My book of the month this time is a movie. A few days ago I watched it – in this cinema-less time – in the home cinema of a friend’s household.
A group of people are pressuring the young conductor Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) to make an unscheduled stop of the train pulled by a puffing steam locomotive in Darmstadt. In a coffin they have Max Hartmann (Jørgen Reenberg) with them, who slit his wrists in the bathtub in a picture-perfect manner. The former director of the Zentropa transport company was plagued by guilt after blackmailing a Jew (Lars von Trier) into whitewashing him.
Now Hartmann is to be buried at a large funeral ceremony. But there is a ban on gatherings. Hence the secret maneuver. And there is also a curfew. Leopold, the idealistic German-American, without a timetable of his own in this dreary, bombed-out post-war Germany, acts as required: at Darmstadt, he pulls the emergency brake. The emergency brake is pulled often in this film. Once, it glows blood red in the mostly black-and-white imagery. In the end, it fails. Broken, like everything else in Zentropa. The train races on towards the bridge, towards death.
Emergency brakes*, curfews, forbidden funeral ceremonies: Lars von Trier’s third part of his 1991 Europa trilogy reads almost like a gloomy commentary on the current pandemic situation. There is also dying, unbearably long. You are in a train in Germany, Max von Sydow’s hypnotic voice hums from off-screen. The train is sinking. You will drown, on the count of 10 you will be dead. 1… 2… 3 … The intervals between the numbers become longer and longer.
(* The current federal regulation to contain infection in Germany is called the Corona Emergency Brake)
Everything is broken in Zentropa, finally also Kessler’s workplace, pullman coach nr 2306; just like Hermann Göring’s model railway from Carinhall (more about Carinhall here).
There is also resistance from the right. Die-hards are resisting denazification and reconstruction. However, they do not shout in social media, but act – as befits a film noir – from the underground with guns and bombs. These Werewolves are thoroughly historical. Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS, founded the partisan organization in September 1944 to carry out acts of sabotage and terrorize Germans into not cooperating with the Allies. One of their – altogether few – successes was the shooting of the American-appointed mayor of Aachen, Franz Oppenhoff. Ilse Hirsch, a 23-year-old main group leader of the National Socialist Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM) led the assassins to their victim.
Right and wrong
In Lars von Trier’s film, the mayor’s name is Ravenstein, and Ilse Hirsch is Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa), the daughter of the dead railroad magnate. Leopold falls in love with her right away on his first training train ride. He wants to do everything right, to help the Germans and the Americans alike find their way out of the catastrophe of fascism and war. But he does everything wrong, including this love and marriage to Katharina, which is nothing more than a maneuver by the Werewolves to make him their tool. Or is it perhaps something more? The film models its tension from this uncertainty. Which side will Katharina choose, which Leopold? – who would prefer not to choose at all.
Despite all the gloom and the presence of death, the film also has humor. When Leopold’s drunkard uncle and superior (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) prepares the nephew for the sleeping car conductor’s exam; when the examiners want to know from him the correct handling of the green form for cleaning the compartment – while the man in love urgently needs to place the bomb to save his wife, supposedly kidnapped by the Werewolves. All this has a grotesque absurdity, not unlike some of the handling of emergency brakes, curfews, regulations in our days.
And now my closing words in the voice of the historian:
Zentropa is historically situated, but not a retelling of historical events. Yet the movie tells more and differently about history than a non-fiction book or documentary can. That is the quality of great art. Lars von Trier’s magical and surreal visual worlds are images of the soul. We learn a lot about the people back then in a situation that is confusing and offers few clues as to what a better future might look like. And in doing so, we also learn a lot about ourselves today.
So: meet up with people – as the regulations permit – to watch home movies with, and watch Lars von Trier. The first two films in his Europa trilogy are Element of Crime (1984) and Epidemic (1987). I will do the same and I am already counting the days until the next home movie night: 1… 2… 3 …