NYFF 2020: ‘Her Name Was Europa’ Review: ‘Til The Mythical Cows Come Home


There is something magical about the concept of a mythical creature. Naturally, outlandish beasts exist solely in the realm of fantasy — no one is expecting to find the remains of a chimera, griffin, or any winged horses or the like anytime soon. But there is an undeniable allure to the idea of a ‘real’ mythical creature, the ones that might have once symbolized a mystical wildness but that we now know actually lived and breathed. The dragon, for example, is a legend borne out of the very real remains of dinosaurs, and once-absurd notions of giant squids and 200-ton whales are now considered common zoological knowledge. As eulogized tenderly and artistically in Her Name Was Europa, one such beast is the aurochs: the hallowed ancestor of modern cattle. 


Once considered possessors of mystical power, these bovine figures are no myth. The last genuine aurochs died in 1627, but their story has regained relevance in the twentieth century. In the 1920s, German brothers Lutz and Heinz Heck began engaging in back-breeding, in an attempt to resurrect the aurochs from extinction. Their project was embraced wholeheartedly by the Nazis, who began to associate the animal with their perceived supremacy and purity of the German nation. Though the bombing of Berlin during the war decimated many of the materials needed to complete this undertaking, enough of the Heck cattle survived so that their descendants live on to this day. In the 1990s, scientists and ecologists around Europe began revisiting this concept in tandem with “rewilding” efforts seeking to promote conservationism, and today there are multiple active efforts to continue reintroducing this once-extinct species back into the world. 

The team behind prolific documentarian studio Ojoboca have focused their latest project on this fascinating subject; directors Anja Dornieden and Juan David González Monroy economically retell this history through minimalist title cards and brisk footage. Shot on 16mm black and white film, and presented in academy ratio, Her Name Was Europa is a unique concoction of engrossing documentary effort and artistically challenging form. Though the oddities of its filmmaking style are visually pleasing and the research commendably thorough, the film regularly slips from artisan informativeness into dead-end navel-gazing. 


Take, for instance, the animal itself. The story of the Germans’ obsession with resurrecting the creature is well-explained, and Dornieden and Monroy do well to include some amusing footage of the modern-day handler of the Heck cattle, a rugged fellow colloquially referred to as Yakwilli. But the aurochs itself is not presented with much useful background knowledge; the viewer may easily remain unaware of their association with mystical forces and therefore miss a massive facet of the intrigue and importance of their story. Ojoboca’s website even clarifies this, noting that the beast’s body parts were once “ascribed with supernatural powers,” and believed to contain “magical properties” when they still roamed the Earth. These details are regrettably absent from the final product, which seriously diminishes the experience of following its tale.

Of course, one could cite the notion of ‘show, don’t tell’ in response — yet this is a rather crucial aspect to leave up to inference. There is, however, a fantastic unspoken theme in Dorneiden and Monroy’s film, regarding the almost comical, ever-disappointing relationship between fantasy, reality, and projection. Without explicitly stating as much, the film neatly utilizes footage of the Heck cattle, which should supposedly resemble the intimidating, hallowed creature, to imply that these animals are simply not as impressive as one might have expected. In truth, they just look like jet-black cows, with horns only slightly more handsome than usual. Shortly afterward, the film pivots to show artists’ renderings of the aurochs of legend, which possess an unquestionably more arresting presence. One exceptional sequence finds a life-size representation of the mythical aurochs placed in various fields and landscapes, creating an uncanny and exciting visual, as if the legend has indeed come to life. The statue’s stoic frame but total stillness present a cynical but convincing argument for the supremacy of the image, rather than the ‘real thing.’ When we see the living cattle again, there is a marked difference, the result of a well-structured visual discourse.


Towards the end, however, certain sequences stretch these concepts slightly too thin and exhaust the project. There are some wholly unnecessary asides that reference filming equipment and rethought plans, which come across as padding the runtime rather than useful contributions. One extended section details a location the filmmakers decided not to use; there are some undeniably clever conceptions within this chapter regarding the location’s faked, mirrored, forced existence, which suggest a parallel between the resurgence of an extinct symbolic creature and modern man’s obsession with harnessing authenticity in a world dominated by the inauthentic. However, this idea is squeezed rather haphazardly into the final minutes, giving Her Name Was Europa the distinct feeling of an unfinished proof-of-concept rather than a confident, capable experience. 

We’d recommend Her Name Was Europa to anyone interested in modern and mythical zoology — it certainly redeems most of the drawbacks of its filmmaking style when actually focusing on the details of the animal. However, the story of the aurochs deserves a much more direct, thoughtful, dedicated piece to do it justice, one that makes the case for taking its possible resurrection more seriously. While Her Name Was Europa is visually pleasant and often amusing, some more focus and clarity is needed to make the film truly stand out from the herd.

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