From Stig Björkman, editor, Trier on von Trier, tr. Neil Smith (London: Faber & Faber, 2003) pp. 63-64
If you haven’t yet seen the film, be forewarned that the synopsis contains spoilers.
For the past thirteen years Fisher, a policeman, has been living in Cairo. He visits a psychiatrist in order to talk, under hypnosis, about his latest job, which he has been working on for the previous two months.
A serial killer is on the loose in Germany. He has assaulted and killed a number of young girls. The murders are being described as the ‘lottery murders’. All the girls who have been murdered have been lottery salesgirls. Fisher is working under the authoritarian Commissioner Kramer, but chooses to consult his old teacher, Osborne, now a pensioner, and author of the book The Element of Crime. Osborne doesn’t seem to be in full command of his faculties, but puts Fisher on the trail of a suspect, Harry Grey. Osborne maintains that Grey died in a car chase, but Fisher is convinced that the mysterious and elusive Grey is still alive.
Fisher embarks on an affair with Kim, a prostitute, who gave birth to Grey’s child. Together they set out on the trail of the murderer.
Fisher suddenly uncovers a possible pattern to the killings. Six girls have been killed, and with an anticipated seventh murder, the scenes of the crimes would make up the letter H on the map. Fisher attempts to lay a trap for Grey at the possible last crime scene with the help of a young girl who has apparently already been contacted by Grey.
While Fisher is waiting for Grey with the girl, he loses an amulet in the shape of a horse’s head. Similar amulets have been found beside all the earlier victims.
The girl becomes frightened, believing Fisher to be the murderer. When she tries to escape, Fisher suffocates her, thus fulfilling the pattern of the crimes in place of Grey. Fisher escapes, though, because Commissioner Kramer claims that Osborne, now mentally ill, committed the crimes. Osborne is found hanged.
Abbreviated from Stig Björkman, editor, Trier on von Trier, tr. Neil Smith (London: Faber & Faber, 2003) pp. 64-85
Lars von Trier in The Element of Crime
You chose to film The Element of Crime in English. Why?
To begin with, I think English is a good language for film. All the films I like are in English. And most of the films I don’t like are in Danish! The Element of Crime can be seen as a sort of latter-day film noir, so English was more suited to the film than Danish. And in the back of my mind I also had an idea that it might get noticed outside Denmark if I filmed it in English. Which happened, of course. There’s nothing to say that just because I make films in Denmark I have to make them in Danish.
In conjunction with The Element of Crime you published your first film manifesto, where you summarize the meaning of film in a single word: ‘fascination’.
Yes, I liked the idea of manifestos, this business of putting things in context. Like the Surrealists’ manifesto. I’m very fond of that. And the Communist Manifesto isn’t bad either. But it’s a dangerous word, fascination. I have a terrible habit of falling for certain words at certain points. But I remember the creation of The Element of Crime as total fascination. It was incredibly exciting. We were working with a completely professional team for the first time, where a lot of people kept their distance from me and the cameraman, Tom Elling. We were both newcomers, whereas they knew how to make films and how films ought to be made. That caused a few problems to begin with, but we’re both extremely stubborn. So in the end we managed to create a film that didn’t look like all the others.
In my early short film, Nocturne, we used monochrome lighting, a strongly filtered light which means that all the nuances in colours disappear. We went to a lighting company and they told us about sodium lamps, which were available in high- and low-pressure versions. One was entirely monochrome, and the other gave slightly greater colour reproduction. So we used that type of lighting on the film instead of the usual floodlights. The only problem with them was that they couldn’t tolerate water. Too much moisture and they exploded. This happened again and again, because the film is saturated with water from beginning to end. The broader shots were recorded on black-and-white film and tinted afterwards, because we couldn’t cover such large areas with sodium lighting alone, but all the closer shots were recorded using sodium lamps. This also meant that we could put in a blue lamp, or some other colour, and get different lighting effects—in other words, moderate the yellow lighting with other coloured elements. I don’t think that sort of experiment had been tried before in Danish cinema before we did The Element of Crime. It was a lot of fun, but bloody difficult!
Another good thing was that you could see the effects of the experiment immediately. The sodium lamps suppressed or extinguished all other colours. So we went round the locations in this monochrome light. It was a real ‘happening’. It was at its best in the sewers where we installed sodium lamps. And we had Wagner playing during the recordings—the whole film was dubbed later. It was pretty insane… We would row about in a rubber inflatable through raw sewage. There was a sort of dam-room that we wanted to fill with water. But we only got sewer water, so we had to use hoses to get rid of the shit. I remember that it was pretty much only our old friends from film school who helped out on those scenes. The professionals sat above ground sunbathing the entire time. The assistant director on the film, Ake Sandgren, who was a contemporary of ours at film school, Tom Elling and one other member of the team were down there filming in the shit. It was fantastic. Not many of the locations we used in the film exist any more.
