The Element of Crime (1984): Part I of Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier's Europe Trilogy

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews 

The Element of Crime aka Forbrydelsens element, Directed by Lars von Trier
The Element of Crime (1984) - By Lars von Trier
Our Rating: 9.5
IMDb Ratings: 6.8
Genre: Crime | Drama| Thriller
CastMichael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Me Me Lai
Country: Denmark
Language: English | Arabic
Runtime: 104 minutes
Color: Black and White (tinted) |  Color
The Element of Crime, also known as Forbrydelsens element, is a 1984 crime film directed by Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier that also marked his international debut. The Element of Crime is the first installment in von Trier’s highly acclaimed Europe Trilogy—the other two being Epidemic (1987) and Europa (1991). The Element of Crime was also nominated for the coveted Palme d’Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival—an honor that many of von Trier’s subsequent movies have been bestowed with. Renowned for his exceedingly unconventional and visually stimulating style that often reminds one of Andrei Tarkovsky, Lars von Trier is unarguably the most influential filmmaker to have emerged out of Denmark since Dreyer. And just like Tarkovsky, von Trier’s singular works of cinematic art generally come across as mysterious, bizarre, and often inscrutable to the less keen audience. And, The Element of Crime is no exception!

the element of crime, Michael Elphick as Fisher, Me Me Lai as Kim, Directed by Lars von Trier, Europe Trilogy
The Element of Crime: Fisher and Kim
The Element of Crime presents the story of a European police detective whose morbid obsession for the criminal investigatory methods of his mentor makes him question the veracity of his own existence as he slowly gets engulfed in a miasma of delirium and paranoia. After being a part of the diaspora for 13 years in the Egyptian city of Cairo, Fisher returns to his homeland—depicted as a European dystopia—to uncover the mystery involving the ghastly ‘Lotto Murders’ perpetrated by a psychopathic serial killer who is known to strangulate and then mutilate his girl victims, a case that was initially assigned to Fisher’s former mentor and the controversial author of a treatise termed ‘The Element of Crime’ (a dangerous Freudian technique used to dig deep into the mind of the killer). On meeting Osborne, Fisher realizes that his once brilliant mentor has now been reduced to the state of a mentally retarded dotard.

the element of crime, Michael Elphick as Fisher,  Esmond Knight as Osborne, Directed by Lars von Trier, Europe Trilogy
A Still from The Element of Crime
Fisher discovers that Osborne, during his investigation of the Lotto Murders, had suspected a man named Harry Grey. Fisher uses Osborne’s tailing report—an itinerary of the journey undertaken by Harry Grey three years earlier, a period during which Harry probably formulated the master plan for the Lotto Murders—and The Element of Crime to start his investigation. Fisher travels across the dystopian land retracing the route highlighted in the tailing report. During his investigation, Fisher gets amorously involved with an Asian prostitute named Kim who seems to be the missing link between Osborne’s incomplete investigation and Harry Grey. As Fisher closes in on the truth, his obsession for Osborne’s method takes a morbid form as he, much like his mentor, starts to grow more and more paranoid and delirious. Lars von Trier—in what would form the basis of The Europe Trilogy—describes the events in the movie in form of a hypnosis-induced-flashback with Fisher trying to recall the events of his last case with the help of a hypnotherapist in Cairo.

the element of crime, Me Me Lai as Kim, Directed by Lars von Trier, Europe Trilogy
A Still from The Element of Crime
The Element of Crime is cryptic, bizarre, hypnotic, ambiguous, contradicting and at times absurd, and perhaps that’s what makes it so brilliant, unique and engaging at all levels. The movie’s experimental camerawork is highly reminiscent of Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Von Trier films the movie in an orange monochrome, occasionally punctuated by shafts of green and blue—a facet that inexplicably reminds of Tarkovsky’s use of the sepia tone in Stalker (1979). But, the similarity between von Trier’s The Element of Crime and Tarkovsky’s Stalker is not merely limited to the color tone. The water-drenched dystopian landscape in The Element of Crime bears an uncanny similarity to ‘the Zone’ in Stalker. The tunnel called ‘Meat Grinder’ in Stalker that’s known to thwart the advances of the Zone’s visitors happens to share a similar analogy with the mental tunnel that seems to block Fisher’s thoughts during his investigation. 
the element of crime, Michael Elphick as Fisher, Me Me Lai as Kim, Lars von Trier cameo, Directed by Lars von Trier, Europe Trilogy
Lars von Trier's cameo in The Element of Crime
In fact, it would be safe to concede that von Trier’s mise en scene seems to be a well thought-out variation of the Russian master’s mise en scene in Stalker. But, von Trier’s The Element of Crime doesn’t degrade itself by merely trying to imitate Tarkovsky’s genre-redefining, existential masterpiece, but, on the contrary, it makes a solemn attempt  to use Stalker’s framework to manifest something more eerie, vivid and nebulous. Lars von Trier has been a great admirer of Tarkovsky's work. He once said of the Russian maestro, “I was very inspired by Tarkovsky. I won't make any bones about that. I saw an excerpt from The Mirror (Zerkalo) on Swedish television once, just a travelling shot around that house, and that was one of those ‘I’ll be damned’ experiences.” It's only befitting that Lars von Trier dedicated his 2009 horror drama, Antichrist to Andrei Tarkovsky.

the element of crime, camera, lighting, Michael Elphick as Fisher, Directed by Lars von Trier, Europe Trilogy
A Still from The Element of Crime
Overall, The Element of Crime despite being rife with analogies, symbolisms and allegories serves to be a consummate cinematic experience for the intelligent viewer. The Element of Crime is a psychological thriller, part character-study, part police procedural with surrealistic overtones that’s intellectually and technically superior to most movies of its kind. The Element of Crime catapults the viewer in a Kafkaesque world of breathtaking visuals, bizarre juxtapositions and endless absurdities. The Element of Crime is a difficult movie to watch and is surely not meant for those who are looking for a popcorn flick to spend a cozy evening in a dormant state of mind. The movie demands attention and may require the viewer to contemplate long after it is over. It’s a movie that the less keen viewer may like to skip, but it definitely serves to be a rewarding experience for those who understand and value thought-provoking cinema.

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  

Note: The readers are encouraged to watch The Element of Crime back to back with Europa. The review of Europa can be read here

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  1. Very nice review. Have watched Epidemic and Europa, somehow missed this one. Will watch it soon. Have u watched Lars Von Trier's 'Kingdom' TV series. I watched few episodes, it looks interesting.

  2. Thanks Arun for sharing your valuable thoughts! Unfortunately, I am yet to explore the series, but will surely give it a shot asap :-)

  3. Yet to watch...Only heard about it.
    Thanks for reminding. So this week would be the time for watching the trilogy. :)

  4. Well, rest assured that you will be up for an enthralling!!! :-)

  5. I have finally watched "Element of Crime". Intriguing, haunting, richly satisfying and exhausting work from Von Trier. Yeah, as you said the visual style reminded me of "Stalker". It was a very mature work (especially for a 28 year old film-maker) and as like his other films, I need to watch it at least one more time to grasp the themes. The last image of 'lemur' in the sewer (which Fisher discovers) stayed with my mind. Do you know what does this lemur (or whatever animal it is) signify?

  6. It's been quite some time that I had last watched it... perhaps, I need to revisit it in order to fully decipher the significance of the last image. Btw, I am really glad that you finally watched it!!! :-)


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