Spine-tingling guilt trip

Issue 

Zentropa
Directed by Lars Von Trier
Starring Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Ernst-Hugo Jaregard
Reviewed by Mario Giorgetti

Lars Von Trier's deeply reflective trilogy, begun with Element of Crime in 1984 and followed by Epidemic in 1987, comes to a conclusion with Zentropa, an apocalyptic trip through the collective unconscious of Mitteleuropa in the post-armageddon Germany of 1945.

Leo Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), a young German-American, arrives in postwar Berlin to take a job, provided by his uncle, as sleeping-car attendant for Zentropa, a railway owned by industrial tycoon Lawrence Hartmann (Udo Kier). The Hartmanns take a liking to Leo and draw him into their circle, in which he is eventually trapped by the seductive daughter Katharina, played with cool detachment by Dietrich stand-in Barbara Sukowa.

Little does Leo suspect that the heiress of Zentropa has connections with Werwolf, a Nazi partisan group which is terrorising the country and hindering reconstruction work.

Katharina seems to embody the glamorous but extremely complex soul of Germany, while Leo is the gently bred North American eternally out of place in Europe — he comes from a raw culture with an immature understanding of the German psyche. In his relationship with Katharina, he is a fumbling naif who does not understand the language of women in love.

Meanwhile, Zentropa's night train is pounding on relentlessly on a guilt trip from which no sensitive soul can return unchanged. And Leo is in danger of falling victim to his own naivete while riding a one-way ticket to self-destruction.

Metaphorically, we are railroaded into a manufactured reality that is like the movie-going experience itself — sitting in a dark compartment, watching an imitation of life go by dream-like on a rectangular screen that could be a train window. But Leo's uncle Kessler (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard), who seeks oblivion in his bottle of schnapps, believes that inglorious reality is best unseen and forgotten, and keeps yanking down the window shades and barking: "There is nothing to see!"

Kafka might have written the screenplay, and Wagner provided the musical score for this parade of ambiguous shadows and grotesque humanity intent on insane rituals and protocols that reveal a society trying to redeem itself, make order out of chaos, and salvage some honour and pride from total defeat. The endlessly rolling railway track, the entrancing femme fatale with a dark secret, the rain-swept night, the mesmerising voice-over narration by Max Von Sydow are loaded motifs that overpower and draw you down into a kind of sweet despair like an irresistible vertigo.

Densely atmospheric and metaphysical, Zentropa is also high on cinematic tricks reminiscent of Welles and Hitchcock. Von Trier makes clever use of visual techniques such as colour and monochrome mixing, back and front projection, and roaming camera shots unrestricted by walls or floors in Escher-like distortions of perspective. At one point, the giant-sized word "Werwolf" is back-projected behind a pensive Leo, and we know that the chilling notion engendered by the word suddenly looms large in his consciousness, shutting out every other thought.

This hard-edged, tightly crafted film keeps us captive in a twilight zone that is part dream and part nightmare. From the very first images and first words of Von Sydow's narration, it has a chokehold on our emotions. It then sweeps us along on a mythological journey that promises the darkly delicious pleasure of uncovering who knows what horrible truths about our destination, and about ourselves as embodiments of the struggle between good and evil. Zentropa is a spine-tingling experience.

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