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Lars Von Trier could be radical on television, too

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s five days of Lars Von Trier, as we single out some of the Danish director’s more unheralded triumphs in honor of his latest, Nymphomaniac.

The Kingdom (1994)

If nothing else, Lars Von Trier is a savvy self-promoter. With only a handful of exceptions, his output has been structured in triads, labeled “trilogies” for the sake of branding, though only the abandoned USA Trilogy—consisting of DogvilleManderlay, and the unfilmed Washington—technically constitutes one. His early feature Epidemic has its title, complete with copyright sign, printed in red over nearly every frame. He’s managed to turn potential career-killers—a reputation for being difficult to work with and a tendency to make outrageously tasteless pronouncements at press conferences—into a personal mystique that draws viewers in. Even Von Trier’s name is a promotional gimmick, the “Von”—reportedly invented by film-school classmates who were making fun of his arrogance—added to distinguish him from Europe’s countless other Triers.


Because Von Trier is very good at selling particular projects and aspects of his personality, works that don’t fit his established brand—like the excellent one-off comedy The Boss Of It All, or Medea, his loose, made-for-TV adaptation of an unproduced Carl Theodor Dreyer script—seem to slip through the cracks. That’s not quite the case with The Kingdom, a 1994 miniseries Von Trier produced for Denmark’s public broadcaster, DR; it was a critical and popular success, spawning a sequel and an American remake, Kingdom Hospital, which ran for one season on ABC. (Relocated to Maine, it tied itself to the even more well established brand of Stephen King, who developed the adaptation.) However, because The Kingdom was neither a theatrical release nor a part of any of Von Trier’s triads, it tends to get overlooked, both as an important moment in his development as a filmmaker and a superb use of serial TV as a medium.

Produced between the completion of his Europa Trilogy (the title, if not the content, of which helped establish him as an Ambitious Young Filmmaker) and the introduction of the supreme marketing coup of Dogme 95, The Kingdom frames itself as a lark. Each episode opens with the same prologue—shot in very-Von Trier slow motion, and climaxing in one of TV’s few genuinely unsettling title cards—before launching into a quintessentially ’90s credits sequence, scored to a corny, but extremely catchy (“K-K-Kingdom!”) Euro-industrial theme tune. As in the later Boss Of It All, Von Trier—who co-directed all four episodes with TV veteran Morten Arnfred—sheepishly addresses the viewer, speaking over each episode’s end credits while wearing a rumpled tuxedo.


Given this self-consciously jokey framing, The Kingdom’s sheer creepiness seems even more impressive. Set over four days at the University Of Copenhagen’s Rigshospitalet (nicknamed “Riget,” which means “kingdom” in Danish) and shot on handheld, grainy, baby-shit-brown 16mm, the series follows a group of doctors, nurses, patients, and students as they goof off, scheme, and encounter supernatural entities in the hospital’s countless creepy corridors and elevators. The graininess of security camera footage and the scuff marks on the hallway floors contribute to the texture of decay, while the color scheme suggests rot and excrement. One of the series’ indelible images—a phantom ambulance—taps, simultaneously, into fears of the night, medicine, automation, and the irrational unknown. The innate spookiness of the graveyard shift has rarely been conveyed so potently.

It’d be a disservice to The Kingdom not to point out that the series happens to be very funny, filled beginning to end with bits of black comedy, much of it relating to Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård), a relocated Swedish doctor who behaves as though Denmark were a third-world backwater. (The American remake missed a major opportunity by not making the equivalent character Canadian.) The humor punctuates, rather than punctures, the creepiness. Its more absurd gags (like the doctors’ ridiculous secret society) make for an air of unpredictability, which only further contributes to the irrational horror. The mounting dread is further strengthened by the cliffhanger episode format; viewers are advised to stretch the miniseries—which clocks in at about four-and-a-half hours—across as least two nights for maximum effect.

Availability: The Kingdom is available on several DVDs, which can be obtained through Netflix.