The field of psychology came into practice around the time of the inception of film as a new art form. Basic Freudian concepts have integrated themselves into subtext of cinema over the years. Psychoanalysis can be used to explain basic cinematic themes of desire, fatalism, and even rite of manhood. Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s iconic 1991 film Europa is a direct tribute to psychoanalysis.
Europa opens with the hypnotic visual of a monotonous tracking shot running over the train tracks at night. The monotone voice of the narrator (Max von Sydow) sets the tone for the entire film as a psychotherapeutic session as he directly engages the spectator: “You will now listen to my voice, my voice will help you and guide you still deeper into Europa…I shall now count from one to ten on the count of ten you will be in Europa”. The narrator’s omnipresent dictation is consistent over much of the action in the film to guide the protagonist Leo Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) a German-American youth returning to the ruins of post-war Germany. The narrator of Europa is the psychological response to the soliloquy from the theatrical tradition. Instead of a personal internal monologue, von Trier uses the narrator to deconstruct Leo’s sensorial experience whether it be physical like “sinking into the wet grass” or as emotionally direct as “you love her, she is so strong and yet so vulnerable”. By projecting the protagonist’s experience on the spectator, von Trier creates an empathetic link as well as conscious disconnect from the natural flow of the action.
The framing of Europa through the psychological narration allows for multivalent interpretations. Although the action of Europa takes place in post-war Germany the point of the narration is never resolved in the historical context of the dramatic narrative. Attributing a literal interpretation to a psychotherapeutic session in the context of the historical time-period is difficult to rectify. An alterative analysis can be that the events never occurred and the whole film is merely a psychotherapeutic exercise. Or perhaps Europa is an out of body experience of the deceased Leo looking back at the events that led to his demise.
Lars von Trier’s stylized visualizations throughout Europa heighten the dream-like qualities of the subconscious accenting detail and creating disconnects for the spectator to make sense of. Von Trier consistently uses the technique of keying characters over an obviously asynchronous background to create an acute disorientation and create context around the action. For example the image of Leo running will be keyed over the close up of a ticking clock, or the image of his seclusion during his honeymoon over the close-up of his sleeping wife. The sparse use of color among an almost entirely black and white film stands out during the viewing. Color seems to be linked to strong emotion. When Leo meets the alluring Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa) he sees her for a single shot in color. Later in the film when her father Max Hartman commits suicide he is seen in the bath in black and white, but as he takes a razor and lacerates himself the low angle through the water reveals the blood to be bright red over the otherwise entirely black and white image. At Leo’s death in the film’s final sequence his drowned body drifts down in color over a black and white collage of the people and events he has encountered. There the conclusion of Leo’s life experience is visually resolved through the imagery.
Main psychoanalytical themes can be derived from the characters in Europa. The femme fetal Katharina Hartmann exhibits some signifiers of the Elektra complex. She is her father’s daughter but she is also a werewolf, a member of the Nazi sympathetic resistance. Katharina seduces Leo, but cannot give him the love on the level that he needs. She is scarred by the suicide of her father. Katharina is consumed with guilt for writing anonymous threat letters to her father as a werewolf. She explains herself to Leo as an arrested prisoner on her family’s train that like the mythical creature of the werewolf she too is dually one way during the day and another at night. Katharina wrote the letters at night, as if possessed by a werewolf animus then. Although she claimed she did love Leo she cannot remove the taint in his eyes from her involvement in the werewolfe movement to use him as an instrument of their saboteur work. She blames him vehemently for refusing to let the bomb go off.
Leo comes to Europa on the naive pretext of helping the people of his heritage but he finds himself as an outsider. His journey is a rite of manhood, he arrives in Zentropa and finds himself under the care of a love-less uncle tutoring him how to live up to the rigid lifestyle of a night-train officer. Leo is caught in between the complex political machinations of Katherina and her werewolf leader, Colonel Harris of the American occupation force and even the meticulous responsibilities of his duties on the train. Leo bears all their machinations with patience until the film’s final sequence where he breaks down confiscates a gun from an MP and fires madly into the air. Leo is experiencing what is known in psychology as the ‘return of the repressed’. He has repressed his frustrations and he has replaced his disappointment with Katherina with concern for her well-being so upon the realization of her betrayal he snaps. Leo stalks the train forcing people back into their compartments. In a long tracking shot von Trier depicts Leo with the rifle before him passing each of the film’s main players in compartment after compartment next to each other, his uncle, Katherine, Colonel Harrison, the werewolf leader, the people on the train are all segregated. The shot is an illusion of Leo’s psyche that has now compartmentalized his career, his love, his duty to his career, and his moral dilemmas. At the end of the shot he opens to the door to the lavatory and locks himself in with the bomb he was lured into bringing on board. Leo has isolated himself in one part of his psyche, without thinking too hardly about it he pulls the trigger and the bomb goes off. The conscious decision to activate the bomb is again a reflection in the narrative of the return of the repressed where the build up of repression leads to an implosion when those emotions surface.
Europa is a unique exploration into the direct possibilities of direct psychoanalytical film language. Lars von Trier takes themes from psychology and not only weaves them through his characters but also translates them into distinct visuals. The device of his narrator binds the spectator into the hypnotic state of being enraptured in Europa.
Europa - (The Criterion Collection). Dir. Lars von Trier. Perf. Jean-Marc Barr, Max Von Sydow, Barbara Sukowa. 1991. Criterion Collection, 2008. DVD.