Sent back to Europe to solve a crime, Fisher finds himself attempting a very unique method taken from a book, written by his old mentor. Fisher has to trace the man responsible for the "Lottery murders", Harry Grey. The method that Fisher is copying from the book "The Element of Crime" puts him in the shoes of the killer, to help trace him step-by-step.
The first film in Lars Von Trier's "Europa" trilogy is "The Element of Crime" (followed by "Epidemic" and "Europa"), and it's probably my favorite of the three. It's a movie with a very unique style. The style was developed from Lars Von Trier's earlier short film, "Images of a Relief". The entire film is filmed in orange lighting, and is set in a post-apocalyptic Europe. The world is dark and filthy and filled with scum. We follow Fisher, a cop who has been sent back from Cairo to investigate the murders of Harry Grey. To be able to trace this mad man, Fisher uses his former mentors book "The Element of Crime", and the mentor himself, as help. The book teaches a method of how you should follow the steps of the killer and visit the same places as he has. While investigating, he meets Kim, a prosititute that he falls for and who follows him along on the rest of the investigation. An overall well-executed story that is just as developed as it needs to be, even though you often wonder what exactly is going on (I guess you can't expect much else from Von Trier). In many ways, it's a very classic crime story.
What's much less "vanilla", however, is the style. As I said it's shot in orange lighting, which gives it a very absurd look at times. It puts sort of a strain on your eyes, but not so much that it's a bother. Instead I felt you just couldn't help but concentrate more on what's going on in the film. The post-apocalyptic Europe we see in this film is pitch-black, with lamps being the only light. It seems to be constant night. We never really get a backstory explained to us so what has happened to the world is left in the dark, but all the more fun for the viewer. It's easy to believe in this world in ruins because it's just so well-made, to every last detail.
You can say that the film is copying the style of filmmakers such as Andrei Tarkovsky, and it admittedly is inspired by the likes, but it honestly has its own thing going on. You might not throw your hands up in the air and say "my, oh my, how original!", because it isn't, sure. Filmmakers copy, and that's fine if they do it like this. You can't deny that it's still beautifully made film, and the mixture of that and a 30's detective story makes it all so much more enjoyable to watch.
You can't discuss a Lars Von Trier film without someone saying that it's pretentious, and I can see what they mean in a lot of the cases, but "The Element of Crime" is to me far from pretentious. The narration is maybe a bit too much at times, but it fits perfectly with the bleak tone of the film. The film shouldn't be taken as something more than an artistic post-apocalyptic detective story. I'm saying this without a clue if Von Trier himself had a bigger meaning or not, but it's hard to believe he would in this case. Besides, he's known to have a bit of an ego, so try not to let yourself be fooled on this one.
I think "The Element of Crime" is a fantastic film. It actually makes you believe that the world is in ruins. Within the first 10 minutes you'll find yourself completely into this world. It has a fun and interesting crime mystery that's being solved, and you can't help but wonder "who the fuck is Harry Grey?". Overall this film is a well-written, superbly directed, little crime film.