Lars von Trier’s Europe Trilogy

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With his dazzling first three features, Lars von Trier sought nothing less than to map the soul of Europe—its troubled past, anxious present, and uncertain future. Linked by a fascination with hypnotic states and the mesmeric possibilities of cinema, the films that make up the Europe Trilogy—The Element of Crime, Epidemic, and Europa—filter the continent’s turbulent history, guilt, and traumas through the Danish provocateur’s audacious deconstructions of genres including film noir, melodrama, horror, and science fiction. Above all, they are bravura showcases for von Trier’s hallucinatory visuals, with each shot a tour de force of technical invention and dark imagination.

Picture 8/10

The Criterion Collection has finally managed to collect director Lars von Trier’s Europe Trilogy together in one three-disc set. Presented across three dual-layer discs are The Element of Crime, Epidemic, and Europa, each film given a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode and presented in their respective aspect ratios of 1.85:1, 1.66:1 and 2.39:1. The first two films come from 3K restorations, Europa from a 4K restoration. Criterion has previously released The Element of Crime and Europa on DVD. This set marks Epidemic’s debut into the collection after previously being released by Home Vision Entertainment on DVD.

Taken as a whole, the presentations are primarily strong. In the case of The Element of Crime and Europa, their respective presentations deliver significant improvements over their previous DVD counterparts. Europa—which features the most ambitious and complicated visual design of the three films—probably comes out looking the strongest despite some of the inherent “shortcomings” present in the photography. Von Trier employed several optical techniques to create the film’s dizzying visuals, even layering color imagery over black-and-white photography.

These effects were all created through a mix of double exposures, rear-projection, mattes, and more, and as effective as this all turns out in the end the "seams" are still there. Anything using rear projection, as expected, has what can be described as a “dupey” look, with the objects in front always looking sharper and crisper. Grain levels can also vary with the color inserts or shots, with grain coming off far heavier than the rest of the black-and-white portions. Yet despite all of this, the digital encoding appears to handle it all well, rendering the grain clean enough and providing a sharp-looking film texture. The straight black-and-white portions of the film look sharpest, rendering many fine textures with excellent black levels and grayscale to pull out all of those finer details. It does come out looking near-flawless.

The Element of Crime has its own interesting look, featuring a sepia tint through its running time with splashes of blue and red thrown in. The look is accomplished through a couple of techniques, using on-set sodium lighting that kills all colors (outside of the blue and red lights) or filters. Depending on what method was used in what sequence, the final image can vary but on the whole, it's strong, and we get far more detail and depth compared to the DVD’s presentation. The scenes that use the sodium light deliver more shadow detail and depth, and the range found within can look far wider. Sequences that use filters can look a bit flatter in the backgrounds, the black levels getting a bit heavy (in an included commentary, von Trier mentions that the light levels in some scenes weren’t read or set correctly, so backgrounds got lost in the process), but range is still noticeably wider compared to the DVD.

Also, compared to the DVD, the sepia tint hear leans more towards yellow, though I think it looks better than the “orange” look found on the DVD. Restoration efforts have also been far more thorough and have cleaned up many of the marks that remained on the DVD, but there are still a few heavy spots here where marks come raining through. The encode also looks decent, with grain keeping a natural look much of the time.

Epidemic was filmed in both 16mm and 35mm, which leads to the presentation being a mixed bag. The film, about a couple of screenwriters writing a movie around an epidemic, is split into two portions: the two writers trying to write their story, filmed in 16mm, and then an adaptation of the story they’re writing, filmed in 35mm.

The film-within-the-film has the more polished look of the two sections and also comes out looking best, delivering finer grayscale that leads to more shadow detail and a cleaner grain rendering. The 16mm portions, on the other hand, appear to have been filmed chiefly on high-contrast film stock, leading to a severely harsher look compared to the 35mm sections. Grayscale is weaker while presenting heavier blacks and whites that eat up many finer details. Grain is also far heavier and finer. This is all well and good as it’s a byproduct of the photography, but the encode ends up having a hard time with most of it. Even though the 35mm portions look okay, most 16mm parts look incredibly buzzy; the encoding has an issue with the finer grain and harsher contrast. It’s not an issue with every 16mm sequence, but it’s an incredibly distracting artifact at its worst. It ends up being a shame because the restoration has cleaned up most damage (the only thing standing out is the red-lettered “epidemic” stamp in the upper-left area of the screen throughout most of the film's runtime) and the 35mm portions come out looking really good.

