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Hypnosis, Identification and Crime in Lars von Trier's European Trilogy

by Elizabeth Stewart

Elizabeth Stewart earned a PhD in comparative literature at New York University and has taught at Barnard College, Cooper Union, and NYU. Her fields of expertise include modern and post-modern philosophy and literature, post-colonial/diasporic and psychoanalytic theory, interrelations of literature and religion, and cultural studies. Her publications have centered on the work of Jacques Lacan. Dr. Stewart is proficient in Italian and German, reading knowledge in Spanish and French.

Lars von Trier is both hated and loved for good reason. Most critics say they hate him for his penchant for sacrificing female fools of Christ. For better or for worse, with her awe-inspiring performance in von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996), (1) actor Emily Watson was surrounded by a special, almost otherworldly, aura by the bells that toll for her as “Bess” out on the open sea, after her martyred body’s dispatch into the choppy waters off of Scotland. In her acting debut in Dancer in the Dark (2000) (2) Björk, already an object of fascination and obsession for many fans, is killed as Selma, and, almost despite ourselves, some of us recognize in her someone who has been sacrificed “for us.” While ambivalence reigns in these matters, many viewers, especially academic film critics, do not like such cloying pseudo-Christianity. The true reasons, though, for why one may hate or love von Trier, I think, have to do with something else, even if it’s not unrelated. That “something else” is grounded in Lars von Trier’s obsession and fascination with European fascism and its past—a fascination into which he attempts to lure his viewers—and a particular kind of masochism he makes his viewers experience by almost coercing them to identify with his own. My point is this: Lars von Trier engages in a duping of his audience by leading it, by way of his aesthetic, into a semi-hypnotic state, a state of fascination, a masochistic jouissance, (3) and an “amorous” giving in to the hypnotic guide, von Trier himself. In this essay I will refer to the hypnotic elements in fascism, a link that von Trier is clearly aware of and that he deploys self-consciously in most of his films. I will point to the both fascination-inducing and possibly fascistic manipulations at work in von Trier’s European trilogy. Having said that, I must confess to my own love of von Trier’s work, thus give voice to my own powerful ambivalence.

This is the question, and it is an ethical one: to what extent, if at all, is von Trier justified in hypnotizing his viewers, or, at the very least, inducing in them and fostering within them a fascination with suffering, with a masochistic jouissance and with sacrifice, by way of identification with, indeed irrational immersion into, the mystery of murder and violence, the realm of the Lacanian real (4) ? Does von Trier do what he does—unleash a chain of identifications with what Žižek calls “real” violence provoked, as I will show, by the objet petit a and the plus-de-juir (an excess of enjoyment that transgresses into the realm of pain) (5) —responsibly or not? (Is there are responsible way of doing so?) As we will see, the question of (narcissistic) identification is key here, as this is the psychic mechanism that Freud links to the formation of pathological group psychologies in Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego, (6) where he describes uncannily well the mechanisms of the formation of the fascistic individual, mob, and state. Identification as a general mechanism is the key psychic mechanism at work in von Trier’s European trilogy; it seems to haunt him and he haunts us with it, as he also suggests that it continues to haunt Europe, even today.

All three films in von Trier’s “European Trilogy” are “thrillers.” In The Element of Crime (1984) (7) the amnesiac police detective Fisher is hypnotically induced, by his kindly Egyptian psychoanalyst, to “return” to Europe to solve a bizarre string of murders (children selling “lotto” tickets are being brutally killed; at the site of each child corpse the murderer has left a talisman: a figurine of a horse). Fischer does so within a trance. What follows in the film is the hypnotically recollected sequence of events that leads up to the attack of the torturous headaches Fischer has been afflicted with in Egypt ever since his return from Europe. In Europe (the exact location is never specified) he rejoins his mentor who in the past had instructed him in his own method for apprehending criminals: psychologically identifying with them leads to their capture. When he adopts this method and identifies with the suspect by revisiting the places and people of the latter’s past, Fischer ends up—by way of this identification—becoming his own suspect.

After the futuristic setting of the first, von Trier’s second film, Epidemic (1987), (8) is set in the present: a script writer and a director (significantly played by von Trier himself) plan to make a film about an epidemic; like the protagonist of their film, they do not notice that a real epidemic is developing around them, just as the physician in the film-within-the-film is unconsciously spreading the very disease he is fighting.

Europa (1991) (Zentropa in the U.S.) (9) is set in Germany in 1945, immediately following the war. Leopold Kessler, an American of German descent, arrives in Germany to work as a Schlafwagenschaffner (sleeping car conductor), a post grudgingly provided him by his paternal uncle, a senior Schlafwagenschaffner. Almost immediately Leo’s hypnotic fascination with a fighter for the Nazi partisans and daughter of Max Hartmann, the owner of Zentropa Railways in the process of being “denazified” (whitewashed) by American intelligence, effectively transforms him into a Nazi terrorist collaborator. I will here limit my discussion to the first and third films.

Both The Element of Crime and Europa represent identification in the figures of their protagonists who are easily hypnotizable and have a dangerous inclination toward identification with idealized authority figures. Both films work at placing the viewer, too, into a passive, manipulatable, and masochistic role (a role that is analogous to the position of the two male protagonists) in terms of his or her at times thematized—and very likely real—immersion into the films’ both seductive and murderous environments. But while Element ends with a gorgeous shot of Fischer shining a light into the terrified and hypnotized eyes of a marmot (Murmeltier, literally, “murmuring animal”—a reference to the self-involved and self-referential murmuring of Fischer throughout the film) stuck in a burrow, thus alluding to and making fun of the hypnotized viewer of the film, Leo’s demise in Europa goes beyond being swallowed and is in fact total: he drowns, trapped in the train he has been instrumental in exploding as it crosses a bridge. First, though, like the marmot in the burrow in Element, he is trapped. He drowns, unable to break out of his submerged train compartment, on his hypnotist’s count of “ten.” (Max von Sydow “speaks” Leo’s hypnotist’s voice, the voice of the Other, that lies outside of the represented events, but whose coercive narrative structures and frames the film.) Ten is also the number that at the beginning of the film first hypnotically lands Leo on the tracks in Zentropa’s Germany. The film opens with the camera pointed at the train tracks from the point of view of a rushing engine while the hypnotist’s voice, addressing Leo and the viewer, prepares the viewer’s hypnotic entry into Germany: “On the count of ten you will be in Europa.” In this way the final death-by-drowning, also occurring at “ten,” is identified with entry into “Europa.” We are led by this hypnotic voice, as well as by the train tracks that slash through the darkness and that function as the coercive “track” of hypnosis. The end of Europa is masterfully hypnotic: the hypnotist’s voice speaks sententiously, as we watch the events he declares to be (as if they were fate) in images of mesmerizing beauty, directed still at both Leo and the viewer:

