Saturday, January 26, 2008

Review of The Element of Crime

Danish film director Lars Von Trier has remained one of the most consistently controversial and provocative filmmakers of modern times and can even take much of the credit for an entire movement: Dogma 95. Yet despite cutting a sharp international profile, Trier remains largely an enigma and his films are often difficult to gage or interpret. He is fickle, inflammatory and often silent about his motives, sincerity and meaning. For these reason, many of his films match their maker in mysteriousness and inscrutability, and none so thoroughly as his debut film: The Element of Crime (1984).

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.

[Image: A series of early double-exposures provides a disjointed account of the murder case so far. In this shot, the fire from an actual car crash is superimposed over a photo of a crash.]

[PLOT SPOILERS next paragraph.]

After determining that the crime scenes are forming the letter H (as seen from a map), Fisher lays a trap for Grey at the seventh and final point that would complete the pattern. While waiting with a young girl selected as bait, Fisher accidentally drops the killer’s calling card, which he had picked up at the scene of the first crime. The girl panics and screams and Fisher suffocates her while attempting to keep her quiet. Some time later, Kramer reveals that Osborne was responsible for the sixth murder and mistakenly credits the final one to him as well. Kim is revealed to be Harry Grey’s former wife, and briefly the wife of Osborne as well. Fisher is left free, but unable to wake from his session of hypnosis. He has, like Osborne, become the elusive murderer he sought to capture and now remains trapped within his own nightmare flashback.

[Images: Fischer’s revelation that Oswald has a child (Top) immediately cuts to the detective pulling up to the latest crimes scene (Bottom). The shots are linked by a curious graphic match in which Fischer’s car mimics the arrival and crash of a toy car (visible at the bottom of the top image.).]

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 [1] 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.

[Image: (Top) A blue light flickers on the ceiling. (Bottom) A TV plays an old video of Oswald attempting to solve the lotto murders.]

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.

[Image: In this ever-raining, ever-saturated Germany, the sand that spills from Fischer’s leg cuffs will be his only reminder of his life back home in Egypt.]

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) [2] 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.

[Image: Kim lying in a corona of light bulbs. One of many disconcerting overhead shots.]

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 [1], 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:

“In the monarch thought’s dominion. It stood there. Never seraph spread a pinion over fabric half so fair.”

The brooding Poe poem, taken in full, evokes images of desolation and decay; the remainder of a once-great kingdom brought down by evil creatures. At one point, Trier even has Fisher quoting James Joyce’s modernist landmark, “Finnegan’s Wake.”

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) [2] 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.

However, the apocalyptic reading of The Element of Crime only gets at the feel of the film; a deeper look at some of the film’s reoccurring images is necessary to provide further insight. The title seems to be the single most important key, as the plot hinges upon the titular criminology technique that Osborne has developed. There are several scenes in which a glowing blue television screen plays a tape of old interviews with Osborne. In these interviews, and ones that Fisher has in person, Osborne suggests that crime is like a chemical reaction that can only occur under precise conditions. This is the “element” of crime, the environment in which it propagates like a contagious disease. In Trier’s own words, “The element of crime is the force of nature that intrudes upon and somehow invades people’s morals.”

[Image: Scenes of people shooting or screaming into the darkness form a motif of utter desperation throughout the film.]

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.”

[Images: The perpetual rain swamps nearly every set piece, including the police archives where Fischer drifts about, discarding documents into the waterfall the pours from the abandoned elevator shaft.]

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.

[Image: An abandoned factory completely filled with empty upright bottles...]

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. [3] 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.

[Image: Before taking 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.

[Image: After taking the Dive.]

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 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.
[Image: Trier (right) makes a bald-headed cameo.]

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) [3]. 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.’

[Images: (Top) The opening scene, the only one set in the waking world, depicts a monkey (on the hypnotist’s shoulder). (Bottom) The disturbing final image of a lemur trapped in a drain pipe.]

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).

