Smirking ironist, arch provocateur and general all-round awkward bugger, a large portion of the talented Danish writer/director Lars von Trier’s filmmaking career can be understood as being mostly driven, it seems, by the urge to find a way of expressing his prestigious and frequently discussed hang-ups, anxieties and phobias -- all apparently born of an unorthodox childhood in which the young, bewildered Lars was raised by parents who’s radical-socialist-atheist nudist agenda led to him being allowed from a young age to live without any rules whatsoever and to decide for himself everything from when he wanted to go to bed to whether or not he wanted to go to school. Subsequently, Trier has claimed in interviews to be ’scared of everything in life apart from filmmaking’. At the age of eight, he was making sophisticated 8mm art movies with lap dissolves and tracking shots achieved using a camera mounted on his bicycle, but his time in film school was marked by the rebellious urge to do exactly the opposite of whatever his teachers taught him was the orthodox approach. It seems almost everything he has committed to film since then can be interpreted by relating it back in some way to this anarchic inability to accept any authority, nor even his own reaction in opposition to it.
It’s an approach that has been ingrained in him, perhaps, by his unusual upbringing; but at the same time, part of this constant need to challenge authority is also rooted in the urge to thumb his nose at his parents’ idealistic values. Thus the boy who grew up with no rules has often found it expedient to submit voluntarily to a series of absurdly austere self-generated restrictions on his own filmmaking technique, from the Dogme 95 manifesto co-authored with Thomas Vinterberg, to the empty dark soundstage of the set-less “Dogville” (2003) and the computer controlled random camera positioning of “The Boss of it All” (2006), much of Lars von Trier’s cinema strives to somehow straddle two contradictory positions – being both wildly unpredictable, experimental and anarchic yet often rigidly didactic at the same time. The director’s latest piece of orchestrated theatrical rule breaking managed to get him banned from the Cannes Film Festival this year after Trier jokingly claimed spiritual kinship with Adolf Hitler during a press conference for his latest film “Melancholia”.
“The Kingdom” (Riget) was an early project made for Danish TV, in two parts separated by three years, and came at an interesting crossroads in the director’s career – the first four episodes were shot in 1994 (co-directed by Morten Arnfred), after Trier had already made a trio of respectable arthouse features that culminated in the film “Europa” (1991) and just before the infamous unveiling of the Dogme 95 manifesto. The second group of four episodes appeared in-between the acclaimed “Breaking the Waves” (1996) and Trier’s own contribution to the Dogme 95 movement, “The Idiots” (1998), by which time the director’s name was more widely known outside Denmark and his unorthodox television series was beginning to grab the attention of an international audience. A third series of Riget was scripted but never made after lead actor Ernst-Hugo Järegård died; a tragedy to be later followed by the deaths of several of the other cast members, making any continuation of the series impossible. Thus, like many continuing TV shows before and since, “The Kingdom” came to an end with all its subplots and continuing storylines unresolved. A thirteen-part U.S. series based on the same concept and adapted by Stephen King was made in 1994, cashing in on the recent trend for offbeat, quirky television brought about by the initial success of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” in 1990. But, despite following many of the plot arcs from the first Danish series, “Kingdom Hospital” is tame stuff indeed next to its Scandinavian source. “The Kingdom” is probably the wildest, most mischievous continuing television series ever made: part horror pastiche, part piss-take of the soap opera conventions of the time and part social satire – by the end of the second series its unhinged mix of surrealism, crude comedy farce, tense horror and over-the-top ironic melodrama had reached such a pitch of self-parody that it becomes difficult to conceive of the show carrying on for yet another round of episodes, although Lars von Trier hints on one of the commentary segments included on Second Sight’s new UK box set (bringing together the un-cut versions of all the episodes from both series) that the third series would have seen the show taking a much more serious turn, in order to contrast it all the more with the mutant supernatural farce of the preceding series Two.