“In the morning the sleeper has found rest on the bottom of the river. The force of the stream has opened the door and is leading you on.”

“Opening the door” in this case clearly suggests liberation from the nightmare of Europa, a liberation experienced by Leo only in death. His corpse is carried by a slightly muddy current. And we have to ask ourselves: what does it mean for us to “die” together with Leo, as we continue to be addressed by the Voice as well? Von Sydow goes on:

“Above your body people are still alive.
Follow the river, as days go by,
head for the ocean, that mirrors the sky.
You want to wake up, to free yourself of the image of Europa. But it is not possible.”

Here the viewer is identified with the identificatory victim (or the victim of identification) who is seduced and becomes the fascist’s dupe, both thematically within the events depicted and in terms of the lethal authoritarianism of the hypnotist’s—or “leader’s”—voice. (10) The structure of identification is itself mimed by the rhyming words and images of “Follow the river, as days go by//head for the ocean, that mirrors the sky,” that is, the imaginary constellations that trap Europa in its own nightmare.

The aria “Europa,” heard as the credits roll at the end, composed by Joakim Holbek and sung by Phillipe Huttenlocher and Nina Hagen in German and English, is also about fascination, seduction, and identification. (The words mirror Fischer’s self-involved mumblings at a certain point in Element: “Harry me, marry me, bury me, bind me”). Nina Hagen’s English lyrics are:

I played on the beach

and all of a sudden

a wolf, fierce and mighty

I trembled, I sighed

I’m wanting you, needing you, pleading you,

but you know better

I’m fearing you, hating you, wanting you,

but you know better.

Combining the elements of need, fascination, violence, terror, and domination, the lyrics also hand power over to the “you”—is it “Europa”? Or you, the viewer? Or is the “you” of “but you know better” the one “supposed to know,” knowledge imaginarily projected onto an all-knowing subject/Other, the analyst, when s/he is experienced not only in the transference, but also hypnotically as master by the patient? Von Trier engages Freud’s worried, but somewhat inhibited, treatment of the group’s hypnotic relation to the Führer, the pathologically masochistic relation to the superego, (11) as well as the Lacanian notion of the fragmented or lacking discourse of the hysteric seeking shelter in the totalizing and narcissistic discourse of the Master. (12) Freud’s descriptions of the “group” are in my mind essential to the description of the psychological structure of fascism, a psychic constellation bred within the explosive mix of a group’s panicked need for a “leader,” its melancholic and masochistic submission to this idealized figure, and its fetishization of an incarnated Other that re-presents for it the idealized and also murderous, cruel, and narcissistic primal father. Max von Sydow’s voice fulfills all of these criteria in Europa.

Identification in psychoanalysis is a hotly debated notion and is profoundly ambiguous. While for Freud identification ultimately becomes the mechanism by way of which both the ego and superego are constituted, identification is also contaminated by “love” and the desire for narcissistic totality, enclosure, and exclusiveness. For Lacan identification is imaginary when by way of it the ego is created in the mirror stage; this is the “primary identification” out of which the ideal ego issues forth. (13) In secondary—or symbolic—identification, on the other hand, the identifying subject moves into the symbolic order (even if the act of identification as such always still partakes of the imaginary). It is in this latter instance of identification that its full ambiguity emerges. The devouring and totem meal of the murdered and sacrificed father (cf. Freud’s Totem and Taboo (14) and “Mourning and Melancholia” (15) ) that Freud describes points to the very precarious mix of love, murder, and repentance that is involved both in the search for submission to the rule of brothers (democracy) and for “mastery,” whether it be the mastery of adulthood or the narcissistic mastery over the other. In all cases, identification is, for Freud and Lacan both, closely associated with aggression-prone narcissism. Most important for my purposes is the link between identification and hypnosis that Freud elaborated in Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego where the narcissistic group that identifies with the leader (and whose members identify with each other) undergoes a stunting, a psychic impoverishment, by putting an object in the place of a psychic agency, the ego-ideal, as well as by putting a stop to the signifying process that is the symbolic order by stopping it up, so to speak. What takes place then is a regressive identificatory hypertrophy of the most primitive emotional bond instead of a “progressive” secondary identification that would lead the subject into the symbolic order and away from hypnotic and blind identification. Borch-Jacobsen, in his book The Emotional Tie: Psychoanalysis, Mimesis, and Affect, describes this primary identification as a blind identificatory urge—cannibalistic, annihilating, and murderous—that lies at the basis of the acquisition of identity as such, and it is worth therefore quoting him at length here:

...the stakes of the murder [of the primal Father] are not the possession of an object of love or of pleasure but rather the acquisition of an identity. The murder of the Father, in this case, is much less a brutish struggle than a Freudian version of Hegel’s “struggle for pure prestige.” If desire ends in murder and devouring, it is because it is the desire to appropriate the being of the other, the desire to assimilate his power (Macht), his potency (Stärke)—in a word, his mastery: his narcissistic autonomy. My being is in the other, and that is why I cannot become “myself,” and ego, unless I devour him—here, in short, is what the Freudian myth is telling us, a myth ultimately much less mythic than it appears. What it deals with is the primitive relationship to others, taking it all the way back to the mythic origins of human community—“primitive” because it is the relationship of no ego to no other, of no subject to no object. Thus it is also a connection with no connection to others, an unbinding tie. I the ego am born by assimilating the other, by devouring him, incorporating him. Everything in so-called individual history, then, as in the history of society, begins with murderous, blind identification, all the blinder because there is still no ego to see anything or represent anything to itself at all, and because the “envied model” that it assimilates is immediately annihilated, eaten, engulfed: “I am the breast,” “I am the Father”—that is, no one. In other words, everything begins with subjectless identification—by which the Freudian myth corresponds exactly to the situation of the panicked, anarchic headless masses without a Chief. The Father (who was actually not a Father, not even a brother, but only a counterpart ) has been killed, and so there is no subject at the basis of the social tie, whether we mean loving subjects or a beloved Subject. (16)

It is this notion of identification that is at work in von Trier’s films. For Freud, the hypnotically experienced analyst is also a “Leader” or Father, loved in the same way that the Leader is loved by the “group.” This Father/Leader is beloved and identified with by the hypnophilic analysand. In Europa this “Father” is murderous, and his assimilation is murderous as well. Freud rejected hypnosis and its seduction by and “love” of the “leader”/analyst and the loss of the critical faculty (17) that it engenders; Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen claims that Freud repressed—perhaps even foreclosed—the origins of psychoanalysis in hypnosis. As Maurice Blanchot has written, “Freud had to make a stubborn effort at elucidation, all the more necessary since his method had an impure origin, having started very close to magnetism, hypnosis, and suggestion.” (18) Instead, “psychoanalysis extracts the ‘rational kernel’ from magical speech by removing it from its ‘mystical shell’ (notably hypnotic). And that kernel is speech, all speech, and nothing but speech of the patient.” (19) Von Trier, we might say, re-presents that “impure origin.”

It is clear both in The Element of Crime and Europa that the critical faculty of the protagonists (with whom viewers are encouraged, even driven, to identify) is impaired and that their identificatory urges turn murderous: Leo is almost completely silent—and silently captated--throughout Europa, allowing himself to be manipulated by almost every single other character while falling under their sway: his Nazi “Werewolf” girlfriend, and later wife, Kate; American military intelligence, Nazi-colluding “de-Nazifier” and architect of post-war Germany, Colonel Harris, whose white-washing activities (undertaken to “keep the trains running”) will lead to German postwar denial and repression, only to culminate in the secondarily traumatic events surrounding the arrest, likely murder, and murder’s cover-up of the Baader-Meinhof group, allegorically represented in the film by a thwarted funeral; (20) the pastor, colluding with Hartmann, Kate, and American fascist-sympathizing militarism, who arranges Leo’s and Kate’s lightning-speed union (this is, of course, both a literal and allegorical union); Leo’s uncle, who leads him into one ridiculous Kafkaesque scene of senseless Schlafwagen-examinations after the other, representing the survival of Prussian/German bureaucratic militarism, blindness, obtuseness, and magnificent forces of denial and repression; the Werewolf terrorists, who force Leo to place the time-bomb on his train and who so easily dupe this simple-minded American idealist. Only Larry, Kate’s homosexual brother, attempts to engage Leo’s critical faculties by showing him the hidden Germany, the realities behind its leaders: he leads Leo through the train to the last car, in which sits the coffin of Max Hartman, who has killed himself because, as Kate puts it, things had become “too absurd even for him,” when his American intelligence friend has him exonerated by blackmailing a surviving Jew to testify that Hartman helped Jews during the war. Leo and Larry walk through many a “’compartment[s] you had no idea existed’” (as Max von Sydow says)—namely Schlafwägen filled with death camp “beds” and emaciated bodies staring back at Leo. In this way, Larry attempts to restore some critical distance to Leo. The reason that Larry leads him to the coffin is to tell him about an “unauthorized” funeral that is being planned for Hartmann. The “Allies” will come to interrupt this funeral and “confiscate” the body, thereby alluding both to Antigone and the obscenity of Creon’s state (in this context analogous to the Nazi regime as well as to post-war amnesiac Germany) and to the funeral debacle after Andreas Baader, Jan-Carl Raspe, and Gudrun Ensslin died in prison at Stammheim in 1977. When Leo finally reacts against these various manipulations, he does so by grabbing an MP’s rifle, that is, by reacting violently, sending off warning shots and confining everyone (all of the relevant players are, at this point, on his train) to their compartments. But he achieves nothing: he has not defused the bomb correctly and the explosion occurs despite his supposed act of taking charge (which would, were it successful, correspond to Lacan’s “secondary identification”). Shortly thereafter he will die.

Fischer, in The Element of Crime, murmurs (he is the Murmeltier), as he drifts into the ever greater confusion and cloudiness of his identificatory investigation, “Harry me, marry me, bury me, bind me,” alluding to the simultaneity of the primitive emotional bond of primary identification and the death drive (designated by Borch-Jacobsen as primary) that “unbinds” (“bury me”), (21) as well as expressing his desire for identification. Simultaneously he drifts into ever greater pain, as he has also identified with murder suspect Harry Grey’s symptom (22) —his headaches. “I cannot stop until I understand,” he says. Kim, his helper, tells him, “You understand less and less.” That is, he too is incapable of achieving critical distance away from his murderous and suicidal identifications. (23)

Von Trier’s films implicitly contain the question regarding the relation of psychoanalysis—especially the Oedipus—to hypnosis with which Freud wrestled and which is one of Borch-Jacobsen’s main preoccupations. Freud’s psychoanalysis had to establish itself away from the dangerous ground of hypnotism and fascination. For Freud and for Lacan, away from psychoanalysis’s own origin in a primary and primal, archaic, identification (a situation the viewer in the movie theater is seduced “back” to), there is to emerge a splitting off of a different kind of, a “secondary,” symbolic identification (“Wo es war, soll ich werden”). It remains to be seen whether or not von Trier makes a similar move to tame the imaginary and aggressive effects of primary identification.