Thankfully that's not representative of the set as a whole, with most of the presentations looking film-like and clean.

The Element of Crime (1984): 8/10 Epidemic (1987): 7/10 Europa (1991): 9/10

Audio 7/10

Both The Element of Crime and Epidemic features lossless single-channel PCM monaural soundtracks, while Europa features a lossless PCM 2.0 stereo soundtrack. Of the three Europa, the more “mainstream” of the three films, has the more dynamic presentation due to its incorporation of an orchestral score and more action, delivering a broader level of range with a nice spread between the speakers. Even though I’m not usually one for remixes, this film would probably sound very good with a 5.1 mix.

The other two are limited. The Element of Crime has a very flat sound that’s almost certainly intentional, some range notable in the background effects and such, but I don’t know if I can say it’s all that dynamic. Epidemic is a bit of an odd duck due to its structure, the film-within-the-film having a more polished sound design compared to the rest of it, which sounds like rough live audio that suits the documentary nature of it.

Despite their vast differences, they all sound clean and don’t show any apparent signs of damage.

The Element of Crime (1984): 7/10 Epidemic (1987): 6/10 Europa (1991): 8/10

Extras 8/10

Criterion spreads features across all three discs; the supplements are usually specific to the film on the respective disc.

(I will provide summaries of the supplements here but do feel free to use the provided links and drop downs to jump to each title for more detailed coverage of their respective supplements.)

All three films come with audio commentaries: The Element of Crime features two tracks, one with director Lars von Trier, director of photography Tom Elling and editor Tómas Gislason, and the other with film scholar Peter Schepelern and filmmaker Stig Björkman (both in Danish with optional English subtitles); Epidemic with a track by von Trier and screenwriter/actor Niels Vørsel (in English); Europa with one track featuring von Trier and producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen (in Danish with optional English subtitles) and another with von Trier and actors Jean-Marc Barr and Udo Kier (in English).

Interestingly the Danish language von Trier and company tracks on Europa and The Element of Crime are the best. Despite the participants having a hard time recalling specific details, they cover a lot of ground around the technical challenges behind the films while joking a lot at their own (and even the respective film’s) expense. The tracks are also surprisingly funny and entertaining, which I wasn’t expecting around otherwise extremely gloomy films.

There is a lack of academic analysis in the set, so I probably placed more hope into Element’s Schepelern/ Björkman track than I should have. It’s okay, but I can’t say it’s particularly engaging as the two examine how von Trier’s work had evolved from The Element of Crime to when the track was recorded in 2005. They talk about clear influences and common themes found throughout his work while also commenting on the imagery and look of the film at hand. Again, it’s not a terrible track, but I can’t say there’s much in here that came off all that interesting or surprising.

That said, the two English tracks found each on Epidemic and Europa could be better, with the track on Europa being the most disappointing feature in the set. The problem with Epidemic’s is that neither of the participants comes off as wanting to be there, and though there are some interesting comments around the film with a few good laughs thrown in, there is still a lot of dead space. Dead space is a more significant issue with the von Trier/Barr/Kier track on Europa, as is the fact that nothing all that interesting is said. Having Kier there should have been a big plus, but he only chimes in occasionally.

Following the tracks, all three films come with making-of documentaries, The Element of Crime and Europa each featuring lengthier promotional pieces from their respective eras, Ennenstadt Europa – The Making of “The Element of Crime” (about 30-minutes) and The Making of “Europa” (about 39-minutes) with each film also including 2005 produced reflections on each film called Anecdotes from… (running between 17 and 20-minutes each) and featuring various members of the cast and crew. The promotional documentaries are both very good for what they are, each managing to offer a look into the technical challenges of their respective films, the one for Europa being incredibly engaging as it looks into how its visuals were accomplished. The Anecdote additions can be seen as addendums to them, getting more people's perspectives with the advantage of hindsight (over 20 years of it for The Element of Crime).

More focused interviews are also included, with directors of photography Tom Elling appearing on The Element of Crime and Henning Bendtson on Epidemic. Elling talks more about the importance of storyboards to von Trier, from photography to editing, while Bendtson (who filmed Europa and the 35mm portions of Epidemic) recalls his work with Carl Th. Dreyer and first meeting von Trier. They’re excellent interviews running 11 and 13 minutes, respectively, with Bendtson’s contribution being one of my favorites in the set.

