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ELEMENT OF CRIME, THE (Forbrydelsens element) (director/writer/producer: Lars Von Trier; screenwriter: Niels Vørsel/Tómas Gíslason; cinematographer: Tom Elling; editor: Tómas Gíslason; music: Bo Holten; cast: 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), Jånos Herskó (Coroner); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Per Holst; Criterion Collection; 1984-Denmark-in English)
“A cinephile’s delight.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Lars Von Trier’s first feature is a futuristic horror-thriller, murder-mystery set in a post-apocalyptic unspecified Northern European location (shot in English). This moody psychological “whodunit” takes on a surreal look, as it’s shot in an amber sulphurous light in the bombed-out and washed-out hinterlands. The movie has the look of Godard’s Alphaville and Tarkovsky’s Stalker, and also reminds one of Orwell’s literary 1984. It pays homage to film noir by using a similar voice-over to describe its dark moments.

It opens with a weary and headache plagued police detective Leopold Fisher (Michael Elphick) called back to the small town where he previously investigated the brutal murders of several little girls who sell lottery tickets in order to be hypnotized by a Cairo therapist (Ahmed el Shenawi) to recall more clearly those recent events. Looking on is Fisher’s retired mentor and old boss, the renown criminologist Osborne (Esmond Knight), who wrote the controversial treatise, The Element of Crime, in which he recommends that investigators take the killer’s point of view in order to better predict future crimes. It seems these same type of killings were investigated by Osbourne, whose plan of action involved entering the criminal mind. These methods are ridiculed by the new non-thinking Police Chief Kramer (Wells), who can’t stand Fisher and the unorthodox cerebral way he operates.

When Fisher becomes involved with a beautiful former prostitute named Kim (Me Me Lai) she becomes his sidekick and goes with him on his investigation as he tracks the footsteps of the supposed serial killer, the mysteriously drawn maniac named Harry Grey–who may be dead or faked his death or never even existed. The pair begin a journey that blurs the line between Fisher’s assumed killer and reality, as Fisher puts Osbourne’s theories into practice and starts retracing Grey’s steps and getting into his mind. The answer to all these questions might be locked in Fisher’s mind, who begins to resemble the killer the further his mind is explored.

This intriguingly stylish but cold film satisfies more as a cinephile’s delight than as a substantive true murder mystery tale, as it startles and keeps the viewer off balance as it digs up unforgettable images on its way to remaining puzzling.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”