Identification-as-fascination leads to terror and death by way of a “Bindung” (binding) that turns into “Bann” (spell[-binding]). These are also the techniques von Trier uses on his viewers: the pull of fascination, “Bann,” and a regressive and primitive identification--that is, a hypnotic “Bindung.” We “are” the petrified marmot as well as ineffective Leo, whose body was in fact not completely trapped in the “sleeper,” but who just wasn’t capable of extricating himself, paralyzed by an irrational incapacitation resulting from a helpless self-binding to a lost hypnotic and all-consuming object (Lacan’s Chose), embodied in the “leader” figures that had surrounded him. This loss results in his own total self-loss; in fact, he’s the only one who seems to have drowned, as we see many swimming legs above him while he drifts through the river grass toward the ocean, his eyes closed, his expression turned inward, placid and calm, peaceful like a fetus in utero. Death, the suggestion seems to be, is not a necessary outcome, and yet we too may very well be guilty of having put ourselves in Leo’s position in our identification with him, in our willingness, our desire, to be spoken to authoritatively by the hypnotist/Master/leader. Have we been duped by von Trier? If yes, why does he choose to dupe us in this way, by the pull of fascination, which makes us passive like Leo and turns us into colluders with “the worst” (Derrida’s shorthand for fascism and genocide (24))?

The Element of Crime is pervaded by the imagery of fire, wind, and water (the Lacanian real), heights, missing stairs and other broken up linear passages together with various sorts of plunges and immersions; this is true both in the literal and architectural sense and in the sense of “plot.” This breakdown of viable passages suggests the falling apart of the Lacanian Borromean knot, the structure of the late Lacan’s topology: the Borromean knot consists of a minimum of three interconnected threads and it illustrates the interdependence of the three orders, the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real. The unraveling of this knot represents the onset of psychosis; at times the addition of a fourth ring, the sinthôme, can prevent psychosis. I will show how relevant this additional ring becomes in The Element of Crime. This breakdown of connections, I believe von Trier to be suggesting, has come about with the disappearance of the “leader” in “ Europe,” and the once cohesive group is now “headless,” distraught and panicked. The question is: will it create another narcissistic and murderous leader for itself or will it allow for some critical distance to reemerge? Close to the film’s ending there appears the enigmatic image of skin-head divers plunging head first from great heights, a heavy rope tied around their ankles: one foot above water the rope violently breaks the fall, and the diver dies, though not by drowning. I will return to this image. The atmosphere in this “Europe” is consistently dark, wet, and everyone speaks in a murmur, almost impossible to understand; Europe “lies dormant,” as Fischer says, and all over the place are piles of corpses: “Lotto” children’s corpses, (25) some horrifically mutilated, while other children recite gory nursery rhymes; there are animal corpses in pits at the shore, victims of “foot and mouth disease”; the edges of the pits are visited by the townspeople — these images allude to those of German citizens forced to visit the death camps at the end of the war; early on in the film, a horse plunges into the water with its cart; it is shot by the thugs of the new Gestapo-like, trigger-happy, skinhead police chief Krämer; later on, the scene of the horse’s corpse being pulled out of the water is spliced into the film at various points; the talisman that the murderer leaves next to his victims’ bodies is a small model of a horse’s head, a sort of fetish, whose function is perhaps to subdue the explosion of the real in this Europe…

I want to make use of the three Lacanian orders to make sense of the film and to speak with greater ease about the value and dangers of identification. Europe is drowning in this explosion of the murderous real (“water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink,” Fischer murmurs upon entry to Europe): the divers’ acts seem to be some sort of desperate attempt at defense against this drifting toward death (they refuse to drown, though can’t help dying), while Krämer’s mode of defense is to shoot anyone who moves, and he considers Fischer’s method—that is, Osborne’s method of ending murder by identifying with the murderer and reconstructing his life in such a way that his future moves can be predicted and thus “arrested”—to be “too old and risky.” While murder and animal butchery are the trauma of Europe, the disgorged real that Fischer had escaped from to Cairo and thus repressed but continued to identify with via his symptom (he appeals to the hypnotist in Cairo because of his violent headaches), his chosen mode for dominating the real continues to be identificatory and imaginary. The film brims over with imaginary imagery of reflection and doubling. This imaginary mode is not broken open even by the letter—either as the signifier as such, the “guarantee” of the symbolic order, or as the design, the letter “H” that Fischer finally perceives to underlie the murderer’s plans: the figure “H” gives Fischer a map by way of which he thinks he will be able to predict where the last murder will take place. The problem, however, is that it is not completely a letter, it remains stuck within a specular and imaginary constellation. When he connects the dots of the sites of the first four child murders, he first establishes a square or rectangle:

This becomes

with an additional scene of murder. Only when Fischer duplicates—mirrors—the actual geography of murder does Fischer “know” that the pattern is to be the letter “H”—the result of a mirroring of a past string of murders in the present:


Fischer deduces that the last murder will take place in Halle, as its location “perfects” the as of yet unfinished, open, letter “H”—and, of course, because it begins with the letter “H”—another duplication. Osborne tells him that his granddaughter will be sent to Halle as bait to sell lottery tickets and Fischer will guard over her in order to catch the killer. When the child is frightened by a noise, begins to cry, and Fischer pulls out of his pocket, with his handkerchief, one of the horsehead talismans, she becomes frightened and he violently stifles her screams. Has Fischer become the killer? We don’t know “for sure,” because we are not shown the corpse. When we find out towards the end that Osborne had “become” Harry Grey and had in fact committed the last two murders, we do know that the “pattern,” the “geography,” of the crime, even the meaning of “H,” are all really imaginary products—narcissistic and murderous—on the part of the father/son identifiers, Osborne and, possibly, Fischer. We are led to believe that, just as Fischer has identified with Osborne, his father figure and mimetic murderer, Osborne before him had identified with the defunct but still haunting “primal father,” Harry Grey. The son becomes a murderer like the father before him. Once again we see the simultaneous appearance of primary identification and murder. And identification, immersion, and “drifting” toward the murderer’s constellations parading as coordinates lead toward a repetition of the violence of the real. (26)

