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Lars von Trier & the Men Among the Ruins

[1]3,662 words

The flap caused in May 2011 at the Cannes Film Festival by Danish film director Lars von Trier is no doubt destined to share the same fate as other racial-toned public outbursts from celebrities in recent years, when the lies hiding the realities of modern life in the West are momentarily torn back so that the tensions lying underneath are savagely revealed. I am thinking, of course, of such incidents as the Michael Richards “nigger” incident at a comedy club in 2006 or Mel Gibson’s drunken “Jew” outburst to a policeman during the same year, among others.

Like all sensational news stories, they flare up briefly (but brightly) and then vanish without a trace into the enormous dustbin of forgotten tidbits of popular culture – until they are needed by some group to remind everyone of what an awful human being the perpetrator is. The celebrity in question apologizes profusely, supplicates himself and begs for forgiveness, and then usually does some sort of penance in terms of public service, religious counseling and/or rehab. We’re all well familiar with the drill by now.

Of course, other than the fact that they are committed by celebrities, there is nothing particularly significant about any of these incidents, especially considering that similar remarks are made by millions of ordinary people every day. And I myself don’t usually see much value in analyzing them for deeper significance. However, in the case of von Trier, I think it’s worth taking a closer look.

For those who don’t keep up with the doings of the European film world, von Trier was at Cannes in May to present his latest film, Melancholia. I have been unable to see it yet, but it’s an end-of-the-world story which apparently contains a lot of Wagner and influence from German Romanticism. Being an admirer of both, it certainly sounds worth viewing.I generally prefer von Trier’s earlier work, which was quite thoughtful and haunting, as opposed to his more recent films, which tend to delve too much into degeneracy and effects designed purely to shock the audience, and even outright pornography. Perhaps Melancholia will be an exception.

During a press conference, von Trier was asked about the influence of German Romanticism on the film, and he went off on a long and rambling digression [2] which included, among other topics, statements about his sympathy for Hitler and Albert Speer and during which he even claimed to be a Nazi. He also stated that he had “thought he was a Jew and then found out that he was a Nazi,” a reference to the fact that he had grown up believing that his father was a Jew only to be told as an adult that this man was not his actual father, and that his biological father was, in fact, a German Catholic. He was quick to disassociate himself from any perceptions of racist connotations in his remarks, saying that he had nothing against Jews (although he referred to Israelis as a “pain in the ass”).

The Festival, eager to prove its credentials within the ranks of the police of political correctness, overreacted as quickly as possible, declaring him persona non grata, despite ever-increasingly fawning apologies and retractions from von Trier in subsequent statements to the press. (Amusingly, he attempted to pass the whole thing off as his misunderstood “Danish sense of humor.”)

I do emphasize that von Trier’s remarks should not be taken at face value. This is not the first time that he has created a stir through outrageous behavior at Cannes, and it’s entirely possible that this was a publicity stunt to generate interest in the film that may or may not have backfired (von Trier has not seemed particularly upset by Cannes’ reaction). Even if his remarks were not preplanned, it’s unwise to read too much into off-the-cuff statements made by artists.

One is reminded that even Salvador Dali once praised Hitler as a “Surrealist innovator,” which caused him to be rejected by André Breton and the Surrealist establishment – not that it did much to hurt Dali’s reputation. Artists, by nature, understand the world in poetic terms, and through analogy or empathy with the extremes of existence. Thus to read any sort of genuine political conviction into von Trier’s words would be a serious mistake.

Still, when I read about the affair, I couldn’t help but to remember his one film – my personal favorite of all his works – that actually does deal with the subject of Nazism and Germany in considerable depth – his 1991 film Europa [3]. The film was initially renamed Zentropa for its North American release, to avoid having it confused with the Holocaust film Europa, Europa which was also in circulation at the time. Zentropa is the name von Trier continues to use for his own production company to the present.

(I should warn readers that my discussion requires that I describe certain elements of the plot, and if like me you prefer to not know the plot of a film prior to viewing it, then you might wish to do so before reading the rest of this essay.)

Europa is about a young American man born of German immigrants, Leopold Kessler, who travels to occupied Germany in late 1945, just a few months after the end of the war – an idealist and pacifist who, having deserted the American military during the conflict, now sees it as his mission to “show a little kindness to Germany” in order to “make the world a better place.”


