The Element of Crime

D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

Lars von Trierís The Element of Crime is so unlike his most recent feature Dancer in the Dark that you might wonder if itís made by the same man. First released in 1984, it was his first movie to earn international acclaim, garnering the Grand Technical Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It is also the first part of his trilogy about post-war Europe and the lingering effects of Fascism (the other two films are Epidemic and Zentropa). Photographed almost entirely in black and sepia tones, The Element of Crime recreates the hypnosis that its hero, a down-and-out detective named Fisher (Michael Elphick), undergoes to solve a rash of serial killings. The setting is a nameless European city-state where the nighttime lasts forever and itís always raining. Gothic-noir in look and existential in tone, The Element of Crime is a deliberate fusion of genres, philosophies, and nationalities. It almost works. The plot, threadbare and disjointed, is an afterthought at best, cobbled together from various Hitchcock classics. If this doesnít bother you, The Element of Crime will hold you enthralled. The rest of us would do better to ignore the movieís inane ramblings and focus entirely on its atmospheric power which, though pretentious, never ceases to amaze.

That power is now brought to new life by The Criterion Collectionís DVD release of The Element of Crime. Along with Stig Bjorkmanís short documentary about the director, Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier, the DVD sheds some much needed light on this reclusive artiste. He is indeed pre-occupied with creating a trance, that heightened form of reality where he exerts complete mind control over his audience. None of his movies take place in the world as we know it, not even his TV miniseries The Kingdom, which is set in a Copenhagen hospital, but which contains so much supernatural power, that it is more like The X-Files than E.R. In The Element of Crime, everyone speaks English, but with different accents--British, Scandanavian, Asian, and Middle Eastern. His city-state is a melting pot that never existed and never will. It is an imaginary place filled with haunted, gaunt faces. The Holocaust has just ended, buildings are bombed out, and everything seems covered in a slick, nuclear fallout. We have stepped inside someoneís nightmare. Even Fisher, monotone and dour-faced, is powerless, pulled from the nonsensical to the preposterous by an invisible force, unable to exercise his free will. This is the essence of film noir, but von Trier goes one step further. His anti-hero is so passive, so empty that we can almost see von Trierís hand guiding him through this nether world.

The movieís title refers to a textbook written by Fishersís criminology professor and mentor Osborne (Esmond Knight), a cranky old Brit who is slowly going insane. Guided by the bookís formal methodology, Fisherís investigation nevertheless devolves into chaos. A series of strangers parade through his life, including a mysterious Asian woman, an abandoned little boy, and a teenaged girl. Like ghosts, their presence is ethereal and their motives mystifying. Fisher ultimately finds the killer, or more precisely, wanders into him, and the show down is an anti-climactic suicide, beautiful but unemotional. In fact, the entire movie lacks any emotional weight, preferring to render its audience as guests in a haunted house. A recurring image in The Element of Crime is a set of hands breaking through a window pane. By the end, we feel the need to do the same to escape the movieís stilted oppression.

The Element of Crime is a far cry from his later works, Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, both of which have moved their audiences to tears. Its emotional detachment has its roots in von Trierís upbringing as revealed in Bjorkmanís documentary. The son of free-thinking communists, von Trier had little supervision as a child and had to do most of his own schooling, particularly after he dropped out of high school. The world he was forced to create for himself is not unlike the ones he creates in his movies: at the center of both is an isolated individual who is at the mercy of superhuman forces. Bjorkmanís documentary is so revealing that it makes this DVD a must-have for any serious von Trier fan. Though flawed, The Element of Crime is the work of a budding auteur. It may not move you, but it will get under your skin.


The Element of Crime is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a widescreen digital transfer that is enhanced for 16x9 TVs. The disc contains a theatrical trailer and Stig Bjorjman's 54-minute documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.