Danish director Lars von Trier is best known in America for his 1996 film Breaking the Waves and the Dogme 95 manifesto in which he, along with several other filmmakers, extolled the virtues of "unstylized" filmmaking using only natural light and minimal equipment. The Dogme movement, which always seemed more like a joke than an actual concept, was a complete aesthetic reversal for von Trier, whose earlier films were shot with a sophistication that few Hollywood filmmakers can match. The Element of Crime, von Trier's 1984 feature debut, stands in such stark contrast to his later, minimalist work that it seems the creation of an entirely different artist.
The Element of Crime concerns the return of a detective named Fisher to Europe (a specific nation is never named) from a 13 year hiatus in Cairo. He has been called back to help solve a series of disturbing child murders. The Europe Fisher remembers has faded during his absence and the new, dreary landscape is mirrored by a new order, or rather lack of order. Fisher subscribes to a method of police investigation detailed in a volume authored by his mentor, Osborne, called The Element of Crime. This method is similar to the acting "method" made famous by Actor's Studio graduates like Marlon Brando, where the individual approaches a performance by completely becoming his subject. In the film Fisher tries to get into the mind of the murderer by following his path step for step. After a while he begins to totally identify with the murderer. This method is frowned upon, however, by the new chief of police, a violent blowhard who shoots first, asks questions never.
As interesting as it is, The Element of Crime is a difficult film. At times it is overly pretentious, and much of the dialog consists of arty non sequiturs, like "The weather changes constantly. It never alters." In a way, von Trier is an exceptional filmmaker, but he is also the kind of European artist that gets spoofed most often, sort of Dieter from 'Sprockets,' but with better cinematography. Breaking the Waves concentrated on an emotional journey and, therefore, the poetic meandering helped create an atmosphere of longing. The Element of Crime, however, includes a lot of plotting in addition to the atmosphere and, in leaving so much open to interpretation von Trier can seem like he's lost at times.
The Element of Crime is most striking for its visuals. The entire film is shot through an amber filter, rendering the images almost monochromatic, but with an eerie glow. Occasional neon signs and blue green TV screens cut through this sepia fog to signify modernity in a decaying society. It is easy to see the influence the film has had on David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club), whose visual control is no less impressive than von Trier's.
While trying to create something new and original, von Trier is obviously a fan of classic cinema. The film borrows images and moments from Casablanca, Vertigo, Apocalypse Now!, and innumerable hard-boiled detective stories. What this mix ultimately creates is a world that is purely cinematic. Von Trier makes no attempt to make the film "real," as there he does in the Dogme films, but rather he allows The Element of Crime to live within the context of all the films that came before it.
Even though the film is visually stimulating it can be coldly clinical and never really opens up fully. It keeps the viewer at arms length, which helps maintain an air of mystery, but also prevents the viewer from identifying with the characters, ironic since Fisher's problem, ultimately, is that he identifies too strongly with his subject.
Von Trier may have been a young filmmaker but he was confident enough to fill his film with thematic images and textures that a more experienced director may have overlooked. The repeated use of the four basic elements (water, fire, wind, earth) reminds us that the elements of these crimes are all around us and that the semi-fictionalized world of the film is still based on some decaying moral reality that von Trier detects in our own world. By the end he seems to be saying that there are no murderers and victims, no good guys and bad guys. That we are each all of those things.
The disc also features a trailer.
Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.E-mail Gil at firstname.lastname@example.org