The Kingdom: Series One
Directed by Lars von Trier — 1994, Denmark — 272 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.33:1 (as originally presented on Danish television) — Horror / Mystery / Comedy
IN BRIEF, surreal mini-series about the ghostly goings-on at Denmark’s most state-of-the-art hospital… built over a cursed graveyard, no less.
At last, we have the DVD release of The Kingdom: Series One, a wildly entertaining four-and-a-half-hour Gothic horror/comedy from celebrated, and controversial, filmmaker Lars von Trier, who also directed Breaking the Waves (1996), the Cannes best picture-winning Dancer in the Dark (2000), and Dogville (2003), not to mention The Kingdom: Series Two (1997). Despite its origins on Danish television, The Kingdom: Series One is one of Trier’s most acclaimed films, having won 17 international awards, including some for best mini-series and others, as at the Seattle International Film Festival, for best picture of the year. Movieline named it one of the “100 greatest foreign films of all time.” It is also the source for the popular 2004 U.S. mini-series, Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital.
In The Kingdom: Series One, Trier deftly interweaves a half-dozen major storylines, and twice as many principal characters. The plot and characters are so skillfully written and performed that there is never a moment of confusion – aside from the purposeful mysteries, of course – about who is who and what is what: just dig in and enjoy. The main characters are: Sigrid Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), a Miss Marple-like elderly woman obsessed with unraveling the mystery of the wailing voice in the elevator shaft – although it means that Sigrid has to keep faking ailments to remain in Kingdom Hospital, where her lovably hulking son Bulder (Jens Okking) is an orderly; neurosurgeon Dr. Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård), the newly-appointed and tyrannical director, from Sweden, who detests everything Danish – with the single exception of his love interest, Dr. Rigmor Mortenson (Ghita Nørby); Dr. Krogshøj (Søren Pilmark), called “Hook” in the subtitles, who lives in the hospital’s labyrinthine basement and whose physician lover Judith (Birgitte Raaberg) may or may not be a ghost; the boyish med student Mogge (Peter Mygind), son of the passive-aggressive chief physician Dr. Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen); the seductive Camilla (Solbjørg Højfeldt), who is conducting a study on sleep disorders, who is the object of Mogge’s passion; Prof. Bondo (Baard Owe), whose research on liver cancer drives him to, shall we say, extreme measures; and two dishwashers (Vita Jensen and Morten Rotne Leffers), who function as an eerie yet endearing Greek chorus, commenting on the action. The film is set, and filmed, in Denmark’s most technologically-advanced – and real – medical facility, Kingdom Hospital, or Riget in Danish (here is Riget’s English-language Website). One hopes that its board of directors knew what they were in for, with Trier’s phantom ambulance, car chases, comic-yet-menacing secret society of doctors, crying ghost girl, seances, voodoo, long-buried murderous secrets, and missing body parts (oh yes, they do turn up), not to mention that doctor’s foetus which is growing at an impossible rate, until she gives birth to… oh, but that would be telling.
As you can see from the character sketches, Trier draws heavily on the traditions of conventional television and Gothic melodrama. Below we’ll look at why this film is greater than the sum of its (body) parts, but it does draw considerable energy, and plenty of sheer entertainment value, from its predecessors, both illustrious and schlocky.
Although there are some striking similarities between this film and the hospital-set television series ER (which debuted in 1993), including the then-innovative fluid camerawork and the physical similarity of actors Søren Pilmark (as Dr. Krogshøj / “Hook”) here and ER’s Anthony Edwards, these two television productions were conceived independently; and of course the US show has far fewer supernatural goings-on [wink]. A more likely TV-inspiration is David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (its two seasons ran in 1990 and 1991), with its quirky characters and suspense-driven, ironic storyline, as well as its innovative visual and aural style.
In terms of its Gothic inspirations, The Kingdom: Series One pays tribute to some key works of suspense, fantasy, and horror. The feisty Sigrid Drusse is the first main character we meet; and it can be argued that she is the principal principal. Although Sigrid is very much her own woman, she is made to resemble Agatha Christie’s indefatigable mystery solver, Miss Marple. Although the subtitles do not translate it, and I don’t speak Danish, at one point it sounds like a character even jokingly refers to her as “Miss Marple.” (The “spinsterish” sleuth was played memorably by Margaret Rutherford in five feature films, including 1961’s Murder She Said, and in a dozen TV movies by Joan Hickson, between 1984 and 1992.) In his commentary, Trier notes that the direct inspiration for this film was the then-recent film Homicide. Although he said he did not recall the details, I did some sleuthing of my own and found out that he meant playwright, screenwriter and filmmaker David Mamet’s 1991 film of that title. Mamet’s Homicide, with its almost metaphysical approach to how coincidental events help people uncover their true natures, is as much a revisionist police thriller as The Kingdom is a revisionist horror movie.
