Lars von Trier’s 1987 Epidemic (as in “Catch it”—Rolling Stone) was the Danish provocateur’s second theatrical film, as well as his first experiment in programmatically low-budget crypto-verité. After 18 months, a director (von Trier) and his screenwriter (the film’s screenwriter, Niels Vørsel) complete the script for something called The Cop and the Whore—only to lose the entire “filmmanu” in a mysterious computer catastrophe. With only days before their Danish Film Institute producer needs to vet their project and having forgotten most of the plot, the partners conceive another film, the medical horror movie Epidemic.
While the framing film is scruffy 16mm, the scenes from this imagined Epidemic are shot in glossy 35mm and filled with make-believe—an artificial island, a fake priest, and an idealistic epidemiologist (Lars again) who goes by the name of Dr. Mesmer and is inadvertently spreading the very disease against which he’s fighting. (Now there’s an allegory to parse, particularly as Mesmer is insulted as a “creep” and a “quisling.”) The various movies are further confused when the screenwriter is hospitalized and Dr. Mesmer must operate. Basically an experimental psychodrama, Epidemic has a pleasingly slapdash, underground quality that recalls early Fassbinder and Wenders—although, with its cynical premise and frequent infusions of Wagner, it exudes the prankster snarkiness characteristic of von Trier.
Indeed, the filmmaker saves his best joke and most elaborate gag for the climactic dinner party during which the director and the screenwriter present their incredulous producer (the movie’s actual producer, Claes Kastholm Hansen) with their new 12-page script. Uneven as von Trier can be, Epidemic is among his better and most revealing movies—giving full vent to his obsessions with cinematic purity, behavioral acting, Udo Kier, hospitals, and, most spectacularly, the notion of cinema as hypnosis.