The Element of Crime (Lars von Trier, 1984)

Is it possible that the simplest of tricks, an odd color hue, was enough for this film to wow me in terms of production value? Apparently. You’d think that the constant barrage of dark sepia tones would get old after a while, but I never got tired of it – this nightmarish wasteland in which the burned-out detective Fisher investigates the serial killings of little girls is truly nightmarish, from that color scheme to the constant night to the nearly-as-constant rainfall. Obviously, with the nightmarish, being-a-character-in-and-of-itself quality of the setting, as well as the premise of Fisher obsessively searching for a supposed dead man, von Trier borrows heavily from “The Third Man,” and obviously “The Third Man” is the far-superior film, but you can’t fault von Trier for trying to go above and beyond in bringing a place to horrific life. The story makes little sense, and that despite the supposed plot twist being more than obvious, but for me it was all about the setting, the sense of macabre dread that pervades every second of this film. Everything about this place is simply unnatural, and of course a lot of that has to do with the fact that the whole story is told by Fisher after a psychiatrist puts him under hypnosis. Is it an easy-way-out storytelling shortcut on von Trier’s part to possibly attribute the otherworldly qualities of this apocalyptic nightmare to Fisher’s mindset more than an actual depiction of a particular world? Sure, but it’s a cool way to do it, nonetheless. As the rain comes down in buckets, the archive room of police headquarters is completely flooded so that Fisher practically wades through a lake to get to some information (water is a heavy, heavy motif in this film), the faces of just about everybody comes out red and ominous, and houses, brothels, and just about every other place seem more like abandoned hovels and caves than man-made edifices, it becomes so arguably obvious that much, if not all, of the unnatural qualities of this world are a projection of Fisher’s tortured, mutilated mindset as he looks back on this story in hindsight. I would’ve been tempted to call von Trier’s barrage of gloomy imagery overkill, but that simple flashback, noir-ish narration gimmick turns that into a somewhat fascinating, if not utterly incomprehensible, look at how a time and place can affect a man’s mindset, as well as the opposite: how a man’s mindset can affect a time and place as he sees it.


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