The Element of Crime (Forbrydelsens element) [DVD]
Screenplay : Lars von Trier & Niels Vørsel
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1984
Stars : Michael Elphick (Fisher), Esmond Knight (Osborne), Me Me Lai (Kim), Jerold Wells (Police Chief Kramer), Ahmed El Shenawi (Therapist), Astrid Henning-Jensen (Osborne's Housekeeper), János Herskó (Coroner)
Since his embrace of grainy, hand-held camerawork in 1996's "Breaking the Waves," Danish director Lars von Trier has gravitated more and toward a minimalist aesthetic. His 1998 film, "The Idiots" ("Idioterne"), was made under the strict tenets of the Dogme 95 collective, and his most recent, Palm D'Or-winning "Dancer in the Dark," while discarding some minimalism, still used digital video. Therefore, it is easy to forget that, at the beginning of his career, von Trier was a director who relied heavily on highly stylized camerawork.
To get a real understanding of von Trier's visual prowess, one must return to his first feature film, 1984's "The Element of Crime" ("Forbrydelsens element"), an utterly mesmerizing and completely disjointed crime thriller that is more about tone and style than it is about its fragmented narrative. Taking place in some near-futuristic, perhaps post-apocalyptic Europe, it is an uncanny amalgam of everything from film noir to science fiction to Bunuelian surrealism. The likely comparisons that will be drawn today will link "The Element of Crime" to music video aesthetics, but this is wholly unfair as the state of music videos in 1984 was hardly at the advanced level of high style that informs it today. If anything, it is movies like "The Element of Crime" that have inspired music video directors, rather than the other way around.
The first and most striking stylistic component of "The Element of Crime" is von Trier's use of color. In fact, the image is devoid of color outside of various tones of sepia that are, from time to time, strikingly juxtaposed with a harsh, electronic blue that emits from either light bulbs, fluorescent lights, police sirens, or television monitors.
Thus, the visual structure of the film is not far removed from black and white; in fact, at times it looks very much like a black-and-white film that has been tinted. The result is the striking tone of a nightmarish landscape, with the monochromatic image emphasizing the desolate nature of the rugged urban environment in which the story takes place. Shadows and hard contrasting lights are highlighted amid the ruin of urban decay, which is characterized by broken windows, dented cars, and a proliferation of grating and metal chain-link fences.
The loosely strung narrative is made even more distant by the fact that it is told via flashback through hypnosis. The narrative is related through the eyes of Fisher (Michael Elphick), a police investigator who has lost his memory. The story he recalls of being called back to Germany to investigate a serial killer who preys on young girls becomes the film's narrative. Built into this is Fisher's relationship with his aging mentor, Osborne (Esmond Knight), a once-great police investigator whose publication on the interaction between criminality and environment, "The Element of Crime," gives the film its name. Fisher also becomes involved with a prostitute named Kim (Me Me Lai) who goes with him on his investigation as he tracks the footsteps of one Harry Grey, the presumed serial killer who may, in fact, not even exist.
The narrative is difficult to extrapolate from the individual scenes, and in the end it is mostly irrelevant. Even with Fisher's voice-over narrative guiding the proceedings, the characters' motivations are cloudy and the general thematic drive of the film is hard to decipher (it has something to do with merging the police investigator and the criminal he is investigating).
Yet, for "The Element of Crime," this narrative deficiency is not an overwhelming detriment because the visuals hold so much power on their own. Von Trier, working with cinematographer Tom Elling, builds a convincing world out of almost perpetual nightfall. Elling's camera sweeps with unnerving grace and aplomb, moving as surely though tight, claustrophobic interiors as it does across large, open spaces. The camera is often airborne, looking down on the characters as if to minimize them even further in the reddish-hued world in which they are trapped.
Although billed as a crime thriller in the most basic sense of genre classification, "The Element of Crime" is decidedly more. It sets the stage for much of von Trier's later work, both stylistically (until "Breaking the Waves," that is) and thematically (with its emphasis on inner turmoil). Von Trier's output over the last five years has been somewhat questionable, as many critics have seen his forced religious symbolism ("Breaking the Waves") and overwrought social critique ("The Idiots") as the trappings of an overly ambitious artist striving for more than he can manage. "The Element of Crime" falls into some of the same trappings (I can easily imagine it being described as "pretentious" and "pointless"), but it is nevertheless a gripping display of visual audacity that is not easily forgotten.
|The Element of Crime: Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| "Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier" 54-minute documentary|
Original theatrical trailer
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|The new high-definition anamorphic transfer, made from a new 35-mm low-contrast print made from the original camera negative, is absolutely stunning. I have heard and read complaints from those who have viewed the film on video that it is too dark and murky. This new DVD should put all complaints to rest as it highlights with stunning clarity and great detail the film's complex visual structure. As it is similar to a black and white film, the main challenge to the transfer was the contrast and black levels, both of which are mostly dead-on. Von Trier constantly infuses the frame with a great deal of hard contrast in the form of lights cutting through the darkness, and the transfer handles all of these scenes very well. The contrast between the sepia tones and the electronic bluish hues are also well-rendered.|
|The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack is excellent. It is completely free of any hiss or distortion, and it has a relatively strong sense of depth of range for mono. The dialogue is a bit difficult to understand at times, but that is because the characters often mumble and speak under their breaths; it has nothing to do with the soundtrack itself.|
|Criterion has outfitted this DVD with the original theatrical trailer and an excellent 54-minute documentary by Stig Bolrkman titled "Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier." The documentary is conveniently broken up into 10 chapters, and it is presented in nonanamorphic widescreen (1.66:1) in Danish with optional English subtitles. Made in 1997, it is a fine overview of von Trier's complex and controversial career. It includes extensive interviews with von Trier and his filmmaking associates, as well as footage of 8- and 16-mm films he made as a child and his work as a film student. (One complaint: The documentary does not use screen titles to note who the interviewees are, so you have to figure out who they are from the context of their statements.) The documentary covers both von Trier's early work on his "Europa" trilogy in the '80s and his later output (with special emphasis on "Breaking the Waves), concentrating on his consistent themes and his renown as a controversial director. This is a truly excellent documentary that should be viewed by both von Trier's admirers and those who are skeptical of his role as an internationally acclaimed artist.|
Copyright ©2001 James Kendrick
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