Lars von Trier is easily one of the most divisive filmmakers I have ever discovered, it’s almost impossible to not have a strong opinion about the movies he makes. The reason for this, I conclude, is that he has an incredibly vociferous world-view, and that is something that should always be commended from a director, but when your vision is that boisterous, that in-your-face, that provocative, its easy to become misguided, its easy to blur the thin line between what is truly thought-provoking and what is self-indulgent crass manipulation. Usually, von Trier unabashedly falls into the latter. I love directors with a unique style, a sense of self-importance especially when they know they have a lot of intelligent things to say and their art is much more to them than just a means of “storytelling”.
But for the better half of Breaking the Waves and onward including his latest film Nymphomaniac, von Trier has had some kind of ugly chip on his shoulder, the kind which forces his creative decisions to leave a bad after-taste in ones mouth. It’s the kind of mocking, unfettered, rude, and emotionally blackmailing kind of art-cinema that makes me wonder what exactly went wrong in von Trier’s life that he decided to take all his pent up frustration out on us. Usually, a filmmaker of his talent would channel that into something we could sympathize with, something that we could cry or scream alongside him with. Instead, what happened with Anti-Christ became a nuclear vendetta against women that bordered on clinically insane. His most egregiously bad film was Dancer in the Dark, a film so emotionally manipulative, watching it should be a criminal offense in violation of the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Suffice to say. much of what Lars von Trier has done since his popularity grew in the United States has been in my trash-pile. The sole exception might be Melancholia, if only for the final 10 minutes.
So, what exactly was Lars von Trier doing before his global hit Breaking the Waves? He is a Danish filmmaker right? I had heard of von Trier’s early filmography a while ago, but I never quite got the chance to catch any of those movies. This weekend, I was presented the opportunity to see The Element of Crime, not only an early von Trier film, in fact, his first film. A noir thriller about a detective named Fisher who tries to track down a serial killer (named the Lotto Killer) who has a taste for young girls, the plot-line of the film is a ripe subject for any young budding filmmaker to take on. The Coen’s Blood Simple and Terrence Malick’s Badlands are similar examples which center around the futility and loss of innocence in the face of immense violence and helmed by first time future-masters.
Von Trier shoots the entire thing with a sodium light filter, giving an orange-sepia glow, to, on a surface level, elevate the movie’s dingy post-apocalyptic feel, but even further, it relays the story as a dark and twisted nightmare of sorts, recalled by Fisher as he sits in a therapist’s office in Cairo. The title of the film references a well-developed theory layed out by Fisher’s idol, Osborne. Osborne took on the Lotto Killer case years back and used his Elemental theory of crime to track down the man responsible, Harry Grey. After failing in his attempt and becoming a recluse, ashamed of his inability to nab the culprit, he agrees reluctantly to let Fisher answer the call to complete the puzzle.
The movie creeps down a winding track, von Trier taking his time, but keeping the momentum and tension of the mystery high. Von Trier’s camera accentuates the grimy corners, tattered remnants of a Europe that Fisher recalls is not like the one he grew up in. Everything is rotting, left to decompose, a similar fate of the poor victims of Harry Grey. Michael Elphick, playing Fisher, is a highlight of the film, a brilliant casting choice as his burly physique and rough pragmatic voice gives us a true “hero” to rally behind, someone we think we can count on to get the job done. His narrations add an extra dimension, and von Trier treats this film with a much more balanced mindset than any of his post-1995 ventures, everything is calculated, and the human psychological turmoil that Fisher undergoes is never taken over the top, it is also a slow dissent, but one which reveals new perspectives rather than singular self-affirming proclamations. Von Trier isn’t declaring anything as he is so eager to do nowadays. He is, surprisingly to me at least, letting us decide what we take from his protagonists revelations for ourselves.
The entire film’s staging as a recollection from a therapists office in Cairo accentuates that von Trier’s central character underwent a transformation that didn’t destroy him, but rather, made him change who he was.
The worst parts of Anti-Christ and Nymphomaniac revel in the mean-spiritedness of their characters, their nastiness towards each other, with von Trier expecting us somehow to get something out of their one-dimensional hate, their finite narrow mindset that this is the nature of man (or woman), “deal with it”. In The Element of Crime, even the so-called ‘meanest’ characters, particularly the anarchist police chief, Kramer, are displayed purely as argumentative points, perhaps cynical, maybe even malicious, but never touted by von Trier as “correct”.
Perhaps the joys of finding a great first film from a director with such a recognizable style and philosophy to filmmaking is that we get to see another side of them, perhaps a much better side that we can wonder what the heck happened to it. With The Element of Crime, I found a von Trier who was still curious about the discussions human nature, death, anger, and cynicism… well before he started acting like, in his misery, he had figured out why everything sucks. It’s almost as if von Trier started the beginning of his career as a budding cinematic philosopher, and got dragged backwards into being an angsty teenager who just got dumped by his girlfriend and hates life.