Child victims and excessive signifiers.

Lars von Trier’s Forbrydelsens element (The Element of Crime, 1984).

Von Trier uses child murders as a means of showing a fundamental aspect of Scandinavian horror – the fear that paganism lurks beneath the surface of modern respectability, as Rebecca A and Samuel J Umland explain.[1]

The themes of vampirism and child victimisation, of the vampire preying on children, clearly haunted Carl Theodor Dreyer’s imagination as well as Ingmar Bergman’s.[2] In the original screenplay for Vampyr – which, incidentally, appeared in Germany the year before Fritz Lang’s M (1933) – Dreyer included a chilling sequence in which David Gray enters an old, cluttered, dirty laundry room. As Gray looks around the junk-filled room, the thing that utterly «astonishes» him «is a collection of children’s clogs standing neatly in rows. They are not quite as dusty as the other things in the old laundry room.»[3] Backing out of the room, Gray goes «back to the spot where a door leads out to the staircase.» He stops there, and hears, «in the quivering stillness of the old house… hounds baying and a child weeping. Then a scream, a half-suppressed child’s scream, as if a hand had closed over the mouth of the screamer» (1970: 88).

As S S Prawer notes, in the actual film (at least the most complete version of the film presently available) the image of the children’s clogs is absent,

and though the sound-track includes what sounds like barking, baying, and whimpering dogs, a child’s weeping cannot be clearly distinguished on it. Instead, we have shots of a tiny skeleton, a cross between an atomized baby and a voodoo doll. David Gray’s enquiry after the weeping child is, however, retained (he, obviously, has heard a child, even if the viewer has not) and so are the doctor’s negative answers: «There is no child here,» and again: «Here there are neither children nor dogs.»[4]

In our view, Vampyr is the distant precursor to Lars von Trier’s Forbrydelsens element (The Element of Crime, Denmark, 1984) and to certain of the subplots in von Trier’s later TV mini-series, Riget (The Kingdom). Both of these films – Forbrydelsens element a hybrid mixture of the genres of horror and post-apocalyptic science fiction, Riget a horror comedy (originally made for Danish television in 1994, with a second series in 1997) – are centrally concerned with children as victims of violent crimes.

Fisher and Grey

Forbrydelsens element, von Trier’s feature film debut, centres around detective Fisher (Michael Elphick) who returns to Germany to solve a series of «lotto murders,» in which a mysterious figure by the name of «Harry Grey» (an allusion to David Gray of Vampyr, just as is the setting in Germany, where Vampyr was made) is suspected of stalking, killing and horribly disfiguring children who sell lottery tickets.[5] Fisher returns to Europe after 13 years of exile in Cairo, Egypt. He has been contacted by his aged former mentor at the police academy, Osborne (Esmond Knight, the film director in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom [UK, 1960]), author of a controversial book of theoretical criminal psychology entitled The Element of Crime.

Osborne’s book details «a series of mental exercises designed to improve our understanding of the behavioural pattern of the criminal.» Although it is strongly implied that the investigative method outlined by Osborne in The Element of Crime has since been discredited, Fisher begins to think and act like Harry Grey in order to retrace Grey’s route and in so doing anticipate the scene of the next crime. Fisher is befriended by a prostitute, Kim (Meme Lai), whom he takes with him on his journey, urging her to address him as Harry Grey. Soon, Fisher intuits what he believes to be the geometrical pattern that Grey is using to choose his murder sites – not the geometric figure of the square, as Osborne had believed, but the alphabetic glyph «H» – and hastens to Halle, the city where he believes the next murder will occur.

There, an elderly man, «grandfather» (Preben Lerdorff-Rye, who had played leading roles in Dreyer’s Vredens Dag [Day of Wrath, 1943] and Ordet [The Word, 1955]), allows his granddaughter to serve as bait in a trap Fisher has set to capture Grey. A mysterious figure appears, casting a shadow; when Fisher draws his handkerchief to hand to the small girl to dry her tears of fright, a talisman falls out of his pocket identical to those left at the murder scenes by the killer. The girl panics, thinking Fisher is Harry Grey, and begins to scream as she breaks the glass out of a window in an attempt to escape.