Lars von Trier

His uncle reluctantly finds him a job as a sleeping car conductor for the Zentropa Railways, a venerable old company which, like the rest of industrialized Germany, suffered near-total devastation during the war, and which now struggles for acceptance by kowtowing to the victorious Allies. While working on the train, Leopold meets Zentropa’s heiress, Katharina Hartmann (Hartmann was the name of von Trier’s biological father), and they quickly fall in love, drawing Leopold into the heart of the ongoing conflict between the Germans and their American occupiers.

Europa is a brilliantly understated work. When one compares it to the clumsily obvious Hollywood films of today, it is a masterpiece of subtlety. Von Trier dared to set it in the same ruined landscape as two cinema classics which were actually made while the ruins of the Axis were still smoldering – Roberto Rossellini’s 1948 film Germany Year Zero, which is about a young boy trying to survive in the ruins of Berlin (there is even a passing reference to it when Europa’s unseen narrator, Max von Sydow, refers to 1946 as “Year One”), and Carol Reed and Orson Welles’ 1949 film The Third Man, which examines the criminal underworld of occupied Vienna. Even though Europa was made more than 40 years after these films, it holds its own and clearly draws from these predecessors.

As in Germany Year Zero and The Third Man, the particular events of the war and the Third Reich are never openly referenced or discussed – you will never hear the word “Hitler,” for instance – but they permeate every scene, so much a part of the background that they become as silent, yet omnipresent, as the camera itself.

In true noir fashion, Europa is filmed mostly in black-and-white, and every moment of the film takes place at night. The film was also unique for its time in that some scenes show color and black-and-white simultaneously, an effect achieved in the pre-digital 1991 through the use of back-projections.

For the purposes of this essay, however, I do not wish to focus on the film’s artistic brilliance and technique so much as its story. The plot hinges upon Leopold being unintentionally and meekly thrown into the middle of a conflict between the Werewolves, the American occupation forces, and the Hartmann family, which dutifully supported the Nazis during the war – including, we are told, in transporting Jews to the concentration camps – and is now attempting to ingratiate themselves with the occupiers.

Simultaneously, we get glimpses of the struggling German population, unconcerned with political matters as they simply try to find a way to survive in the devastated land. The results of Allied bombing are shown to have been truly horrific. Snow falls inside a church that has had its roof blown off. Nearly every wall in Germany seems to have holes blasted in it. It is the Germany of Savitri Devi’s Gold in the Furnace [5] and Defiance [6], which describe her experiences in Germany in the immediate post-war era, when life for ordinary Germans was a daily humiliation, and when the legacy of the National Socialist period was still fresh and German attitudes had not yet settled into the imitative political correctness that prevails there today.

The Werewolves were a paramilitary force developed during the final months of the Third Reich that was intended to fight the Allies from behind enemy lines, in uniform, as they advanced through Germany. They were named after a group of German guerrillas from the Thirty Years’ War in a novel of the same name by Hermann Löns.

In desperation, however, Propaganda Minister Goebbels began making radio broadcasts in which he claimed that the Werewolves were an underground insurgency comprised of ordinary Germans who would fight using guerilla tactics while blending in with the population. In fact, this was a myth, and while such claims succeeded in making the occupiers even more suspicious of the Germans than they otherwise might have been, most historians agree that the Werewolves never amounted to anything significant, and that they evaporated following Germany’s surrender. (According to the records of the Western Allies, not a single Allied soldier was killed as a result of enemy action following the surrender.)

Only one historian, Perry Biddiscombe, has written two books (Werwolf!: The History of the National Socialist Guerrilla Movement, 1944–1946 [7] and The Last Nazis: SS Werewolf Guerrilla Resistance in Europe 1944 [8] [8] [7]1947 [8]) in which he shows evidence that elements of the Werewolves continued to create mischief for the Allies for several years after the war, although even he admits that this never amounted to a genuine threat. Biddiscombe does try to show, however, that the Werewolves represented the reemergence of a genuinely radical form of National Socialism which had been suppressed following their accession to power in 1933, and which also laid the groundwork for what would later become neo-Nazism.

The Werewolves depicted in Europa are those of Goebbels’ imagination. They seem to possess a nationwide network, and the Americans are clearly very worried about them. During the course of the film they carry out two spectacular attacks. The first is a highly fictionalized version of the assassination of Franz Oppenhoff, who was appointed by the Allies to be the mayor of Aachen following its occupation, although in reality he was killed by Werewolf operatives in March 1945, while the war was still going on, rather than in the aftermath, as shown here.

