The Element of Crime



aka Forbrydelsens Element : Denmark 1984 : Lars “Von” TRIER : 104 mins

A futuristic murder-mystery set in a post-apocalyptic Europe, Trier’s feature debut really is like taking a trip through time. Back in time, that is, to the mid-eighties: this is a very 1984 vision of the future, one that has predictably dated very quickly. In fact, it’s a very 1984 vision of the future, creating a shabby, colour-drained, retro-tech world very similar to that of Michael Radford’s George Orwell adaptation that was released around the same time – with some spectacular outdoor setpieces that recall Russell Mulcahy’s mid-’84 ‘Wild Boys’ video for Duran Duran.

Orwell’s dystopian projections had been prominent in the zeitgeist from around the turn of the decade, inspiring a distinctively grimy, doomy, monochromey aesthetic synchronously showcased in films and dramas on the new television station Channel 4 (such as the Rocky and Annabel Jankel’s Max Headroom TV-movie), in videos like Mulcahy’s, on the pages of style magazines like The Face, in commercials like Ridley Scott’s legendary ad for Apple computers, and in films such as Scott’s own, seminal Blade Runner (1982).

For his movie, ‘Von’ Trier (the ‘Von’ was a film-school insult which the director – born plain Lars Trier – proudly adopted) stirred in a whole catalogue of previous cinematic forebears. Indeed, it’s very hard to talk about The Element of Crime at all without getting bogged down into lists of influences and references – lists as tedious as the duller stretches of the movie itself. Suffice it to say that Von Trier has seen Godard’s Alphaville, Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Lynch’s Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, probably numerous times – and he’s certainly not going to let us forget it.

These films must also have been seen by his hero, grizzled cop Fisher (Michael Elphick, a perennially underrated actor presumably cast because he’s so reminiscent of Eddie Constantine’s Lemmy Caution in Alphaville, and because he’d just been in The Elephant Man.) Because the whole film, apart from the opening few seconds, is Fisher’s hypnotically-induced hallucination. Prompted by a Cairo therapist (Ahmed el Shenawi) to relive a recent troubled visit to Europe, Fisher enters a feverish, reverie state that we, through the medium of cinema, are able to share. Hence the countless distortions: visual (everything is orange-tinted with occasional flashes of neon blue), temporal (the sun never rises), meteorological (it’s always pissing with rain), architectural (Fisher wanders among Byzantine, Gilliamesque buildings) and, most of all, thematic – the ‘plot’ of The Element of Crime (script by Von Trier and Niels Vorsel) is wilfully perverse and nebulous, a cod-Borgesian puzzle that deliberately places itself above solution.

It seems that a series of child-murders has been going on in a (perhaps literally) Godforsaken corner of Germany’s northern coast – a duplication of a previous set of killings which were investigated by Fisher’s old boss, the criminologist Osbourne (Esmond Knight) who wrote the treatise which gives the film its name. The original culprit, Harry Grey, is presumed dead – but as Fisher puts Osbourne’s theories into practice and starts retracing Grey’s steps and getting into his mind, he starts to suspect that Grey may have faked his own death. Or perhaps Osbourne was somehow responsible. Or perhaps the answer is even closer to home.

As there’s no definitive ‘answer’ to the mysteries in The Element of Crime, it isn’t giving too much away to say that the film often resembles an arthouse precursor of Alan Parker’s delirious Angel Heart (1986, based on the 1978 novel ‘Falling Angel’ by William Hjortsberg). From very early on, it’s predictable that Fisher’s attempts to identify with Grey (a variation on the techniques employed by Will Graham in the Manhunter novel and film) are going to be all too successful, with unfortunate consequences for all concerned. And, as with Parker’s Angel Heart, directorial style is paramount – often at the expense of story coherence. But Von Trier aims so much higher than the cheerfully lowbrow Parker: his characters converse in scraps of philosophical doubletalk that suggests they’d get on very well with the insanely pretentious (and pretentiously insane) residents of Burg Elz in Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration (1980), and it’s all more than a little grating stretched over full feature length.

As with the Blatty movie, the comic touches (Fisher even sports a baseball cap with HG written on it in pen) sit very awkwardly alongside the more harrowing business of harrowingly gory child-murder – though of course Von Trier has since developed into a director apparently (and proudly) incapable of taking anything seriously. Then again, his relentless visual experiments (with cinematographer Peter Hoimark) do yield many bizarre dividends : though the film’s single most memoral images (which come right at the very end when Fisher shines a torch down a manhole and makes an unexpected discovery at the bottom) are among the simplest and most unadorned in the whole overcooked mess of a movie.

16th April, 2003
(seen on DVD, 15th April)

by Neil Young