…”…be prepared to take the Good with the Evil.”
After Lars Von Trier’s fine directorial debut with Element of the Crime (1984) and two loosely connected follow-up films (the low-budget Epidemic  and the powerful Zentropa ) that formed a sort of post-Holocaust European trilogy, events in his personal life shook his bearings substantially. Needing to make money, he undertook a project for Danish television with the stipulation from the producers that it contain both fear and humour and be cheap to produce. Von Trier selected a hospital as the setting for the project as it is normally a place where humour and terror often intermingle and as a single location, it also helped to meet the financial constraints. The result was the four-part miniseries entitled The Kingdom (original Danish title — Riget) which appeared in 1994 and was greeted with much acclaim. Von Trier’s original conception for the story was a 13-part series, and accordingly much was left unexplained or incomplete at the end of The Kingdom. In 1997, the series continued with another four episodes entitled The Kingdom II (originally Riget II), which was also very successful. Unfortunately, within a year or so thereafter, several of the actors who played major characters in the series to date died leaving completion of the project up in the air.
Seville Pictures has now released The Kingdom on DVD in Canada (but available elsewhere from Canadian online dealers) on a two-disc set.
Change is afoot at the National State Hospital in Copenhagen, called “The Kingdom.” Under the guidance of Chief Medical Officer Moesgaard, the hospital is attempting to introduce Operation Morning Air, a program intended to promote a new spirit of sharing and communication amongst its staff. A new chief neurosurgeon, Stig Helder, is on the staff. A Swede, he is constantly amazed by the Danish way of doing things, feeling that nothing is quite right as compared to hospital procedures and protocols in his homeland. Operation Morning Air seems like nonsense to him, for example. Meanwhile, Hook, one of the doctors subordinate to Helder, is a constant source of irritation to Helder due to his rather relaxed way of getting things done. For example, a current patient named Mrs. Drusse has been scheduled by Hook for a CAT scan, an expensive procedure that Helder feels should only be authorized by himself.
Within this setting, strange things begin to occur. An ambulance arrives at Emergency and then mysteriously disappears. Mrs. Drusse begins to hear the voice of a little girl when traveling in one of the hospital elevators. One of the staff doctors becomes pregnant, but an ultrasound reveals the foetus to be much older than it should be. A patient on an operating room table claims to have seen the ghost of a little girl who comforted him during his surgery. Fear begins to grip the hospital as it becomes evident that a terrible secret from the past may be at the root of the presence of the restless spirit.
“Like ER on acid,” “ER meets Twin Peaks,” “With a hint of Rosemary’s Baby” — These are some of the taglines that get attached to The Kingdom and they are in a superficial way correct. Yet this is a piece of work that stands on its own merits and describing it in such a fashion masks the fact that in its blend of horror, satire and black humour, it is truly original and quite unusual. For North American audiences, the Danish sense of self deprecation and the apparently uneasy relationship between Danes and Swedes (at least as suggested in this film) also add layers of human interest to the goings-on.
Where does one start in evaluating a film that manages to include within its storyline a modern-day hospital, a murder mystery from almost a century before, doctors who act like Masons, medical malpractice, a phantom ambulance, horror, black comedy, voodoo, séances, exorcism, and even a little sex? It’s like one-stop shopping; there’s something for everyone. The Kingdom will evince strong reactions from virtually every viewer, but I suspect that the vast majority of them will be positive. The characters soon come to be like old friends and if the situations they get involved in are sometimes bizarre, that seems appropriate for the characters themselves all have their own unusual quirks and actions. How about a hospital Chief Medical Officer who so lacks in self-confidence that he hides under his desk rather than take a government minister on a hospital tour, or a doctor who effectively runs a black market operation in everything from hospital gowns to research equipment to body parts from the hospital basement, or a chief neurosurgeon who decides to fly to Haiti to get the lowdown on how to invoke voodoo as a means of hiding the truth about a botched operation, or two dishwashers with Down’s Syndrome who act as a Greek Chorus throughout the whole story, or a pathologist who has a diseased liver transplanted into his own body in order to further his own research, or an elderly female patient who seems free to roam the hospital at will conducting séances, gaining access to the hospital archives and questioning medical personnel about privileged information?