This identification-bred violence is that of Freud’s “group” that has identified with, and loves, the leader. It is the narcissistic violence bred by the members of the group who see themselves in their “brothers”—these “brothers” may be represented in Element by the identical suicidal skinheads, the divers, as well as by Krämer, their aggressive counterpart—and identify with them, while the “leader”—in our case, the murderer—creates himself, his super-human status, by way of this identificatory idealization: Osborne has identified with Grey, and Fischer identifies with Grey through Osborne, his idealized father figure. The “love” that binds and “bannt” (spellbinds) the problematic group in Freud’s Massenpsychologie is the “love” that binds both Leo and Fischer to a narcissistic idealized figure and, through immersion into that idealized figure and its geography, to murder. We are led to surmise, naturally, that the European present will continue to mirror its past, though perhaps somewhat more indirectly.

Fischer’s “discovery” of the letter “H” is a flawed attempt at reconstituting a symbolic signifying and sublimatory structure upon the panicked murderous and suicidal chaos that is a now Führer-less Europe. It is really a product of his imaginary projection, and up until the end Fischer risks being drowned like Leo. The dissolving of the symbolic by water (amniotic fluid?) occurs continuously throughout Element. Osborne is the main culprit: as he speaks to Fischer, and moves around in his both windy and flooded house, he constantly immerses papers—from his own books and other books—into ready bowls of water, thereby, one surmises, dissolving them. Fischer’s somewhat better, though still very precarious, retention of the symbolic is represented in various ways in the film, the two most successful ones being when Fischer lets himself down by a rope (stairs are missing) into the “Archives” (writing) and has to wade through waist-high water to get to the files, only to find that Harry Grey’s file is blank (washed clean), and later when he drifts down a sort of underground canal on a makeshift wooden barge, thus just barely keeping “dry.” Fischer does not yet drown, while Leo in Europa does.

Von Trier’s films may be cautionary tales. And yet such a reading of his films as a postmodern variant of the modernist imperative for a Brechtian critical distance, does not entirely hit the mark. Every single scene in Element and, in a different way, in Europa,demands from the viewer an immersion into the visual maelstrom.

At issue is obsession—von Trier’s seemingly morbid obsession with Germany’s Nazi past, his inability to not return to it, his obsession/fascination with the seductions by fascism anywhere, and his obsession with infecting his viewers with a morbid desire to be hypnotically fascinated into a regression to archaic mental processes: “Harry me, marry me, bury me, bind me.” A central element in Element is a videotape Fischer plays of a talk given by Osborne years earlier on his theory of “criminal[istic]” identification. When he does so, his VCR screen is intensely blue—a very striking exception in the almost entirely sepia-colored film. The double framing of the speech—a film-within-a-film—contributes to its distancing effect. The taped talk on identification is itself alienated, that is, “identification” is neutralized, by way of its distance from the viewer. In addition, the videotaped event is itself an event about the criticism—even censoring—of Osborne’s theory. There is much whistling and booing from Osborne’s audience; someone is heard shouting, “Let him speak!” and a warning shot goes off. The same voice yells, “Remember we are European!”—a profoundly ambiguous—and ironic—admonishment in this context. When Osborne—hardly even visible—begins to speak, he is flanked by two men who wear what look like SA uniforms. In his explanation of his theory, Osborne describes the method as enabling the policeman to work himself into the criminal’s mind and thus into the crime. Apologetically he admits that there is “a danger of being corrupted”: The “morality of the police,” he says, “is no different from that of society.” Does he mean to say there is a danger of the “police” colluding with the reemergence of fascism just like the general population is doing when it allows itself to be hypnotized? Significantly, Osborne ends defensively with, “I never claimed that the method be completely developed,” as he is almost drowned out by his critics’ whistles and verbal abuse.

The video makes concrete von Trier’s ambivalence regarding the function of immersion, identification, and hypnosis as well as the masochism and mimetic impulses that his films both depict and provoke. This ambivalence may be further developed by describing what von Trier demands of his viewers in terms of the Lacanian notion of the “identification with the symptom” that paradoxically is to crown the sublimatory and symbolizing telos and that constitutes what is the ethics of psychoanalysis: its establishment of critical distance to trauma.

In 1975 Lacan introduced the concept of the sinthôme. The sinthôme is a “kernel of enjoyment immune to the efficacy of the symbolic,” it is “unanalysable,” “the fourth ring to the triad of the real, the symbolic and the imaginary, tying together a knot which constantly threatens to come undone,” and it lies beyond meaning, which is constituted by the intersection of the imaginary and the symbolic. (27) Lacan “discovers” the sinthôme in his reading of Joyce: “Faced in his childhood by the radical non-function/absence... of the Name-of-the-Father, Joyce managed to avoid psychosis by deploying his art as suppléance, as a supplementary cord in the subjective knot.” (28) In this supplementary substance of the sinthôme, “‘the real forecloses meaning’ (seminar of 16 March 1976).” (29) The sinthôme contains the trace of the Other, that alterity, contained often as the objet petit a, which goes beyond the imaginary construction of meaning as well as the “sense” of the symbolic. (30) It is in this sense that the sinthôme is related to an ethics before the sense and logos of philosophy, one that is reminiscent of the work of Emmanuel Levinas. (The trace of the Other is also incorporated into Element by the constant inclusion in scenes and shots of absolutely unrelated “others,” often of “other” races, whom the protagonist Fischer does not even seem to see and with whom he does not interact.) The sinthôme is also about enjoyment, the “private jouissance” (31) of the subject. There is a sense in Element that Fischer has indeed therapeutically identified with the symptom and with the real in his hypnotic return to Europe; at the end of his trance experience, his hypnotic hallucinations, he walks away as the “last tourist of Europe” (the title of the song played as the end credits roll), away from the hanging corpse of Osborne and the rotting corpses all over Europe, and presumably back to Cairo, into the presence of his kindly, fat, maternal hypnotist with the nasal voice stroking his monkey. There is both a walking away from the trauma (the reestablishment of distance) and the sense of what amounts to an ethical necessity of having identified with it; both are valorized, both seem necessary. (32) The sense, then, is that a hypnotic relation to the past—undoubtedly present—can be undone: precisely by a carefully limited hypnosis and identification and immersion into the past trauma, the real.

