The Element of Crime

The Element of Crime

 

The Element of Crime 

1984. Directed by Lars von Trier.

Trier's first feature film and the first part of his Europa trilogy, The Element of Crime is a post apocalyptic noir mystery that explores the dark side of idealistic interference.  

Fisher is an exiled detective living in Cairo.  He uses hypnosis to remember details about his last case involving a serial killer.  Using his disgraced mentor's book, The Element of Crime, as a guide for his investigation, Fisher begins to track down the killer by embodying him, thus taking him dangerously close to becoming a killer himself.  

Tone is everything in this film.  Tom Elling's cinematography is drenched in sepia with occasional blue neon splashes.  Everything is ruined and broken, with the city reflecting those who dwell within.  The city is in enveloped in constant darkness and rain, paying homage to the noir pot boilers of the golden age.  Fisher narrates the story, guiding the viewer through the corridors of his sanity with possibly unreliable intent,  This however, is where the story departs from it's predecessors.  

On the surface, von Trier and Niel Vorsei's convoluted script seems to be mystery out of time.  As the narrative progresses, however, the film's insidious purpose becomes clear.  The idea of memory creating an alternate reality in which guilt and obsession are virtues and not flaws is the heart of The Element of Crime.  The possible elemental destruction of Europe is used as a symbol to the pain and suffering good intentions often yield when dedication mutates into recklessness.  

So many films take the concept of the burdened cop, teacher, civil servant, etc. and use them as statements on the failures of bureaucracy and the justice system.  Von Trier's genius with this film is that he chooses the opposite route without being preachy.   This is a singular story, a cautionary fable about the opposite end of the moral rainbow and it's searing, horrifying conclusion cements it's message like a metaphysical mack truck, barreling through the audience's barriers of comfort with an odd sense of precision.   It's a cacophony of madness in dingy closet with no exits.  

Available now for digital rental or on DVD via the Criterion Collection, Lars von Trier's The Element of Crime is one of a kind mystery film that leaves you with more questions than answers.  It's these lingering questions that make it an important film for fans of the noir genre who are looking for an experience whose summation is to explore not only what's on the screen, but the big questions about right and wrong that challenge us everyday.  

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