Of the eight existing episodes, which vary unpredictably in running time between a fairly standard sixty-five minutes and a practically feature-length eighty minutes, the first two instalments of the first series are probably the most powerful examples of Trier’s original concept, despite the weirdness quotient increasing by a self-parodying magnitude at the end of series two. It’s quite hard at first to get an exact handle on how the viewer is meant to interpret the constantly shifting tone, which creates a sense of unease even when the on-screen events seem clearly satirical in nature. The opening straightaway gives the first indication that we’re about to be besieged by any number of competing stylistic methods that are set to constantly play and grate against each-other throughout. An austere, impressionistic opening, during which the supposed legend of Riget’s past is elaborated on in an artistic style that feels like it could’ve been the lost reel from a previously unheard of collaboration between early Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick circa “The Shining”, gives way to an absurdly over-the-top pastiche of the opening credits of any number of U.S. cop shows, hospital dramas or soap operas from the 1980s, set to an hilariously camp Hi-Energy dance track which has a catchy but sonorous Latin mass-style vocal and sports lyrics that see comic lines such as ‘speculum et cetera’ being gravely intoned amongst pounding synth drums and percussive orchestra stabs. The images accompanying it are punchily edited to mimic the hyper-accentuated style of a prime-time TV hospital drama such as ER, using fast-paced clips from the episodes that introduce the main recurring cast members in traditional style.
Put simply (too simply, probably) “The Kingdom” is a soap opera set in a large Danish hospital, which follows the daily events there while incorporating increasingly implausible supernatural plot elements. The first episode serves the traditional soap opera function of introducing the recurring characters and setting in flow a host of intrigues that act as the subplots that will occupy our attentions across the coming episodes. The satirical nature of using this particular setting would have been much more immediately apparent to a contemporary Danish audience than to its subsequent international viewership, since the series is named after, and shot on location at, the renowned Danish National State Hospital in Copenhagen, known as Rigshospitalet (which translates as the Kingdom’s Hospital) – an austere-looking soviet-style concrete block of grey buildings which collectively prides itself on being the most technologically advanced complex for the treatment of disorders calling for specialised treatment. One has to wonder what they made of Trier’s unflattering attitude to the medical profession, though, as it is conveyed across two existent series during which its practitioners are variously portrayed as either smug consultants who behave like the emissaries of their own exclusive masonic cult; head surgeons who are gradually unveiled as deranged, self-aggrandising Frankenstein figures; or befuddled officials pursuing comically mawkish public relations strategies while simultaneously ignoring the most flagrant examples of malpractice. The opening scenes of the first episode sets a tone that screams tense, realistic horror drama and lays on the atmospheric, supernatural-tinged imagery with a trowel: a phantom ambulance is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of the series’ negotiation between the rational/technological, and the alchemical/spiritualistic. The opening prologue (repeated at the start of each episode) informs us that the modern, technological testament to rationality that is the Kingdom Hospital has been built on the ancient site of dangerous bleaching ponds and has become a portal to another realm: ‘signs of fatigue in the solid, modern edifice’ are starting to appear, intones a solemn voice-over – but this is the premise that allows Lars von Trier to poke fun at just about everything from the hubris of modern medical science to new-age philosophies and spiritualism with just about equal abandonment, as these ‘cracks’ start to increasingly blur the lines between superstition and rationality to such an extent that, by the end of it all, just about every main character has been driven stark staring mad.
Both Lars von Trier and his co-directing collaborator Morten Arnfred establish a strong visual style that suggests a gravity and austere seriousness of intent, while anticipating in rough form the sort of imagery used without irony in later shows such as “24” to invoke steely authenticity: a dull, bleached-out sepia tinted tone that recalls the photography in Trier’s debut “The Element of Crime” (1984), shot on hand-held cameras to suggest a documentary realism – along with all the jump-cuts in time, blurry focus pulling and wobbly camera sweeps: it’s actually a supremely effective, gritty camcorder chic in which the entire screen often looks to have been marinated in a sandstorm of grain that makes each murky image look as though the videotape had been buried underground for a century before finally being disinterred for public screening. Whilst this increases the spookiness of the more ghostly sequences along with Joachim Holbek’s brooding soundtrack (a noticeable element in the show’s ability to still provide effective chills in amongst all the madness and medical satire), it pointedly (and deliberately) plays against the more farcical elements of the show. At its most effective this contrast creates a certain ambiguity in genre and in pitch, counteracting the broadness of some of the performances and allowing the show to veer wildly in tone between melodrama, comedy and horror, sometimes within the same scene, until the viewer is not quite sure how to take what he/she is being presented with. It is a visual, stylistic and generic anarchy – ‘anything goes’ appears to be the philosophy here. This in itself can leave one slightly disconcerted -- especially when it comes to the treatment of potentially sensitive matters, such as the show’s portrayal of several severely handicapped recurring characters.
