The Element of Crime
Lars von Trier’s stunning debut film is the story of Fisher, an exiled ex-cop who returns to his old beat to catch a serial killer with a taste for young girls. Influenced equally by Hitchcock and science fiction, von Trier (Europa, Breaking the Waves, The Idiots) boldly reinvents expressionist style for his own cinematic vision of a post-apocalyptic world. Shot in shades of sepia, with occasional, startling flashes of bright blue, The Element of Crime (Forbrydelsens Element) combines dark mystery and operatic sweep to yield a pure celluloid nightmare.
The Criterion Collection’s original DVD edition of Lars von Trier’s The Element of Crime (released in 2000) presents the film with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 (not 1.85:1 as listed on the cover) on a dual-layer disc. Sourced from a high-definition transfer of a 35mm low-contrast print, the standard-definition presentation has been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
Considering the unorthodox look of the film, Criterion’s standard-def presentation does an okay job rendering it all here. The film is laced primarily with a sepia tint, with splashes of blue and red thrown in here and there. The look was accomplished with a mix of using sodium lighting or filters. The film looks more orange in the end, but it’s rendered well, mixing with the blacks in the backgrounds nicely to deliver a surprising level of shadow detail and definition. The blues also have a nice pop to them.
Unfortunately, the low-resolution image can still appear a little noisy, even for what would be expected from the format, and this can be obvious in the darker areas. The encode seems progressive, but some frames look to be interlaced (probably a blending technique to imitate the correct 24fps frame rate to 60hz), which can lead to brief artifacts at times. The restoration work also leaves a bit to be desired, with plenty of heavy bits of damage remaining.
Sadly it doesn’t hold up as well as other presentations from the period, though, for the time, I was still impressed with how well it was still able to handle the film’s monochromatic look.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack is okay but pretty flat, almost certainly by design. Sound effects rarely stick out, and voices have little in the way of fidelity, especially actor Michael Elphick’s. Still, nothing egregious ever sticks out, and it sounds clean.
A very disappointing edition, the only feature on the disc (outside of the film’s original trailer) is the 54-minute documentary Transformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier, directed by Stig Björkman in 1997. I was always frustrated by it because it has little to do with the film, and I was hoping for something that would delve deeper into it. Yet even then, I still can’t say there is anything that sets it apart from other filmmaker profiles as it looks at “playful rascal” (as collaborator Tom Elling describes him) Lars von Trier and his work up to that point, from film school to his Europe trilogy and up through his latest film at the time Breaking the Waves. The Kingdom even gets a mention. There are some interesting interviews from those who have worked with him (even Stellan Skarsgård pops up) and a few surprising stories, like one around his nervousness in wearing Carl Th. Dreyer’s tuxedo to Cannes, but it still feels to be simply checking boxes. As it is, it at least works very well as an introduction to the filmmaker.
The release then includes a concise essay by film scholar Peter Cowie, who addresses the film's impact at the time of its release (he mentions Epidemic and Europa but doesn’t get into how they form a trilogy). Sadly, that’s all there is.
Always a disappointing edition, Criterion’s original DVD for von Trier’s The Element of Crime leaves a lot of room for improvement in all areas. The recent Blu-ray box set featuring all three films in the trilogy does remedy what is sorely lacking here.