“Back. Back to Europe” And so it begins…
The somnambulist, the sleepwalker, haunts us. It’s the grim spectre of ourselves uncontrolled, unbidden. And yet still us, still ourselves. The zombie may be the body reduced to its most animalistic form, but the brains are gone – it is only a piece of meat. The somnambulist though, he awakens, she returns to her everyday world. And what is remembered is a dream, a feverish dream. Is it any wonder that one of the earliest film horrors that still resounds with audiences is Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? And that world of dream horror continues to fascinate. Fever dream horror. Fever dream horror bathed in dank sepias with an occasional white blue cold light. A bright blue cold light piercing your soul.
Nowadays, Lars von Trier is more known for his obsession with natural lighting, Cannes film festival blasphemies, and an almost atavistic obsession with sexuality. It’s easy to forget the crazed feverish dream-like work that first brought him world-wide attention – Epidemic, Europa (aka Zentropa), and especially his first film – The Element of Crime. I first saw Element at the Nuart Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard back when the regularly showed the revival and the strange on their screen. It’s the theater where I almost got into a fistfight halfway through Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which is a different horror story altogether. That’s where I was introduced to the madness that was 1980s von Trier, in a throwback movie theatre. Nothing could have been more appropriate.
Ostensibly a detective story, a noir pastiche with science fiction undertones, a distaff cousin to the contemporaneous Blade Runner, at its barest bones, Element is a somnambulist horror story. Fisher, the detective protagonist, falls back into his old haunts, following the steps of the Lotto Murderer. Immediately, von Trier drops us into a not so simple world, as we start not in Europe, but in Cairo with, shades of Caligari, a shadowy therapist hypnotizing Fisher. Entreating him to go back. Fisher’s droning voice over lulls us from the brighter blues of Cairo to the dim sepias of Europe, the ramshackle house of his old boss Osborne, and a world overflowing with water, steeped in the detritus of the past, and populated with ghosts, both physically and mentally.
Fisher travels a Europe in the throes of decay after some un-named, unknown, cataclysm. Beyond the flooded landscapes, the antiquated vehicles, there are the glimpses of suicide cults, and the ever present serial killer, the Lotto Murderer. This is the ghost that haunts not just Fisher, but Osborne, all of the decimated landscape. Fisher is chasing him, a killer long out of commission, a killer perhaps returned from the dead, a killer perhaps not real, never real. Using Osborne’s method, outlined in his book The Element of Crime, Fisher attempts to think like the Lotto Murderer, to become the Lotto Murderer. In the rubble, underneath the cranes, amongst the drowning cows, Fisher sinks completely into madness.
Von Trier drapes the underlying detective story in a miasma of horror. In this film, some of his inspirations are perhaps more pronounced than in his later films, even Europa only a few years later, the Tarkovsky love of flotsam and jetsam under flowing water, the echoes of the madness from Ingmar Bergman’s Shame. And yet it is already uniquely von Trier’s work, especially the use of colors in the film. Shot using sodium lights, more traditionally thought of for blue screen work, here the effect is to create an unnerving world of ambers and sepias, occasionally lit by the most intense of blues. Combined with the other elements, it is truly a living, breathing nightmare. The flooded hall of records is an amazing, mind-numbing set piece, later lifted in the very substandard Vincent Ward film What Dreams May Come, but here capturing an approximation of Charon floating through the dead, not the Grecian dead, but the modern dead. It is the end of life, the end of the world.
Fisher carries on through this world, one step behind the Lotto Murderer, one step barely ahead of police chief Kramer, who seems to have stepped out of another, louder, movie, disturbing the sensibilities with each frame he occupies. Where Fisher is the somnambulist, Kramer is the puppet master, the man looking at all the strings, and cackling as he makes the puppets fall. What are the secrets of this land? Why has Fisher been called back?
In the end, much like Francis in Caligari, Fisher is left alone to his madness, to his dreams, only able to mumble, “I’m ready to wake up now.” Only we never do really wake up, do we?
Joe Hilliard. Writer. Luddite. Teller of Tales. Grew up as a teen in Los Angeles on a diet of lucha libre, Doc Savage, Philip K. Dick, Philip Marlowe, film noir, Judge Dredd, 50s science fiction films, and the fringe of 80s Hollywood. Graduate of the University of Michigan, which only added Kawabata, Krazy Kat, and William S. Burroughs to the mix. Marks time as a paralegal in sunny California. His work can be found in APB: ARTISTS AGAINST POLICE BRUTALITY from Rosarium Press, THE LEGENDS OF NEW PULP from Airship 27, HARD-BOILED SPORTS from Pro Se Productions, and DIESELFUNK! from MVmedia.