Written by Tom Augustine.
A year or so ago I was diagnosed with arthritis. It’s manageable, but it means that my contact with Greenlane Hospital, where I have to go for rheumatology checkups, has become significantly more frequent. Unlike the sleek, modern Auckland Hospital, Greenlane Hospital is a hodgepodge of ageing buildings with a distinctly Soviet appearance, all angular brick-and-concrete constructions, faded carpets and paint jobs within. It’s fair to say I have an ambivalence toward that place – that is, I did. Watching of The Kingdom’s first two episodes, which were provided for this review, provided me with a moment of clarity. I didn’t know how lucky I was until I saw the nightmarish hospital-cum-hellscape which is the titular Kingdom Hospital of Lars Von Trier’s infamous supernatural miniseries, originally titled Riget. A series that has hovered on the outskirts of Von Trier’s filmography, mythically hard to find even in the days of streaming, it takes place at a Danish hospital that is apparently state-of-the-art, but feels so uncannily awful in almost every respect that it becomes a de facto advertisement for the modern hospital system, no matter how bedraggled. It’s clear the Kingdom Hospital is haunted, for one. The opening of every episode begins with a hazy recollection of the grounds the hospital was built on, once a foul, swampy space where ‘bleachers’ would clean clothes with the chemical substance. The building that now stands is an enormous construction, not dissimilar to The Overlook Hotel in its many gaping, empty corridors and stairs that seem to lead to nowhere. Doctors’ meetings are held in cramped, uncomfortable confines, patient wards feel barren and cold. Water is seeping up from the tiles in the carpark, and there are strange noises emanating from the elevator shaft.
The first season of The Kingdom was made in 1994, which places it in a fascinating position in Von Trier’s filmography. He had made a few early films, like Medea and The Element of Crime, but his real breakthrough, Breaking the Waves, wouldn’t hit until after The Kingdom’s release. It’s fair to say that Von Trier was still finding the essential ingredients that would make him such a ballyhooed, provocative auteur (provocauteur?) of the late-nineties and 2000s, when the series was first conceived, partially as a response to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The second season followed only a couple of years after the first, while the latest season, The Kingdom: Exodus, wouldn’t appear until some twenty-five years later. Comparisons to Lynch’s own Twin Peaks: The Return abound, a similarly long-awaited follow-up uniting surviving members of the cast for a work of immense scale and a profound sense of finality.
For the first time in New Zealand, Lars Von Trier’s revered and rarely shown television series The Kingdom will be screened in its entirety on Rialto Channel in OCTOBER, NOVEMBER AND DECEMBER. It’s an opportunity to see some of the notorious provocateur’s early, audacious work – pre-Breaking the Waves – and some of his most recent, in a limited series event of astonishing scope.
Those Peaks comparisons are apt from the off, however, as Von Trier’s series plunges us into a peculiar, often absurd, often frightening world, boldly captured in methods that stand out from other, more pedestrian television work of the era. His trademark shaky-cam, verité-style approach is intact here, even as it follows the soapy machinations of the various staff and patients of the hospital, and the growing threat of the supernatural menace that bubbles beneath their feet. It’s an admirably ugly show – and I mean that in the kindest sense – drenched in grainy, intensely sepia-toned 16-mm film stock that gives the imagery the feel of watching something unfold through a veil of dirty dishwater. The overwhelming sense of griminess adds to the feeling that one shouldn’t be breathing the air within the walls of the Kingdom, let alone conducting high-stakes surgery.
Perhaps most fascinating, though, is The Kingdom’s interest in, and willingness to engage with, the tropes of television melodrama and soap opera – much like Peaks. As with that show, The Kingdom leans into the pulpier aspects of television, offering us a vision of well-worn formulas as seen through the eyes of a genuine, game-changing artist. The Kingdom’s massive cast is a prime example of this – like the early antagonist of the series, Stig, played with venomous élan by Ernst-Hugo Järegård, a Swedish surgeon with a semi-fascistic hatred of Danes (see what I mean about the absurdism?), a perversely likeable character so flagrantly nasty I’m surprised he doesn’t have a moustache to twirl. There’s Sigrid, played with warmth and persistence by Kirsten Rolffes, an elderly woman with psychic powers who utilises her son’s position as a hospital orderly to admit herself and hunt for answers to the supernatural questions posed within The Kingdom’s walls. Sigrid is very clearly a Miss Marple stand-in, and much like Twin Peaks’ Dale Cooper, a bastion of pure-hearted American heroism, Sigrid emanates goodness in a way that feels unusual for Von Trier. There are various other characters, plenty of them endearingly kooky, as well as soapy machinations galore – corporate malfeasance, angsty love affairs, hidden severed body parts, and so on.
Having only the first two episodes of The Kingdom to go on, I feel an intense anticipation to devour the rest of the series upon its release. These first two episodes are a slow-burn, lacking in the gore, body-horror and outright insanity that is purported to come (we have only gotten a tiny glimpse of Udo Kier, a Von Trier regular, whose presence is sure to signal some forthcoming atrocity). The first episode works hard to cover a lot of ground – the many faces of the hospital get a look-in, including a Greek chorus of dishwashers played by Downs Syndrome performers Vita Jensen and Morten Rotne Leffers. There’s the feeling of something massive just around the corner, building up steam. Perhaps even more fascinating than the questions posed in these two episodes are the larger questions of Exodus – with both Rolffe and Järegård now dead, what will we see in these recent episodes, and will they land with the impact of Twin Peaks: The Return? One can only hope. I have long been resistant to Von Trier’s work – his position as the enfant terrible of the European film world drove me away from work that becomes more profound and essential to me as I get older. Watching The Kingdom, whose episodes end with Von Trier himself summarising what we’ve just seen and giving us a preview of what’s to come, I felt an affection for the man, and for the way this story contends with the known and the unknown with a real sense of willingness to delve into both sides of the divide.
The Kingdom: Series 1 premieres October 17 at 8:30pm on Rialto Channel.
The Kingdom I (Riget)
Movie title: The Kingdom I (Riget) (Von Trier, ‘94)
Movie description: For the first time in New Zealand, Lars Von Trier’s revered and rarely shown television series The Kingdom will be screened in its entirety on Rialto Channel in October, November, and December. It’s an opportunity to see some of the notorious provocateur's early, audacious work - pre-Breaking the Waves - and some of his most recent, in a limited series event of astonishing scope.
Date published: October 12, 2023
Author: Lars von Trier, Niels Vørsel, Tómas Gislason
Director(s): Lars von Trier, Morten Arnfred
Actor(s): Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Kirsten Rolffes, Holger Juul Hansen, Udo Kier
Genre: Drama, Horror, Comedy