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With his dazzling first three features, Lars von Trier sought nothing less than to map the soul of Europe—its troubled past, anxious present, and uncertain future. Linked by a fascination with hypnotic states and the mesmeric possibilities of cinema, the films that make up the Europe Trilogy—The Element of Crime, Epidemic, and Europa—filter the continent’s turbulent history, guilt, and traumas through the Danish provocateur’s audacious deconstructions of genres including film noir, melodrama, horror, and science fiction. Above all, they are bravura showcases for von Trier’s hallucinatory visuals, with each shot a tour de force of technical invention and dark imagination.
The Element of Crime
Lars von Trier’s stunning debut feature is a grungily expressionistic hallucination—a trancelike trawl through fractured memories, a murder mystery, and the psychic limbo of cultural displacement. From his exile in Cairo, a former police investigator (Michael Elphick) undergoes hypnosis in order to relive his memories of Europe and his last case, for which he went to dangerous lengths to enter into the mind of and catch a serial killer targeting children. Bathed in a sulfurous yellow glow pierced only by startling flashes of electric blue and red, The Element of Crime combines hard-boiled noir, dystopian science fiction, and dazzling operatic flourishes to yield a celluloid nightmare of terrifying beauty.
A jet-black comedy of contagion, a subversive medical-horror freak-out, and a sly metacinematic prank, Lars von Trier’s sophomore feature—born from a bet that he couldn’t make a film for less than $150,000—finds the director channeling his singular thematic obsessions into an evocatively lo-fi, perversely self-reflexive provocation. The filmmaker himself stars as a harried screenwriter whose efforts to complete a script about the outbreak of a deadly disease coincide with a grisly real-life plague. A twisted reflection on Europe’s haunted past—from the Black Death to World War II—and its scarred present, Epidemic is von Trier at his most idiosyncratic and audaciously experimental.
“You will now listen to my voice . . . On the count of ten you will be in Europa.” This ominous, hypnotic induction by Max von Sydow inaugurates the entrancing final installment of Lars von Trier’s Europe Trilogy. An idealistic American (Jean-Marc Barr) travels to postwar Germany to take a job as a sleeping-car conductor for the Zentropa railways—and finds himself plunged into a murky, Kafkaesque world of intrigue and betrayal where the shadow of Nazism hovers menacingly over everything. With its ravishing cinematography (in black and white, color, and at times a stunning mix of both), dreamlike use of rear projections, and lush fusion of melodrama and noir conventions, Europa is a sublimely stylized cinematic fugue.
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