Though I called this a review in the title, I’m really writing this as an essay and it is best read by those who has already seen the movie. My goal is to attempt to shine some light on the film, which has previously evaded in-depth critical attention (Peter Cowie’s essay for the Criterion edition excluded). I’ll do some conventional film analysis, proposing some possible readings and interpretations for The Element of Crime by discussing the plot, references and symbolism. The analysis will serve as a springboard for the second part, which will mention the ways that Trier’s personality and directorial style interface with the film itself.
NOTE: The element of crime has a variety of contexts in this discussion. For the purpose of clarity when writing the phrase, italics will be used for the film’s title, double quotes for the book within the film and single quotes for the criminology method described by the book.
The film takes place entirely within a hypnosis-induced flashback and concerns the investigation of a child serial killer, known as the “lotto murderer,” who has been terrorizing Germany. Chief Inspector Kramer has called Detective Fisher back from Cairo (after 13 years exile) to solve the case following the failure of his mentor, Osborne. Fisher discovers that Osborne suspected a man named Harry Grey (who apparently died in a car accident) and was re-enacting his journey using a tailing report from three years earlier when Grey first laid his groundwork for the murders. Using Osborne’s controversial method known as ‘The Element of Crime’ (a dangerous psychological technique for getting deep into the mindset of the killer) Fisher picks up where Osborne left off. During his investigation, Fisher teams up with an Asian prostitute named Kim and moves inexorably closer to the truth… and to madness, not unlike his mentor.
[PLOT SPOILERS next paragraph.]
The Element of Crime is told in a cryptic style, full of symbols, allusions, ambiguities and contradictions. The lighting is done with high-pressure sodium bulbs  that lend the film an orange tone (quite a bit more intense than sepia) broken only occasionally by highlights of green or blue. The shooting was done exclusively at night, usually during the rain. The narration is in strict monotone that distances the audience from any emotional connection to the characters. The camerawork is highly experimental, with a preponderance of overhead shots. The mise-en-scene is dense and disturbing, full of abandoned buildings, pools of dripping water, dead and dying horses and, everywhere, the decrepit and broken artifacts of decaying post-war Europe. Almost every minor character is bald.
Both the plot and the style refuse passive consumption and easy interpretation. In trying to understand what its all about, I’ll expose some of the many references (both to film and to literature) and analyze the symbolic value of three of the film’s reoccurring motifs: water, bungee jumping and primates.
Within the first five minutes of the film, Lars Von Trier exercises his familiarity with European art cinema. The opening images of a horse thrashing about, replicates a similar shot from Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966)  and foreshadows the use of horses as a reoccurring image throughout the film. Tarkovsky can be considered as a “European” filmmaker by tradition if not by birth. As the protagonist’s hypnosis begins, the camera makes a slow overhead trip past objects eroding underwater, a homage to a similar sequence in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). This technique (a deliberately paced, birds-eye-view shot that migrates horizontally over decaying vistas) reappears throughout the film and instills an atmosphere of calculated dread and tragic fate, emphasizing the gradual, but meticulous, inevitability with which nature corrodes the works of man.
The opening hypnosis scene also recalls two of Trier’s favorite filmmakers. The strange Cairo-Germany connections within the film are reminiscent of German director Werner Herzog’s The Engima of Kaspar Hauser (1975) that concerns an idiot-savant untouched by civilization and haunted by ethereal visions of Egypt (shot, like the fragmentary images of Cairo in The Element of Crime, on 8mm stock that contrasts with the rest of the film). In Herzog’s next film, Heart of Glass (1976), the equally audacious director placed his entire cast under hypnosis to drain them of affect (like the monotone narration of The Element of Crime) and create a dreamlike ambience. Trier frames his film within the tale of a hypnotized patient to similar ends, blending the rural doomsday in Heart of Glass into the urban menaces of modern noir. Years later, Herzog would return the nod by appearing in the dogma film Julien Donkey-Boy. In interviews , Trier is also quick to credit his idol, Carl Theodor Dreyer, who used hypnotism in Gertrud (1965).
Trier’s references don’t extend merely to his filmmaking forbearers. The Element of Crime is littered with dozens of quotes that range from children’s nursery rhymes like “Oranges and Lemons” and “This is the house that Jack built” to serious poetry like Ludwig Uhland’s melancholic war remembrance “I Had a Comrade” (partially recited within the film by Osborne, in its original German) and a section of “In the Greenest of the Valleys” by Edgar Allen Poe (another Trier favorite) that is so obscure that even the Criterion edition of the DVD incorrectly transcribes the quote. Here it is corrected:
These quotes serve several purposes at once. On a purely aural level, they help modulate the tone of the film, adding to the timeless unsettling ambience. There is a hint of Brechtian alienation, not just in the obscurity of the lines, but in the failure to integrate them (except thematically) into the story. One might be tempted to see them as little more than pretentious red-herrings, dropped to give the impression of erudition and sophistication, except that in the hands of Trier, they share equal footing with Mother Goose, TV shows like Kojak (1973 – 1978)  and popular sex jokes. Rather, the eclectic sources that Trier draws from seem to represent Western cultural output taken as a whole. Nothing is spared, from animals to art; from architecture to morality. In Osborne’s insane final request to burn all the books in his library and all the papers of his life’s work, we can see Trier’s vision of a collapsing civilization feeding the flames of their Earthly hell with the detritus of their former cultural glory.
Reading the term “element” as literally as possible (one can not overlook playful word games when dealing with Trier), one would quickly conclude that the element of crime is water. Water serves as the principle guiding motif of the entire film, saturating nearly every location. A canal runs by Osborne’s house, the police headquarters’ archive is flooded, the harbor, the ferry, the Dive and the tunnel of love are dominated by bodies of water. Rain pours down over every set in between. The extreme wetness of Germany lies in sharp contrast to the implied dryness of Cairo, where Fisher speaks of the city being entirely “sanded over.”