“The Kingdom” is constantly drawing attention to, or undermining and sniggering at, the genre conventions and clichés of the soap opera and the supernatural thriller, yet using both to relay sometimes biting social satire. There are also clear references to the then near-contemporary series “Twin Peaks”: not even David Lynch’s critically acclaimed revamp of ‘90s television escaped Trier’s urge to take the piss – and each instalment of “The Kingdom” ends with a smirking Lars von Trier appearing in person, dressed in an ill-fitting tuxedo in front of the red velvet curtain from Agent Cooper’s visions, to deliver a cryptic monologue on the events of that week’s episode as the end credits roll, showing the director was equally egger to draw attention to the contrivances, plot cheats and narrative weaknesses of his own show let alone anyone else’s -- sometimes even apologising for that week’s episode but promising that the next one would be a lot better!
Leaving aside the stylistic genre-melding choices in its presentation, the show’s most successful element is its ability to introduce parallel plots emboding both the expected human interest storylines one would expect to find in any hospital drama – clashes of personality among staff and their rivalries and ambitions; the difficulties of a job requiring long hours and difficult decisions on a daily basis etc. – and quirky satirical ideas that open a gateway into the more supernaturally inclined narrative stands which soon become vitally important to the series’ overall dynamic. Thus, the series begins with the arrival of a new Swedish consultant – a specialist in neurosurgery who has been forced to take up this post in Denmark in order to escape numerous accusations of malpractice in his homeland: Stig Helmer is the series’ most charismatic character; a monster with few redeeming qualities who stands for everything that might be thought wrong about modern medical practice. Yet, like many monsters in film and literature, he’s so compelling to watch that eventually he becomes strangely sympathetic -- especially given the utter madness that quickly envelops the hospital. Actor Ernst-Hugo Järegård -- a veteran of Lars von Trier’s cinema -- imbues the character with just the kind of exaggerated pomp, intolerance and vanity his uniquely toad-like features seem tailored automatically to suggest. Much of the comedy of the first few episodes comes about as a result of his incredulity at what he takes to be daft, simple-minded Danish ways. There is a running joke about Helmer’s hatred of Denmark and the Danes, and there is a recurring motif, repeated in each episode of the first series, in which Helmer stands on the Kingdom hospital roof at night, cursing ‘Danish scum’ and directing absurd soliloquies at his beloved homeland (symbolically represented, with typical Lars von Trier deadpan irony, by a Swedish nuclear power station that dominates the Copenhagen skyline). Helmer disdains the leadership of the gentle, easy-going chairman of the Kingdom Hospital, Doctor Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen), who’s preoccupied with a bridge-building public relations push called Operation Morning Air that involves the staff indulging in happy-clapping nursery-rhyme sing-alongs at their daily morning conferences and having ‘communication’ sessions in which they express their inner feelings to each-other. Moesgaard is so preoccupied with such things that he’s actually as oblivious to the plight of the patients as the arrogant Helmer -- who rather callously sees them all merely as an obstruction to his personal aggrandisement. This theme is born out in one of the plot threads that see the first series striding boldly into areas of humour that presage Trier’s controversial film “The Idiots”. ‘That operation you performed on Mona somethingorother … she suffered permanent brain damage’, Moesgaard absentmindedly informs the completely unconcerned Helmer early in episode One. It turns out the mother is threatening legal action so, putting Operation Morning Air into practice, Doctor Moesgaard requests that Helmer go and visit her, and her now-handicapped daughter, to show the hospital’s deep concern and empathy (‘all the medical stuff is a bit above her head’, he reassures the reluctant Helmer), which leads to an uncomfortably comical scene that ends with the impatient, unsympathetic Swedish consultant condemning the child as ‘some snot-nosed kid’.
