Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

Introducing Lars von Trier’s Debut

The first sequence in The Element of Crime sets the thematic and stylistic foundation not only for the unsettling film. However, it is also for the entire film career of the Danish prodigy, Lars von Trier. We are introduced to an Egyptian psychiatrist with a sharp gaze that seems to penetrate the screen itself. He immediately greets Detective Fisher, a man shrouded in a haze of amnesia. As Fisher gradually succumbs to his therapist’s hypnotic and hissing statements, he embarks on a metaphorical “return to Europe”—a Europe, as envisioned by von Trier, transformed into a region of nebulous night and perpetually haunted by deception, disease, and death.

The Element of Crime marks the arrival of a real new voice in the world of cinema. The sound shows a preoccupation with themes more akin to Central European literature than the typical offerings of Scandinavian cinema; it evokes strong parallels with the early works of acclaimed director Andrei Tarkovsky. As Michael Elphick’s depiction of Fisher’s gruff, bedraggled detective relentlessly pursues his alleged perpetrator through the landscape of remote German towns, a pervasive sense of fate reminiscent of a Wagnerian opera descends upon him. The structures themselves seem to be tainted by an inexplicable superior force; it’s an idea that reminds us of the work of the famous writer Hermann Hesse. Later, the themes of disease and environmental degradation expanded to color the director’s next feature film, Epidemic. Additionally, his cult television series, The Kingdom, was set in a hospital; his most critically acclaimed film, Breaking the Waves, explores the complexities of physical trauma. In fact, The Idiots (an apparently different film) uses his narrative to explore society’s perspective on those deemed mentally unhealthy.

Deconstructing the Atmosphere

Uttering the cryptic comment, “It’s always three in the morning—if you know what I mean,” Kim (the prostitute forming an unlikely bond with Fisher in The Element of Crime) embodies the night-time atmosphere permeating the film. Through careful collaboration, von Trier and his cinematographer, Tom Elling, meticulously create the perfect night-time atmosphere. Using a technique known as negative saturation, they bathed each scene in an incredible yellow light. The spooky hue not only gives the film a real sense of tension. However, it also evokes the hazy and distorted quality of dreams or more unsettling nightmares. Interspersed with the dominant saffron are bursts of startling blue light, perhaps coming from flickering lights or television screens; it serves to disrupt the monotony and increase the viewer’s unease. The film’s characters move with languid caution, each step reminiscent of a figure wading through water in a trance.

The basic elements of nature (namely water, earth, fire, and air) exert a major influence on von Trier’s cinematic world. It proved true also in the films of his countryman and mentor, Carl Theodor Dreyer. The elements are everywhere throughout their work, permeating the visual landscape at various moments.

Unveiling the Mystery

An example of the thematic preoccupation is in The Element of Crime. Drenched in mud and torrential rain, the narrative unfolds in a true twilight zone. The remote environment lacks heroism and moral rectitude. Fisher begins a perilous odyssey through a German landscape seemingly ravaged by forces beyond the devastation of war. His time-consuming quest was to penetrate the essence of both the mind and body of a serial killer.

The prime suspect, an individual known only as “Harry Grey,” despite pretending to be the object of Fisher’s pursuit, was ultimately proven to be misguided. Serving as a classic Hitchcockian McGuffin, Gray serves to push Fisher down the path of bringing him back to his mentor, the aging Osborne. The title of the film itself is taken from Osborne’s treatise on the psychological foundations of murder.

Von Trier’s Cinematic Techniques

Visibly, von Trier’s penchant for the melodramatic was an established aspect of his filmmaking style. It is exemplified by the recurring motif of characters breaking windows and screaming into the night sky. The act serves as a powerful symbol of emotional liberation, similar to a prisoner breaking out of the confines of a mental prison. Additionally, von Trier uses contrast camera techniques to enhance the emotional impact of his scenes. Following a long sequence filmed entirely indoors and using close-up shots to create a sense of intimacy and claustrophobia, he suddenly switches to helicopter shots. The dramatic shift in perspective evokes a detached, all-encompassing view, a technique previously used also in Epidemic and The Kingdom. Suddenly, the shift from a confined inland area to the vast outside world with its rocky coastline and picturesque reminders of a remote landscape; it creates a shocking effect and even evokes an apocalyptic atmosphere.

Beyond the Surface

Similar to the eminent British novelist Peter Ackroyd, von Trier showed his fascination with disturbing and ritualistic deviations from societal norms. The closing act of the film featuring a suicide into a ravine evokes strong memories of the shocking public seppuku committed by novelist Yukio Mishima and his colleagues (a group of neo-samurai nationalists) in Japan in 1970. If we consider classic films such as Fritz Lang’s M, has a connection with von Trier’s work. In both cases, overwhelming guilt permeates every aspect of the film; it creates a palpable atmosphere. Such a sentiment is further strengthened by the depiction of an antihero trapped in the grip of a fate they cannot understand. Despite the pervasiveness of the dirt and sense of cynical cynicism in the director’s established world, von Trier’s characters demonstrate an almost unconscious response to a dimension beyond the purely physical realm: the dimension of spirit. Intentionally, the esoteric quality is increasingly emphasized by the director using music that has a heavenly and otherworldly character.

Duality and Provocation

However, von Trier’s duality extends beyond his filmmaking. Although his work is often characterized by deep seriousness, there is a mischievous side hidden beneath the surface. The cheerful side can be seen from his appearance as a hotel clerk. With his shaved head and manic gaze, von Trier imbues the character with an unsettling imagination. Likewise, the police chief, he bears a striking resemblance to the iconic Kojak. The echoing visuals inject a note of humor into the tense narrative. Throughout his career as a director and leading figure in the Dogma 95 movement, von Trier enjoyed provoking his audience. His approach is an uninhibited bravado in which he uses graphic sexuality in a confrontational and light-hearted manner. A particularly important example of it is a scene of confusing yet potentially hilarious absurdity. Here, Fisher engages in sexual relations with the accommodating Kim on the hood of a Volkswagen. The moment they left together; Kim gripped the windshield wipers. Their rhythmic movements reflect the action taking place in front of them.

A Lasting Impact

Clearly, none of von Trier’s subsequent films had the charming quality found in The Element of Crime. The film is filled with a powerful evil essence; the narrative unfolds surreptitiously. The expressionist style of the film is reminiscent of the works of German silent cinema masters such as F.W. Murnau, Lang, and G.W. Pabst; it makes people believe how it might come from the era. The influence of co-screenwriter Niels Vørsel on the film and von Trier’s subsequent collaborations cannot be underestimated. It is true, von Trier’s later solo works show a much brighter and more open disposition. Although the film occasionally veers into melodrama territory, there’s no denying how it serves as a herald and heralds the arrival of a unique and captivating talent emerging from Northern Europe since the end of World War II.

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