Joachim Holek also pops up for 12 minutes on the Europa disc to discuss the challenges behind composing film scores and his techniques. He even breaks down one sequence in Europa where he faced the most trouble when it came to writing music. It proves to be an interesting discussion of its type.

Also spread over the three discs are several items centered on Lars von Trier, including a 32-minute television profile entitled A Portrait of Lars von Trier and a 44-minute interview with the director called Trier’s Element, both from around the time of Europa’s release in 1991 and found respectively on the discs for Epidemic and Europa. Europa also features a 44-minute interview with the director conducted in 2005 by journalist Bo Green Jensen along with 16 minutes’ worth of Anecdotes from members of the cast and crew that have worked with him through the years. The 1991 Trier’s Element features the director talking about his work and future plans, though it is ultimately still centered on Europa. The same can be said of the 1991 interview, though the director is more reflective of his brief career up to that point.

Anecdotes has a few interesting personal stories about the director. Still, the 2005 interview between von Trier and Jensen may be the best, focusing on the trilogy as a whole and leading to it being the most “academic” feature in the set. Von Trier can again have trouble recalling specifics, yet he still manages to share details about his work and gets a bit more into the influence of Tarkovsky on his early career, at least. Other directors like David Lynch come up, Twin Peaks sounding to have directly influenced The Kingdom (though he mentions that he still finds Lynch’s work to be “too glossy” for his tastes), and then brings up Orson Welles, whose films were an influence on Europa. A moment where the director appears to take offense from Jensen’s comment about Europa’s “glossy” look is still a little funny, the director stating a dislike of “glossy” films as hinted at by his comment around Lynch’s films. And it’s still a little amusing that von Trier insists he’s trying to make entertaining films that find an audience, despite everything in them usually suggesting otherwise. I still don’t know if he likes doing interviews, as he can come off as resistant (he does in most of them throughout the set), but this is an insightful discussion.

Criterion then includes a few films, all found on the disc for The Element of Crime. The first is the 1997 documentary Transformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier, directed by Stig Björkman and running 54 minutes. Criterion included this on their DVD edition of the film, and it was frustratingly the only supplement on the disc. Since it barely focused on the film itself, I was probably less impressed with it than I should have been at the time. Yet, I still can’t say I find anything unique or different from other profiles covering a director and their work, even if it works better in the context of the set. As expected, it looks at “playful rascal” (as collaborator Tom Elling describes him) Lars von Trier and his work up to the point the documentary was filmed, from film school to his Europe trilogy and up through his latest film at the time, Breaking the WavesThe Kingdom likewise gets a mention. Some interesting interviews from those who have worked with him (even Stellan Skarsgård pops up) are also featured, with a few surprising stories like one around his nervousness in wearing Carl Th. Dreyer’s tuxedo to Cannes (which is brought up by cinematographer Henning Bendtsen in his interview), but the documentary still feels to be simply checking boxes. As it is, it at least works very well as an introduction to the filmmaker.

The same disc also features two early shorts by the director: Nocturne (1980, 9-minutes) and Images of Liberation (1982, 51-minutes). Nocturne, apparently about a woman suffering a traumatic experience (I only know that from the synopsis), doesn’t have what I would call a straightforward narrative, but it does share some similarities to Element, particularly when it comes to its monochromatic look (blue this round) with some bursts of color. Images, however, features a clearer narrative, though it takes half the film before that narrative becomes clear. Taking place in Copenhagen during the last days of WWII, a German officer and his local mistress are both looking to flee, only to (eventually) end up in the woods. It all seems good, but his mistress may have another plan for him related to an incident involving a young boy mentioned earlier in the film.

Even if it’s a little more “straightforward,” it’s still a frustrating film. However, a lot of that may have to do with the source materials: it looks as though the presentation comes from a very poor-quality VHS that’s near-impossible to see much of the time due to the film’s monochromatic look (this was clearly a thing for von Trier at the time) and the dark photography. The blacks are flat and murky, and the details are hard to see. Things don’t become more apparent until the setting changes to the woods, where more light is available. The switch to a green filter may also help. Still, it’s clearly a Lars von Trier film, and it’s beautifully made, the film’s closing sequence being an awe-inspiring feat, and it’s not hard to see why the film was the one to convince the Danish Film Institute to give the young filmmaker money to make The Element of Crime.

