Lars von Trier's Europa Trilogy, Still an Essential Import

Okay, Crime Week was fun, but I did dip into a lot of common, mainstream DVD and blu-ray releases.  And while I do think there's a place for that here, and I'll surely do it more in the future, I also don't want to neglect, yaknow, the DVD exotica: cult, rare and off-the-beaten-path stuff, including lesser known imports that are actually far superior to their common, domestic counterparts.  DVDs that are still essential in the age of blu-rays and UHDs.  And to that end, I have this sweet German boxset of three of Lars von Trier's earliest films, collectively known as his Europa Trilogy.  It beat the pants off everything else that had ever been released in the states or anywhere else in the world at the time.  And despite being DVD-only, it still does.  Well, mostly.
The Element of Crime is Trier's first feature film, from 1984, that really put him on the map as a celebrated filmmaker to watch.  It won awards at Cannes and various other festivals, but I'll be honest, I'm not its hugest fan.  It's a very visually stylish presentation of what I would call a very soulless police procedural, where a world weary flashes back to the time he was on the hunt for a serial killer who goes after young girls.  His only allies are a prostitute and his grizzled chief who suggests that in order to catch the criminal, he must think like the criminal, and really, it's like Trier took the screenplay out of a dusty old box of used Hollywood scripts just to have something to hang his imagery on.  He shot the film with sodium lights, which gives it an overbearing sepia look, and designs his vague European setting like a dark, industrial fantasy.  I've always gotten the sense that he never had any interest in the story; this is just something he created as a calling card to show he can craft a stylish looking film and find future work.
And while the look is technically impressive, even that starts to feel arbitrary pretty fast.  For me, this is a real throwback to the days when people were excited to see all the wild and kooky foreign films by directors like Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Pitof.  Then they came to Hollywood and applied their stylings to films like Alien 4 and Catwoman and we started to realize that maybe the emperors were wearing some pretty dumb clothes.  Thankfully, Trier went in a different direction, and created intriguing works of psychological substance.  But this one, in both the good and the bad senses, is like his City of Lost Children or Vidoq - interesting to look at in small doses, evincing some actual talent and a lot of care invested by the filmmakers, but still probably best left in the 90s.  A quick taste, like watching the trailer, is promising, but ultimately sitting through the entire feature is just a chore.
Element debuted on DVD right here in the US (with the possible exception of an obscure Spanish DVD, which may or may not've come out first) through the Criterion Collection in 2000.  It's the edition many of you probably still own, since this film has yet to be released on blu anywhere in the world.  But I've happily given it up for the fancy, special edition boxed set released by Zentropa Entertainment itself.  Essentially identical copies of this set were released in various European regions, like Denmark and Finland... I opted for the 2005 German set distributed by Legend Home Entertainment just because it came out first.
2000 US Criterion DVD top; 2005 DE Zentropa DVD bottom.
Both discs present the film in roughly 1.85:1.  Criterion's is more like 1.81:1 and trims a little along the edges, but it's close.  And they're both dark and murky DVDs.  That's clearly a stylish choice by the filmmakers, but this film was shot on 35mm, and I suspect the boost in clarity an HD remaster would naturally bring might make things a little less muddy.  Criterion's a little darker and it's colors are a little deeper, but that often just makes it harder to make out what we're supposed to be looking at.  I will give Criterion one thing: it hangs onto more information in the bright areas.  Zentropa's edition is generally brighter and more contrasty, which flares out the brightest areas, losing information in the headlights and electric lamps above.  I generally appreciate Zentropa's boost in gamma just because it adds a little extra definition.  But flaring is just the indelicate-type of consequence one usually praises UHDs for, so I have to say, in those select areas of the screen, I do actually prefer Criterion's results.  In the shadowy parts, I prefer Zentropa.  In the end, it's more or less an underwhelming tie.  I give Zentropa the slight edge, if only for the AR, but it's nothing to warrant running out and replacing one edition with another.

But here's where Zentropa begins to take a more definite lead.  Audio-wise, Criterion offers us the original English 2.0 track, with optional English subtitles.  Zentropa offers us the 2.0 and a 5.1 mix, with optional English, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Norwegian, Romanian and Swedish subs.
And now here's where Zentropa really peels away and leaves Criterion coughing in their dust.  Criterion has one extra besides the trailer: a roughly 50 minute documentary on Trier called Tranceformer.  If that sounds familiar, that's because it's been around the block.  I already wrote about it being included as an extra on The Kingdom, and it's been included as an extra elsewhere, like Umbrella's 3-disc Trier collection.  If you don't already have it, it's a good doc and definitely one you'll want to have in your collection.  But for most of us Trier fans, by then it was likely a duplicate feature.  Still, it's a welcome inclusion, and what's more, the Zentropa set hasn't got it.

