Lars von Trier created The Kingdom miniseries to finance his embryonic production company, Zentropa Entertainment, but the project is no sell-out. While the Dogme 95 Manifesto (released shortly after Part 1 of The Kingdom aired) may have denied the suitability of genre pictures, The Kingdom is a horror narrative made with love. The series, which aired in two parts in 1994 and 1997, is an unapologetic ghost story that tinkers with some of the ingredients von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg listed as essential components of revolutionary filmmaking: hand-held camerawork, the use of a real location, and a reliance on (mostly) diegetic sound and (mostly) natural lighting. The Kingdom isn’t Dogme, nor does it pretend to be; von Trier uses a few filter and make-up effects, throws in a few wind and string chords, and he probably didn’t unearth a bottled girl-corpse on the premises where he shot the series. But it’s a fine precursor to von Trier’s The Idiots and Vinterberg’s The Celebration, later films more illustrative of their Spartan approach. Whether or not he had Dogme in mind when he shot The Kingdom, von Trier was already relying on character and performance to give a story its weight, and character and performance remain the backbone of the series and continue—more than a decade on—to draw us in.
Place stands in for protagonist in The Kingdom, uniting an ensemble cast and giving each character something to work against. That place is a hospital—a real hospital in Copenhagen called Rigshospitalet (“Riget” for short, which is also the show’s original Danish title). Location, of course, is essential to ghost stories. Rather than a farmhouse bruised by traumatic events or an asylum naturally given to specters, von Trier’s ghosts roam the halls of a cutting-edge hospital recognizable to most Danes. But its modern, real-life aesthetic has been washed away by proto-Dogme technique. Its corridors are lit with the grainy tinge of yellow-brown illness. Von Trier makes much of its shadows and little-known corners, turning Kingdom Hospital into a bunker that sits heavily in the camera’s frame and pulls its staff and patients (and ghosts) back towards its heart whenever they venture out. That magnetism of place is represented by a mysterious ambulance that rushes towards the hospital each night, always coming but never seen leaving, and vanishing when it reaches the Casualties door.
The series chokes us with a claustrophobic unity of place, which owes much to classical ideals of stagecraft. Greek tragedy was on von Trier’s mind when he scripted the project; The Kingdom bows to Sophocles with a chorus that contemplates the actions of characters and frets disinterestedly about consequences. Morten Rotne Leffers and Vita Jensen play the subterranean Dishwashers who scrub and rinse and blink at the ceiling knowingly. If von Trier has caught flack for reconstituting the “wise child” trope, he makes up for it with ingenuity—Down Syndrome lends Leffers’ and Jensen’s voices a chanting quality that recalls the choral aspect of the Greek chorus, and their rattling dishes mimic the effect of dithyrambic percussion. The actors are solidly part of the event, defying their characters’ humdrum existence, trapped in a basement with a Rumpelstiltskinian mound of biohazard dishware. They turn our sympathy on its ear. In The Kingdom, nothing is left to rest comfortably for long, and the Dishwashers are written and cast in such a way that we’re prevented from classifying them as anything more than “chorus.” They go from wise to questioning, merry to sententious, active to passive to active again, and they force us to second-guess our second guesses as events play out overhead.
A similar ambiguity is attached to the character of Sigrid Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), the hypochondriac who spends most of Part 1 malingering on a ward with trumped up symptoms so she can learn more about a little spook-girl. Like the ghostly ambulance, Drusse can’t leave the hospital, checking herself back in as soon as she’s discharged. She’s the story’s focal point. Her ears are the first to prick up when the ghost wails in an elevator shaft, and it’s Drusse who leads us on a quest to get to the bottom of the haunting. With her white bowl-cut and salmon bathrobe, she’s a misogynistic emblem von Trier vexes over the course of the series. The figure of the useless and superstitious old woman is heckled by staff, but her spiritualism is as good as a magnifying glass as she inspects the hospital and interrogates its ghosts. Her woo is as real as the science deployed in the name of medicine all around her (and some of the mad-hatter experiments at Kingdom Hospital make her methods look relatively sane). Rolffes plays Drusse with a resigned exhaustion appropriate to her character’s age and busybody nature; when she’s chided for wasting hospital time, she barely flinches. She absorbs rather than rebuffs confrontation, used to being spoken down to by everyone but her hospital-orderly son, and just as used to being right. She may embody the overbearing mother, but her loyal Bulder (Jens Okking) is a constant ally and his affectionate perspective of Drusse colors our own, which breaks the stereotype down.