Each disc then features the film’s respective trailer. Criterion also includes a booklet featuring an essay by critic Howard Hampton. Interestingly, Hampton builds on the article he wrote for Criterion’s edition of Europa. In that essay, he does get a little into the trilogy, but he expands into more detail around each film with this updated one. When covering Europa, he’s essentially rewriting his comments, covering the same points if not rewriting what he wrote previously word-for-word. Peter Cowie's short essay for Criterion's DVD edition of The Element of Crime is nowhere to be found.

Hampton's essay does an okay job rounding out the trilogy and the supplements here, though the lack of a new on-disc interview summarizing everything is still a significant oversight. The set is also missing one feature found on the previous DVD for Europa, a featurette called The Faecal Location, which looked at the living conditions of the crew while shooting in Poland, and I’m disappointed that Epidemic is all but completely ignored: half the features on that disc end up being about Europa. Those disappointments aside, the set does, at the very least, provide a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at von Trier’s trilogy.


Though the lack of new content is disappointing, the features still thoroughly cover each film’s production while delivering (mostly) excellent presentations.  

Part of a multi-title set


3 Discs | BD-50
1.66:1 ratio
1.85:1 ratio
2.39:1 ratio
English 1.0 PCM Mono
English 2.0 PCM Stereo
Subtitles: English
Region A
 Audio commentary for The Element of Crime featuring director Lars von Trier, cinematographer Tom Elling and editor Tomas Gislason   Audio commentary for The Element of Crime featuring film scholar Peter Schepelern and filmmaker and critic Stig Björkman   Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier (1997), a documentary by Stig Björkman   Storyboarding "The Element of Crime": interview with cinematographer Tom Elling   Ennenstadt Europa - The Making of "The Element of Crime": 1984 documentary on the making of the film featuring interviews with director Lars von Trier, executive producer Per Holst, and actors Michael Elphick and Meme Lai, plus more   Anecdotes from "The Element of Crime": 2005 documentary featuring interviews with film scholar Peter Schepelern, film and sound editor Tómas Gislason, assistant director Åke Sandgren, executive producer Per Holst, prop master Peter Grant, production manager Per Arman, gaffer Birger Larsen, and sound recordist Henrik Fleischer   Two short student films by von Trier: Nocturne (1980) and Images of Liberation (1982)   Trailer for The Element of Crime   Audio commentary for Epidemic featuring director Lars von Trier and screenwriter and actor Niels Vørsel   Danish television interview with Lars von Trier from 1991   Anecdotes from Epidemic: a short 2005 documentary on the making of the film featuring interviews with film scholar Peter Schepelern, screenwriter and actor Niels Vørsel, cinematographer Kristoffer Nyholm, actors Udo Kier and Michael Simpson, and film consultant Claes Kastholm Hansen   From Dreyer to von Trier: interview with director of photography Henning Bendtsen   Trailer for Epidemic   Audio commentary for Europa featuring director Lars von Trier and producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen   Audio commentary for Europa featuring director Lars von Trier and actors Jean-Marc Barr and Udo Kier   The Making of “Europa” (1991), a documentary following the film from storyboarding to production   Anecdotes from Europa (2005), a short documentary featuring interviews with film historian Peter Schepelern, actor Jean-Marc Barr, producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen, assistant director Tómas Gislason, co-writer Niels Vørsel, and prop master Peter Grant   Lars von Trier - Anecdotes: a short 2005 documentary about various collaborators' experiences working director Lars von Trier features interviews with costume designer Manon Rasmussen, film-school teacher Mogens Rukov, editor/director Tómas Gislason, producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen, art director Peter Grant, actor Michael Simpson, production manager Per Arman, actor Ole Ernst   The Emotional Music Script for "Europa": Interview with composer Joachim Holbek   A Conversation with Lars von Trier: the director talks about the Europe Trilogy   Trier’s Element (1991), a documentary featuring an interview with Lars von Trier, and footage from the set and Europa’s Cannes premiere and press conference   Trailer for Europa   Booklet featuring an essay by Howard Hampton