Overreacting, Fisher grabs the girl and in attempting to stifle her screams, he suffocates her. (Recall the passage from Dreyer’s script to Vampyr: «…[I]n the quivering stillness of the old house…a child weeping. Then a scream, a half-suppressed child’s scream, as if a hand had closed over the mouth of the screamer» [1970: 88].)

Von Trier has said that at the beginning of his career he typically used «people who’re very sure of what’s right and what action to take,» adding, «You can be sure that when they’ve done the right thing, it’s gone wrong and they also did it badly.»[6] This is certainly applicable to the protagonist of Forbrydelsens element, Detective Fisher. Although the frame narrative suggests that Fisher is urged by the therapist (Ahmed El Shenawi) to recount his story out of expiation of guilt (the allusion to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, «Water, water everywhere…,» that begins Fisher’s narration is highly suggestive), at times there are the contradictory suggestions that he himself is Harry Grey’s doppelgänger, as emphasised by the repeated references to Fisher’s severe headaches.

At one point, during a boat ride down a mysterious tunnel that is referred to as «the tunnel of love,» prior to performing oral sex, Kim gives him a bottle of pills which are designed to intensify his sexual pleasure; although after the effect of the pill wears off Fisher is subjected to an excruciating headache.

A splitting headache.

As Fisher claims to be closing in on Harry Grey, he acknowledges that the headaches have become more frequent. When he and Kim check in to the Elite Hotel after leaving Halberstadt, the desk clerk claims to remember Harry Grey (Fisher?) because he had asked for the anti-psychotic medicine, Thorazine. Does the desk clerk remember Fisher or Grey? Is Fisher following his own tracks, assuming that they belong to someone else, like Winnie the Pooh following his own tracks around the big oak tree? And when he is waiting with the little girl for Grey to arrive, Fisher is shown wincing in pain and rubbing his forehead, a sign that he is suffering a severe headache, as if he is «splitting» or morphing into Harry Grey – which, in some sense, he does, during his act of «silencing» the screaming girl.[7]

Excessive signifiers

Yet, like the Congo River in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or the Mopu Palace in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), for instance, the dark, eerie, rain-drenched (Blade Runner-ish) Europe to which Fisher returns functions as an «excessive signifier.» In The Melodramatic Imagination, Peter Brooks theorises that the melodramatic form creates an asymmetrical relationship between the signifier and the signified, specifically, a signified in excess of the signifier. This asymmetry «in turn produces an excessive signifier, making large and insubstantial claims on meaning.»[8]

As Priya Jaikumar observes, settings such as the Congo River and Mopu Palace are «places where things happen far in excess of explicable causes. The incommensurabilities among word, intention, and their meanings or consequences are inexplicable and therefore attributed to the place.»[9] The haunting, mysterious imagery of the location – the vague, ill-defined sense of menace, of some unspecified ecological and economic collapse (the buses stopped running three years earlier), the oppressive effect of perpetual rain and darkness (as Kim says to Fisher, «it’s always three o’clock in the morning»), the child murders – all contribute to Fisher’s psychic and emotional disintegration.

In Riget (The Kingdom, 1994), Von Trier’s horror comedy that was originally a four-part Danish television series, the Kingdom Hospital likewise functions as an excessive signifier, as the hospital’s very location promises effects over and above that which can be attributed to (rational) explicable causes. The Kingdom Hospital, although it had been dedicated to the belief that superstition and ignorance would never again «shake the bastions of science», in fact rests upon ancient, primordial marshland, enigmatically alluded to by a voice-over at the beginning of the film.

Thus, the Kingdom’s literal foundations on ancient marshland reflects a figurative truth, that its principles of Enlightened reason and science have replaced, but not in fact eradicated, earlier systems of belief. In the words of Lao-Tze, «High rests on low». This layering, or stratification, is a sort of figurative restatement of our thesis that Scandinavian horror films dramatise a deep-seated cultural fear that paganism, which was driven underground but never vanquished, threatens to (re-)surface and (re-)assert itself at any time.

Samuel J. Umland

Rebecca A. Umland