The Element of Crime (1984)


The Element of Crime Storyline

Fisher, an ex-cop, returns to his old beat somewhere in northern Europe after a thirteen-year hiatus in Cairo. His former mentor and role model, author of a treatise called “The Element of Crime”, asks him to solve a series of murders involving lottery ticket sellers. Guided by the theories put forth in the book, Fischer retraces the steps of a suspect, Harry Grey, as recorded in a three-year-old police surveillance report.—Eddi Sommer

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The Element of Crime Movie Reviews

I’m gonna f8ck you back to the stone age.

How to describe a film so avant-garde that Dirk Bogarde threatened to quit the Cannes jury if it got an award? A film that references Blade runner, with a burned-out cop (Michael Elphick) brought back into a futuristic Europe to find a serial killer. A film that has been described by some as “The Silence of the Lambs” meets “Delicatessen”.

Fans of David Lynch may thrill at this futuristic film noir. Many will run for the exits, as it takes quite a bit of time to develop.

It is Lars von Trier’s first English-language film, and it is in a sepia-tone that adds to the feeling that Europe is crumbling. Water is an element that flows throughout, again adding to the feeling that something is rotten.

Elphick hooks up with Me Me Lai in her last film. She had done a lot of cannibal work before this – an interesting combination of actors.

Elphick goes into a experimental drug-induced hypnotic state to try and recreate the crimes and catch the killer. Things get really surreal from here.

Cinematography, sound, and special effects were all superb in this very strange film.

Schmuck of Ages

Hypnosis and criminology get the once over in this highly disturbing first entry from maverick film-maker Von Trier. A washed up profiler returns home to a post-apocalyptic Europe from Cairo to investigate “The Lotto Girl” murders and becomes determined to prove the methods of his mentor (who has since gone mad) in catching the serial killer. Odes to Hitchcock and other classic film noir abound.

Von Trier manipulates every aspect of every shot (the use of color tones is especially alarming) to create a totally fantasized vision of psychological torture. This, much like his follow up masterpiece, “Zentropa” is the polar opposite of his “no frills” Dogma classics of more recent years “Breaking the Waves” and “Dancer in the Dark.” Love them or loathe them, you can’t deny the talent and thought that went into making these drastically different works or film art.

Unfortunately, by setting “The Element of Crime” in such a vaguely distant future (I can only guess this is Europe in nuclear winter) and pacing the film to be so hypnotically listless, there really is no heart to this film. “Zentropa” had historical context and better executed tension, and is thus far superior. The only context “The Element of Crime” has is someone else’s nightmare.

The screenplay seems to be ahead of its time, as there are many depressingly cynical one-liners that David Fincher wish he had put in “Fight Club.” That is the only hint of humor at all to break the oppressive feel of this film, and it is very very dark and nihilistic humor at that. Alas, while you can study and find value in the technical aspects of this film, there is no “joy” to be found, and we, much like the protagonist must awaken from this film nightmare by screaming “I believe in joy!”

Side Notes: ala Hitchcock, Von Trier has a cameo as “the schmuck of ages.”

the crazy European murder investigate blues of Lars von Trier

Few feature-directorial debuts can astound so greatly and at the same time puzzle so much in a sense of the macabre. The Element of Crime relishes, bathes in the unusual in cinematographic technique, while giving new meaning to a science-fiction ‘neo-noir’. The plot seems simple enough: man on a case to hunt down a killer, and using a code called the ‘Element of Crime’ to get into the headspace of the killer, follows a list of ‘trailing’ of the killer to get to him step-by-step. The cop, Fisher, is so wrapped up in the case that it starts to bleed into the rest of the environment around him, a barren landscape with criminals all over the place and a architectural sense of madness (anarchy, we’re told, rules over freedom in this unnamed city).

It is simple enough, and at times von Trier gives us information to keep to where it’s going. But it’s strangely a hard story to follow because of how much the director is fond much more of the technique at his disposal. This is an experiment that makes Alphaville look comfy. It’s slow camera movements, sometimes echoing (if not outright ripping off) the sense of the calm, meditative movement of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. And some of the movements and manner of speaking of the characters just go off the wall. Nothing is of the usual here, and the actors perform their lines, while very well, sometimes in a trance. Other times we get the narration, of sorts, between Fisher and his former boss or other back in Cairo. It is a story that does dig into the mystery, and we can follow it with some engagement, but that’s not fully, I think, von Trier’s intention.

What he does, as a precursor of his future work, is to get us in a state of mind. Some will want to walk away from it, and I don’t blame you if you do. Element of Crime confronts the viewer without doing a talk-to-the-camera moment. It’s about the tone and look of the piece, its sepia decay, a view of Europe that is about as hopeful as an orphan bonfire. And yet it is incredibly compelling in how von Trier gets us, as a filmmaker, interesting in what happens in this world. It’s got a confounding beauty and horrific wonder about it, an expressionist going through a somber melody that is far from ‘entertaining’, but carries an artistic pulse that is frighteningly alive. That it also carries the guts of a hardboiled film-noir always lurking in the shadows marks it as a hybrid. Perhaps it’s like a fever dream of one of those stories or movies where an anti-hero is fully transformed and made damned.

The Element of Crime made me weirded out at certain points, and horrified by some of the extremes shown (i.e. the death of a horse, a constantly rotating camera around Fisher in manic pain, a glass breaking in a shot that seems to be from another one). Certain times I almost didn’t know whether I loved it or hated it. By the end, after stewing about it for a while, I realized I was in the middle. It’s a film I’ll want to return to, and I’ll be curious to see my own response to it – a rich film of dark, even mortifying shades.