If Drusse is the totemic believer with an open mind, Chief Consultant Helmer is her foil. Few would argue that Ernst-Hugo Järegård’s arrogant Swede isn’t the most memorable character among a remarkable lot. Kingdom Hospital collects eccentrics, and it also collects the refuse of other lands. When we meet Helmer, he’s already let the knife slip along the brain of a girl named Mona, who is now permanently disabled, and he works in hated Denmark because he’s disgraced himself back home. A great deal of the humor in Part 1 depends on an understanding of Sweden’s place in the Scandinavian consciousness, and von Trier milks stereotypes on both sides for the sake of theme as much as wit. Liver-lipped Järegård is perfect as the blustering megalomaniac who embodies the scientific arrogance particular to medical professionals, and his Helmer is set against Rolffes’ Drusse to illustrate the warning intoned in the show’s eerie title sequence about “the persistent denial of the spiritual.” Von Trier’s science vs. lore trope may be well-worn, but “The Kingdom” handles the binary with a lovely sort of wit that makes up for its age.
That trope is at the heart of the series, boiled down to a symbol: a haunted hospital. The doctors on staff may be eccentric, but they toast science in a maudlin nocturnal lodge, hidden away in the building’s bowels, where the goings-on regularly undermine the brethren’s war cry against superstition and alternative medicine. Some are even willing to trade their lives for that perfect contribution to medical literature (like the doctor who transplants a cancerous liver into his own body in order to claim it for his research). They’re also willing to sell pharmaceutical supplies on an internal black market, nurture freakish, adult-sized babies that look like Udo Kier, dose rivals with Haitian zombie-juice, and participate in crackpot therapy sessions that satirize psychology even more than their antics satirize efficient masculine reason and science. You don’t have to agree with von Trier’s take-down of empiricism to be amused by it; even devout skeptics must smile as we recognize ourselves in certain portrayals onscreen.
Von Trier’s main trope can be as broad as he likes, because the finer details are what give The Kingdom its dimension and affect. The acute pain of new love between two doctors—Hook (Troels Lyby) and Judith (Birgitte Raaberg)—is rendered in mere brush-strokes in Part I, but it’s so well done that we regret its loss when events sour their passion. A still performance by Louise Fribo as Sanna the squeamish intern (who faints at the sight of blood) helps to balance out the comical performance of other interns, who design pranks around severed heads to impress buxom night nurses. The base-note stories of lost children—the brain-damaged Mona, the cursed Mary, and the tormented Little Brother—sound a pathetic tone that gives the series a liquid creepiness, which is most effective up to about the last 10 minutes of Part I, when von Trier begins to show us the shark attached to the fin. The series unravels slightly in Part II, which relies on the absurd rather than the eerie (and whose comic scenes sometimes fall flat, like a slo-mo chase in the archive and an out-of-place phallus gag). Plot overtakes character and mood in Part II—characters, in fact, do u-turns, which is not in itself a failing, but which doesn’t seem in this case to be wed to anything more than von Trier’s desire to make things as madcap as possible. We soak in a wonderful, obscure depth in Part I, then find ourselves in relative shallows in the series’ second half.
But that’s my only complaint as a critic. Von Trier has tried, and pulled off, the horror and television genres better than most. I can only nitpick a few failed scenes, and those failures are premised more on my own taste and story expectation than anything else. I prefer the quiet eeriness of Part I, but Part II is indispensable. It binds up von Trier’s disparate threads, answers several questions (and poses more), and carries through on Drusse’s investigation, Helmer’s tantums, and a host of subplots. It exorcises the narrative just as Drusse attempts to exorcise Kingdom Hospital, which has always—after all—wanted nothing more than to be a spotless place. Built on ancient bleaching-ponds, dedicated to antiseptic practices, and watched over by the Dishwashers, the hospital’s thrust is one of cleansing. Its demons, hilarious or otherwise, have to churn to the surface eventually, and we could do worse than Udo Kier sprouting horns, tearing them out of his head, and hallooing down a dim tunnel at a sprint. Von Trier’s pandaemonium conclusion is unresolved and inevitable—it’s commercially designed to leave space for a Part III that isn’t likely to materialize (and probably won’t be missed). But we’ve known all along, thanks to the Dishwashers, that nothing rests comfortably in this story. — Ranylt Richildis
Related: Breaking the Waves retrospective
(Originally published on In Review Online on November 25, 2009, as part of a Lars von Trier “directrospective.”)