The Element of Crime

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The Element of Crime
Theatrical release poster
Directed byLars von Trier
Written byLars von Trier
Niels Vørsel
Produced byPer Holst[1]
StarringMichael Elphick
Esmond Knight
Meme Lai
Jerold Wells
CinematographyTom Elling
Edited byTómas Gislason
Music byBo Holten
Distributed byKærne Film
Release date
  • 14 May 1984 (1984-05-14)
Running time
104 minutes[2]

The Element of Crime (Danish: Forbrydelsens Element) is a 1984 experimental neo-noir crime film co-written and directed by Lars von Trier. It is the first feature film directed by von Trier and the first installment of the director's Europa trilogy – succeeded by Epidemic (1987) and Europa (1991).


A detective named Fisher, who has become an expatriate living in Cairo, undergoes hypnosis in order to recall his last case. The Europe of his dreamlike recollection is a dystopia, dark and decaying continent. Fisher remembers that he was hired by the police chief Kramer to pursue a serial killer called the "Lotto Murderer", who was strangling and then mutilating young girls who were selling lottery tickets. He attempts to track down the killer using the controversial methods outlined in a book entitled The Element of Crime, written by his disgraced mentor, Osborne. Fisher's search is based on a tailing report written by Osborne when trying to track down a murderer Harry Grey, who had been killing in the same way as the "Lotto Murderer", but who, supposedly, has since died in a crash. He is joined in his search by a prostitute named Kim, who, it turns out, has had a child by Harry Grey. The Osborne method requires the detective to try to identify with the mind of the killer. This he does, but, in so doing, begins to behave more and more like a serial killer himself. The film suggests that both Osborne and Fisher, by going too deeply into a serial killer's mind, has become murderers themselves. Osborne, we are told, confessed his crime or multiple murders to Police Chief Kramer before committing suicide. Fisher apparently goes back to Cairo as the case is closed. The film ends with Fisher, still under hypnosis, seemingly going into his subconsciousness and discovering an imprisoned little animal there. He then tells the hypnotist "You can wake me up now" but receives no response.



  • Director: Lars von Trier
  • Screenplay: Lars von Trier, Niels Vørsel
  • Executive producer: Per Holst
  • Production manager: Per Årman, Sanne Arnt Torp
  • Director of photography: Tom Elling
  • Shooting script: Lars von Trier, Tom Elling, Tómas Gislason
  • Scenario consultant: Mogens Rukov
  • Translation: Steven Wakelam, William Quarshie
  • Camera operator: Søren Berthelin, Steen Møller Rasmussen
  • Assistant director: Åke Sandgren
  • Production designer: Peter Høimark
  • Special effects: Peter Høimark
  • Property master: Tove Robert Rasmussen
  • Props: Peter Grant, John Johansen, Lars Nielsen, William Knutter
  • Lighting engineer: Eg Norre
  • Gaffer: Jens Gielow, Flemming Bruhn Pedersen, Preben Seltoft, Birger Larsen
  • Sound recordist: Henrik Fleischer
  • Film and sound editor: Tómas Gislason
  • Wardrobe: Manon Rasmussen
  • Music composed by: Bo Holten[3]


The film employs the film noir conventions of monochrome footage, apparently constant night, and the frequent presence of water, such as rain and rivers. The film is shot almost entirely in sodium light, resulting in images reminiscent of sepia tone, though with a more intense yellow.[4] Because sodium lamps produce light in only a few narrow emission peaks, rather than over a wide spectrum, the film has an almost monochrome appearance. The sepia is occasionally contrasted with piercing blues and reds.

The world depicted in the film is semi-derelict. Disordered collections of similar or identical objects are found in many of the scenes, reinforcing the sense of a crumbling society. Examples include white paper, light bulbs, heaps of keys, surgical scissors, glass bottles, rubber stamps, and Coca-Cola cans.

The film's slow pace, dark visuals and occasional surreal imagery give it a dreamlike quality. In addition, much of the dialogue is contradictory. An example is one conversation between Fisher and his mentor's housekeeper:

Fisher: Is it always as dark as this at this time of the year?
Housekeeper: There are no seasons anymore. The last three summers haven't been summers. The weather changes all the time. It never alters.

