It’s common for a filmmaker to start out their career with an audience film. More specifically, a genre piece… An entertainment. There are exceptions, of course, but by and large it’s a natural inclination to want to come out of the gate swinging, with a desire to impress. Martin Scorsese eventually made a variety of films. Some commercial, others more personal. But the first major film he made was for Roger Corman. Spielberg is the most successful American director in film history; and the first feature he made was a thriller called Duel.
In any case, those are probably not the best examples; and they are most definitely not examples to use in comparison with Lars Von Trier, who has ultimately built an entire career on not being like most other filmmakers. The general consensus is that he “doesn’t care” what people think. But, like any serious artist, he does. And he most certainly cares about his vision because he will express it at all costs. What he doesn’t care about is who his audience is. He is confident the work will find its audience.
But the interesting thing to consider when looking at his debut film is just how much it has in common with most debuts. It is a flashy genre film in which he wears his influences and passions on his sleeve as clearly (and perhaps even defiantly) as someone like Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson. Both those celebrated American filmmakers started out by making gangster films. Well, Lars Von Trier’s first film is, lo and behold, a thriller. That it is as unique and unconventional as any of his subsequent works is beside the point right now. I simply want to emphasize that, his first time at bat, Lars Von Trier also made an audience picture.
It’s almost comical, however, to imagine that he expected his particular crime film to be embraced in the same manner as any other slice of pulp entertainment, like the one he was presumably offering. As far as he’s concerned, this is a Hitchcock film. This is a slick, exciting potboiler in the noir detective tradition.
It is none of those things, of course.
And I don’t want to give the impression that Von Trier is unaware. Very clearly, he set out to use familiar genre trappings to explore his own perspectives with regards to filmmaking and storytelling. And he very explicitly has stated that “the plot is like a book cover” and how he means his particular genre film to “venture into places most genre films don’t go.” But, at the same time, he has every intention of engaging the viewer in a traditional manner. Whether they want to be engaged or not.
Let’s consider the opening scene, for instance…
The film opens in what we know to be Cairo, as a psychologist interviews the protagonist and cues him to begin telling the story. The opening shots are point-of-view shots. The viewer is the protagonist. From that point on, Von Trier seems to expect a viewer/protagonist connection. It is true that a key element to any piece of fiction is identification with the story’s hero. But to so blatantly force the viewer into that position, especially considering the dark places this hero ventures into, is almost combative.
Now then… What is The Element of Crime?
As the title might suggest, it is a mystery film. It’s a basic detective story of a gumshoe investigating a series of brutal murders. In that sense, it has everything in common with the work of Raymond Chandler, for example. Or the aforementioned Hitchcock.
Detective Fisher (Michael Elphic) returns to Europe, after a being exiled for a time in Egypt, to investigate a killer preying on young girls. Along the way, he gets romantically involved with a prostitute named Kim (Meme Lai) and has to butt heads with the corrupt and oppressive police force, represented by his nemesis – a hot-headed cop named Kramer (Jerold Wells). As the investigation deepens, Fisher finds himself drawn into a dark world and begins to feel a strange connection with his chief suspect – a shady figure known as Harry Grey.
That short paragraph could be the synopsis for any number of slick potboilers produced in and outside of Hollywood from the decade of the 1940s to the present day. There is even a “twist” at the climax meant to give a new perspective to everything that came before; in the tradition of all the great mystery thrillers. But that is precisely where the similarities end. Because, in form and content, it is entirely an exploration and dissection of detective fiction, rather than an actual, functional piece of that genre.
Consider the title.
Ostensibly, it comes from a book written by a character named Osborne (Esmond Knight), who is a mentor figure to the detective hero. This mentor has written a psychological study called “The Element of Crime,” which explores a killer’s motivation. The “element” referring to either his environment or state of mind – that which compels him to commit a criminal act.
I suppose this is interesting in and of itself as a central concept. Especially since the investigation basically involves the detective having to put himself in the killer’s shoes. Again… Standard procedure for a noir thriller. But what’s really interesting is how the title applies quite literally to the film itself. Because it is a narrative made up entirely of genre elements, rather than built on a conventional story thread.
The characters are all archetypes of film noir: The stoic detective who keeps his emotions buried… The old friend and mentor, who may have sinister secrets… The femme fatale… The corrupt police captain…
And then come the elements of form. Dramatic camera angles… Repeated scenes of breaking glass; and gun shots echoing in the shadows… A woman screaming into the night… Constant rainfall… Eternal darkness…
All complemented with an eerie, melodramatic musical score.