But oh boy, what it does have.  How about two audio commentaries, for starters?  One by Trier along with cinematographer Tom Elling and editor Tomas Gislason, and another with two critics.  Then it's got its own, exclusive half-hour doc on Trier, and a nice, 20-minute retrospective on Element itself.

4/18/20 Updated to add: The one problem, the English subtitles are messed up on this featurette (and they're not speaking English), playing German subs even when you select English.  Everything else in this set is English friendly; it's just a glitch on this one featurette.

Anyway, it's also got Nocturne, an early (1980) short film by Trier with optional commentary and commentary outtakes.  Plus the trailer and a 16-page booklet.  And that's just this disc.  Besides discs 2 and 3 for the other two films that are also packed with features, there's a fourth disc full of documentaries and interviews.  I'll be delving into it all below, but I'll just briefly state here that this is a packed special edition, and the only proper special edition Element's ever gotten.
Next up is 1987's Epidemic.  If you've already spent the last couple weeks in lockdown working your way through Contagion, Outbreak, Cassandra's Crossing and every other pandemic-related film, you'll want to be sure you didn't miss this one.  I still wouldn't rank it among Trier's best work, but at least now I care about his characters and the unfolding plot in addition to the director's superficial stylizations.  Here Trier essentially plays himself as a screenwriter, who writes with a partner to make a tight deadline.  The film they write is about a doctor struggling against a modern plague, and we quickly enter that story within a story, where Trier also plays the doctor and Udo Kier appears.  The two "worlds" blend into each other, becoming one bleak overall reality and it's all a heck of a lot more engrossing than Element.

Home Vision released Epidemic on DVD in the states first in 2004.  In fact, Nocturne was also included on this release as a bonus.  And this time around, it really is more of a proper special edition.  Still, Zentropa's edition has even more stuff.  But does it top it in terms of picture quality?
2004 US HVE DVD top; 2005 DE Zentropa DVD bottom.
Epidemic was shot partly in 16mm and partly in 35mm, so the picture quality jumps around.  That would probably be even more noticeable in HD, but on DVD, it gets softened down to a bit more of an even playing field.  Both discs present the film in a pillarboxed 1.63:1 ratio with mostly very similar framing, except in the case of the 16mm stuff.  You can see in the second set of shots for that stuff, the Zentropa is zoomed in losing information around all four edges.  Does the fact that Zentropa released this version mean that's how Trier prefers the film to look?  I don't know, but it's an interesting distinction at any rate.  Another distinction: the film is entirely in black and white except for a large, red watermark that appears through almost the entire film.  But as you can see above, the hue differs between the two discs, at some times looking cooler on the HVE disc, and other times looking warmer.  Again, we could maybe assume Zentropa's disc is more accurate to Trier's preferences, but that's definitely a guess, not anything I can say with any certainty or even confidence.

In terms of audio, it's almost the same story all over again, except in this case, HVE doesn't offer any subtitles at all, while Zentropa has the nine language options.  And again, Zentropa adds the additional 5.1 mix in addition to the 2.0.
Images Of a Relief
Like I said, though, this time HVE's disc is more of a proper special edition.  Besides Nocturne, it includes an Epidemic commentary by Trier and his co-writer and co-star Niels Vørsel.  Oh and they have the Nocturne commentary, too.  And it also includes the 2000 documentary about Trier, FreeDogme.  As you can guess from the title, it's about his dogme project(s) rather than Epidemic, and while this Zentropa set doesn't include it, it can be found on their Dogme '95 boxed set where it's a little more fitting.  Zentropa has the same commentary, plus another exclusive retrospective featurette about Epidemic, where they interview the cast and crew.  And this time it has another early Trier film as a bonus: 1982's Images Of a Relief.  Oh, and both discs have the trailer.  So while HVE's release is a little more competitive in the features department than Criterion's, once again, Zentropa is the one to own.  Especially considering the whole fourth disc we haven't gotten to yet.
The final film is 1991's Europa, a.k.a. Zentropa.  Yes, Trier's company was named after this film, which I'll keep referring to as strictly Europa, just so things don't get confusing.  With it's fascinating use of rear projection blending color and black & white footage, it's as stylish and experimental as any of the films in this trilogy.  But it's also the most conventional, in the sense that its tense thriller plotting means it's the only one of the three that can even win over general audiences who don't typically care for "art" films.   An American soldier versus evil Nazis on a train!  What more can you want?  An all-star cast?  Okay, this time around, Trier's brought in Eddie Constantine, narrator Max von Sydow, The Kingdom's Ernst-Hugo Järegård and another perfect turn by Udo Kier.