Several more genre works and traditions form the foundation of this particular hospital. The “secret society,” such as the Masonic-style Sons of the Kingdom Lodge here, is a staple of suspense fiction. The motif of a ghost crying out for justice has been a part of folk traditions, from every part of the world, for centuries, if not millennia. Trier draws on some of the best horror films, as he eclectically alludes to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1979) during Mogge’s all-too-memorable nightmares (until he learns to exchange flesh-eating ghouls for, uh, pleasures of the flesh) in the sleep experiments. Those scenes use some of the same shots as the comparable sequence in Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). The voodoo ceremony, which Helmer attends in Haiti in the final episode, recalls the similar sequence in producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur’s lyrical horror masterpiece, I Walked With a Zombie (1943 – arguably the worst title a studio ever forced on a great film). Judith’s unnaturally-rapid pregnancy, and its aftermath, brings to mind William Girdler’s (one hopes intentionally) campy cult movie The Manitou (1978). Throughout The Kingdom: Series One, the horror presence most strongly detectable is Stephen King.
One of the film’s most shocking moments, involving the young girl named Mona (Laura Christensen) who is now brain-damaged (after an operation botched by Helmer), conflates both the bloody climax of King’s first novel, Carrie (published 1974; Brian De Palma’s film 1976), and the psychic boy’s scribbling “REDRUM” (the mirror-inversion of “murder”) in his third novel, The Shining (published 1977; Stanley Kubrick’s film 1980). Trier boldly appropriates Kubrick’s trailer, and later scene, for The Shining in his title shot for The Kingdom/Riget in which an elevator door opens to release torrents of blood: in Trier, the title disintegrates as it releases more of the same. In fact, The Shining seems the single most prominent inspiration for this film, with its ghostly visitations, endless mazelike corridors (at one point we learn that Kingdom Hospital has “30 kilometers of passageways”), and (in Kubrick’s film but not the novel) an incisive interplay of character satire with unnerving supernatural occurrences. During a late scene, involving a (re)burial, Trier even has his characters joke that what they’re doing is “too much Stephen King.” Ironically, we have some transatlantic reciprocity when King rewrites and produces his own version of Trier’s film as Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital, a 14-hour US mini-series broadcast in 2004 (I’ve only seen bits and pieces; unlike Trier’s film, it never grabbed me enough to make me want to watch more).
Even with all of these (mostly estimable) antecedents, The Kingdom: Series One is very much its own work, and a delightfully macabre one at that. Trier co-wrote the film with Niels Vørsel (in 1987 the two wrote and appeared as themselves in the mini-series Epidemic, about a Lars von Trier and a Niels Vørsel who are making a mini-series about a plague sweeping across Europe, which they may actually be makng real: shades of Jorge Luis Borges) and Tómas Gislason. Trier notes in his commentary that, facing a tight production schedule, they wrote the entire scenario in just eight days. Trier co-directed with Morten Arnfred, but Trier is clearly the film’s guiding spirit. That was made clear in the advertising, which referred to Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom, and even more so in the delightfully sardonic epilogues to each of the four episodes – “The Unheavenly Host,” “Thy Kingdom Come,” “A Foreign Body,” and “The Living Dead” – which comprise The Kingdom: Series One. Each part ends with Trier offering his droll comments (à la Hitchock in his Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series) on what we’ve just seen and what is to come. In one of his commentaries, Trier – notorious for his prankish sense of humor – confesses that despite the evening suit he sports on camera, out of frame he was “more comfortable” wearing just his shorts! (As a sidenote, Trier was not born “von” – which indicates noble descent – but rather his fellow film school students teasingly gave him that “nickname” which he reportedly kept because of his admiration for Erich von Stroheim: as a second sidenote, Stroheim was likely no more entitled to his grafted-on “von” than was Josef Sternberg – born Josef Stern – whose “von” was added by a Hollywood studio mogul to boost his prestige factor, as if this great filmmaker needed it.)
