The Kingdom (1994-1997)
Throughout the 1994 horror miniseries, The Kingdom, Lars Von Trier constructs a masterful satire of the Danish medical establishment, which exposes humanity’s inherent hubris and flawed rationality. Foreshadowing Von Trier’s embrace of restrained filmmaking in his 1995 manifesto, “Dogme 95,” the series operates within a closed, disciplined framework. In correlation to the manifesto, the series is shot handheld, entirely on location with naturalistic lighting, while the plot is set in present day and its supernatural effects are minimal. Furthermore, Von Trier maneuvers within and exploits a series of genre tropes. Paradoxically, Dogme 95 forbids genre films; however, the subversion of genre in The Kingdom exposes these conventions’ ultimate superficialities, while providing an engaging, playful rubric, through which Von Trier can reveal his otherwise overwhelmingly bleak theses. Thus, the series’ exploitation of genre ultimately reflects the innate motive of Dogme style filmmaking in that Von Trier imposes the restrictive structure of formulated television onto himself, and paradoxically, these limiting tropes prove effective evils to expose truths and to achieve pure cinema.
The Kingdom borrows from a variety of television and film archetypes—primarily from the medical drama, the crime show, and the classic horror film. The structure of the show stems from what appears to be a conventional melodrama within the typical confines of a renowned hospital, rife with love interests and workplace politics, juxtaposed with a supernatural crime mystery, in which a patient unearths the dark history of the hospital. Von Trier borrows from medical shows like General Hospital in his emphasis on melodrama and characters, while the visual style of the series is reminiscent of the crime thriller in its aggressive cutting style and documentarylike camerawork. The show further relies on universal television tropes such as the cliffhanger ending and the catchphrase—most notably, “Danish scum,” uttered every episode by the cantankerous Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård). The series even pays an absurd homage to the foundation of the horror genre in that each episode is bookended with a prologue and epilogue. Each episode begins with an expressive, prolonged introduction articulating the dark origins of the Kingdom Hospital—an allusion to the pure horror film—before abruptly jumping into an awkward 90s style television opening, theme song and everything. Moreover, after each episode’s cliffhanger ending, a tuxedoed Von Trier, in a deliberately Hitchcockian fashion, addresses the viewer directly, cheekily recounting the episode’s flair and further agitating the viewer by emphasizing his cliffhanger and the open-ended nature of his storytelling. The collision of these diverse filmic and episodic tropes and their contradictory functions and agendas mirrors the series’ innate conflict—the clash between rational and irrational reasoning, the scientific and the spiritual. Just as Von Trier emphasizes the show’s incongruent structure in its divided interest in the humdrum of hospital life and in the quest to connect with the supernatural, The Kingdom presents the two extremes of human thought. While the technologically sophisticated hospital is said to stand for humanity’s great achievements and rational superiority, Sigrid Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes) and her desire to connect with ghosts presents humanity’s history of superstition and spirituality. The Kingdom; however, deliberately defies contemporary thought, and through genre, it exposes the inadequacy and illusion of the rational, while surprisingly upholding the importance of the spiritual. Medical innovation and sophistication stands as the embodiment of man’s hubris, in its belief that technology and research can defy death; however, Von Trier exposes the absurdity of the notion that humanity can truly be rational and achieve this lofty position over mortality.
These elite doctors and this mega-hospital are instead presented as inept, selfish, and above all—irrational. Rather than rationality and discipline, petty disputes and egotism dictate the drive of the hospital. The head of the hospital, Einar Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen), is presented as a buffoon. His workplace synergy policy, Operation Moring Breeze, is as meaningless as its title—his subordinates respect the chief as little as they do his absurd policy. This authority figure even hides like a child when his superiors come to review his medical wing. Furthermore, the surgeon, Helmer, is overly prejudiced against his Danish colleagues and patients, and puts his own career ahead of his integrity in his deliberate attempts to cover up his mistakes—despite their tragic consequences. Helmer; however, is presented as far more than self-serving, despite his high position, he is powerless. Every episode he takes absurd precautions to protect his car—even removing and carrying in his hubcaps into the office; however, without fail, his car is destroyed over and over despite his great efforts. Furthermore, this man of science resorts to Voodoo magic to save his failing career. Even the shows lone, seemingly levelheaded character, Jorgen “Hook” Krogshoj (Soren Pilmark), blackmails his coworkers and lives in the basement of the hospital. The ineptitude of this supposedly elite example of human sophistication is epitomized in a scene where a doctor exclaims that the pledge of the bizarre, underground surgeon fraternity supersedes the Hippocratic oath. Thus, Von Trier exposes that in reality, irrational thought dictates human institutions, and the filmmaker outright mocks the shortcomings of bureaucracy. All of the doctor characters are clueless to the blatant supernatural presence around them, yet two dishwashers, who have Down syndrome, are omniscient about everything that is occurring in the institution. Through this subversion of genre, Von Trier is able to expose the true horror of “human rationality.” Drusse’s ghost turns out to be a child who was deliberately murdered by a doctor for selfish reasons, while in the present Helmer attempts to cover-up his own crime. Von Trier; however, repeatedly confronts the viewer with the show’s most haunting image of Helmer’s brain-dead, child patient. The supernatural haunting of the Kingdom Hospital is not caused by some invading demon, but is instead, rooted in the innate evil and irrational selfishness of the past and current Kingdom doctors.