The voice of Max von Sydow hypnotizes the audience by stating, "You will now listen to my voice..." as he continuous to count to ten, which pulls the viewer into a nightmarish dream. Simultaneously the opening shot of railroad tracks is flashing by, which visually puts the viewer in a trance as the screen turns black. This beginning incites the audience participation as the film definitely requires a high level of cognitive participation, unlike most films made where the story is driven by the scripted dialogue. Zentropa becomes a visual and aural journey that mesmerizes the audience in a highly artistic manner.
Comparisons have been made with David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977), Hitchcock's Notorious (1946), and the director Wim Wender's cinematic creations. Despite the previous comparisons, Lars von Trier creates a unique cinematic experience that could be compared to an artistic and political journey into the aftermath of World War II. Cities lay in ruin and people suffer from starvation as the artery, the railroads of Zentropa, of the recovering Europa continues its exploitation of the people as it carted off millions to a certain death in the Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Dachau during the war. This creates a tense Machiavellian atmosphere where fear, paranoia, and anxiety have a firm grip of the people. This causes most people to alienate themselves from society.
The cinematic journey begins with German-American Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) who departs United States after the end of World War II for Germany. When Leopold arrives to the shattered Germany he is greeted by Uncle Kessler (Ernst-Hugo Järegård) who gets him a job as a train conductor on one of the luxurious sleeping-cars of Zentropa. Through work Leopold meet Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa), the daughter of the owner of Zentropa, with whom he falls in love. However, Leopold's desire for Katharina drags him into a dangerous affair of terrorism, politics, friendship, and murder.
The pacifist Leopold tries to balance his life through abstention of politics, avoidance, not choosing sides, and minding his own business, which is also suggested by his Uncle Kessler. However, no matter how hard Leopold tries to follow his own policy he is forced into situations where he must choose a side as it would otherwise have a catastrophic affect on the people for which he cares. Eventually Leopold finds out the hard way that choices must be made based on his own conscious.
Lars von Trier plays with the visuals throughout the film as a painter would with a new innovative color that would revolutionize art forms. The film is shot in black and white with occasional insertions of color, which enhances the cinematic importance of moment. Von Trier also uses trick photography and double exposures in order to artistically magnify the shot, which creates personalized imprints in the audience's cinematic experience. Ultimately, von Trier pushes the envelop as his message is decoded through his brilliant enigmatic tale of a broken Europe where unity is the sole answer for the continent.