Monday, November 21, 2011


I've mentioned this film briefly on PINNLAND EMPIRE through various posts like; "The Cinema Of Lars Von Trier" and "The School Of Tarkovsky", but now lets take an even deeper look at Lars Von Trier's feature film debut. This is one of my all time favorite movies but its quite difficult to recommend it to people for fear that they might find it too boring or slow. In fact, as much as i love this movie, it may be one of the few movies that's too difficult to follow because its so slow. Outside of all the Tarkovsky references (see my school tarkovsky part 1), its hard to believe that THIS was Lars Von Trier's first feature film. 'The Element Of Crime', a slowly paced yet BEAUTIFULLY shot neo noir about a washed up detective trying to track down a serial killer, is more about style and visuals than it is about pushing buttons (antichrist), social commentary (manderlay and dogville), or depression (melancholia). It falls more in line with the Europa/Kingdom-era Von Trier of the mid-90's than it does the dogma/cassavetes-influenced Von Trier of the late 90's up through 'Manderlay'. This film made Von Trier an overnight success at Cannes due to the fact that it had a maturity that you wouldn't expect from a director in his mid-20's. In my opinion, 1984 was one of the last great years at the Cannes film festival. Jim Jarmusch debuted 'Stranger Than Paradise', John Huston debuted 'Under The Volcano', Wim Wenders won best picture with 'Paris Texas' and a young Lars Von Trier won the "technical prize" for 'The Element Of Crime'.
When you think "neo-noir" you automatically think about films like 'Blade Runner', 'Dark City', 'Oldboy', 'Brick' or other various films centered around middle-aged, humphrey bogart-esque private investigators, detectives or sleuths getting in way too deep over their heads in some case that starts to unravel in to something bigger (obviously not all the movies i listed above have every single one of those elements, but still...) . 'The Element Of Crime' DOES have all the themes of a classic noir/detective film, but because it's so (intentionally) slowly paced it doesn't feel like a noir at first.
It may draw obvious inspiration from the imagery of Andrei Tarkovsky's films, but plot wise 'The Element Of Crime' shares many similarities with 'Blade Runner'. Both films revolve around a semi-retired, washed up, unshaven detective chasing down bad guys in a futuristic urban setting where it almost ALWAYS seems to be raining.
Set in the near future (the specific date isn't given), "Detective Fisher" (our main character) is retelling his last case to a therapist while under hypnosis (its unclear weather he's in a mental institution or in a therapist session). In an unnamed European city, there's a serial killer ("Harry Gray") on the loose mutilating young girls. When no one else can solve the case, Fisher is called out of retirement by his mentor ("Osbourne") to find the killer (this aspect of the story is similar to 'Blade Runner' in that Harrison Ford is pulled out of what seems to be retirement to find rogue androids). The biggest Lars Von Trier staple in 'The Element Of Crime' is that the plot follows a set of rules. In the film, Detective Fisher works under a set of rules laid out in a book written by his mentor (Osbourne) called; "The Element Of Crime" (a book/police guide to solving cases). In "The Cinema Of Lars Von Trier", i touched on the fact that all of his films, whether it be how they're made or the the actual plot, are based in a strict set of rules that Von Trier always follows. 'The Element Of Crime' is no exception.

What gives the film its unique "look" is that it's shot under a red-ish tint with the occasional flash of a blue light from a bulb or TV screen...

And its visual similarities with 'Blade Runner' are also difficult to miss...
'Blade Runner' (1982)
'The Element Of Crime' (1984)
The film's dark lighting, hallway shots and emphasis on the color red seems to be a clear influence on more recent neo-noir films like 'Fear X' (directed by the son of one of Lars Von Trier's most frequent collaborators; Nicolas Winding Refn) and 'Red Road' (a film in which Von Trier himself actually helped create the plot). Certain images from both of these films look like they come right out of 'The Element Of Crime'. In my opinion, because of 'The Element Of Crimes' web-like/tree branch connection to so many other films and directors ('Andrei Rublev', 'Blade Runner', 'Red Road', etc) this would be a great study guide in a film class with an emphasis on neo-noir/mystery...
'Element Of Crime' (1984)
'Fear X' (2003)
I realize Nicolas Refn and Lars Von Trier have "beef" at the moment, but the similarities are just too obvious.
And you can see how elements from his first film influenced his later work and shots from 'The Element Of Crime' can still be found in his recent work like 'Antichrist' and 'Melancholia'...
'Element Of Crime' - Von Trier (1984)
'Medea' - Von Trier (1988)
'Antichrist' - Von Trier (2009)
'Melancholia' - Von Trier (2011)

'The Element Of Crime' is the first part of Von Trier's "Europe Trilogy" ('Epidemic' and 'Europa' being the other 2). Each of the films centers around hypnosis. With Element..., the film starts from the perspective of Detective Fisher about to be put under hypnosis by a therapist so that he can recall his last case (similar to the opening of 'Europa' where Max Von Sydow opens the film by putting the audience under hypnosis). From that point on, the film is told through flashbacks with haunting/cryptic voice over narration. And on a side note, our main character barely ever uses or even holds a gun in the film (something that can be found in other films like 'Children Of Men' or 'The Silence'). And to further hit home his dreamlike, hypnotic and disoriented feel, Von Trier often overlaps scenes on top of each other for an extended period of time (see below) to mess with our heads and screw with our perception of time. And on top of that, the film has a very open ending which leaves us questioning the sanity of Detective Fisher and who the killer actually is...
example #1
example #2
example #3

Like i said before, this is a tough one to recommend (I'm speaking from experience). Sure its one of my personal favorite, but at times it does feel like a sleep aid. This is also one of the more forgotten about films in the criterion collection. I personally feel like this movie is almost a masterpiece, but i understand if people cant get in to it. I still urge you all to give this a chance if you haven't already.


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