Water serves as a menacing figure within the film, aligned with the powers that erode and corrode. Far from being a symbol of purity and cleansing, water in The Element of Crime is a taxing and burdensome obstacle filled with filth, wreckage and death (several shots show the real corpses of horses floating in the murky depths). It provides no relief (as Fisher says, quoting “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.”) and indeed, seems to transmit the murderous tendencies of Harry Grey like a disease. Water is also a conduit for the malaise and fatalism of the locals, whose single athletic activity is a dangerous ritual known as The Dive.
The Dive is probably the second most conspicuous facet of the film if one notes how tangential it is to the primary plot. It entails jumping from a giant crane poised above a shallow lake with a rope tied around the ankle. Trier was familiar with bungee jumping (it was first done publicly in 1979 and from a crane in 1982) even at this early date. Like in the film, the real-life leapers were arrested immediately afterwards.  Inspector Kramer seems to have an extreme distaste for the activity, saying early on that, “They call it a ritual. I call it crime.” This grey zone between religiosity and illegality plagues Fisher throughout the film, as he follows Osborne’s dangerous path into madness with almost religious reverence. Trier’s fascination with this duality informs much of the film, and inspires him to treat the local who performs The Dive at the end of the film with special attention. The shot shows the jumper from below and savors his plummet in slow motion, imbuing the image with an almost holy aura of despair and finality. As the rope goes taut, the jumpers muscle are jarred violently and a spray of blood is vomited from his mouth. As he bobs up and down, hanging from his ankle, we are reminded of the scene early in the film where a horse is pulled by its hoof from the harbor. In the former scene, the nightmarish image of the thrashing animal flesh is exterminated with brutal precision by a police sniper. The jumper is assailed by the police in his own turn, as Kramer’s men swarm over the lake. They also discover Osborne’s body under the crane, hanging lifeless by the neck in a grim parody of The Dive.
In Trier’s film, The Dive is an act of suicide brought on by the insanity consuming the town. It is a ritual and a crime all rolled into one. The Dive shows the emotional depths of despair to which we can sink as much as it displays the physical heights from which we can fall. It is in The Dive that we begin to see the human element that is so absent in the film’s tone.
This reminds me of to mention the most frequently cited complaints about The Element of Crime: its cold, emotionless surface, devoid of humanity and wickedly inaccessible. How is it that ‘The Element of Crime’ can allow Fisher to connect so intimately with Harry Grey and yet the film never allows us to even marginally connect with Fisher? Within the stifling madness of this civilization gone to hell, humanity and emotions have nowhere to grow. In The Element of Crime, mankind is living under the perfect conditions for crime, in a sick world where humans are reduced to primitive their primitive instincts. Man becomes mere flesh. Trier’s camera takes a fetishistic interest in the perspiring skin and ubiquitously shaved heads of the supporting cast.
Nothing is left of “humanity” in this landscape except the basic primal drives of sex and aggression. Harry Grey, Osborne and Fisher are driven to these extremes in sequence, all of them indulging in rough, animalistic sex with Kim (note the blood we always see afterwards) and the murder of young girls. This reverse-evolution towards the unrestrained Id is given a visual metaphor by the primates that appear at the beginning and end of the film. In the opening, we see a monkey perched on the shoulder of the hypnotist, little more than a cliché until it is given relevance by the final image. In the bizarre and ambiguous concluding shot, Fisher opens the lid of a drain and sees a shivering lemur in the bottom of the hole. The sight of the exotic creature ensnared in a terrible impersonal prison, echoes the cries of the trapped protagonist as he begs, to no avail, to be awakened from hypnosis. The animal could have been anything, and a lemur is an unusual choice, especially since the monkey from the opening scene would likely still be available. An astute zoologist will note that lemurs are prosimians, an evolutionary notch behind simians (the order that includes both the monkey at the beginning of the film and humans) . Within the internal logic of the film, mankind regresses backwards to a state before the first glimmer of self-awareness, and thus modern morality. This is the last stop in the tailing report, the final conclusion of using ‘The Element of Crime.’
Having made some progress into what the film is about, one is still left with the question of why. For what purpose does Trier lead us through his nightmare vision of a Europe lost within its own physical and spiritual apocalypse? Lars Von Trier’s motives have always been, and likely will always be, suspect. Many critics have dismissed The Element of Crime as simply “art for art’s sake,” an empty exercise in style and imagery. While Trier doesn’t bother to refute, and even tends to enjoy the idea, the accusation is too easy and too lazy. It is an excuse to avoid thinking about the film or studying it closely. It is an excuse for not taking the risk that it might all be a practical joke engineered by Trier upon audiences (not realizing that this is half the fun).
I continue to hold that it is a mistake to dismiss The Element of Crime as meaningless example of art for its own sake. The references and influences that Trier uses show a high level of historical awareness and a pessimistic engagement with the popular art cinema theme of cultural decay and collapse. Trier’s visual motifs carry with them a host of meanings and interpretations. As a completed film, The Element of Crime is an effective thriller, a technical masterpiece and an engaging exploration of Trier’s enigmatic personality, personal interests and pet themes. In the end, we may not know all the secrets behind the director’s mind, but maybe it is better this way. As long as he continues to be a curious and talented puzzle, he is sure to continue creating fresh and provocative works. The Element of Crime is certainly a promising example of how a director can turn inward, to find influences, references, symbolism and imagery that are fascinating to the individual, and to express these outwardly in creating films that are fascinating for the open-minded.
Walrus Rating: 9.5