Lost in the Movies: The Kingdom - "Unheavenly Hosts" (episode 1)

The Kingdom - "Unheavenly Hosts" (episode 1)

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 November 24, 1994/written by Tómas Gislason, Niels Vorsel & Lars von Trier; directed by Morten Arnfred & Lars von Trier): Stig Helmer (Ernst Hugo Järegård) arrives at Kingdom Hospital as our guide into this strange universe. He is a visiting neurosurgeon from Sweden, aggressively curt, sarcastic, and grouchy. He is also deeply skeptical of any supernatural mumbojumbo or eccentric behavior, and the hospital is filled to the brim with both. An old woman named Sigrid Drusse (Kristen Rolffes), a hypochondriac and/or opportunistic spiritualist, keeps checking in to investigate the ghost of a little girl (Annevig Schelde Ebbe) that appears to be haunting an elevator shaft. Head of the hospital Einer Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen) initiates Helmer into a secret society in the building's basement, where a customary ritual results in a bloody, and comical, wound to Helmer's nose. Morten "Mogge" Moesgaard (Peter Mygind), the boss' ne'er-do-well but highly-touted son, plays pranks on co-workers, culminating with the beheading of a cadaver to (in vain) spook Camilla (Solbjørg Højfeldt), for whom he proclaims a passionate, even suicidal love. These are just a few of the oddballs careening around the narrow hallways and dimly-lit rooms of the looming concrete-block building. Helmer himself is no calm center of the storm - he's a supremely nasty man and (is this a real thing?) an anti-Danish bigot who stands on the roof of the hospital and stares longingly at a nuclear plant with some connection to his home country. As he voices a paeon to Swedish power, the street below him begins to crack open, as if the hospital is violently reacting to his presence. People react violently to Helmer as well; the mother (Mette Munk Plum) of Mona (Laura Christensen), a child whom Helmer operated on (resulting in her current vegetative state) blames him for botching the brain surgery. Helmer angrily accuses her of libel; he's defensive about this case among other doctors too, especially when someone mentions that it may go up before a Medical Review Board. Outside of these narrative events, a larger mythology is suggested. The opening credits inform us that the building was constructed on top of a toxic marshland where medieval peasants bleached cloth; throughout the show two dishwashers with Down's Syndrome (Vita Jensen and Morten Rotne Leffers) inexplicably chat about everything happening in the surrounding hospital (beyond even what the other characters themselves could know); and the closing credits feature an appearance by a young, cheerful Lars von Trier himself - obviously calling back to the horror hosts of yore, standing before a red curtain and smiling as he warns us of the chilling experiences to come. That particular image quite explicitly evokes Twin Peaks, while the opening title, shattered by a cascade of blood pushing behind it, directly references The Shining. However, the strongest stylistic influence on The Kingdom may be Homicide: Life on the Street (1993 - 99), a contemporary U.S. crime show. Von Trier has claimed it as a key precedent not only for this show but for the stridently handheld, bleary video look of the Dogme 95 movement he would found the following year.

My Response:
Though I've seen several of his later films (to date: Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, The Five Obstructions, Dogville, Antichrist, and Melancholia), I'm still completely unfamiliar with von Trier's earlier work - so I wasn't sure what "look" to expect from The Kingdom. I had heard that these films were more formally polished (like those short, striking sequences in many of his raw video films, only stretched out over a full feature) so I was surprised to see how much The Kingdom fit that Dogme look. I was particularly startled by the smash-cut from the eerie opening to the aggressively nineties hyperactive cast credits, with distorted text, rapid cutting, stretched-out images and loud music. In fact, this took some getting used to; combined with the fact that I had to split my viewing over several days, it was initially hard for me to follow the story, keep track of the characters, and immerse myself in the environment. By the end of the episode, however, I was fully engaged; I'm not sure if I just adjusted to the camerawork or if it actually became more controlled, but I even began to find the visual presentation more impressive. I don't know the behind-the-scenes story of The Kingdom's making and am hesitant to research too much - even looking up actor's names yielded some hints and vague spoilers for upcoming episodes (all of the summaries refer to the entire show rather than proceeding episode-by-episode). So I don't know what parts of each episode von Trier's co-writers and co-director handled, but what's onscreen is certainly suffused with his particular sensibility: the arch, absurdist humor that treats grotesque scenarios with unblinking amusement; the mocking yet sympathetic take on hyper-rational intellectualism; the fusion of a gothic, romantic outlook with the grungy details of modernity. What's fascinating is how these auteurist concerns are laid out over a televisual template. Each character has a little arc, with payoff near the end of the episode, while other elements are planted to pay off in a more serialized fashion. A hospital, where brilliant doctors and advanced technology battle against all manner of accidents and diseases, is the perfect location to play out Von Trier's deep interest in both chaos and order...hostile, clashing strains of reality that are paradoxically intertwined in his work.

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