At the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, director Lars Von Trier made some deliberately incendiary statements at a press conference promoting his latest film, Melancholia. So many websites salivated over his “I understand Hitler” provocations out of context that if you were to Google “Lars Von Trier” today, the first word that would pop up next to his name is “Nazi.”
Longtime watchers of Von Trier's work know that his preoccupation with Nazism runs much deeper than an offhand remark.
Exhibit A is Von Trier's third film, 1991's Zentropa (known outside the United States as Europa). At the time of the film's release, Zentropa was clearly the most ambitious work attempted by the then–35-year-old Dane. Amidst the cultural plasticity of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Von Trier set off a cultural bomb in the form of a gorgeous black-and-white (with color accents) dream fable about the earliest days of the American occupation of Germany.
Von Trier's career has thrived on the discomfort his films are carefully crafted to produce. In Zentropa's case this involves eliciting uncomfortable questions about the Holocaust through juxtaposition of loaded images and characters: trains, Americans (naive or cynical but always harmful to Europe), Germans (order-obsessed or decadent but always doomed), a femme fatale, and — for a brief, pivotal scene — Von Trier himself, in a role credited only as “Jew.”
LACMA's revival of Von Trier's earliest tour de force should thrill the many fans of Melancholia and give some context and complexity to last year's Cannes brouhaha. And if you want to convince any naysayers that certain films can only be properly enjoyed projected large and lush at an actual movie theater, Zentropa is an optimal choice. Bonus attraction: LACMA also will screen a copy of the rarely seen Medea, a TV project by Von Trier from an unfilmed Carl Theodor Dreyer script. —Gustavo Turner
SPOTLIGHT ON LARS VON TRIER: ZENTROPA AND MEDEA | Thurs., Feb. 2, 7:30 p.m. | Film Independent at LACMA's Bing Theater | lacma.org