In another interesting twist, von Trier changes the mayor’s name to “Ravenstein,” implying that, rather like the Southern states which were forced to accept Black judges in the period following the Civil War, the Allies are attempting to humiliate the Germans by imposing Jewish political leaders upon them. Oppenhoff was actually not Jewish.

Leopold eventually learns that the woman he loves, Katharina, is also a Werewolf (as well as a practicing Catholic), and she becomes their mouthpiece in the film. She tells Leopold that the Werewolves are “only fighting for their country, as most of the world has been doing,” and describes how it was the humiliation of her father by the Americans that drove her to join them. Given the way that the American occupiers are shown, it’s difficult not to sympathize with her words.

American soldiers are seen throughout the film, although there is only one who we get to know in any detail: Colonel Harris, who is trying to save his friend Max Hartmann’s reputation as well as recruit Leopold into spying on the Werewolves. He is arrogant and contemptuous of the German people, as Americans are frequently viewed through European eyes, and brags about having “bombed [the Germans] to pieces.”

The Americans are shown dynamiting the dockyard cranes of I. G. Farben – ostensibly to prevent the return of German military might, but in reality simply to remove German competitors.  We see American soldiers breaking up a funeral and attempting to seize the coffin because it is in violation of curfew. We see the Americans administering the infamous Fragebogen (questionnaire), the test designed to determine how complicit with the Nazis a particular individual has been (or “to test the guilt of the country,” as Max von Sydow tells us), and which must be reviewed and approved by “a member of the resistance or a Jew” – not something that was historically true, as far as I know, but which von Trier adds to increase the sense of the humiliation being inflicted upon the defeated. (In a wonderful bit of irony, von Trier himself plays the Jew who is forced to review the Fragebogen for the Americans in order to be pardoned from a prison term for stealing food.)

While it cannot be said that the Werewolves are shown in a positive light, they certainly end up looking heroic in opposition to the Americans, who are repeatedly shown to be deeply sinister and cruel. Given the fact that the United States continues to maintain military bases in Germany even today, it appears that von Trier wishes his audience to view Germany – and, by extension, Europe, as the film’s title suggests – as a nation suffering colonial domination by America. As such, the Germany of Europa is symbolic of the fate of Europe since 1945, with the Nazis cast in the unlikely role of anti-imperialist resistance fighters (and this is precisely how Strasserites, the Left wing of the Nazi movement, always saw it). The implications of this are intriguing

America’s role in Europa is entirely in keeping with the views of Francis Parker Yockey, Julius Evola, Jean Thiriart, and later, the thinkers of the European New Right: Coca-Colonialism, in which Europe is being deprived of its independence and identity in order to be converted into an outlet for American economic interests. This, for me, is the most fascinating aspect of Europa. While Leftist opposition to American influence in Europe is a common trope, I can think of no other film which depicts it from a Right-wing perspective. In this sense, the film is entirely in keeping with an Identitarian or traditionalist worldview.

A particularly powerful scene follows the death of Ravenstein, when one of his assassins, a young boy, finds himself alone, holding a small pistol while he faces two American soldiers armed with rifles. A moment later, we hear the gunfire that kills him. For me, this is a poetic representation of traditional Europe’s fate in the post-war world – weak, and practically unarmed, trying to stand up single-handed to the enormity of American might.

Then there is the Hartmann family. Max Hartmann, the head of the family as well as of Zentropa itself, and a practicing Catholic, supported the Nazis during the Third Reich. He seems to remain unashamed of his past, but at the same time he recognizes the need to gain the support of the Americans, and as a result is forced to swallow his German pride.

This must have been the tragic plight of most Germans after the war, not wanting to believe that all of their sacrifice and struggle had been in vain but at the same time recognizing that they had been left at the mercy of their conquerors. Unfortunately, that has led to the tyranny of self-deprecation and ethnomasochism (to use Faye’s term) that dominates today, and which, as the great German film director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg has pointed out, has caused Germans to find themselves missing a past, since everything in their culture from before 1945 has been judged complicit in the crimes of the Nazis.