Now, it used to be that the only way to own Europa was a barebones Tartan disc from the UK.  I no longer have it for this review since I got rid of it long ago, because it's been easily bettered both by Zentropa's boxed set and a 2008 Criterion 2-DVD set.
2005 DE Zentropa DVD top; 2009 US Criterion DVD bottom.
In terms of PQ, again, there are differences, but overall, it's a pretty close call.  Zentropa mattes the picture a little tighter at 2.38:1, as opposed to Criterion's 2.33, which also has more on the left.  And as you can see, there are clear differences in the colors... during the portions where there are colors.  Zentropa's a little more contrast heavy in the black and white sections.  It's another no-strong-preference situation where I'd love to hear Trier himself weigh in and make a call.  But until then, we're left with only our personal preferences to follow.

Audio?  Yeah, you know the story by know, with Zentropa adding the extra 5.1 and all the subtitles, though Criterion does have English subs again.  And while the original audio track has a mix of languages spoken in it, and it's the same on both discs, Zentropa also has an additional all-German dub if you want to give that a whirl.
The Making of Europa
There's no bonus film from Trier's early works this time around, but both releases include more about Europa itself.  Zentropa has an audio commentary by Trier and producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen, plus a second, partial (one of those ones where it's only over select scenes) by Trier with actor Jean-Marc Barr and Udo Kier.  There's another retrospective featurette and a longer 'making of' documentary.  Plus there's the trailer.

Criterion has most of the same stuff, including the main commentary, the featurette, the trailer, and the 'making of' doc.  It doesn't have the second partial commentary with Barr and Kier, though.  But it has some more stuff, specifically a 45-minute documentary called Trier’s Element, a featurette on Trier as observed by his friends and collaborators, and a unique one on Europa's locations.  Then there are on-camera interviews with cinematographer Henning Bendtsen, composer Joachim Holbek and a lengthy one (43 minutes!) with Trier himself.
Emily Watson in Im Laboratorium Deas Doktors Von Trier
But if that sounds like Criterion has scored a bunch of exclusives, we must remember that fourth disc!  That Trier's Element documentary?  That's on there, as are both featurettes and the Bendtsen, Holbek  and Trier interviews.  In short, everything.  And the Zentropa disc has still more!  There's another half hour doc called Portrait of Lars Von Trier, which seems to have been made for Danish television and the short One Day with Peter, about producer Peter Jensen, which is actually from the Filmbyen DVD, and a hour+ doc titled Im Laboratorium Deas Doktors Von Trier, which takes us from his early short films through The Idiots.  And finally there's an on-camera interview with Tom Elling about Element of Crime.  Oh, and there's a trailer reel for every Trier film that had been made up to that point.
So yeah, the Zentropa set is downright overloaded with exclusives, plus all the extras featured on any other edition.  The only exceptions are the Tranceformer and FreeDogme documentaries, which are otherwise available on other Trier releases.  Admittedly, in 2020, one wonders why there aren't blu-ray alternatives that've come to take this set's crown... these films were all shot on film, so they should all be able to look substantially better than they do on DVD.  Although perhaps some of the post-production techniques Trier used on these films prohibits going back to the film elements... I read that was the case with his Medea.  So it could be a long, indefinite wait for that.  Plus, even if they do come out with BD editions, I'd be surprised if they included the full volume of features Zentropa rounded up here, so even in that hypothetical future, you'd still want this set.  So for any serious Trier fan, this one's a must.


  1. you might want to mention the one extra where the English subs are accidentally just another copy of the German subs. the doc isn't English either, so English only cats are out of luck on that one. i don't know if this was the case with all copies, but I've read about it elsewhere and it's the case with my disc as well. maybe it's a slightly different version than what you were looking at.

    1. Oh yeah, good call - I forgot about that. Updated the post.