The Kingdom (Lars von Trier, 1994-1997)

by Smart

Lars von Trier is a notoriously divisive filmmaker. Both the content and style of his films have been known to offend, befuddle, devastate and even infuriate viewers. Then there are those of us that enjoy his work. We revel in his often complex and experimental approach, whether it be making a film without a real set or in leaving a computer operated camera in charge of the cinematography. His films are unique, at the very least. In 1994, and collaborating with Morten Ranford, Trier created a television miniseries titled The Kingdom (also known as Riget). The first season featured four hour long episodes, with each being concluded by Lars himself speaking politely to the audience alongside the credits. In 1997 the show returned for a second season, ran for another four episodes, and was never heard from again. A third season had been planned and even written by Trier, but unfortunately it never made it into production.

The show follows a series of supernatural events that are taking place in Denmark’s national hospital, The Kingdom. We become involved in the professional and private lives of doctors, patients and the hospital’s support staff, all of whom tend to intermingle and quarrel on a regular basis. There is a brilliant mix of mystery, horror, drama and comedy, all of which shine through strongly and seem to blend together impeccably under the show’s intimidating aesthetic. Filmed on 16mm cameras and using only practical and natural lighting, the sepia tinted visuals are often grainy, clouded and atmospheric. Then there is the highly stylised cinematography and editing which revolves around the frantic use of handheld camera work and enough jump-cut focused editing to make the entire nouvelle vague blush. There is no doubt that this must be the most deliberately disorientating television show to ever make it onto air and manage to avoid being immediately cancelled. Despite Trier’s enthusiastic sadism, and perhaps even because of it, The Kingdom is amazingly addictive and loveable. Each character is bizarre and idiosyncratic, the humour is perfectly timed and the mystery and horror elements give the show a strong narrative grounding and underlying momentum.

There is a tangible sense of the weird in The Kingdom that is never compromised. Even the simplest of expository scenes are handled in a way that makes them both challenging and amusing to watch. Unexplained events push the boundaries of human behaviour to irrational levels. Each subplot is just as fresh and intriguing as the last, so much so that it becomes almost impossible to pick out a favourite character. Certain grotesque moments are sure to shock and disturb some viewers, but they only add to the overall charm of this hodgepodge of thematic ideas and narrative strings. The series ended ambiguously and with a barrage of unanswered questions, but to me this seemed like the only appropriate way to match the devilish freedom, fun and peculiarity of the show itself.