Lost in the Movies: The Kingdom - "The Living Dead" (episode 4)

The Kingdom - "The Living Dead" (episode 4)

Welcome to my viewing diary for the two-season Danish miniseries The Kingdom. Every day (except Saturday) I will offer a short review of another episode. I have never seen this series before so there will be NO spoilers.

Story (aired on December 15, 1994/written by Tómas Gislason, Niels Vorsel & Lars von Trier; directed by Morten Arnfred & Lars von Trier): Helmer is in a wonderful mood! He grins at the young hooligans who eye his car every morning when he parks outside the hospital; as always, he removes his hubcaps but this time he hands them over to the young men directly. He laughs, embraces, and beams his way through the hallways, elevators, and offices of his workplace on what he's certain will be his last day. After all, "Dr. Hook" has discovered his secret, and by now the anesthesiologist's report has surely been exposed. Of course, it isn't. As always, Jørgen would rather blackmail than destroy and he's intent to hold Helmer's impropriety over his head. Helmer has other ideas, recruiting a Haitian employee of the hospital to accompany him to the Carribean where they will track down a posion that turns people into zombies, something Helmer learned from Rigmor's book about the secrets of voodoo. Elsewhere in the Kingdom, another book about ancient rites becomes relevant...Sigrid convinces the hospital priest (Nis Bank-Mikkelsen) to open an old tome on exorcism. Despite burying Mary's tubed cadaver beneath the pavement out front, the girl's spirit continues to haunt the hospital.

With the help of Jørgen, the Drussers perform the requisite rite but also testify that Mary's killer was the doctor Age Krüger (Udo Kier), who was also - unbeknownst to all but Mary's mother - the father of the little girl (information delivered in a vision to Sigrid in the hospital basement). The trio force the little girl into the wall which they then brick back up, in the midst of a blackout and a catastrophic tour of the hospital by a Parliamentary delegation. Apparently they left the hole open too long because the end of the episode sees an outpouring of spirits...as well as something more catastrophic. Judith's pregnancy is growing more and more ominous following her ultrasound. Jørgen and others (including even the ghost of Mary herself) convince her to get an abortion; not only is her fetus developing way too fast (supposedly only three months pregnant, she is sporting a massive belly by the episode's end), the photo booth snapshots of her absent lover reveal that he is apparently a ghost. In fact, he's not just any ghost, by the diabolical Krüger himself. Judith's decision is framed as a poignant one, something that's best for her but also for the baby whom we're encouraged to pity. And then...in a scene straight out of Alien the flesh of her stomach is poked outward by the writhing being within and as something explodes violently through her birth canal and onto the operating table it isn't a fetus at all but a grown man, soaked in blood and gasping for air -- Krüger himself.

My Response:
That I was not expecting. Watching the opening credits for the fourth time I found myself wondering if the always-slimy Udo Kier would show up in anything other than the occasional flashback. I guess I should have known, but von Trier plays his cards in wily fashion for the preceding hour, leading us to believe that the episode will be eccentric but harmless for the most part, conventional at least as far as The Kingdom is considered. If anything, I was a little disappointed by how timid much of the finale seemed up to that point. The exorcism, despite its bemusing use of sports gear, is fairly (and literally) by the book - indeed, Mary's entire subplot, after so much teasing mystery, follows a fairly cliched format which even Sigrid acknowledges while recounting its details. Moesgaard's discomfort is amusing as he shows the officials around his haphazard domain (encountering a liver transplant for "A. Seltzer" in the neurological ward, ectoplasm-soaked patients digging into a basement wall, and a doctor fucking a patient in the sleep study center). However, the whole ripe situation seems surprisingly sedate and underplayed. Helmer's Haitian sojourn, meanwhile, is occasionally worth a chuckle - the wild geographical shift in such an otherwise concentrated show is kind of delightful. But its vintage 1994 self-consciously "politically incorrect" racist gags earn little more than groans (these include cheap eye-rolling at Vodun culture and an out-of-nowhere "black penises are big" bit in a bathroom which causes Helmer to gratuitously slap around his much-abused consort).

Back at the hospital, Rigmor's jealous overreaction to Helmer's impromptu departure is initially hilarious in a very von Trier cruel fashion (Helmer has her cover her eyes to await a "surprise" as he sneaks away and hops a cab outside, heading halfway across the world). But it too grows arch and over-the-top as Rigmor waves a pistol around and plays target practice on a bunch of lab rats in the basement. I don't want to sound too critical; for the most part I enjoyed this episode, as I have the rest, but at times it seemed like after all the anticipatory build-up there really wasn't much place to go. As people have sometimes alleged (with mixed accuracy) about Twin Peaks, mystery is usually much more enticing than payoff. Then came that ending. The brilliant conceit is so simultaneously ludicrous and horrific that it reminded me of some of von Trier's most powerful work in The Five Obstructions, Dogville, and especially the gynecological body horror of Antichrist. Where will this lead? Von Trier has a reputation for misogyny both on and offscreen (most notably, Bjork recently revealed that he sexually harassed her on Dancer in the Dark - though she didn't name him directly, it was not hard to deduce which "Danish director" she was speaking of, as she's only ever made one film). Onscreen (except I felt, probably uncoincidentally, in Dancer) this quality is often balanced by von Trier's brutal honesty, both exposing his own outlook and empathizing with his characters' suffering; he's at once implicated with the powerful and identified with the powerless.

How this plays out in season two will have much to do with where Judith ends up; was she killed by this very violent birth, or will she continue as a character, allowed to struggle with and act against what has happened? Her trauma could be in keeping with von Trier's fascination with female martyrs who echo Biblical archetypes. Certainly, she has the potential to be an anti-Mary (meaning Jesus' mom, not the Kingdom ghost girl, though maybe there's a connection there too), an earthly vessel for a kind of antichrist. Or will she somehow echo her own Old Testament namesake, the clever warrior who beheaded a tyrant? Danish audiences had to wait three years to find out in the mid-nineties, but we'll be pursuing these question tomorrow.

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