After Two Decades Of Chaos, Lars Von Trier’s Supernatural Soap Opera ‘Kingdom’ Returns
12:35 PM EST on December 16, 2022
Lars von Trier’s miniseries The Kingdom is about a haunted hospital, which is true in much the same way that Twin Peaks is about a murdered girl. The premise is a delivery device, a jumping off point for von Trier to do what he does best, which is get unbridled and weird in unsettling ways. The most basic summary for the series, which has spanned three decades and whose most recent installment premiered on the streaming service Mubi just after Thanksgiving, might go Ghosts begin to emerge in a Copenhagen hospital, interfering in the lives of doctors and patients alike, but that’s a brutal oversimplification. Anyway, description does no justice to the show’s overwhelming strangeness. As in most melodramas, the story snakes and swerves and overlaps with itself in majestically contrived arcs. As in most of von Trier’s work, everything is shot through with illogic and a sense of doom. It barely needs mentioning, but the whole thing is extremely fun.
The Kingdom is a real hospital in Copenhagen, Rigetshospitalet. In von Trier’s version, everyone in that building is insane, clueless, cruel, incompetent, or dead. In many cases, they are more than just one. Take, for instance, the troll-like, homicidally arrogant Swedish neurosurgeon Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard), whose mistake during an operation has left a little girl permanently brain-damaged and later makes a quick trip to Haiti to try to turn another doctor into a zombie; he compulsively tends towards Denmark-bashing, the nuances of which are probably lost on American audiences. (You know an episode is ending when Helmer shouts “Dansk javlar,” translated originally and more fittingly as “Danish scum” but now rendered, in the first two seasons at least, as “Goddamn Danes.”) Among Helmer’s nemeses is Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), a dotty old newspaper columnist who repeatedly fakes illness in order to make contact with the ghost of a little girl in an elevator shaft, a ghost whose dead father has impregnated another doctor who then gives birth… to himself…
It’s a needless exercise, description. We haven’t gotten to the severed head blackmail or the ambulance races or the primal therapy-like group in the basement or the doctor who has a tumor transplanted into his body or the two kitchen workers with Down’s syndrome who see everything that happens in the hospital. Or anything that happens in the third season. There is a lot of all of it. Viewers accustomed to the gradual unspooling pace of most current TV shows may find The Kingdom’s headbangingly insistent pace jarring. The first two seasons are only four episodes; the third is five. Certain things need to be minimized to get everything von Trier is playing at to fit into the space permitted him. Coherence is one of those.
Which is not to say that The Kingdom is incoherent; it holds together as ruthlessly as a dream. Neither is it an exercise in pure meaninglessness. As one of the oracular dishwashers says, “In all that silliness, there is evil.” There are secret forms of knowledge available only to ghosts and administrators, namely the understanding of institutions and how they collapse. If The Kingdom is “about” anything, it’s about Rigethospitalet’s self-inflicted collapse. (It says so in the pre-credit narration.) The physical building is rotting, the barriers between the worlds of the living and dead are similarly weakened, and just about everyone and everything in it is falling apart. (There is lots of mother/son fracture. Lots.) Von Trier, in one of his addresses to the audience over the closing credits (more on those in a bit), namechecks Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. I will not pretend to have anything but the faintest understanding of that text, but its presence would seem to suggest that an institution dedicated to eradicating blind faith in order to venerate science is not going to stand a chance when real ghosts and demons show up at the door.
There are unquestionably creepy moments throughout, surprisingly conventional in their arrangement. The series opens moments with an automatic door sliding open for nobody, just a cold breeze in the dark Danish night. The reveal of Mary (the elevator ghost) with Mona (Helmer’s botched surgery victim) in a room slathered with red paint is equally unsubtle and undeniable. Panning from a kiss to a readout on a dropped thermometer is a reminder that bad things are constantly intruding here (if you don’t want to do the conversion from Celsius to Farenheit, just trust me).
