Lars von Trier creates an evocative thriller in ‘The Element of Crime’

Hollywood Soapbox logoThere are many images that pop off the screen when watching Lars von Trier’s early noir film The Element of Crime, but nothing is as memorable as the washed-out visuals. The detective story unfolds against a grainy background that has an unsettling sheen of dark yellow. Everything looks ominous and devilish, as if the characters are stuck in some netherworld where light is a pricey commodity. In some ways, the look of The Element of Crime outpaces the story and characters; the strongest point of the narrative shines light on its shortcomings.

Michael Elphick turns in a towering performance as Fisher who sets out to reexamine a series of gruesome murders. He’s working in a indistinct European locale, following the footsteps of his predecessor. His only guidebook are the notes left behind by the man who taught him everything. Along the way, Fisher employs the help of Kim (Meme Lai), a woman he’s attracted to, and yet she seems uncomfortably involved in the history of the case.

Von Trier, who has gone to make some controversial, breathtaking films, places style above substance in The Element of Crime. Even though the narrative sometimes grows dry, the visuals make this a worthy trip into dark, dark passageways. One walks away from the movie with a foreboding feel of how Europe and the world will become a pantheon of nothingness. It’s amazing to watch Fisher walk around these empty streets. It feels like the party of civilization has been over for eons, as if he’s traipsing through a cemetery, trying to find the last vestiges of life. There’s something Orwellian about his crusade, and Elphick, ever the expert, is able to let some of this emotion hang off his face. He’s not a character prone to outbursts or showy displays, but we gather rather quickly that this new world doesn’t sit well for the detective. He needs to uncover the truth, and perhaps that will provide some answer as to how Europe became so bleached in sepia.

Von Trier is a cinematic master who pushes many buttons. Each new film he releases builds upon the cutting-edge storytelling of the previous one. From Antichrist to Melancholia to Dogville, he’s an auteur to be sure. The Element of Crime, one of his earliest forays, doesn’t always match the excellence of his later career. There are several undeveloped story lines, and style simply can’t substitute for an engaging story. Yet, in these early stages of what would become a successful career, von Trier shows an unparalleled skill at telling a story along his own parameters. There’s a revolution and independence to be found among the dark yellows that populate Fisher’s ominous world.

By John Soltes / Publisher /

  • The Element of Crime

  • 1984

  • Directed by Lars von Trier

  • Written by von Trier and Niels Vørsel

  • Starring Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight and Meme Lai

  • Running time: 104 minutes

  • Not Rated

  • Rating: ★★★½

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at, among other publications. E-mail him at

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