These elements are there not as artifice to enhance and add flavor, as would be the case in a conventional film. But, rather, the film is all artifice. The elements exist only in service of themselves. They are there because they’re supposed to be.
Early on, I mentioned Tarantino and P.T. Anderson. It has often been said of these filmmakers that their stock in trade is to make “movies about movies.” I might argue the point if we’re talking about Anderson. But I would be 100% in agreement regarding Tarantino, who has used his art entirely to explore his own obsession with film. From Reservoir Dogs to Django Unchained, Tarantino will apparently always make “movies about movies.”
Well, Von Trier’s first film is no different. He litters it with quotes and references to other films. His haunted protagonist recalls Carol Reed in The Third Man. The oppressive canvas on which the narrative unfolds brings to mind German expressionism, in particular Fritz Lang’s M; or even something more contemporary such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. There is, in fact, a direct connection to that film and perhaps even Orwellian fiction if we consider that the setting is a kind of post apocalyptic future. Although this is never explicitly stated, it is definitely suggested.
The most important display of Von Trier’s sources comes in the decision to shoot the film in English, as that is the language of the majority of Hollywood noir films to which this owes its cues.
Another standard characteristic for debut films is the personal, cathartic narrative. I mentioned that Scorsese’s first “major” movie was for Roger Corman. I was referring to Boxcar Bertha – an exploitation film that saw a wide popular release. But, before that, Scorsese had already made Who’s That Knocking at My Door? which is an autobiographical urban drama about a young man coming to terms with the reality of his life and how it conflicts with his heavy Catholic roots.
Tarantino’s actual first film is an aborted 16mm production called My Best Friend’s Birthday; and the first screenplay he ever sold was for True Romance – a Tony Scott thriller about a young man who loves movies and works at a comic book store. Meanwhile, P.T. Anderson’s first film – Hard Eight – is a Nevada gangster thriller on the surface, while dealing with the relationship between a lonely young man and the father figure who takes him under his wing (Anderson had a stormy relationship with his own late father).
In analyzing The Element of Crime, there might be a natural inclination to suggest Von Trier’s personal catharsis comes in the same manner as in most thriller fiction; with the psychological exploration of its protagonist. This would, in fact, seem to literally be the case here, since the film is framed by a psychological case study. But, as mentioned earlier, that is simply Von Trier’s rather forceful way of creating a connection between the viewer and the hero. He wants us inside this person’s head. This is not the traditional personal catharsis where a filmmaker employs an alter ego. Let’s not forget Von Trier’s chief interest here is to explore the conventions of a genre. Of course there has to be psychological conflict to the hero; and of course he has to be tortured. This is a staple of traditional detective fiction.
It’s actually rather telling that Von Trier cast himself in a small but crucial role as a character named Schmuck of Ages – a hotel clerk, whose only purpose seems to be that of cynically commenting on the reality of the film’s protagonists. As the detective and the prostitute check into the hotel for the apparently umpteenth time, he makes a point of mocking them; while also admonishing them to not make a mess of the room. He’s there to make the point (to both the viewers and the characters) that the very existence of these archetypes and their situation is a blatant cliché.
Really, The Element of Crime does not at first seem to have any personal elements at all. (Von Trier would save his more personal obsessions and idiosyncrasies for the follow up – Epidemic ) but if you look under the surface, you realize that one of the most important elements of the film is the setting itself.
That’s where the personal touch enters the frame. Because that setting is Europe. But it is not Europe in any recognizable terms that enter into anyone’s conventional understanding. It is “Europe,” with quotes around it, as Von Trier sees and feels it. Some press releases and reviews of the film identify its setting as “a German city.” I’m not sure where they are getting their information. Because, although the locations have German names, at no point is the setting identified as Germany or Denmark or any specific place at all. It is always identified as “Europe.”
The events unfold in a Europe made up entirely of narrow hallways, smoky rooms and lagoons of black water. No actual geography is ever distinguishable. And the visual treatment of these images is deliberately ugly; as everything is shot with sodium lighting and given an orange/sepia hue. If any other color ever enters the frame, it is the cold electric blue of a light bulb or TV screen shining in the background.
This is a cacophony of oppressive visual cues to represent the idea of an overbearing world. As with all the other elements of the film, an exhausting milieu is a conventional trope, employed deliberately. But Von Trier is also very clearly seeking to establish Europe in an garishly dreadful and unflattering light.
As the next films in this trilogy will demonstrate, Lars Von Trier has a very particular way of seeing his home continent. It is a pessimistic, post-war world view that many have interpreted as nihilism – or a contempt for the human condition. There might be some truth to this. But it’s also worth noting how he is not above turning the camera around and pointing that mirror at himself.