Lars von Trier’s sophomore effort Epidemic, made only three years after The Element of Crime, marks the birth of von Trier as merry prankster. Starring in the film as a somewhat distorted version of himself—note his telling sidelong glance to the camera, doubled in his own reflection, in the screengrab above—von Trier turns Epidemic into a meta-cinematic game of the type he will later play with Jørgen Leth in The Five Obstructions (2003). Like that film, Epidemic treats filmmaking as a dare or a challenge, something done under pressure: it was apparently made in response to von Trier’s bet with producer Claes Kastholm Hansen that he could make a film for under 1 million kroner, and it also concerns itself with the efforts of a pair of screenwriters (played by von Trier and Niels Vørsel) to cobble together a screenplay in five days to present to Hansen. (Vørsel and Hansen also play themselves in the film.)
The result is pure von Trier: darkly, nervously funny; smugly clever; and, finally, horrifying. In addition to being a postmodern joke, it’s also a disease film about a plague sweeping the vaguely futuristic Europe of von Trier and Vørsel’s screenplay (also titled Epidemic, natch) that eventually seeps into the real world in which they’re writing it. Making a visual sketch of the film’s plot, vT’s character tells Vørsel that he wants to tell the story of an idealist, a doctor (also played in the film-within-the-film by vT), whose plan to save humanity backfires when he unwittingly becomes a vector for the very illness he’s trying to cure. Thus Epidemic also aligns itself with vT’s long list of other films (most obviously 2006’s Manderlay) in which the best intentions give rise to disaster. We might go so far as to call thus vT’s ur-plot, the narrative to which his films obsessively return. Epidemic puts an added twist on this story, though, by putting von Trier himself into the role(s) of the idealist-figure and thus thematizing filmmaking itself as a disaster waiting to happen.
Epidemic is not all fun and games, however. As the second in vT’s “Europe” trilogy, it looks both forward and backward with a sense of dread, where memories of Europe’s dark past give rise to a post-apocalyptic future. A sequence in which vT and Vørsel travel from Denmark to Germany for research also lends the film a thematic link with The Element of Crime; in both films, Germany serves as the locus of repressed European trauma. Interviewed by the two screenwriters, the iconic Udo Kier, playing himself, describes a hellish Holocaust scene that conjures up the phantasmagoric imagery of the earlier film. The magnetic Kier, otherwise known for his Andy Warhol films and his cameo appearance in the music video for Madonna’s “Deeper and Deeper,” would himself become yet another staple of vT’s films, often lending them a vaguely sinister eroticism. As a friend succinctly put it, “Those eyes!”