Von Trier has always been interested in the idea that redemption is a dead end street. The Kingdom, while not at the same pitch as, say, Breaking the Waves or Dancer in the Dark, still keeps the doomed chore of trying to Make Things Right at the fore. It’s pretty obvious von Trier is siding with the unholy. And that’s great! There are giant babies and spectral ambulances and spooky audiology exams, and it’s ultimately a show without a protagonist. The closest we get is Mrs. Drusse, the malingerer, who seems to be the only one aware of the extent of the hospital’s ghost infestation. But even she is hapless and foolish and seduced by her own belief, to the point that she makes things much worse through an amateur-hour exorcism. If she’s the only one that seems to care, she still isn’t making anything much better.
The series was initially shot on film, transferred to video for editing, and then back to film. The result, unsurprisingly, is a jaundiced palette. It’s like watching old newsprint in motion. The first season aired in 1994, and the second in 1997. Von Trier had planned to shoot a third season, but Rolffes and Jaregard died before it could be made. The first two seasons—and their cliffhanging end—were left, in proper Rigetshospitalet fashion, in some liminal space between “finished” and “dead.”
But in 2020, von Trier finally returned to the hospital and made what is called The Kingdom Exodus. Given the elapsed time between the third season and the first two, and the fact that even more of the original cast had by then passed away, the newest season takes place in a world in which the original series is both fiction and fact. It’s somewhere between metafiction and fan service. Picture characters in the new Black Panther movie talking about how sad it is that Chadwick Boseman has died and then discussing the feats of T’Challa in the same scene. Exodus begins with a sleepwalker named Karen commenting bitterly on the second season’s lack of a proper ending and taking a cab to… the real Rigetshospitalet, where a security guard bemoans the damage done by “that idiot [Trier].” And then she begins seeing characters from the show. Or people who are obvious stand-ins for dead characters. There are new dishwashers. Willem Dafoe plays the devil. Most startling (and vaguely comforting?) is Udo Kier’s massive head, sunken into the bleaching ponds that the hospital was built atop. Kier plays both a ghost and the son of that ghost; he’s also von Trier’s longest-running collaborator. To see the enormous head of Little Brother, as the son of the ghost is known, settled into the elemental ooze from which the whole show grew is strange and a tad unpleasant, but also feels very necessary—not just to the story but to von Trier himself.
The Kingdom began before Lars was the director who pitilessly tormented Bjork on-screen and off-, who impaled Dafoe’s dick in a psychosexual woodland nightmare, who imagined a depression so vast that it ended the stupid world; it predates the guy who called himself a Nazi for larfs at Cannes, the Chaos Reigns Lars, the whatever-the-fuck-Nymphomaniac-was Lars. And The Kingdom very much feels like something he made before all that. Exodus is a return to that giddy, careless form. It is always deeply inspiring to see the product of an artist who simply doesn’t care, and Lars von Trier is as much that kind of artist as he has always been. Even at his most grueling, von Trier has never been humorless. Starting with Dancer in the Dark, though, the humor has often sprung from his sheer excessiveness. (Go to any showing of Dancer in the Dark and there will be people laughing at the end. I promise you they aren’t sociopaths.)
But now we’re back to a satanic sitcom made by a very damaged man. In these series, he is plainly playing for guffaws, and getting them more often than you might expect. Season 2 includes the funniest singing of “La Marseillaise” committed to film. Exodus has a lawyer working out of a toilet and a conference on pain whose attendees really just care about conference swag; frequent von Trier collaborator Stellan Skarsgard and his family are deployed as a sight gag and reminder of time’s brutality. Imagine if, two-thirds of the way through Dogville, Nicole Kidman looked at the camera and said, “Hey, when are we getting sets?”
At the end of each episode in the first two seasons, Lars appears in a tuxedo before a lush red curtain, telling us about what we’ve just watched. He’s goofy, handsome, lovably smarmy. It’s impossible not to be just a bit jealous of how much he’s enjoying himself. Of course, if you’ve followed von Trier, you know that didn’t last. In the intervening years, von Trier has dealt with massive depression and addiction; the idiotic Nazi remarks got him banned from Cannes for a time. And while he was filming Exodus, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. There is a great deal of suffering in those years, and plenty of self-inflicted cruelty, as well. And so it fits that at the end of each episode of Exodus, instead of being addressed by some handsome bastard, the viewers are addressed by a shaky figure hiding behind the lush red curtain. All he’ll let us see are the toes of his shoes. In case a reminder was needed, everything collapses.