The highly stylized ZENTROPA returns to what was once a classic setting for intrigue--a first-class sleeping compartment on a train crossing postwar occupied Germany. Using rear projection, superimposition and scenes that mix color with b&w, director and co-screenwriter Lars Von Trier
has fashioned an atmospheric if convoluted drama peopled with devious schemers, robotic officials and anonymous grey masses.
A narrator (Max von Sydow) introduces us to Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr), an American of sufficient Germanic background to speak the language. Leopold's uncle (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard) gets him a job as a sleeper-coach attendant with the Zentropa railway. A pacifist, Leopold claims he wants to
help in German reconstruction; Leopold's uncle is a pompous prig who boasts about his position and disdains the shabby masses the company serves.
On his first night of work, Leopold meets one of the passengers, Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa), daughter of the railway's owner, Max Hartmann (Jorgen Reenberg). She has already familiarized herself with the young American and invites him to dinner at the family's villa--an offer Leopold's
uncle exploits in order to get himself a free meal as his nephew's official chaperone. During the dinner, Leopold learns of the disaffection of the Hartmann son, Lawrence (Udo Kier), and becomes aware of Katharina's romantic interest in him. Another dinner guest, Father Jaregard (Erik Mork),
condemns neither the Nazis nor the Allies, but rather those who--like Leopold--didn't take sides in the conflict. That wartime passions have not cooled is proven by bodies hanging from lampposts, glimpsed by Leopold from the train. They each bear a placard identifying them as Nazi guerrillas, or
Shortly after the dinner, Leopold witnesses a "Werewolf" action. Two young boys, apparently friends of the Hartmanns, assassinate the newly appointed mayor of Ravenstein. During another evening at the Hartmanns, Leopold learns that Max Hartmann worked willingly with the former German government to
transport victims to the extermination camps; moreover, Max persuades US Army Colonel Harris (Eddie Constantine) to clear his name of wrongdoing by blackmailing a Jew (Von Trier) into testifying that Max had hidden him from the Nazis. Hartmann, however, is remorseful enough to slash his wrists in
his bathtub, at about the same time that Leopold and Katharina make love amid the model train setup in the villa's attic. Katharina admits that she was once a member of the "Werewolf" organization.
Several months later, Leopold is approached by Father Jaregard to help transport Hartmann's coffin for a funeral ceremony. He must pass through the poorer sections of the train, which were formerly used as concentration camp transports, and whose emaciated passengers still resemble prisoners. The
ceremony which he attends at times suggests a Nazi rally, as the drab onlookers stretch out their arms in the familiar salute towards the coffin. Leopold is also approached by the "Werewolf" leader, Siggy (Henning Jensen), who had orchestrated the Ravenstein assassination and suggests that the
young American will be called upon in the near future. More imminent, however, are Leopold's marriage to Katharina (poverty-stricken since the death of her father), and an impending examination by railway officials to determine if he can keep his job.
The wedding, in a church without a roof, offers Siggy the opportunity he has been waiting for. After kidnapping Katharina, he forces Leopold to plant two bombs, one on a strategic bridge and one in the first-class cabin of the train. Leopold complies but, on the point of abandoning the train, is
stricken with remorse and returns to defuse the device left in his cabin.
Having saved the lives of the passengers, Leopold is confronted by Colonel Harris, who leads him to Katharina: she is safe and sound--and under arrest, since, as she admits to Leopold, she never completely abandoned the "Werewolves." Visibly disturbed, Leopold retreats to his cabin, just as the
re-routed train goes over the bridge, which explodes. His section of train falls into the river below and begins to sink. Trapped in his cabin, Leopold drowns aboard the first-class sleeper of the Zentropa line.
ZENTROPA is as muddled as it is stylized; set in Germany six months after the end of WWII, the word "Nazi" is never uttered on the soundtrack. There was a Nazi guerrilla organization called "Werewolf," but its activities were much more limited than the film suggests. Even Kessler's acceptance of
such a menial job is somewhat credibility-straining. And the bodies hanging from lampposts seems more typical of Nazi practices than of the western Allies' efforts at denazification, which favored detailed questionnaires like the one back-projected during Max Hartmann's fraudulent trial. Still,
the use of such cinematic devices is often striking, as is that of an overhead camera that peers through a gutted roof or captures an internal snowfall in the town's cathedral. (Profanity, sexual situations, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: R
- Review: The highly stylized ZENTROPA returns to what was once a classic setting for intrigue--a first-class sleeping compartment on a train crossing postwar occupied Germany. Using rear projection, superimposition and scenes that mix color with b&w, director and c… (more)