Zentropa (1992): Lars von Trier’s Dazzling Film Noir

A neo film noir with a message, Lars von Trier’s Zentropa is a visually dazzling, and in moments hypnotic movie.

The Danish director’s fifth feature, Zentropa shows off his visionary mastery in a more striking way than his previous outings.

The filmmaker considers this feature to be the final segment in what he calls “the Europa Trilogy,” whose previous chapters are “Elements of Crime” (1984) and “Epidemic” (1987).

When it came out, in 1992, some critics compared the experience of the film to that of German director Wim Wenders’s 1987 Wings of Desire, though the two works are entirely different.

The film’s narrative is intriguing but not nearly as impressive as its style. The protagonist is an idealistic young American, Leo (Jean-Marc Barr), who comes to Germany in 1945 in order to help the major postwar reconstruction.

Under the tutelage of his uncle (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard), Leo becomes a sleeping car conductor of a mysterious rail company that goes under the name of Zentropa.

There is no film noir without a femme fatale and here she is played by the great German actress Barbara Sukowa. The father of Katharine is, coincidentally or not, Max (Jorgen Reenberg), the company’s director.

Germany is depicted as a shadowy wasteland—actually no man’s land, divided as it is into parts.  The American occupation, headed by Colonle Harris (Eddie Constantine), battles for power against the Werewolves, a pro-Nazi terrorist group.

Through Katharina, Leo becomes involved with both groups. As a result, he soon finds himself caught up in a complex intrigue driven by espionage and counter-espionage.

Though the action is set in a specific historical time, the atmosphere of paranoia and psychological disorientation is more universal. In fact, the story and its characters could prevail in other European milieus after WWII.

Von Trier’s tale is deliberately vague and ambiguous, but these aspects only increase the film’s grip on us.  Some scenes play out in a surreal, haunting mode and we succumb to them because the texture is so rich.  Don’t feel strange, if while watching the movie you fall into a state of dream or reverie.

The story is narrated by the great Ingmar Bergman actor, Max von Sydow, who tries to give some semblance of coherence to the peculiar events, which are deliberately disorienting.  Von Sydow’s voice is so resonant and impressive and so recognizable by now that he lends the film the kind of gravitas that is otherwise lacking from the plot.

“Zentropa” is detached and alienating, but not in a negative way, and at the end, you may feel that you have experienced a movie that is by turns mesmerizing, intriguing, provocative, but also frustrating, confusing, and irritating.

 

Cast

Barbara Sukowa

Jean-marc Barr

Udo Kier

Ernst Hugo

Eddie Constantin

Narrated by Max von Sydow

 

Black-and-white

Running time: 114 Minutes