The Element of Crime
1984, NR, 104 min. Directed by Lars Von Trier. Starring Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Jerold Wells, Me Me Lei, Preben Lerdorff Rye, Ghota Andersen.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 29, 1996
The Element of Crime, von Trier's first feature-length film (originally released in 1984), is proof-positive that the Danish director has been at the same game all along. While most American audiences will be familiar with von Trier's work through repeated Bravo screenings of his film Zentropa or his recent four-hour-long hospital-show nightmare comedy The Kingdom, here's a chance to catch a master of bizarre lighting and film stock experimentation at an early point in his career. The Element of Crime follows a policeman named Fisher (Elphick) who undergoes hypnosis while in Cairo that takes him back to the proverbial scene of the crime, lo those many years ago. The scene happens to be his home turf, never fully identified as anything more than “Europe,” where Fisher and his lunatic mentor Osbourne (Knight) tried valiantly to solve a series of gruesome child murders. The town in which Fisher finds himself is more of a nightmarish dreamscape than anything looking like a conventional city -- wastewater drips from every brick and there's never any natural light, only the milky-yellow hues of industrial lighting or, perhaps, everything is being seen through the cataract-obscured eyes of the waterlogged, mutilated corpses -- donkey and little girl -- that open the film. Fisher stumbles around in this angstopia for a while before he begins to make any real progress on his case, but, slowly, the elements of the crimes come together. Many comparisons have been made between von Trier's film and Godard's Alphaville, and they're not so far off the mark. The director gives us a mad little world, filled with lurking, faceless evil, and inexplicable shadows and actions. As usual, von Trier has tweaked his film stock to create a sepia-toned murk not unlike that of The Kingdom. Only occasional glimpses of the real spectrum -- blue overhead fluorescents and police lights -- inject a bit of reality. The Element of Crime is slow going. At times you may wonder what it's all leading up to, if anything, but von Trier manages to build suspense through the sheer gravity of set design and lighting until the breath leaks out of you in a startled gasp. Unsettling and odd, it's the perfect film for a dreary, rainy day.