Von Trier's 'Zentropa': 'Third Man' gone high-tech


September 17, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

A key scene in Lars Von Trier's "Zentropa," which opens today for a week's run at the Charles, follows as a German railway executive, distraught with guilt because of the his participation in the Holocaust, slashes his wrists over a washbasin.

Where does Von Trier put the camera? He puts it . . . in . . . the washbasin. Its lens gazes up at the executive's wavering, semi-opalescent figure through 6 inches of water. The imagery is high-contrast black and white, except for the drops of blood which, when they strike the surface of the water, begin to suffuse like magenta napalm detonations. Pauline Kael once said Orson Welles had been seduced by the candy of cinema, meaning the glitzy angles, the twisted perspectives, the dazzling swoop of camera. That's the glory of "Zentropa" too: it's all

candy. It's so tricked up it gives you a sugar rush.

A nihilistic Euro-noir thriller in "The Third Man" tradition, the story follows certain well-worn genre paths: it's a variation on the innocent man-caught-up theme so beloved by Graham Greene. In this case, Our Hero is a young German-American who has managed somehow to miss the second World War but nevertheless is drawn to the shattered landscape of immediate post-war Germany. There, when family connections get him a job as a conductor on the rail line that Germany, with American help, is trying to rebuild, he is assigned duty on an exotic sleeping car that is hauled on a nightly run through the landscape of desolation, and the tunnels of memory, the ambiguities of guilt and the fog of conspiracy.

And destruction, memory, ambiguity and conspiracy are the very stuff of this film, hovering over its doings like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. But don't get the idea it's some small, bitter movie: in fact, "Zentropa" belongs to a new breed of European art movie that's as overproduced as "Top Gun" or "Far and Away." It looks like it cost $30 million and is full of the most astonishing film craft and some of the most vivid special effects money can buy, including huge train wrecks, sound stages jammed with extras, complex recombining of black and white and color sequences. I kept waiting for Paula Abdul and Groucho Marx to tippy-tap onto the screen.

Amid all the high-tech showing off disguised as angst and grief, our poor hero (Jean-Marc Barr) is struggling to figure out what's going on. He is quickly enough seduced by a beautiful passenger who turns out to be the daughter of the president of the railroad; just as quickly he learns the Nazis haven't quite fled: a secret outfit calling itself Werewolf continues to assassinate collaborators. At the same time, an American colonel (played by sagging legend Eddie Constantine, the once rugged hero of Godard's "Alphaville") is trying to recruit him as an intelligence source.

What's a fella to do? Well, one flaw in the genre is also a flaw in this particular example of it: that suffering, passive, doubting, conflicted, innocent heroes just aren't that interesting. It's difficult to care much about Barr's Leopold Kessler, because mostly what he does is whine and sweat and behave badly. And also because his name is "Leopold." On the other hand, the dour, cynical Constantine still radiates charisma and Barbara Sukow, the seductress, is quite an erotic presence.

But the true hero of the production is director Von Trier, whose movie cries "movie" at every juncture. You would guess this young man has seen "The Third Man" at least 300 times and has dreamed of it at least 3,000 more. (In fact the movie uses a frame story of a hypnotic trance, though nobody ever bothers to explain why.) It's like a roller-coaster ride through a fun-house of film history and forgotten books. It reminded be of the '70s masterpiece that no one reads today, "Gravity's Rainbow." It's somewhere over that same damn rainbow.


Starring Jean-Marc Barr and Eddie Constantine.

Directed by Lars Von Trier.

Released by Miramax.



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