of one of the daughters and her friend, who are preparing to go dancing, starts out with the camera focused on their fancy clothes before tilting up to their faces. The lighting makes the dresses glow in an intriguing way, but once the characters speak, the image loses some of its appeal.

The family stays together no matter what, even with the chaos of World War II and the Blitz happening where they live. Shots like this one show Davies’ eye for interesting compositions, though that doesn’t make the unpleasant story much more palatable.

The closeness of the siblings bonds them, but I do not feel emotionally attached to the film. Throughout the film, characters burst into song (generally while drinking at family gatherings), perhaps to distract themselves from domestic problems and the drabness of their lives. Nearly every male character is misogynistic; as a result women have to find ways to endure many kinds of pain. Music is essentially their only salve. The viewer experiences this most vividly in a scene when we see the mother cleaning her windows. We hear the voiceover of one of her daughters asking her why she married Father. As we hear the mother talk about what a good dancer he was, Ella Fitzgerald’s “Taking a Chance on Love” plays in the background and the scene transitions to a memory of the mother being viciously beaten and kicked by the father during their marriage. It is one of the film’s most effective scenes, but it’s hard to watch. I know a lot of people deeply love Distant Voices, Still Lives, but I don’t think I can.

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