I would not view Europa as a call for the defense of the German identity, however, since von Trier also assumes a somewhat mocking tone in his portrayal of the Germans, who all exhibit a mania for duty, procedure, and precision which often crosses over into the ridiculous, as the common stereotype of the German character would have it. There is also a brief shot of Jewish inmates being transported to a concentration camp, as if to remind us not to sympathize too much with the Germans’ plight. Still, overall, the Germans, while occasionally seeming absurd and off-putting, are ultimately depicted sympathetically, especially in contrast with Leopold’s bumbling ignorance of the world around him.

This brings us to Leopold himself. Leopold wishes to remain aloof from everything apart from his own idealism. He has no sympathy for either the Nazis or the power games of the occupiers, but imagines that he can be a force for good, untouched by the corruption around him. Ultimately, he is destroyed by his own inability to take a side, and creates yet more devastation.

Leopold represents the type of American idealism which led to the public’s initial support for the Iraq War: he wishes to do good, and imagines that he can remain incorruptible, but simply ends up being used as a tool by powers he doesn’t understand, a situation made possible by his inability to understand the complexities of the world outside America. He is a victim of the “mental AIDS” described by Guillaume Faye in his book Why We Fight [9], embracing a forced optimism which blinds him to the existential threats all around him.

Yet Leopold’s primary problem is not his ignorance. As von Trier shows us, Leopold’s ultimate crime is that he is unwilling to take sides. In one scene, a Catholic priest tells Leopold that for God, the most important thing is that individuals fight wholeheartedly for a cause. When Leopold points out that, in war, this is a difficult position, since both sides believe equally in their cause, the priest responds that the only sin that God cannot forgive is the sin of the unbeliever, quoting the Bible to support his contention (Revelation 3:16: “So then because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.”).

This statement, undoubtedly stemming from von Trier’s own conversion to Catholicism, forms the underlying theme of the entire film: it is unbelief that is the real plague leading to the downfall of Europe and the West. Not just unbelief in the cause of defending the traditions of our people, but belief in the divine, which is an essential element of any genuine restoration of Western, or any other, culture. Belief is what links us to the transcendent, and allows us to view our lives in a context which goes beyond the petty and transient political squabbles of our day and the mere fulfillment of our material desires.

Without this perspective, like Leopold, we may be well-intentioned but are ultimately doomed to destruction. “It seems to me that you are the only criminal,” Katharina tells Leopold when he points out that he’s not working for the Americans or the Nazis. This is why, at the film’s conclusion, Leopold lashes out angrily against the world in what is actually his only independent action in the entire story, by exploding a bomb placed by the Werewolves on his train – not to further the Werewolves’ objectives, but simply out of selfish anger and frustration.  Ironically, he then brings about the very kind of destruction that he had sought to rectify in coming to Germany – as well as his own death.

If I were to summarize why Europa should be of interest to Rightists and traditionalists, it would be with this point: for the believers in Tradition to survive in the age of Kali-Yuga, or the age of degradation, we must wake up to how the materialistic powers-that-be wish to exploit us, and then embrace a belief which will empower us to resist the forces of nihilism that surround us. Otherwise, we will be complicit in it.

Europa is not primarily about Nazis versus Americans, or even about American cultural imperialism. It is a morality tale about a modern man struggling against nihilism, who loses. It is not enough to only engage in the temporary problems of our time, whether they be political or racial or whatever. We must also embrace the transcendent, the sacred, in some form, and it only with this power that we can withstand the continuing onslaught of the postmodern world, and find our ethical bearings in a world that is rapidly transforming all around us – and not for the better. The final shot of the film – of a drowned corpse floating past a partially-ruined city – is symbolic of European man today: the moving dead, dwelling in the ruined and occupied legacy of ancestors who were far greater than they.

I feel that I have only scratched the surface of Europa, which will surely yield even more depth under intense scrutiny, but my primary purpose in writing this is to encourage Counter-Currents readers to experience what has become a very rare thing – a genuinely European work of art, and one which reaffirms rather than undermines European identity and belief in the sacred, as opposed to Hollywood’s typical dreck and its present-day imitators in Europe.

Again, I do not believe that this film is proof positive that von Trier is a Nazi sympathizer, or even necessarily “of the Right,” but it seems clear that the outlook in this film makes some crucial points, whether inadvertently or not, and he must feel some of the same revulsion at the state of modern Europe that Identitarians and traditionalists do – even if he refuses to take a public stand against it.

Europa [3] has been released on DVD by the Criterion Collection, and is easily obtainable through Amazon.com [3] and other outlets.