(Film: Zentropa /1991/ Director : Lars von Trier )
Zentropa, a film by Danish director Lars von Trier, in 1991, could be called as cinema that has been created in the realm of intersections; intersections of space, time, histories, identities and crises. The film is on a superficial premise set in Germany Year Zero, 1945, post World War II, when Germany is getting back to its feet after its ruinous debacle in the war. However, if one is to inter-textually read Zentropa , then it is the story also of Europe in the 90’s and its impending crisis. Zentropa released a year after the Berlin wall came down, and a year before the Maastricht Treaty was signed by the European nations. It was a time of uncertainty for Europe as ‘Neo Nazism’ threatened to resurface and Europe , as an international identity, was facing an identity crisis. In this light, Zentropa, through its texturally layered form, addresses ‘Europa’, Europe in general and with a double edged sword, cuts back to 1945 Germany, with a historical premise.
Displaced Realms : the ‘interstitials’
The film’s existence occurs in a continuous ‘displacement’. This ‘displacement’ can be further explored. The main character , the American , Lee Kessler, is presented as a subject under hypnosis. The hypnotic non-diegetic voice over that begins the film, introduces a ‘lag’ between knowledge and action, which till the end is never reconciled as the subject ultimately dies. Kessler, who comes to Germany, to help it in its nation building process, becomes a guard in the railways. The ‘train’ again is used as a medium of displacement. Rosalind Galt in her essay points out that Leo is never directly in touch with the landscape of Zentropa, but constantly mediating it through the train ; he is constantly on the train. All those junctions where in fact he is on the ground, form the crucial cues in continuing his ensuing disconnection with everything , ultimately leading to him getting killed in the space of the ‘interstitial’ , the drowning train.
The sequence of Max Hartmann’s suicide, is a key grounding factor and also a lead/ premonition of where Kessler will ultimately end up. The character of Max Hartmann is shown to be or have been a Nazi sympathizer, and his daughter Katherine Hartmann, also, is a former member of the Werewolf terrorist group. This is the sequence where the crucial secret of Katherine’s identity, is revealed in the narrative, and the ominous implications of it , henceforth, are also hinted at. As Katherine asks Kessler to ‘show her some kindness’ as they are poised before a vast expanse of a miniature network of the railways on the German landscape, one is certainly given signs of a certain power relation inherent in the mise en scene. Here is a former Werewolf, toying with her American ‘puppet’ Kessler, and using the railways to her whim , ultimately , crushing it with her own weight ; (as the toy train falls off the disarrayed tracks, it is an ominous sign of the fate of the actual train in the film). Meanwhile, downstairs, her father in his state of despair and helplessness ( out of his Nazi connection) grotesquely cuts himself up to his death , in the bathtub. The heightened use of a singled out ‘red’ colour of the blood, fills the mise en scene with an infusion of violence latent within the characters. The characters in Zentropa are almost never directly in connection with their surrounding contexts, except in this sequence where the immediacy of blood is effectualised to the highest measure.
The ‘interstitial’ film form
Zentropa’s interstitiality is foregrounded by Lars von Trier, through the use of his filming techniques. He makes use of selective colour against black and white photography, uses the wide angled lens with the telephoto lens, 35mm with 70mm , makes use of back projection techniques , and a wide variety of contrasting camera angles. With this variegated palette of polarized ingredients of film form, von Trier , skillfully stitches it all up into a deeply layered, pan-temporal, textual narrative. By making use of the back projection technique he effectively disconnects his characters from their contexts, ( since the characters are shot in isolation and the backdrop in isolation). By using a selective chroma scheme, the effect achieved is not only that of surprise and shock for the viewer but also, it acts as a coding system, like markers that make the anticipatory sensibility in the viewer alert. The use of various layers of foreground and background, also allows von Trier to play with scales within the mise en scene. Thus the ‘razor’ in Max Hartmann’s hand and its impending violence gets exaggeratedly fore grounded when it is shown in a scale larger than real, against the bath tub. The whole idea of a comfort of ‘spatial depth’ that the audience enjoyed out of deep focus photography is completely destroyed and the film constantly disorients the viewer’s preconception of space.
The use of symphonic music and the melodramatic tinge to the dialogue delivery by Katherine Hartmann, allude to the director’s simultaneous citation of classical film form, post war history, and the contemporary context. There is a graphic textural quality to Zentropa which is at odds with the seemingly realist plot narrative that Zentropa tries to deal with. Yet, till the end, ‘identification’ with any specificity is the one thing the film stays far away from. This kind of a non-identifiable, non-existential film form is von Trier’s larger critique of its times, of the crisis of a national ( read personal) and an international ( read social) identity of Europe. A crisis that may or may not be reconciled with on the count of three.