EpidemicDenmark’s Lars Von Trier has made some wonderful films in the horror genre (THE KINGDOM, ANTICHRIST), but EPIDEMIC, his first such effort, is not among them. A pretentious and sophomoric interplay of reality and cinema, it’s at best a warm-up for Von Trier’s later work.

EPIDEMIC (1987) was the second feature by Lars von Trier, following THE ELEMENT OF CRIME, which made a sizeable impression back in 1984. EPIDEMIC was not as impressive, making far less of an impact (it wasn’t even released on DVD in the U.S. until 2004). It represents von Trier at an early stage in his development as a filmmaker, and so is of interest primarily for fans of the director wanting to see his obsessions at their starting point.

Two screenwriters, Lars Von Trier and Niels Vorsel, are working on a treatment for a film about a cop and a whore. Before long they (understandably) tire of this concept, and start afresh—on a new script called EPIDEMIC, about a horrific plague ravaging Europe.

In between intensive bouts of research by Lars and Niels into the Bubonic Plague and a lot of miscellaneous bullshitting (complete with a flashback illustrating Niels’ dull reminiscence of an old girlfriend), we see portions of the film they’re writing. It involves a doctor named Mezmer (played by Lars) traversing a plague-ravaged landscape together with a black colleague. Before long the latter becomes afflicted and dies, leaving Mezmer to go it alone.

In the here-and-now, meanwhile, it seems the imaginary disease concocted by Lars and Niels has somehow gotten loose in the real world. Niels himself is hospitalized briefly after some suspicious nodules appear on his neck.

Things spiral out of control completely during a dinner Lars and Niels have with a potential financier. The latter is unimpressed with their concept, mainly because it doesn’t contain enough sex and violence for his tastes. That’s about to change, though: a young woman is brought in to “watch” the unmade film under hypnosis…and all Hell literally breaks loose!

This is a film that sounds far more interesting than it actually plays. The interplay between reality and cinematic artifice is represented by grainy black-and-white film stock for the screenwriting sequences contrasted with more stately, burnished imagery for the film-within-a-film. The latter portion, alas, is profoundly uninteresting, with a tendency to linger on banal images for interminable stretches and pretentious soliloquies that do nothing to advance the narrative, much less hold one’s interest. As for the former portion, it’s no better, filled with rambling improvised chatter and jerky handheld camerawork; von Trier was evidently experimenting with the homemade aesthetic that would come to characterize his Dogme 95 movement (see von Trier’s THE IDIOTS and Thomas Winterberg’s THE CELEBRATION), but was just as evidently uncomfortable with the form.

We’re supposed to wonder if the scenes of von Trier and Vorsel scripting their film are representative of the writing of EPIDEMIC, but the whole thing is such a pretentious mess it’s difficult to care. Why is the action interrupted by a flashback illustrating Vorsel’s recollection of an old girlfriend that has nothing to do with the rest of the film? Why is it that the title is burned into the upper left of the screen for nearly the entire running time? (Was von Trier afraid we’d forget it?) And why is the ending, which closes things out on a welcome note of gory mayhem (something the rest of the film could have used), so perversely inconclusive?

Lars von Trier was in his twenties when he made EPIDEMIC. He went on to make some terrific films, but at this point in his career he had yet to get his pretensions under control.

Vital Statistics

Zentropa Entertainments

Director: Lars von Trier
Screenplay: Lars von Trier, Niels Vorsel
Cinematography: Henning Bendtsen
Editing: Lars von Trier, Thomas Krag
Cast: Lars von Trier, Niels Vorsel, Udo Kier, Svend Ali Hansen, Claes Kastholm Hansen, Gitte Lind, Ib Hansen, Caecilia Holbeck