The disparate endings of Element and Europa are significant: Osborne is Fischer’s father figure and Fischer wishes to follow in his footsteps: it is this identification that could—and perhaps does—turn him into a murderer. One could argue that, while “Father” is a murderer, it is the “maternal” (nasal, feminine-voiced) Egyptian hypnotist who undoes for Fischer the masochistic attitude toward the idealized father and thus interrupts the road toward murder. Fischer’s last lines in the film are a repeated, “I want to wake up now. Are you there?” directed at the hypnotist. The very “paternal” and authoritative hypnotist in Europa, on the other hand, punishes Leo: he allows for no distance, no return. He is the analyst who repeats the trauma, who makes Leo himself dissolve in water, lost in identification with the real.

There would thus seem to be a “good” primary identification and a “bad” one. The difference between the two endings is related to the difference, theorized by Jean Deprun, between “cinema as identification(33) and “cinema as transference.(34) The former is described as a “renouncing” of oneself, as “abdication” of “ego” and as total loss of distance, an escape from convention; irresponsibility. The “filmic image” is given to the spectator as “already perceived, already centred,” directed in our case by the authoritative voice of a totalitarian hypnotist, whose directive is far more pronounced and authoritarian in Europa than it is in Element (where the hypnotist must still occasionally ask Fischer for directions or at least admonish him against “drifting” and thus confusing him, just as the spectator drifts through so many of the film’s sequences). “I count for naught in this tableau that overwhelms me. What marvelous passivity,” says Jean Deprun in “Cinema and Identification.” “In dreams or hallucinations, the image still remained my own work. I held it in my arms; I was its dupe and its accomplice,” but the crucial difference between dream and cinema is that “[a] consciousness that dreams is fascinated by itself; [while] at the cinema, I am fascinated from without.” (35) The cinematic spectator, in fact, falls under the same spell that Freud’s group member falls under in relation to the Führer: “A thing cannot fascinate; one gives in to things. Only love fascinates and subdues. Every suggestion rests, according to Freud, on an erotic attachment.” Deprun goes on, quoting Freud along the way: the hypnotist magically takes the place of the terrible father or the beloved mother. Also, two types of hypnosis may be distinguished: that which results from “a calming suggestion, as if accompanied by caresses, and that which is produced by a threatening command. The former may be considered to be maternal hypnosis, the latter paternal hypnosis.” Both cause the archaic depths of the being to surge up. In both, identification plays a part. “There is not a huge difference between being in love and the state of hypnosis... One demonstrates towards the hypnotist the same humility in submission, the same abandon, the same absence of criticism as towards one’s beloved... There is no doubt that the hypnotist has taken the place of the ego ideal...” (36)

Deprun goes on to differentiate between, on the one hand, “regressive,” “morbid” identification where one’s “being” is concerned, and which is geared toward “immediate pleasure” (“It is a narcissistic retreat into oneself, a return to infantile erotic forms. It will not generate behavior, but will express itself magically through dreams and symptoms” (37)), and, on the other, “fertile” and “progressive” identification when it leads to action. The Element of Crime is not as pessimistic as is Europa regarding the form of identification that is being portrayed as well as provoked: Fischer remains alive, even if still half-paralyzed by his identificatory headaches; somewhat less optimistic is that the last scene belongs to the petrified marmot and the demand, “I want to wake up now,” not followed by an actual waking up (at least we don’t witness it). The film’s “action” is also persecuted by the constant dissolution of (symbolic) letters. But in Europa hope is pretty much completely lost: the hypnotist has gained total control and has no intention of letting go or of allowing for any kind of space; he murders Leo, and Leo’s feeble attempt to take action against authoritarian suggestion is laughable. That’s as far as Leo is concerned. But what about the spectator?

In “Cinema and Transference,” Deprun asks, “Can cinema, like the analyst, use influence in order to render influence impossible?” He is asking to what extent cinema allows one to pass through, traverse, identification by way of transference. My question is whether von Trier’s strategy works: to use suggestion in order to overcome suggestion, to neutralize it through the transference, to neutralize the fascist--the idealizing man of the herd or potential murderer--in the spectator, so to speak. By projecting “complexes” (in this case, suggestibility and identification, the creation of a murderous superego) onto the analyst/screen, Deprun asserts, they are turned into “manageable objects” that are “mine,” while the projection/transference allows “me” to keep them “at arm’s length.” These objects are then both thrown out and identified with; in fact, they may even function as heralds of sorts for the sinthôme:

Despite everything, the filmic image remains outside of me; it gives an objective body to my dreams, projects them in front of me, too familiar strangers. I can detach them from me, treat them as manageable objects. In order to exorcise them I shall have only to shut my eyes. Present formerly within me, the screen now represents them to me. I know with whom I am dealing; I no longer fight blindly against these unknown people who used to haunt my house. I shall be dealing with an equal power. (38)

But the filmic image does not effect as “clean” a liberation as does the transference in analysis. It leaves heavy “fascinatory” residues. Nor should it leave behind all fascinatory identification or what I’d rather call immersion, since a taste of the symptom—the sinthôme—may act as a last barrier against the encroachment of psychosis. But the question confronting von Trier regarding his aesthetic—and ethical and political—choices is complicated, and I do not have a decisive answer: is an aesthetic of immersive identification psychoanalytically, ethically, and politically appropriate in a Europe that has, within the last few years, experienced in some quarters a revival of fascistic sentiments?

