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01.07.09

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Phaedra

Europa

Two discs; Criterion Collection; $39.95

Reviewed by Richard von Busack


A timid American (Jean-Marc Barr in Clark Kent glasses) arrives in Germany right after the Big War; he's using his pull to get a job as a sleeping-car conductor on the railways. The Yank stumbles into a nest of sinister Germans, watched over with half-awake eyes by an American colonel (Eddie "Lemmy Caution" Constantine). The youngster is easily manipulated by the severe-looking heiress (Barbara Sukowa) of the train company where he works. A birdbrain when it comes to politics, Danish auteur Lars von Trier uses this midnight drama as a platform for the idea that the Allied occupation was a case of meet-the-new-boss, same-as-the-old-boss. (It's an idea that Steven Soderbergh soaked up in this film's abjectly similar knockoff, The Good German.) Yet the surfaces of von Trier's black-and-white 1991 epic are interesting, for a time. Some 200 storyboards hatched out this film about film, in a riot of back-screen projection and special effects. Here are intensive re-creations of everything from the mists of Murnau, the sooty alleys of Welles and the watery graves of Dreyer. But Max von Sydow's rumbling, nay, droning narration, the stock-still and bloodless cast (frozen in place to make the stagecraft work) and what commentator Howard Hampton enthusiastically calls von Trier's "hyperderivative" tendencies add up to an all-you-eat buffet for cinéastes that will leave lovers of drama starved. Having binged, von T. later purged, starting his monkish Dogme movement. The cagey director is interviewed in separate places on the several hours of additional material in this Criterion set. He's uncomfortable at the Cannes press conference in '91: "I am not capable of answering the questions." But he's more forthcoming in a 45-minute interview with the Danish journalist Bo Green Jensen, conducted in 2005. Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen is also profiled; Bendtsen was Dreyer's cinematographer on Ordet and Gertrud. One whimsical if useless addenda: Europa: The Faecal Locations, a short documentary about the horrors of Second World–era Polish toilets (no one talks about the Second World anymore, but that was what the Soviet Bloc was supposed to be in opposition to the First World and the famous Third World we hear so much about); von Trier created his greasy, bombed out Germany in that nation's roundhouses and bombed cathedrals.


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