Directors: Lars von Trier (Riget I & II) and Morten Arnfred (Riget II)
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Shortly after Breaking the Waves came out in 1996, I got a hold of the script at my local Barnes & Noble and read it. And, well, I was so revolted by it, I vowed to skip Lars von Trier’s career forever and ever. A few years later, cooler heads prevailed upon me to revisit my decision; after all, I hadn’t even seen any of his films! They assured me that I’d LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Dancer in the Dark (2000), so I rented it. I hated it. Now confident that my original judgment was sound, I felt free to cross this Danish poseur off my list of filmmakers I needed to know about.
Then, wouldn’t you know it? The hubby, who I didn’t know when all the Lars and the Angry Girl stuff was going down, is a huge fan of von Trier’s TV series The Kingdom. This two-season series was released as a movie in various parts of the world, but the hubby moved mountains and fiords to get his hands on the actual TV episodes. He begged me on bended knee to watch it with him, promising I could leave the room at any time and find something more worthwhile to do, like reading my spam mail. So, because I love him and because it’s embarrassing to see a grown man grovel right there on the floor in front of our silly, little cat, I agreed.
Who’s sorry now? Unbelievably, not me. This series—which really should be seen in TV format for the oddly chilling comments von Trier makes over the closing credits of each episode—won me over immediately.
The Kingdom is a massive hospital in Copenhagen, the national hospital of Denmark as a matter of fact. According to the introductory opening of each episode, this house of advanced medical technology was built over a swamp where, many years before, Danish peasants used to bleach their cloth. The opening shows medieval Danes in rustic dress draping long sheets of fabric among thickets of trees, with vapors enveloping them in a presumably toxic fog. I’ll tell you right now that if you try to relate these actions to anything in the story, you’re wasting your time. It’s a nifty, little mood setter, but it’s a complete non sequitur. It is within the swirl of activity in the hospital that the story originates; we are introduced swiftly to a fairly large cast of characters whom we will grow to love, loathe, and pity through the course of some very strange goings-on.
The literal nerve center of the story is the neurosurgery unit, presided over by a imperious, obnoxious, xenophobic Swede named Helmer, played with malevolent glee by Ernst-Hugo Järegård. Helmer hates Denmark and, therefore, all of his colleagues, but was forced to leave Sweden amid charges of malpractice and malfeasance. He’s already thought to have caused irreversible brain damage in a young patient named Mona (Laura Christiensen), who is shown throughout the series twisted and drooling in her hospital room. Despite his dubious reputation and actions, he feels completely free to hurl insults at anyone who comes near him. When we first meet him, he is tangling with Krogshøj (Søren Pilmark), nicknamed Hook, for ordering an expensive CT scan for Mrs. Drugge (Kirsten Rolffes), the mother of burly hospital orderly Bulder (Jens Okking), whom he correctly diagnoses as a malingerer. This confrontation takes place in the daily neurosurgery meeting, which the head of the hospital Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen) attends to launch his morale-boosting program Operation Morning Breeze with a cheerful song. Helmer stares at him with contempt, refusing to sing with the assembled doctors, and leaves. He discharges Mrs. Drugge immediately.
Mrs. Drugge is a spiritualist who, during her frequent hospitalizations for imaginary illnesses, conducts séances. As she heads down the elevator, she is visited by a ghostly presence. Determined to investigate, she goes into a bathroom, runs her hand under cold water for some minutes, returns to the emergency room complaining of numbness in her hand, which is confirmed by a needlestick test she can’t feel, and is readmitted. Her investigation will take on gothic proportions as she discovers that the presence was a young girl named Mary (Annevig Schelde Ebbe), who was the victim of foul play and whose body is still somewhere on the grounds of The Kingdom. The killer, a supernatural being shaped like a man named Aage Krüger (Udo Kier), is key to a plot development in the second season—the birth of a strange baby that pops out of Judith (Birgitte Raaberg), another neurosurgeon beloved by Hook, that is a full-grown man (Kier) covered with slime who grows abnormally long legs and arms. Watching Kier’s head pop from between two legs at birth is an image of startling silliness (and not a small amount of sympathetic pain on my part).
As you can see, The Kingdom is fantastical and farcical at the same time. In a brief rundown of a few story lines in this soap-opera-like series:
++ Hook threatens to make public proof of Helmer’s mistake in Mona’s surgery. Helmer, learning of a Haitian poison that will turn people into mindless zombies from his would-be lover Rigmor (Ghita Nørby, playing a character similar to her role in Hamsun), flies to Haiti to get his hands on it and spikes Hook’s coffee with it.
++ Moesgaard’s son Mogge (Peter Mygind), rejected by a nurse, cuts the head off a cadaver that resembles him, puts it in a bag, and drops it at her desk.
++ The hospital staff gamble night after night on the time of arrival of an ambulance driver speeding the wrong way down a highway to the hospital.
++ A pathologist named Bondo (Baard Owe), has been doing research on an almost nonexistent form of liver cancer. He finds a dying patient with a liver tumor like the one he is studying, but the patient’s family refuses to donate his liver to science. In one of the most twisted parts of the series, Bondo finds a legal way to secure the liver by transplanting it into his own body.
Most comical of all is the Sons of the Kingdom lodge, a semi-secret society of senior doctors that performs all the strange rituals one expects of these bastions of brotherhood. Helmer joins the lodge to protect his precarious position on staff, but deplores everything about them—naturally. Below is a clip from the night of his initiation:
So, what are we to make of this odd assemblage of supernatural and subhuman stories? Like the savage satire The Hospital, The Kingdom skewers the medical profession by suggesting they are a careless, feckless, useless club of pseudo-gods (best represented by Helmer) that is empty gas at best. Since The Kingdom is the national hospital of Denmark, however, von Trier seems to be siding ever so slightly with Helmer in his contempt for the Danes:
Letting a Danish Miss Marple with extraordinary spiritual powers run loose and solve crimes in a place run by a lodge that sees science as the one true power is an interesting speculation on natural law, and certainly one that was in vogue when this series aired. But von Trier is a playful bloke. He was a member of the Dogme95 group, whose Vow of Chastity barred the use of advanced technology in order to capture “reality.” Von Trier sticks to the rules in some instances—for example, the sepia tone of much of the series was caused by the use of natural lighting or a single light attached to his handheld camera. He avoids others by inserting himself into the film at the closing credits, thereby refusing to remain anonymous. In addition, he heightens the unreality of the series by employing two kitchen workers with Down’s syndrome as a sort of Greek chorus to illuminate or portend events. I rather liked them, though I didn’t feel they were all that necessary.
The last part of the vow is, I think, the key to von Trier’s vision for The Kingdom:
Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a “work”, as I regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.
The expansiveness of a TV series allows its creators a chance to explore character, delve deep, and reveal truth. Although many of the actions in The Kingdom are outlandish or unbelievable, they do produce real moments. Judith’s love for her baby and her baby’s sacrifice to prevent more evil at The Kingdom is genuinely moving. Ernst-Hugo Järegård as Helmer is a tour-de-force depiction of a colossal asshole. I was also touched by Hook’s devotion to Judith, even accepting her baby and thereby proving himself to her. Bulder became one of my favorite characters, enduring his mother’s insults and after she is seriously injured, (Helmer’s comment: “Mrs. Drugge has become much more convincing.”) welcoming them back as a sign that she will be all right.
The Kingdom is an utterly original creation teeming with lively plots and performances. It taught me not to be too pigheaded in my opinions—Mr. von Trier is back on the list.