I suggest the following: von Trier’s films may allow the self-observant spectator to set the ethical functioning of his or her sinthôme in motion. The latter allows the subject to live by “providing a unique organisation” of his or her jouissance (39) . That is, the task of analysis, its end, becomes that of identifying with one’s own symptom (which is neither signifying nor a signifying link in a signifying chain, but rather mute, non-verbal enjoyment) in order to hold the individual subject together; the sinthôme links back together a dissolving Borromean knot, thus protecting the subject from dissociating from the symbolic and preventing the formation of the pathological “group.” Identification with the sinthôme restricts the subject to his or her own carnality and away from attempting to inscribe the carnality of the other with a (potentially murderous) meaning. The sinthôme is where Lacan and Levinas—and perhaps also Lars von Trier—meet.


1. Breaking the Waves, Dir. Lars von Trier. Perf. Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård, Katrin Cartlidge, Jean-Marc Barr. Zentropa Entertainment, 1996.

2. Dancer in the Dark, Dir. Lars von Trier. Perf. Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare. Zentropa Entertainment, Fine Line, 2000.

3. I mean this in the sense that the masochist seemingly contradicts the principle that the basic aim of every human being is the attainment of pleasure and that he seeks sexual pleasure that is bound to pain. More specifically, I am also referring to the masochism of the ego that finds itself persecuted by a cruel, destructive, punishing--possibly even murderous—superego (see Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia”).

4. My argument in this essay relies on the theoretical framework provided by Lacan’s most fundamental theory: the three orders. Briefly, these are the three fundamental orders of Lacanian psychoanalysis (all quotations below come from Evans’s “Dictionary” entries for the imaginary, real, and symbolic [Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (London & New York: Routledge, 1996)] ):

The real : according to Evans, Emile Meyerson’s definition of the real, “‘an ontological absolute, a true being-in-itself,’” influenced Lacan’s notion. Further, the real is “opposed to the imaginary, [and] is located beyond the symbolic. Unlike the symbolic, which is constituted in terms of oppositions such as that between presence and absence, ‘there is no absence in the real’ (Jacques Lacan, The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli, notes by John Forrester [New York: Norton; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988]). Whereas the symbolic opposition between presence and absence implies the permanent possibility that something may be missing from the symbolic order, the real ‘is always in its place: it carries it glued to its heel, ignorant of what might exile it from there’ (Jacques Lacan, Écrits [Paris: Seuil, 1966]) [25]. … the real emerges as that which is outside of language and inassimilable to symbolisation. ... The real also has connotations of matter, implying a material substrate underlying the imaginary and the symbolic… [T]he connotations of matter also link the concept of the real to the realm of biology and to the body in its brute physicality (as opposed to the imaginary and symbolic functions of the body)....”

The imaginary: “ [T]he term has connotations of illusion, fascination and seduction, and relates specifically to the dual relation between the ego and the specular image. ... [I]t has powerful effects in the real, and is not simply something that can be dispensed with or ‘overcome.’ ...The basis of the imaginary order continues to be the formation of the ego in the mirror stage. Since the ego is formed by identifying with the counterpart or specular image, identification is an important aspect of the imaginary order. The ego and the counterpart form the prototypical dual relationship, and are interchangeable... The dual relationship between the ego and the counterpart is fundamentally narcissistic, and narcissism is another characteristic of the imaginary order. Narcissism is always accompanied by a certain aggressivity. The imaginary is the realm of image and imagination, deception, and lure. The principal illusions of the imaginary are those of wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality and, above all, similarity. The imaginary is thus the order of surface appearances which are deceptive, observable phenomena which hide underlying structure....The imaginary exerts a captivating power over the subject, founded in the almost hypnotic effect of the specular image. The imaginary is thus rooted in the subject’s relationship to his own body (or rather the image of his body)....”

The symbolic: “[P]sychoanalysts are essentially ‘practitioners of the symbolic function’... Since the most basic form of exchange is communication itself (the exchange of words, the gift of speech...), and since the concepts of law and structure are unthinkable without language, the symbolic is essentially a linguistic dimension. ... The symbolic dimension of language is that of the signifier; a dimension in which elements have no positive existence but which are constituted purely by virtue of their mutual differences.

The symbolic is also the realm of radical alterity, which Lacan refers to as the Other. The Unconscious is the discourse of this Other, and thus belongs wholly to the symbolic order... Whereas the imaginary is characterized by dual relations, the symbolic is characterized by triadic structures, because the intersubjective relationship is always ‘mediated’ by a third term, the big Other. ... It is the symbolic order which is determinant of subjectivity...”

5. See, for example, Slavoj Žižek, “‘I Hear You with My Eyes’; or, ‘The Invisible Master,’” in Gaze and Voice as Love Objects. SIC 1, eds. Renata Salecl and Slavoj Žižek (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1996), 104-105.

6. Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (New York & London: Norton & Co., 1959).

7. Forbrydelsens Element (Element of Crime), Dir.Lars von Trier. Perf. Michael Elphick, Desmond Knight, Me Me Lai, Jerold Wells, Ahmed El Shenawi. Janus Film, 1984.

8. Epidemic, Dir. Lars von Trier. Perf. Allan De Waal, Ole Ernst, Michael Gelting, Colin Gilder, Svend Ali Hamann. Jacob Eriksen 9 Production Company, Element Film, 1988.

9. Europa. Dir.Lars von Trier. Perf. Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Ernst Hugo Järegård, Erik Mǿrk, Jǿrgen Reenberg, Henning Jensen, Eddie Constantine, Max von Sydow. Miramax, 1991.

