Element of Crime, The

Tagged: Film

Film (1984). Kærne Film presents in association with the Danish Film Institute a Per Holst Film Production. Original title (in Danish) Forbrydelsens Element. Directed by Lars von Trier. Written by Lars von Trier and Niels Vørsel. Director of Photography Tom Elling. Cast includes Michael Elphick, Ahmed El Shenawi, Astrid Henning-Jensen, János Herskó, Esmond Knight, Meme Lai and Jerold Wells. 104 minutes. Colour.

Washed-up detective Fisher (Elphick) employs a Cairo-based hypnotist (El Shenawi) to recollect the details of his last case, an investigation into the murders of four young girls selling lottery tickets in a Post-Holocaust Germany (see Crime and Punishment). To put himself into the mind of the serial killer, he uses the controversial methods outlined in The Element of Crime, a book by his disgraced mentor Osborne (Knight), discovering there a "tailing report" into a copycat killer who has since, reputedly, died in a car crash. He meets a woman named Kim (Lai) who has had a child by his target. In identifying so closely with the psychology of his quarry, Fisher begins to behave more and more like him.

This is the most disorienting of European Dystopias. "Fantasy is OK," the hypnotist tells Fisher at the opening of the movie, "but my job is to keep you on the right track. We are after the facts." When did the four, or five, or seven murders occur? How many murderers are there? Exactly who is copying whom? And: is the idea of scientific objectivity itself a fantasy?

Cinematographer Tom Elling's decision to shoot almost entirely in sodium light produces a yellowed sepia tone, one only occasionally pierced through by the intense red of a bloody wound or the vivid blue of an (only ever artificial) light. There is no sun by which to navigate. "There are no seasons anymore," Osborne's housekeeper (Henning-Jensen) tells Fisher. "The weather changes all the time. It never alters." Fisher's expatriate life in Cairo has been "sanded over", while in permanently-flooded Europe he is as adrift as everyone else, on improvised rafts and in broken down-cars, shuffling around among the unfinished texts of forgotten libraries. Every narrative thread is undermined.

Fisher's ex-boss, police chief Kramer (Wells), is trying to put it all back together again, but clearly he is doing it as a racket, the horse's head symbolism of the local cult he is investigating pointedly highlighting his methods. "To them it's a ritual," he tells Fisher. "To me, it's a crime." A derelict European paradigm cannot disguise the violence of human impulses. "Do you believe that I'm in the middle of Europe, screwing a Volkswagen 1200?" Fisher asks his therapist. The work of J G Ballard is invoked not only via the novels The Drowned World (January 1962 Science Fiction Adventures; exp 1962) and Crash (1973) but in the pervasive atmosphere of compromised medical authority.

"Where did you get your training: Auschwitz?" asks Fisher of the police coroner (Herskó), who, it seems, takes a little too much joy in his work. Fisher himself claims to "believe in joy". There is little else left to believe in. Discarded European objects litter every scene: empty bottles, abandoned children, blank sheets of paper. The film was conceived and made at the time techniques of deconstruction were reaching the high-water mark of their influence in disciplines as diverse as architecture (via constructivism), psychoanalysis and film theory. Director Lars von Trier employs sf tropes and those of film noir the way French philosopher Jacques Derrida quotes Friedrich Nietzsche's famous interrogation of Aristotle's "light as truth" metaphor in 1972 essay White Mythology:

"What then is truth [ie, what then is sf]? A mobile army of [...] worn out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses, coins which have their obverse effaced and now are no longer of account as coins but merely as metal."

By the end of the film, there is little meaningful distance between Fisher and the crimes he is investigating. In a Europe ravaged by Holocaust, we are all of us the criminals. The Element of Crime was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival and won the Jury's Grand Technical Prize. It went on to form the first part of a trilogy completed by Epidemic (1987) and Europa (1991). [MD]

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