Danish director Lars Von Trier completed The Kingdom just one year before the declaration of Dogme ’95, a manifesto that he and several other European filmmakers developed as a response to what they saw as the over-processed and increasingly unrealistic look and feel of much of current-day film. Dogme ’95 was intended to establish a “new form of honest cinema” utilizing no artificial lighting, added music, or brought-in props. Hand-held cameras would be used exclusively; films would be shot in sequence; and directors would not be credited. Certainly Von Trier was testing out some of these tenets in his work on The Kingdom, as its camera work and lighting will attest. In contrast, Von Trier does manipulate the filmed material substantially in the editing process. The film contains a noticeable mixture of actor emotions even within individual scenes. For example, in some of the staff meetings, Hook seems to be amused one moment and then almost sad the next even though the circumstances don’t really dictate such a change. Apparently, Von Trier asked that the actors perform a given scene several times, each time concentrating on doing it in a given mood (happy, sad, perplexed, et cetera). He then blended the various takes to give the curious mixture of emotions we see on the screen.
The Kingdom benefits from a cast that is uniformly good. The actors are virtually all Danish, of course, and probably unknown to most North Americans. The Danish actors chosen were those who were both popular domestically as well as being known particularly for their comedic abilities. Standing out are Søren Pilmark as the low key but effective and efficient Hook, Holger Juul Hansen as the administratively-challenged Chief Medical Officer Moesgaard, and Kirsten Rolffes as the Miss Marple-like Mrs. Drusse. The exception to the Danish cast is the Swedish actor Ernst-Hugo Järegård who plays the Swedish Dane-baiting chief neurosurgeon Stig Helmer. Järegård was a favourite of Von Trier’s and had appeared in Zentropa for him.
Above I mentioned that The Kingdom was a four-part miniseries. This seems to be the consensus of various sources I consulted; however, Seville Pictures’s DVD release presents the title in five parts (three on one disc and the other two on a second disc) with a total running time of 265 minutes, the same length as listed elsewhere. Each of the five episodes has its own beginning with clips from what has gone before and a short on-screen commentary by Von Trier himself at the end, so this appears to be the way the program was conceived, comments elsewhere about four parts to the contrary. A second point to realize is the manner in which The Kingdom was filmed and edited. It was originally filmed in 16mm, transferred to videotape, edited on videotape, transferred back to 19mm, and then blown up to 35mm for release. The result is not the crisp, clear, vibrant colour image that one is used to, but rather a grainy, washed-out and at times sepia-like look that actually works pretty well with the subject matter. It is a challenge for the DVD transfer, however, but Seville’s efforts seem to have replicated the original look of the source material quite well. The accompanying low video score reflects the nature of that source material compared to the more-pristine look of most contemporary films. The framing is full frame in accord with the original television aspect ratio.
The DVD sports a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track in Danish with non-defeatable English subtitles. The audio is quite dynamic with good use of the surrounds but no real directionality. Dialogue is clear and vibrant and ambient sounds are noticeably effective. The title music is jarring at first, but you soon come to appreciate how effectively it sets the mood for each episode. The subtitling is quite thorough, but at first I did have a bit of difficulty getting used to the fact that it was aligned to the bottom left rather than centered at the bottom.
Supplementary content is modest. There is a short interview transcript with Lars Von Trier that deals with some production details and a brief Von Trier biography that concludes with a filmography. The Dogme ’95 Manifesto is reproduced in full.
Although long, The Kingdom is one of those films that really draws you in to watch “just one more episode.” The film has a unique look and a unique blend of horror and humour that help to lift it out of the ordinary as compared to most of today’s television and film product. Seville Pictures is to be congratulated for making it available on DVD and going the double-disc route to squeeze out the best transfer possible, given the difficult source material. Recommended.