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EPIDEMIC(director/writer/editor: Lars von Trier; screenwriter: Niels Vørsel; cinematographer: Henning Ben; editor: Thomas Krag; music: Peter Bach; cast: Lars von Trier (Lars/Dr. Mesmer), Gitte Lind (Gitte), Claes Kastholm Hansen (Claes), Niels Vørsel (Niels), Udo Kier (Udo), Susanne Ottesen (Susanne); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jacob Eriksen; Obel Films/Vitagraph; 1988-Denmark-dubbed in English)
It’s an obsessed film that is too murky to be great cinema, but interesting enough to remain intriguing.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

More or less a learning experience kind of film for Lars von Trier (“The Element of Crime”) as he shoots for in his second feature a docudrama styled experimental horror film, looking somewhat like a messy early Fassbinder hipster vehicle or a latter day Cronenberg. It was shot in grainy black and white and framed in 16mm, but enlarged in a sleek 35 mm.

Lars von Trier and Niels Vørsel play a film director and a script writer (similar to their real-life roles) who after 18 months develop a screenplay, which neither cares for very much, called The Cop and the Whore to hand over to Danish Film Institute producer Claes (Claes Kastholm Hansen, real-life film producer) when in five days he returns from Arizona. But they’ve mistakenly lost their work in a strange computer mishap which erases the 200-page script and they can’t replace it from memory. They quickly begin work on a medical horror tale called “Epidemic,” which they gathered from their research into the bubonic plague. Their story fancies a mysterious, incurable illness of epidemic proportions spreading throughout Germany. At a dinner party given by Susan, the wife of the screenwriter, they hope to talk Claes into accepting their new 12-page script as a replacement, as they eat truffles and watch as party guest Gitte volunteers to be put under hypnosis. While under she gets hysterical at seeing all the suffering and death around her, as she traveled to the Milan of 1348 where the bubonic plague struck and the city was walled in. A Dr. Mesmer survived by digging a cave and living in it until the plague passed.

Blurring the lines between reality and fiction (questioning whether art imitates life), we are informed via a voice-over narrator that a real epidemic is presently taking hold. Lars von Trier in a double role plays an idealistic epidemiologist coincidentally named Dr. Mesmer, who is the only one of his colleagues who has the balls to treat the public. But Mesmer in his idealism ends up spreading the same disease against which he’s fighting.

It’s cinema as play therapy, and an avenue for in-jokes and the filmmaker’s views on the similarity of hypnosis and watching movies, the creative filmmaking process, financing films, hospital care and various other ticklish subjects. Arguably the film’s most humorous scene is von Trier regular Udo Kier playing himself and doing a monologue about a WW11 story his dead mother told him, where he tells the conclusion first ruining the story’s punchline. It’s an obsessed film that is too murky to be great cinema, but interesting enough to remain intriguing.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”