Helmer’s arrogance and intellectual superiority provide comic momentum, as, increasingly appalled, he uncovers all the many bizarre goings-on within the labyrinthine corridors and basement areas of The Kingdom: a feud between himself and senior surgeon Doctor Krogshøj Hook (Søren Pilmark) starts up over who should be allowed to authorise the expensive hospital CAT Scans, after the repeated admission of an old lady called Mrs Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes) results in money being needlessly wasted on a brain imaging session that reveals nothing. It turns out Mrs Drusse is a Medium who thinks there is something or someone haunting the corridors and lift shafts of the Kingdom, and is intent on discovering who it is and laying them to rest with the help of her hospital porter son, the world-weary Bulder (Jens Okking). Hook himself is revealed to be a black marketer selling medical supplies for his own profit while actually illicitly living in the hospital itself -- camped out in a basement supplies room! Moesgaard’s hopeless medical student son, Mogge (Peter Mygind), is in love with the nurse running the sleep laboratory unit and, like apparently all medical students, can’t resist the occasional sick jape such as sawing off the head of one of the corpses from the morgue used for medical studies by Head of Surgery Dr. Bondo (Baard Owe), and attempting to implement it in a practical joke designed to win the affections of his object of desire. The corpse’s head (which happens to look exactly like Mogge himself) goes missing and its whereabouts becomes a major plot point throughout all eight episodes, transforming from a quirky aside in the beginning to a quite threatening manifestation of supernatural evil in the later episodes.
While the series initially sets up an opposition between the rational and the supernatural, it doesn’t take long for the lines to become blurred in the name of dark satire: Helmer hates all forms of ‘alternative’ medicine and New Age nonsense but nevertheless has to put up with the fascination for herbal remedies and the like enjoyed by his main ally and female partner in the hospital, Doctor Rigmor (Ghita Nørby) – who books a holiday to Haiti just so as they can both explore the island’s voodoo culture. Helmer is at first perplexed and outraged to find Moesgaard, Doctor Bondo and all the chief consultants of the Kingdom are members of a secret society that in fact runs the whole hospital -- a lodge calling itself the Brethren, that meets in secret, deep within the lower sections of the building, to indulge in the performance of the usual kinds of outlandish, cod-ancient rituals associated with Masonic conduct. Trier turns this quirky Twin Peaks-ish idea into satire by having the secret society’s Raison d'êtr to be a self-styled scourge of occult practice – thereby portraying the cabal of arch rationalists as a priesthood in its own right. Helmer is happy to join up though (‘I swear fealty to the concrete sciences and enmity to the occult in all its guises’ is the oath he’s required to repeat) when the Brethren’s network of ties to the establishment look set to help him evade the consequences of the lawsuit Mona’s mother is preparing against him. In this way, Helmer becomes gradually drawn into a network of irrational practices that culminate in him attempting to use voodoo to thwart a blackmail plot against him. Doctor Bondo is a similarly compromised rationalist: a surgeon much inclined to having his students chant “science” in unison as though in prayer, but who is desperate to have the permission to conduct an autopsy on a soon-to-die patient whose sarcoma he considers to be a prize specimen -- almost like a holy relic -- which he must have in his personal collection. When, after the death of the patient in question, permission is refused for the autopsy by the grieving family, Bondo takes advantage of the fact that the deceased was an organ donor by having his colleagues in the Brethren transplant the diseased liver into his own body for long enough for it to then qualify as his own organ, where after he will be legally entitled to have it removed and added to his prize collection!
The backbone of the first four episodes consists mainly, though, in an effective ghost story based around the investigations of the Medium, Mrs Drusse. The ghost story side of things involves the spooky apparition of a little girl who appears in the corridors and lift shafts of the beleaguered hospital. Trier turns to just about every paranormal manifestation one can think of for inspiration during the course of the series, including all the usual happenings, such as strange voices playing back on tape recordings and out-of-body experiences. While the everyday running of the hospital is depicted in increasingly bizarre and unpredictable terms, Drusse’s investigations take on the aspect of a forensic investigation in which the Mrs Marple-like old lady gathers her clues by holding séances among her friends on the terminal patients’ ward in the dead of night (they’re able to offer her even more assistance and clues from beyond the grave once they’ve actually popped off). The effort to discover the secrets of the ghostly little girl, called Mary Krüger, who now haunts the corridors, takes Mrs. Drusse back into the hospital’s murky history and the comedy of Drusse and her bewildered son’s paranormal investigations do not detract from the spookiness of the ghostly goings on -- which are often played relatively straight. There’s also a horror element to proceedings which is contrasted with the routine gore involved in many of the hospital’s everyday procedures. Thus, Lars von Trier plays on traditional horror movie scenarios for a dream sequence in which Mogge imagines himself beset by flesh-eating zombies during one of the sleep unit’s dream monitoring experiments, but he also incorporates extremely graphic real-life footage of brain operations and liver transplants, shot by the TV crew in the same style as the rest of the series. The irony of the sheer visceral unpleasantness of the day-to-day business of a working hospital is highlighted through a character who watches gruesome splatter movies to help overcome her phobia of blood!