Another common reading is to assume that Trier has no other intention but to provoke; that he is just trying to shock and disturb audiences. This claim is equally useless, failing to throw any real light on the film. Trier suggests a far more compelling word than “provocation” as his goal in his first public manifesto, published to coincide with the release of The Element of Crime on May 3rd, 1984. In a prolonged metaphor about the relationship of directors and their films, Trier suggests that the key to invigorating their artistic marriage is “fascination.” [1] The word seems perfectly suited to describing Trier’s own alacrity for composing images and presenting information. His films sparkle with the intensity of a director who, whatever the end result, loves to make movies.

So why The Element of Crime specifically? Why did Lars Von Trier decided to make that precise film and in that precise style? In many ways, it feels like The Element of Crime isn’t made for audiences: it certainly isn’t particularly easy to enjoy. Instead, the film seems like a highly personal project (as debut films often are), an investigation into what fascinates the young director. In this way, ‘The Element of Crime’ gets us inside the head of Lars Von Trier more so than Harry Grey. It’s all there: the technical craftsmanship that interested him so much as a child (He played with double exposures and dreamed of building a crane from wood [4]), the obsession with Europe and hypnosis that reappears in Epidemic and Europa, the references to his favorite directors and poets, the love of noir, the need for meticulous control of every detail. Trier invested so much of himself in The Element of Crime that it isn’t surprising that it fascinated him while being inscrutable to almost everyone else. Maybe the reason why Trier’s films are always so unusual, controversial and varied is that he’s always making movies about whatever interests him at the moment of filming. Trier is often notorious for his ego, and it must certainly take an enormous ego for a director to think that he is the only audience that matters. As a result, however, his films are much more interesting than those hoping to perfect a blockbuster formula for maximizing viewer demographics.

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

Work Cited:

1) Bjorkman, Stig. 1999. Trier on von Trier. London: Faber Limited; 274p.

2) Cowie, Peter. 2000. The Element of Crime (DVD insert). Criterion Collection.

3) Wikipedia. May 8, 2006. Bungee Jumping. Lemurs. Available from:

4) Stevenson, Jack. 2002. World Directors: Lars Von Trier. London: BFI; 216p.


Patti said...

I was tempted to write a short review of your review/essay and explore your influences and subtle references as a reviewer after I detected a paraphrase of one of OMD's best albums, Architecture and Morality. In case the reference was unconscious (and thus making for an even more interesting postmodern commentary) and you forgot where it is, it's around the middle where you are talking about his sources of quotes (even more full of meaning for my purposes).

FilmWalrus said...

Good spot on the OMD reference. Possibly a little more obvious was my over-use of lists in the Zed&2Noughts paper that covers Greenaways love of lists. I once wrote a college paper on John Woo's "The Killer" that intentionally borrowed his bombastic, over-blown style translated into its essay equivalent. The TA hated the implicit structural experiment and gave me my worst grade. Still, my love of postmodernity knows few bounds and I still occassionally use the form-follows-content technique.

I would be very flattered and amused to see you do a review of one my reviews. As for subtle references, I am sure many are unconscious and many should be ascribed to the million-typing-monkeys effect, but our shared environment has certainly helped shape our style and influences in interestingly simular ways.

John and I have tossed around the idea of doing a satiric recursive review-of-review-of-review-etc sometime. The inspiration comes from the conversation you and I had with Josh Potter.

Patti said...

Reviews on reviews are great.
Commenting on style in the same style is great.
Your TAs consistently sound like fools.
Postmodernism makes me feel good. Most people seem not to understand that.
I think it's fair to say our brain processes share quite a number of similarities.

megaMUERTE said...

Congrats for this extensive review. Great points of view you have. I just finished watching this beatiful, strange film and helped me a lot.

megaMUERTE said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mrs meows said...

Excellent, thoughtful and extremely helpful review! Thank you. 😊

Manuel said...

Wonderfully smart and very helpful review!