You set up a very suggestive atmosphere in The Element of Crime. You get a sense of it right at the start, in the scene with the dying horse, for instance, and in the images of Cairo in the prologue.
Yes, they’re unusual, suggestive—amongst other things, you see a parachute hanging outside a window. They were filmed using 8mm, if I remember rightly, and were done by a homosexual architect who died of AIDS soon after. Yes, The Element of Crime was a bizarre project from beginning to end.
The film is called The Element of Crime, with the definite article in the title. Was there any particular reason for that?
The title is linked to a book written by Osborne, one of the central characters in the film. The book is called The Element of Crime, and it proposes the thesis that crimes occur in a certain element, a locality that provides a sort of ‘centre of infection’ for crime, where, like a bacteria, it can grow and spread at a certain temperature and in a certain element—moisture, for instance. In the same way, crime can arise in a certain element, which is represented here by the environment of the film. ‘The element of crime’ is the force of nature that intrudes upon and somehow invades people’s morals.
‘What’s the story?’ asks the voice at the beginning of The Element of Crime. So, what’s the story? What do you think the film is about?
The Element of Crime was an attempt to make a modern film noir, but a film noir in colour. I thought it would be terribly difficult, because there was a risk of it being far too coloured. I tried to counteract that in my use of colour and in the choice of locations. The film, after all, is filmed in a Europe that is under the threat of nature. I haven’t seen the film for a long time now. What’s the film about? Well, what can I say? There’s an element of intrigue, with a couple of obscure ideas about switches of identity.
The film sometimes reminds me, in both style and content, of Orson Welles’ Confidential Report, in which Welles plays the unscrupulous business magnate Mr Arkadin, who hires a detective to uncover a big-time swindler, who turns out to be Arkadin himself! The film portrays an investigation that leads to an unexpected solution, and a revelation not wholly unlike what happens in The Element of Crime. There’s a switch of identity, and guilt-transferral similar to what happens in your film.
I might have seen it, or maybe part of it, but I don’t remember it as a particularly noteworthy film. I’ve got my own Welles favourites. Touch of Evil is a fantastic film, a cinematic gem. I often return to it—Tom Elling and I have watched it together several times.
I’ve got a certain weakness for The Lady from Shanghai as well, possibly because of all the back projections and tricks with mirrors. The scene in the hall of mirrors is pure genius, which Woody Allen was inspired by in Manhattan Murder Mystery. And Rita Hayworth is magnificent in it. Citizen Kane has never really appealed in the same way. I can admire it. I think his experiments with deep-focus photography are interesting. But here, and in The Trial as well, he comes across as far too plastic. The decor looks plastic and constructed. When Welles tackles Kafka it over-eggs the pudding, because Welles has so much of Kafka in him. When an American tries to be European, I lose interest. I prefer a slab of pure Americana like The Magnificent Ambersons. But you talking about Confidential Report has reminded me that I must have seen it. I just don’t remember the plot.
There are also certain parallels between The Element of Crime and Touch of Evil. They both take place in a nocturnal no-man’s-land, a border area between reality and dream—or rather, nightmare. It isn’t hard to find points of contact, not least in the final scene, where Lt Quinlan’s best friend gets him to reveal his duplicity on a hidden tape-recorder.
That’s true. It’s reminiscent of the scenes I shot at the dam at the end of my film. It’s not far from here, and recently I’ve started canoeing. I often go past that dam. It’s a very strange structure. I also think it’s extremely beautiful, and very effective in The Element of Crime. It’s got something almost mythological about it. You’re quite right, I can see and recognize the parallels between my film and Touch of Evil. And if they are there, then I’m glad. I’m happy with that.
There’s a scene where Janos Hersko, playing the pathologist, says: ‘It’s a very beautiful corpse. The corpse is impersonal, but it interests the scientist.’ You could say that via the film you’re acting as a scientist investigating boundaries and emotions.
That’s true, I also feel like a scientist. I have a strong sense of it, that I behave like a scientist, investigating film … I’ve allowed my imagination and my fascination for things to direct me, but I’ve always had a theory about what the end result is going to look like.
The other main character in the film, Kramer, says at one point: ‘It sometimes helps to study the geography of a crime.’ Can you say something about how you created the geography of the film? I understand that the designer, Peter Hoimark, found and created a lot of suggestive and expressive locations?