The first series culminates in as grotesque a piece of Cronenbergian body horror as could be imagined, when Judith (Birgitte Raaberg), one of the hospital’s female researchers who thinks she might have been impregnated by a ghost, actually gives birth to Udo Kier’s head on a spindly Eraser Head-style mutant baby body! This heralds the second series’ no holds barred descent (or ascent, depending in how you look at it) into unique surrealist body horror combined with a truly crazy absurdist strain of comedy. The horror element (as opposed to the merely spooky) is significantly heightened in this even more outrageous second batch of episodes, no doubt in an attempt to outdo the impact made by the unusual nature of the first series. Now there’s not just one ghostly spirit in the hospital but hordes of them, and a horned Demonic presence is stalking the corridors -- causing a fatal (and gory) spontaneous haemorrhage in a priest while Mrs Drusse is attempting to hold a mass meeting with the spirits in the hospital lecture theatre, and leading to the discovery that one of the regular characters is actually a Satanist who takes part in Black Masses and human sacrifices on hospital grounds!
The main storyline of series Two revolves around the character known as ‘little brother’ – the strange ‘baby’ played by Udo Kier. His preposterous paranormal lineage results in him, from the first, emerging as an full-grown adult, head perched on a mini puppet baby body, but with limbs that grow at an accelerated rate, with the effect that he develops a giant, misshapen ET like torso that can’t support its spindly, thread-like limbs and has to be hoisted up on a specially built frame for support. It’s an image that flirts with the disturbing and the ridiculous simultaneously, but nevertheless manages to achieve a kind of poignancy, although, as ever with Lars von Trier, one can’t help thinking this strange mutant breed of sentimentality is all intended as a big joke. The potential silliness of the horror elements and the by-now-overt surrealism of the second series means that the comedy segments have to get even more outrageous; thus Stig Helmer’s troubles get twice as exaggerated, here (at one point he abducts the mentally handicapped Mona – stuffing her in a portable bin and wheeling her down the corridor!), Moesgaard gets involved in a primal therapy cult run by a renegade therapist who operates from yet another lost corner of the hospital, and the previously sympathetic Hook comes back from the dead as a fascist who thinks the weak should be left to die. Much of the comedy is purely traditional farce that could have come straight from an episode of “Fawlty Towers”, and involves Moesgaard’s vain attempts to cover up a number of unorthodox practices during a hospital inspection by the Governor General. By the time we reach the last episode, every character has been transformed by events into a parody of their former self, and self-parody seems the logical culmination of the series as a whole. None of the parallel cliff-hangers were fated to be resolved, of course, leaving the stories of many of the characters hanging --- apart from possibly the two Down’s Syndrome dishwashers (Morten Rotne Leffers and Vita Jensen) who act as Greek chorus seers who somehow have access to all-seeing knowledge of everything that is and is about to happen in the Kingdom all the way through both series, and who look set to get married at the end of episode eight!
“The Kingdom” remains one of the strangest and most unique pieces of television ever made, the effect of which is probably unrepeatable. Lars von Trier took the concept of combining arthouse sensibilities with popular drama to even more daring extremes than even David Lynch was able to in “Twin Peaks”, and these eight episodes -- now available in their original broadcast format rather than the five hour mini-series they were edited into previously -- really do make for one of the most essential pieces of viewing of the past twenty years. This set includes eight commentary segments featuring Lars von Trier, co-writer Niels Vørsel and Editor Molly Stensgaard, and three documentaries about Lars von Trier and his work. Stig Björkman’s “Transformer – A Portrait of Lars von Trier” is a 52 minute examination of the director’s upbringing and his early work up to “Breaking the Waves” including lots of interviews with childhood friends and colleagues and behind the scenes footage from the set of the 1996 film. It’s a revealing and well put together piece. “In Lars von Trier’s Kingdom” features very little about the TV series but is another overview of the director’s career lasting 40 minutes, this time taking the story up to “The idiots” and mainly consisting of an extended interview with the director himself. Finally “Behind the Scenes” is a 25 minute look at the making of the series –it’s brief, but very informative about the thinking of both the director/writer and the crew, and their respective attitudes towards the project. The set also features some odd and predictably quirky newspaper ads starring Ernst-Hugo Järegård which were shot by Trier for a Danish daily newspaper.
If you’ve not seen it before, this series is unquestionably a must buy and this four-disc set is highly recommended.