In the opening of the film, a shot of a donkey lying on its back and then slowly struggling to stand may be a homage to a similar shot in Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1966).[5] von Trier has stated that he is an admirer of Tarkovsky's work:

I was very inspired by Tarkovsky. I won't make any bones about that. I saw an excerpt from The Mirror (Zerkalo) on Swedish television once, just a travelling shot around that house, and that was one of those 'I'll be damned' experiences.[6]


Critical response[edit]

The Element of Crime polarized critics at Cannes in 1984.[7] Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 80% of critics gave the film a positive review.[8]

Peter Cowie, in 2000, writes that "The Element of Crime heralded a new voice in film.... No film made by Lars von Trier is quite so mesmeric as this debut.... this expressionist ritual could have been made by Murnau, Lang, Pabst or any of the masters of German silent cinema" and concludes "The Element of Crime undoubtedly proclaimed a talent as unusual and compelling as any to emerge from Northern Europe since World War II."[9]


The film received several awards including the Bodil Awards and Robert Awards in 1985 for the Best Film. It received Technical Grand Prize and was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.[10]

Organization Category Recipients and nominees Result
Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival Grand Prix Lars von Trier Nominated
Cannes Film Festival Technical Grand Prize Lars von Trier Won
Palme d'Or Lars von Trier Nominated
Bodil Awards Best Film Lars von Trier Won
Fantasporto International Fantasy Film Award for Best Director Lars von Trier Won
International Fantasy Film Award for Best Film Lars von Trier Nominated
Mannheim-Heidelberg International Filmfestival[11] Josef von Sternberg Award Lars von Trier Won
Robert Awards Best Cinematography Tom Elling Won
Best Costume Design Manon Rasmussen Won
Best Editor Tómas Gislason Won
Best Film Lars von Trier Won
Best Production Design Peter Høimark Won
Best Sound Morten Degnbol Won
Best Special Effects Peter Høimark Won

Home media[edit]

The Element of Crime has been released on DVD in North America by the Criterion Collection. In 2023, Criterion released a 3K restoration of the film as part of the Blu-ray box set, Lars von Trier's Europe Trilogy.[12] In Europe, a digitally remastered DVD is available as part of the box set Lars von Trier's Europe Trilogy – Hypnotic Edition.


  1. ^ Lasagna, Roberto; Lena, Sandra (12 May 2003). Lars von Trier. Gremese Editore. p. 123. ISBN 978-88-7301-543-7. Retrieved 15 October 2010.
  2. ^ "THE ELEMENT OF CRIME (15)". British Board of Film Classification. 10 May 1985. Retrieved 10 October 2014.
  3. ^ von Trier, Lars. "The Element of Crime". The Criterion Collection.
  4. ^ Lumholdt, Jan (2003). Lars von Trier: interviews. Univ. Press of Mississippi. p. 74. ISBN 978-1-57806-532-5. Retrieved 14 October 2010. Both The Element of Crime and Images of a Relief are romances in decomposition and set in a landscape saturated in yellow sodium color.
  5. ^ Anderson, Jeffrey M. "'The Element of Crime' Review". Combustible Celluloid. Retrieved 5 November 2022.
  6. ^ Hjort, Mette; Bondebjerg, Ib (1 January 2003). The Danish directors: dialogues on a contemporary national cinema. Intellect Books. p. 215. ISBN 978-1-84150-841-2. Retrieved 14 October 2010.
  7. ^ Christie, Ian (9 November 2010). "All Those Things That Are to Die: Antichrist". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 29 December 2016.
  8. ^ "The Element of Crime". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 30 March 2024.
  9. ^ Cowie, Peter. "The Element of Crime".
  10. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Element of Crime". Retrieved 23 June 2009.
  11. ^ "Awards and Juries 1984". Retrieved 22 May 2011.
  12. ^ von Trier, Lars. "Lars von Trier's Europe Trilogy". The Criterion Collection.

External links[edit]