Revisiting Lars von Trier’s 1991 film “Europa” offers an excellent opportunity to track this enigmatic auteur’s growth. It was, after all, the picture that immediately preceded his masterpiece, “Breaking the Waves” (1996). Yet Criterion’s lavishly supplemented two-disc package offers almost too much material for a work that, whatever its charms, remains a comparatively minor effort.
With a heavy debt to Carol Reed’s “The Third Man,” “Europa” (originally released in the U.S. as “Zentropa”) tracks the fortunes of an American naif, Leopold Kessler (the excellent Jean-Marc Barr), as he tries to navigate through a Germany just emerging from the ashes.
After a cranky uncle (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard) gets him a job as a porter on the railway he works for, Leo finds himself dragged into a phantasmagorical netherworld populated by a gallery of morally ambiguous characters, including a corrupt U.S. Army colonel (Eddie Constantine) and the seductive, deeply mysterious Katharina (Barbara Sukowa), daughter of the line’s compromised owner.
But plot is subservient to atmosphere here, as von Trier makes clear in several bonus features, among them “The Making of ‘Europa,'” a 39-minute 1991 English-language docu that painstakingly details the shoot. It’s especially thorough in dissecting the film’s striking cinematography — jointly credited to Henning Bendtsen, Jean-Paul Meurisse and Edward Klosinsky — in which color foregrounds are sometimes meticulously superimposed onto previously lensed b&w backgrounds.
Beyond this docu and the movie, the first disc contains an audio commentary in Danish with English subtitles from von Trier and co-producer Peter Aalbaeck Jensen. Though the helmer and his close collaborator smugly mock many of their colleagues and their own work, there’s no denying their tales amuse.
On the second disc, “Trier’s Element,” a 43-minute 1991 Danish TV docu, catches a relaxed and expansive von Trier just as he’s completed “Europa” and screened it at Cannes. There’s also “The Emotional Music Script,” a 12-minute conversation with Joachim Holbek, who composed “Europa’s” memorable score, and “From Dreyer to von Trier: An Interview with Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen,” a 13-minute chat with the noted Scandinavian lenser whose career began in 1948 and concluded with this pic.
Perhaps the set’s most rewarding extras are “Anecdotes From ‘Europa,'” featuring comments from various talents associated with the production, all of whom essentially venerate the helmer, and a Danish journalist’s 2005 interview of von Trier that finds the director in a significantly more mature mode than any of this issue’s other encounters. Here’s where we finally see von Trier the man, as opposed to the boy who appears in the bulk of these extras.
Running time: 107 MIN.