We didn’t actually collaborate that closely. Take the scene where we had to create a pit for victims of foot-and-mouth disease, for instance, where we had to place a corpse under a mass of dead animals. I’d ordered thirty animals for that scene. When I got there, there were two horses, three pigs and a cow that stuck its tongue out at me. I said that that wouldn’t do, that we’d ordered thirty animals. But Peter replied that we couldn’t afford them because the film was already so expensive. It was one of the most demanding and complicated scenes in the film, a long scene involving a helicopter and a load of divers. I wanted to stop filming because the basic requirements weren’t there. We had to cut the animals up to make it look as if there were a lot more of them. I remember that night scene very well indeed, because we only had that night to do it in. The helicopter could only fly until sunset, and the pilot sat there constantly pointing at his watch, while we were working frantically to get everything right. The flares that were supposed to light the scene weren’t there, and the person responsible for them came running in at the last minute, just before the sun went down, and got them set up. So we had just enough time for one take, but from what I remember we persuaded the pilot to let us do another one. The result was bloody good in the end.
The preparatory work to find locations was pretty extensive, and we found loads of places we liked. Taking them as our starting point, we rewrote the script where there was a good reason to do so. For instance, we wrote that the hospital was in a cellar.
So that was how we decided which locations to use. Most of them worked well, others less so. Then we had the props to furnish the locations with, hammocks and old oil lamps and other crap, to give a certain atmosphere. They were the sort of props that were supposed to suggest a nomadic lifestyle, things that were easy to pack away and move.
Peter Hoimark wasn’t entirely responsible for the scenography. We had another designer, Jeffrey Nedergaard, who designed a lot of the locations. For example, he was completely responsible for Osborne’s office, which was a remarkable set. It was set up in a location with a very high ceiling, divided into different levels with platforms jutting out and so on.
The architecture in that room also contributes a lot to the sense of unreality in many of the locations. The walls are strangely angled and you can’t quite get your bearings in it.
We also added an oily patina and other reflective materials to give the impression that nature was taking over. Everything was damp and the walls were dripping. When I saw Alien 3, it struck me that the environment it was set in was almost exactly like the one we created for The Element of Crime. It’s interesting that something that was regarded as an avant-garde film ten, twelve years ago can now be linked to a purely commercial product.
How did you find the actors on the film? Most of them must have been new acquaintances to you, because they were mostly foreign.
We cast the film in London. We got hold of a casting director who gave us suggestions of different actors. It was fantastic, because we met about twenty actors a day, who would come to our office in London for interviews. It turned out that the actor playing the central character, Michael Elphick, had attended the same school as our casting director. He was fairly well known, because he’d played the lead in a television programme called Private Schultz, which was pretty good. We didn’t know for a long time whether he would take the part, but of course he did in the end. But I don’t think he’s particularly proud of his work on The Element of Crime, because I’ve since seen his CV, and it doesn’t mention the film. But he was very nice, even if he had certain dependency problems while we were filming. It didn’t affect his performance though, rather the reverse. It suited the story and the setting of the film.
And the female lead, MeMe Lai?
We came across her in London as well. We were after an actress with an Asian background. What I remember best about her is that she had had a breast implant to make her bust bigger, which I found out after our first day of filming with her and Michael Elphick.
After the take they were both sitting on their own crying. MeMe was crying because she thought her breasts were now far too big, and Michael was crying because he thought he’d been too tough on her in the scene. It was a fairly shocking introduction to my life as a grown-up film director. ‘Is this how it works?’ I wondered.
One important aspect of writing a script is the characters’ names. And the characters in The Element of Crime have very telling names—Fisher, Harry Grey, and so on.
I think the name Harry Grey was inspired by some character in Joyce. Niels Vorsel was very fond of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. There’s a quotation from Finnegans Wake in the film: ‘Harry me, marry me, bury me, bind me.’
The name Harry Grey has other associations. Harry Lime from The Third Man, for instance, and Harry Morgan in Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.
Of course. Osborne’s not a bad name either. I’ve heard that if you want to do a religious reading of the film, Osborne is the Father, Fisher the Son. In which case Harry Grey—H. G.—must be the Holy Ghost. But that’s an attempt to rationalize things in hindsight. I never had any thoughts along those lines.
You mentioned the quotation from Finnegans Wake, and the film includes a whole host of similar quotes. There’s one from Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’: ‘Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.’
Yes, that’s mainly there as a joke, because Michael Elphick wanted a drink so badly, but wasn’t really after water. Coleridge’s poem is about a sailor at sea, surrounded by water he can’t drink. In Michael’s case, he was surrounded by water, which wasn’t what he wanted to drink at all. But I love that sort of quotation. We had one scene with Osborne, where he was going to quote from an old Danish nursery rhyme, ‘Far har køpt den, jeg har døpt den, mor har sytt av tyget.’ It was impossible to quote it in Danish, but it was completely impossible to translate into English. So in the film it became: ‘Mom does it, Dad does it and horses have a try.’ There’s a sexual connotation there, and the fact that horses evidently have trouble. Some of the quotes were in the script, but some of them were thrown in whenever we found something we thought was fun. When Fisher throws his pistol out of the window, for instance, he shouts: ‘Tora, tora, tora,’ which is a reference to an old war film about Pearl Harbor, of course.