10. I am referring here to Sigmund Freud’s Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego, where the subject is bound to the Chief of state—the Führer—by love; however, as Borch-Jacobsen points out, “Freud clearly said that the reign of the Führer rests above all on the fiction of his love” (Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, The Emotional Tie: Psychoanalysis, Mimesis, and Affect, trans. Douglas Brick [Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1992], 25, emphasis added.

11. Freud’s most masterful discussion of the cruel superego and the ego’s potentially masochistic and typically wounded and enraged relation toward it occurs in his Civilization and Its Discontents (New York & London: Norton & Co., 1961).

12. See Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Seuil, 1975), 21.

13. Jacques Lacan, Écrits. A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan ( New York & London: Norton & Co., 1977), 1ff.

14. Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo ( New York & London: Norton & Co., 1950).

15. Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” in General Psychological Theory (New York: Collier, Macmillan, 1963).

16. Borch-Jacobsen, 32-33, emph. added.

17. See Borch-Jacobsen, 25: “...once Freud recognized the fundamental fact that all subjectivity and all individual desire vanish in crowds, his analysis ended up with a sort of political super-Subject, in the dual form of the narcissistic Chief and the Mass bonded by love for this Chief. Society, Freud said, is a unanimous ‘mass’ whose members have all put the same ‘object’ (the ‘leader,’ the Führer) in the place of the ego ideal and who identify with one another as a result.”

18. Maurice Blanchot, quoted in Borch-Jacobsen, 75.

19. Ibid., 76.

20. I am referring to what is widely thought to have been the murder of the three members of the RAF (Rote Armee Faktion) Andreas Baader, Jan-Carl Raspe, and Gudrun Ensslin, in Stammheim prison on October 18, 1977. Ulrike Meinhof had died earlier in prison. The collective film Deutschland im Herbst (1977-78) (directors include Kluge, Fassbinder, and Schloendorff, screenplay by Heinrich Böll) begins and ends with scenes from the funeral of the three RAF members. The funeral had been in danger of not taking place when various officials and politicians refused to allow these three people’s bodies to be buried within Stuttgart’s city limits. In Europa the coffin of Max Hartmann is confiscated by Allied MPs as its burial had not been authorized. The fact that in the film the deceased is an ex-Nazi while the Baader-Meinhof group had attempted to bring Germany out of its post-war amnesiac stupor makes for some irony. Both events, of course, conjure up the story of Antigone—the televised play that is featured in one segment of Deutschland im Herbst. Creon’s refusal to bury Polynices among other things signals an inability to mourn, even the foreclosure of mourning, a defect deemed by the filmmakers and their generation (which was also that of the Baader-Meinhof group) to have been characteristic of the German psyche following the Hitlerzeit. Thus the “thwarted funeral” points both to trauma and to repetition: once again, mourning will not take place and integration of the traumatic event into the collective psyche has been prohibited.

21. Cf. Freud’s GroupPsychology, and also his “Mourning and Melancholia,” op. cit., 173: “The melancholiac’s erotic cathexis of his object ... undergoes a twofold fate: part of it regresses to identification, but the other part, under the influence of the conflict of ambivalence, is reduced to the stage of sadism, which is nearer to this conflict.

It is this sadism, and only this, that solves the riddle of the tendency to suicide which makes melancholia so interesting—and so dangerous. ... It is true we have long known that no neurotic harbours thoughts of suicide which are not murderous impulses against others re-directed upon himself, but we have never been able to explain what interplay of forces could carry such a purpose through to execution. Now the analysis of melancholia shows that the ego can kill itself only when, the object-cathexis having been withdrawn upon it, it can treat itself as an object, when it is able to launch against itself the animosity relating to an object—that primordial reaction on the part of the ego to all objects in the outer world. ...”

22. This identification with the symptom is remarkably similar to the process that Lacan circumscribes with the “name” sinthôme (see below).

23. Of course Fischer’s obsessiveness is also profoundly Oedipal in that he is convinced that he “cannot stop” until he “uncovers all” and gains total knowledge.

24. Jacques Derrida, “The Force of Law,” Cardozo Law Review 11 (1990), 919.

25. The child murders are reminiscent of the child murders in Fritz Lang’s M. As we will see, von Trier quotes M also in the importance that a letter from the alphabet will take on in his own film: the letter “H” (see below).

26. The father as murderer: the father, too, may become a murderer when the symbolic order breaks down; in fact this paternal hatred for and murder of the progeny is a form of murder of civilization and of the symbolic. As an act that pervades mythology, it represents an apocalyptic interruption of transmission, tradition, and history.

27. Dylan Evans, op. cit., 189.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid., 190.

30. Lacan essentially described the objet petit a as that leftover of the real, the little piece of the real that remains even under the sway of the symbolic; it is also the object cause of desire--the analysand finds it in the analyst (the “more than you”) and it regenerates his desire, and the object that we desire (but often also hate and feel anxious dread about) in the other.

31. Evans, op. cit., 190.

32. For Fischer’s immersion into the decay and the very mortality of “Europa” can in part also be read as an immersion into what Emmanuel Levinas calls “proximity”: adumbrations of Levinas’s notion of “proximity” are vulnerability, sensibility, affectivity, opacity, passion. Proximity, as Levinas says in his essay “Substitution” (Emmanuel Levinas, “Substitution,” in Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. Adriaan Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi [Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996, 84]), is the “oneself that lives (we are almost tempted to say, without metaphor, which palpitates).” “Proximity” is a state of mind exiled from conscious knowledge; in this sense it may also be the result of a primary identification taking place in a trance state.

33. Jean Deprun, “Cinema and Identification,” trans. Annabelle J. de Croy, intro. Harriett

Margolis, <http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/classics/c10499/jdc11.htm>

34. Jean Deprun, “Cinema and Transference,” trans. Annabelle J. de Croy, intro. Harriett Margolis, http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/classics/c19499/jdc12.htm

35. Deprun, “Identification.”

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid.

38. Deprun, “Transference.”

39. Evans, op. cit., 189.

The Element of Crime

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