Trier’s wicked sense of humor is on full display throughout the film, which is at least as much satirical comedy as it is horror show. Dr. Helmer’s nightly rants alone on the hospital rooftop, with the perfect timing of actor Ernst-Hugo Järegård and director Trier, about how much he loathes everything Danish, are laugh-out-loud funny, even to someone like me who is unaware of the subtleties of any Swedish/Danish rivalry. On less extreme levels, Trier imbues all of his characters with at least a few layers of humor, which helps us remain connected with them, however bizarre (in an un-funny way) the behavior of some of them may become. We have Sigrid’s stop-at-nothing schemes (feigning ever-new symptoms) to extend her stay in the hospital until she can unearth the secrets of the ghost child; Mogge’s desperate attempts to win over the beautiful Camilla (cynics will call these two the ‘eye-candy factor’); the bizarre secret protocols of The Lodge; Moesgaard’s hysterical desperation at trying to produce his musical commercial for the hospital (“Operation Morning Breeze”) featuring the unruly hospital staff; Bondo’s mad obsession with getting a rare liver “hematoma” to study; even Rigmor’s passion for the surly, and non-Adonis-like, Helmer (well, as the adage goes, ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’). I was drawn to all of the main characters, and most of the minor ones too. Even the ghostly child Mary (Annevig Schelde Ebbe), and the diabolical Aage Krüger (played by the wonderful Udo Kier, who appears in every one of Trier’s films, as well as in Paul Morrissey’s Andy Warhol’s Dracula, Fassbinder’s The Stationmaster’s Wife, Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, and 150 other pictures), are compelling, despite their brief – and supernatural – appearances.
In a wonderfully paradoxical touch, the two characters with the most dignity are the young dishwashers, both of whom have Down syndrome. This latter-day Greek chorus – or rather Greek duet – toils endlessly in a massive basement (like the “bleachers” of centuries past, whom we see in the prologue). Yet this pair understands, with preternatural insight, more about what’s going on than any of the physicians and researchers in the hospital above, who are unaware of their existence. Actors Vita Jensen and Morten Rotne Leffers also have a terrific chemistry, playing off each other.
Trier’s extreme visual style for The Kingdom: Series One may appear as a mistake to some – the entire film is relentlessly grainy and bleached of most of its color, then tinted an orangey sepia – but it is, he states unequivocally in his commentary, exactly what he wanted. We know that he shot the film in 16mm (often in low-light conditions), then transferred it to video for editing, and finally – to accentuate the grain as much as possible – blew it up to 35mm for release. Maddeningly, he does not elaborate on why he wanted this unique look: clearly, he’s leaving that interpretation up to each of us.
On the most literal level, the “bleached” color brings to mind the backstory – of the hospital built over abandoned “bleaching ponds” – which is recounted by an offscreen narrator in the visually gorgeous, and genuinely creepy, prologue (identical in each episode). Let me quote the complete text, as translated in the subtitles, since I’ll be referring to it several times later on:
“The Kingdom Hospital rests on ancient marshland where the bleaching ponds once lay. Here the bleachers moistened their great spans of cloth. The steam evaporating from the wet cloth shrouded the place in permanent fog. Centuries later the hospital was built here. The bleachers gave way to doctors and researchers, the best brains in the nation and the most perfect technology. To crown their work they called the hospital “The Kingdom.” Now life was to be charted – and ignorance and superstition, never to shake the bastions of science again. Perhaps their arrogance became too pronounced, and their persistent denial of the spiritual. For it is as if the cold and damp have returned. Tiny signs of fatigue are appearing in the solid, modern edifice. No living person knows it yet, but the gateway to the Kingdom is opening once again.“
While we hear these words, we see something straight out of Dante’s Inferno (a work Trier knows well): rows of quietly suffering workers, from centuries ago, endlessly dipping cloth into the waters… as the camera slowly descends below the surface to the bottom, where it reveals… something emerging [heh heh heh].
I don’t want to give away a major plot revelation, but the film’s amberish hue is reminiscent of the formaldehyde in which a very special body is preserved. Just as that character’s story encompasses, and unifies, the entire mini-series, so may it – literally – color the entire film. The effect was also, after I got used to, beautiful in its own right, casting a sort of alluringly hellish glow over the macabre proceedings. I readily admit that this reading of the “bleach” and “formaldehyde” visual metaphors may be a bit much, but that’s what Trier gets for not telling us what he intended: of course, as modern film’s self-professed “provocateur,” that may be just what he wanted.
Although Trier was still a year away from his well-known Dogme95 manifesto (signatories must agree to make completely naturalistic films, using no artificial lights or sounds), you can see him moving in that direction with his use of a purposely not-so-steady Steadicam. Although ER was to make regular use of long, flowing shots (shades of Orson Welles and Max Ophüls), Trier introduces just the right amount of jitter to give his camerawork a human, and decidedly nervous, feel. Like the inspired visual design, that is exactly what this creepy tale needs.
Some viewers may be put off initially by the film’s look, but the plot and characters are so engrossing – in just the opening minutes we have the phantom ambulance, the mysterious voice in the elevator shaft, and the instantly-likeable Sigrid Drusse beginning her quest to unravel the mystery – that I suspect the visual style will soon function as no more than a weird subliminal undercurrent… until you decide to ponder its implication, if you like.
