This review of Lars von Trier’s series The Kingdom was originally published in DVD And Blu-ray Review.
Hands up if you hate Lars von Trier. Don’t feel guilty – if there’s one thing his career has shown, it’s that the Danish director thrives on negative attention, and he’s been cheerfully willing to fuel public dislike. His mortifying declaration of sympathy with Hitler at the Cannes festival Festival (there was some context, and it doesn’t make it any better) is only the most outrageous outcrop of a career in aggravation.
There’s his involvement in founding the maddeningly pretentious Dogme 95 movement; the squawking mawkfest of Dancer In The Dark, which starred Björk; the Scope-baiting premise of The Idiots, in which fully able individuals pretend to be mentally handicapped for kicks. Cannes even devised a special prize for “most misogynist film” to honour Antichrist in 2009. And then there’s The Kingdom, a mini-series set in a deeply unsettling hospital in Denmark, created and co-directed by von Trier.
It’s got all the slappable hallmarks of his work – he even makes an appearance himself, talking to camera over the end credits of each episode, looking like Pee Wee Herman as he smirkingly undermines the sinister drama of what’s gone before. There’s plenty to take against elsewhere in the programme, from moronic racial stereotyping (the sole black character turns out to be an expert in voodoo. Well, of course he would be) to the patronising use of two actors with Down’s syndrome as a childlike chorus of dishwashers, gnomically narrating the hospital’s goings-on to each other, imbued with the Mencap-mysticism that The Idiots tried to appropriate.
Put off yet? It’s also a brilliantly unnerving piece of TV that keeps up an atmosphere of grinding menace as it flips between pure horror, psychological thriller and absurd comedy. This DVD boxset brings together seasons one and two of the show, and it’s eight hours of the most compelling oddness and unpleasantness you’ll find this side of Twin Peaks.
A sepia pre-credits sequence describes how the land on which the hospital (the Kingdom) was built was once used for bleaching cloth, and implies that the empiricism which the doctors and scientists have served somehow represents a terrible, punishable breach with this history. What this actually has to do with horror and hauntings isn’t explained – and nor are plenty of other things – but The Kingdom certainly takes an impish delight in ridiculing and tormenting its white-coated residents.
There’s no doubt that one cast member dominates here: longtime von Trier collaborator Ernst-Hugo Järegård as surgeon Stig Helmer. Editor Molly Marlene Stensgaard says on one of the scene commentaries that he had a tendency almost to overact, but the soapy ripeness of Helmer’s character is the perfect vehicle for it, and Järegård is a brilliant mixture of cynical villainy, physical buffoonery and crazed Swedish nationalism (the rooftop monologue, in which he bawls “DANISH SCUM!” at the skies, is transfixing).
The other star is Kirsten Rolffes as Sigrid Drusse, an old lady with a creative line in Münchausen’s syndrome and a direct contact in the spirit world. Her efforts to reach out to, and help, the ghost of a little girl whose life and death were bound up with the hospital give rise to some thrillingly unpleasant scenes.
Add in a mysterious medical secret society, a pathologist trying any means to get his hands on the biggest liver cancer he’s ever seen, and a sinister sleep lab, and the potential for eccentric plots and subplots is irresistibly strong. Season one has a made-up-as-it-goes feel, which actually turns out to be more pleasing than the increasingly structured approach of season two, but the horror and humour stay strong to the end.
Extras focus mainly on von Trier, with an interview and a biographical documentary that explore his provocative approach. He also shows up on the commentary – this is limited to select scenes, but the various crew members who talk with him give an impressive amount of detail on the programme’s production and reception, while von Trier comes across as pleasantly puckish. That is, until he gives his take on one of the dishwasher scenes, explaining that he has a “thing about mongoloids,” though he’s “tried not to have one myself. Tests and so forth.” Hands up if you hate Lars von Trier…
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2011