Over the years a lot of people have offered different interpretations of The Element of Crime, and references have been identified, not only to other film-makers like Welles but also to philosophers like Nietzsche and works like T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’. What do you think about these attempts to interpret your film?
As soon as people come across anything mysterious, they start looking for a way of contextualizing it. But I can’t do that for them, because I haven’t got the answers myself.
The best bit of The Element of Crime was putting together the initial intrigue for the plot and filming the ending. It was pretty scary with that bungee jump at the end of the film. When we made the film, bungee jumping was still an unknown quantity.
All we knew was that people had started doing it in Latin America, where it all began. I’d seen that sort of jump on some documentary when I was younger, and I thought it could be fun to try something similar. Especially from a construction crane like that, looking like some sort of prehistoric creature.
Creating the introduction was fun, and also the ending, but the bit in between wasn’t as much fun. The plot itself is fairly theoretical. It’s about one man, Fisher, pursuing another man, Harry Grey, a criminal, and during this journey he gets so affected by the fate of his quarry that he slowly begins to assume his identity. He assumes ‘the element of crime’ which governs Harry Grey, and makes it his own. It’s an interesting thought, but a stupid idea to base a film on! The Element of Crime is more literary in form than cinematic. And in large parts of it the locations and the atmosphere are more interesting than the story. I think the middle section is the least successful, certainly when compared to the beginning and ending.
But somewhere in this central section the female lead asks Fisher: ‘Do you believe in good and bad?’ Isn’t that what a lot of your films are about, the struggle between good and evil?
‘Do you believe in good and bad?’ I should have made her shut up! But, of course, a lot of my films are about that, and it’s also what my life is about, to a large extent. I was brought up not to believe in ‘good’ and ‘evil’. I was brought up to believe that there was an explanation for everything. Absolute extremes like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ don’t exist—instead, there are things like mistakes and misunderstandings. Religion formed no part in my upbringing, and religion, of course, cherishes concepts like ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Fisher represents the humanists who’ve often had central roles in my films. And everything keeps going wrong for them! He’s working from the assumption that good and evil don’t exist. But they’re there all right, in strength. I can’t really say whether they’re represented by people or nature. The question of good and evil is pretty central really, which is all the more reason why she should have kept her mouth shut.
What preparations had you done before beginning The Element of Crime? The form, the style, anything you’d jotted down on paper before you started filming?
Anything?! We had a storyboard that we followed to the letter, and the film is largely edited according to the sketches we drew up beforehand. There were hardly any changes. We worked a lot with what’s called eye scanning, which is judging the visual concentration point of one scene, then making sure that the next scene is edited so that the concentration point is in the same place, so that the eye isn’t exposed to too much irritation or doubt about what the important element of a scene is.
At the end of the film Fisher says: ‘You can wake me up now.’ Do you see the whole film as a dream?
No, the whole film is conjured up with hypnosis. It begins in Cairo, where Fisher is hypnotized by the fat therapist, who has a small monkey on his shoulder. That was probably Tom Elling’s idea. He was very fond of cartoons, and he thought that now we were in Egypt, the psychiatrist ought to have a monkey on his shoulder. It was actually a bit of a nuisance. It scampered about trying to bite us whenever it could.
But film as dream, what’s your view on that?
There are popular theories that film is closely connected to dreams. But I regard film and dreams as two entirely separate media, if we can call them that. Film is as far from dream as it is from reality. Whether or not film is somewhere between the two is probably a matter of opinion. There are dream sensations that I can easily connect with some films. Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter is one of them, in my opinion. But saying that a film is a dream, I think that’s a simplification, an exaggeration.
Eventually The Element of Crime made it to the Cannes Film Festival, where it was awarded a technical prize. You weren’t entirely happy with that.
Well, I don’t know. The jury that awarded the prize was a group of very friendly and pleasant people. I got the same prize for Europa, actually. But I thought that The Element of Crime was more than a purely technical achievement. So I don’t know if I was happy about it or not … At Cannes, the film was sold to a lot of countries, which meant a lot to me. Gilles Jacob was responsible for the film being considered there, and I’ve had a good relationship with him since then … In Denmark, no one really took much notice of the prize, although it did mean that they had to treat me with more respect because the film had got such wide distribution abroad. So in that way I suppose it helped me. The Element of Crime did arouse a fair bit of attention.
Lars von Trier, The Element of Crime
Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci
Maman / Putain, Eustache
Realm of the Senses, Oshima
Cul de Sac, Polanski
The Passenger, Antonioni
Damnation, Bela Tarr
Element of Crime, Lars von Trier
American Soldier, Fassbinder