Since I’ve clearly joined the almost-unanimous chorus of praise for this film, allow me to mention a nagging problem I have with it as a work of horror. Basically, and without giving away any juicy plot points, I wish that Trier had gone further with the implications of his own fantastic prologue, which ends – with words even more pregnant than Judith – that “the gateway to the Kingdom is opening once again.” For people who enjoy horror, as I certainly do, that is great shiver-inducing stuff… but the film never really delivers on what H.P. Lovecraft (novellas “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”), the greatest of all horror writers (I think even Poe would concede the title), called “cosmic awe” in his definitive study, Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927). Lovecraft believed that the greatest works of horror (and today he would certainly include the best horror films), inspire a sublime, even spiritual, sense of wonder which helps keep alive our collective “instinctual feeling of awe about the unknown.” Dead on!
There are enough supernatural occurrences, ranging from the witty to the blood-curdling – and some which are both (like that stolen severed head, which keeps popping up), to fill a half-dozen films; and they are all imaginatively presented. Yet with a perfect horror set-up, of a portal between the encroaching world of the supernatural and its antithesis in the high-tech (and Trier says “arrogant”) “bastions of science” in Kingdom Hospital, too little is made of its potential for inducing (Lovecraftian) awe. The irrational and rational strains remain separate, for the most part, instead of clashing head-on.
Of course for some viewers, where horror is concerned, less is definitely more. And even though this is not a work as stunningly terror-inducing as, say, Tobe Hooper’s original 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which the sleep research team is watching offscreen), Trier is still able to give us plenty of that satisfying ‘horror tonic’ of fear liberated from real-world danger, of an experience which is paradoxically terrifying in its depiction of our physical frailties (and inevitable deaths) yet strangely comforting, since what we are watching is (in the words of the classic ad campaign for Wes Craven’s 1972 The Last House on the Left) “only a movie.”
And in fairness, I do not know if Trier intended to start small here (the prologue does specify that only “Tiny signs of fatigue are appearing in the solid, modern edifice”), and then in the last two parts of his intended trilogy build up to some kind of cosmic crescendo. I have not yet seen 1997’s The Kingdom: Series Two (I hope that Koch Lorber Films will release it soon), although from the cast list we can see that all of the main characters are back, along with a few new principals. And Trier has said that Series Two is both “looser and funnier” than Series One. Unfortunately, the final part of the intended trilogy has been postponed indefinitely due to the death of Trier’s close friend Ernst-Hugo Järegård, who played the pivotal role of Dr. Helmer. When asked in a 1997 interview about The Kingdom: Series Three, Trier said “Oh, yes, I know how the loose ends will be tied up.”
Speaking of “loose ends,” the series of cliffhangers which end this film are among the most outrageous I’ve ever seen. Some storylines are resolved (or so it would seem), but others are only just beginning, leaving us anxious – in both senses of the word – for more. The Kingdom: Series Two (which I hope to review when it is released on DVD) will resolve those sub-plots, even as the new cliffhangers at its conclusion will open the way for Series Three.
We can only hope that Trier will one day finish The Kingdom. Until then, we are a bit like the ghost trapped in the elevator shaft, waiting for the final revelations which will set us free.
- Directed by Lars von Trier & Morten Arnfred
- Written by von Trier, Tómas Gislason & Niels Vørsel
- Produced by Sven Abrahamsen, Philippe Bober, Peter Aalbæk Jensen, Ole Reim, & Ib Tardini
- Cinematography by Eric Kress
- Designed by Jette Lehmann
- Costumes by Bjarne Nilsson
- Special Effects by Niels Fly & Niels Skovgaard
- Visual Effects by Søren Buus
- Makeup by Birthe Lyngsøe & Lis Olsson
- Special Makeup Effects by Kim Olsson
- Sound by Kristian Eidnes Andersen
- Edited by Molly Marlene Stensgård & Jacob Thuesen
- Original Music by Joachim Holbek
- Ernst-Hugo Järegård as Sig Helmer
- Kirsten Rolffes as Sigrid Drusse
- Holger Juul Hansen as Einar Moesgaard
- Søren Pilmark as Jorgen Krogshøj
- Ghita Nørby as Rigmor Mortenson
- Jens Okking as Bulder
- Otto Brandenburg as Hansen
- Annevig Schelde Ebbe as Mary
- Baard Owe as Bondo
- Birgitte Raaberg as Judith
- Peter Mygind as Mogge
- Vita Jensen as Dishwasher 1
- Morten Rotne Leffers as Dishwasher 2
- Solbjørg Højfeldt as Camilla
- Udo Kier as Aage Krüger
Koch Lorber Films has released a two-disc set which preserves the intentionally grainy look which Trier intended.
- Original aspect ratio of 1.33:1
- Commentary by Lars von Trier on selected scenes
- Behind-the-Scenes footage
- TV spots directed by Lars von Trier
- Two-disc set
- $34.98 suggested retail
Reviewed November 30, 2005 / Revised October 24, 2021