The Element of Crime

For the German rock band, see Element of Crime.
The Element of Crime

theatrical release poster
Directed by Lars von Trier
Produced by Per Holst[1]
Written by Lars von Trier
Niels Vørsel
Starring Michael Elphick
Esmond Knight
Meme Lai
Jerold Wells
Music by Bo Holten
Cinematography Tom Elling
Edited by Tómas Gislason
Distributed by Kærne Film
Release dates
  • 14 May 1984 (1984-05-14)
Running time
103 minutes[2]
Country Denmark
Language English

The Element of Crime is a 1984 Danish neo-noir crime art film co-written and directed by Lars von Trier. It is the first feature film directed by Trier and the first installment of the director's Europa trilogy. The other two films in the trilogy are 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 postwar Germany of his dreamlike recollection is a dystopia, dark and decaying. Fisher remembers pursuing an elusive 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. He is joined in his search by a prostitute named Kim, who, it turns out, has had a child by his target. Fisher's search is based on a tailing report written by Osborne when trying to track down a murderer who had been killing in the same way as the "Lotto Murderer", but who, supposedly, has since died in a crash. 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 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.[3] 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 or 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 year?
Housekeeper: There are no seasons any more. 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).[4] 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.[5]


The Element of Crime received positive reviews, currently holding a 77% rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.[6]


The film received several awards including the Danish Bodil and Robert awards in 1985 for the best film, and was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival.[7]

Organization Category Recipients and nominees Result
Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival Grand PrixLars von TrierNominated
Cannes Film Festival Technical Grand Prize Lars von Trier Won
Palme d'Or Lars von TrierNominated
Bodil Awards Best Film Lars von TrierWon
Fantasporto International Fantasy Film Award for Best DirectorLars von TrierWon
International Fantasy Film Award for Best FilmLars von TrierNominated
Mannheim-Heidelberg International Filmfestival[8] Josef von Sternberg Award Lars von TrierWon
Robert Award Best Cinematography Tom EllingWon
Best Costume Design Manon RasmussenWon
Best Editor Tómas GislasonWon
Best Film Lars von TrierWon
Best Production Design Peter HøimarkWon
Best Sound Morten DegnbolWon
Best Special EffectsPeter HøimarkWon
Vulcain Prize Technical Grand PrizeLars von TrierWon

Home media

The Element of Crime has been released on DVD in North America by the Criterion Collection. 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. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. "The Element of Crime". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved 10 October 2014.
  6. "Festival de Cannes: The Element of Crime". Retrieved 2009-06-23.
  7. "Awards and Juries 1984". Retrieved 2011-05-22.
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