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The very first sequence in The Element of Crime sets the tone not just for this haunting film but for the entire career of Danish wunderkind Lars von Trier. An Egyptian psychiatrist gazes down into the camera, addressing a detective named Fisher who has lost his memory. Gradually, relaxing under the hypnotic, sibilant instructions of his shrink, Fisher “returns to Europe”—for von Trier a mysterious, nocturnal landscape ruled by evasion, disease, and death.
The Element of Crime heralded a new voice in film—a voice obsessed with themes more familiar from Central European literature than from Scandinavian cinema, and reminiscent of the early work of Andrei Tarkovsky. As Michael Elphick’s coarse, perspiring detective Fisher pursues his suspect through the small towns of Germany, a Wagnerian aura of fate overwhelms him. The very buildings themselves appear infected by some mysterious higher power that calls to mind Hermann Hesse. This theme of disease and pollution colors the director’s second feature, Epidemic, while his cult TV series, The Kingdom, unfolds in a hospital, and his most ambitious movie, Breaking the Waves, deals with physical trauma. Even The Idiots examines society’s attitude to the insane.
“It’s always three o’clock in the morning—if you know what I mean,” says Kim, the prostitute who befriends Fisher in The Element of Crime, and von Trier and his cinematographer Tom Elling have devised an immaculate nocturnal mood for the film. Saturating the negative with yellow, they give each scene a lurid hue that in itself manifests tension and suggests the contours of a dream—or a nightmare. Every so often the prevailing saffron is punctuated with a startling blue—a lamp, or a TV screen. Characters trudge slowly across the screen, as though moving under water in a trance.
The elements play a fundamental role in the world of Lars von Trier, as in that of his great mentor and countryman, Carl Theodor Dreyer. Water, earth, fire, air—all fill the screen at one time or another. Drenched in mud and rain, The Element of Crime inhabits a true twilight zone, bereft of heroes and integrity. Fisher’s obsessive attempt to enter the very mind and integument of a serial killer leads him on an ominous journey through a Germany that seems devastated by more than just war. The chief suspect, someone called “Harry Grey,” may be the quarry but is also a red herring. He’s a McGuffin in the Hitchcock tradition, leading Fisher inexorably back to his mentor, the aged Osborne, from whose book on the psychology of murder the film takes its title.
Von Trier’s taste for the melodramatic seems already assured, exemplified by the recurring motif of someone smashing a window and screaming into the night, as though bursting out of a mental prison. Or when, after a long sequence filmed indoors in close-ups, von Trier cuts to a helicopter shot (reminiscent of bird’s-eye views in both Epidemic and The Kingdom), gazing down at people scampering over an ochreous, rocky shoreline. The effect is startling, even apocalyptic.
Like the British novelist Peter Ackroyd, von Trier finds himself drawn to gruesome and ritualistic aberrations. The suicidal “leap into the void” at the climax to the film calls to mind the outrageous public harakiri committed by novelist Yukio Mishima and his neo-samurai assistants in Japan some thirty years ago. If one thinks also of Peter Lorre and Fritz Lang’s M, it’s because the guilt seeps from every corner of the frame, as does the sense of an antihero caught in the grip of a destiny he cannot comprehend. Indeed, for all the grime and vernacular cynicism of von Trier’s world, his characters respond almost subconsciously to their spiritual dimension. The director’s use of music, celestial and ethereal, heightens this feeling.
Yet there’s an impish side to von Trier. He himself plays a shaven-headed hotel clerk with a manic gaze, and Fisher’s nemesis is a police chief who bears an unmistakable resemblance to Kojak. And throughout his career as director and producer of the Dogma 95 movies, von Trier has enjoyed provoking his audience with a sex-in-your-face insouciance. In one bizarre if possibly hilarious scene, Fisher screws his compliant Kim as she lies across the hood of a Volkswagen car, her hands clutching the windshield wipers to match the rhythm of the moment. . .
No film made by Lars von Trier is quite so mesmeric as this debut. Saturated with a kind of distilled evil, surreptitious in its narrative flow, this expressionist ritual could have been made by Murnau, Lang, Pabst or any of the masters of German silent cinema. The influence of co-screenwriter Niels Vørsel on this and subsequent films of von Trier such as Epidemic, Europa, and The Kingdom cannot be disregarded, for the director’s later, solo work has a much sunnier and more alfresco tone. Overwrought at times though it may be, The Element of Crime undoubtedly proclaimed a talent as unusual and compelling as any to emerge from Northern Europe since World War II.
Peter Cowie has written several books on Scandinavian cinema, and is International Publishing Director of Variety. His latest publication is The Apocalypse Now Book, due from Faber and Faber in the fall of 2000.