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A Guide to the Most Wonderfully Weird Show on TV

Lars von Trier likes to tell stories in trilogies. Those who know the director—as much as one could know or understand the Danish provocateur/auteur/saboteur of good taste—know him mainly from the feature films which drove him to international success:

Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, and Dancer in the Dark, collectively known as the Golden Hearts trilogy; and later Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac, cheerily nicknamed the Depression trilogy.

But, before any of these, when von Trier was still attempting to break free of the Danish cinema mold (with the beginnings of his strict filmmaking manifesto Dogme 95 still brewing in his head), he wrote and directed the supernatural hospital drama The Kingdom, which, after 27 years, is finally concluding with the five-episode season The Kingdom: Exodus.

In 1992, after establishing himself and his art in his home country, von Trier and his producing partner Peter Aalbæk Jensen founded the production company Zentropa, named after the fictional railway line in von Trier’s 1991 psychological drama Europa. To make some money for the newly minted company, von Trier opted to create and direct a television miniseries, The Kingdom, which was broadcast in 1994 on Danish channel DR. A follow-up season, The Kingdom II, debuted in 1997.

The show is set in the Danish national hospital Rigshospitalet, colloquially known as Riget (“realm” or “kingdom”), a hospital for specialized medicine and unusual medical conditions, whose staff are as peculiar as the diseases they treat. Each episode of the show begins with a prologue describing how the hospital was built over a site known as the “bleaching ponds” which contain within them some supernatural evil threatening to bubble up to the surface.

The first two seasons follow Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård), a crabby Swedish neurosurgeon obsessed with proving the intellectual supremacy of Sweden over the dullard Danes he’s forced to work with. He’s preoccupied with fleeing the legal repercussions of a botched surgery that left a young girl, Mona, in a barely conscious state. Meanwhile, Sigrid Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), a hypochondriac medium who keeps showing up at the hospital claiming she can hear voices in the elevator, hounds Helmer and the staff while searching for the source of the voices, unraveling a horrifying mystery from the hospital’s past.

Elsewhere in the hospital, a medical student becomes obsessed with an older nurse in charge of Riget’s sleep studies, a ghost ambulance haunts the highways around the campus at night, another doctor collects extra expired medication in a lab in his basement, and another resident is impregnated by a ghost—and gives birth to a rapidly growing and horrifyingly deformed child. (Both the ghost and the child are played by Udo Kier.) Every beat of the action is watched and commented upon by a Greek chorus of dishwashers with Down syndrome, whose poetic and prophetic dialogue connect the happenings above with the battle of good vs. evil down below.

Each episode ends on a horror-tinged cliffhanger, and the finale of the second season ends on the biggest one of all: Drusse discovers a cult of tumor-obsessed doctors who reside in the hospital and falls 50-plus floors deep into the ground. Meanwhile, Helmer attempts to banish Mona to some sort of netherworld. Von Trier had plans for a third season, which never came to fruition after both Järegård and Rolffes, his main stars, died in 1998 and 2000, respectively.

While the series is not as well-known overseas as his films, shades of The Kingdom popped up on American television not once, but twice. In 2001, UPN broadcast the short-lived hospital anthology/procedural All Souls, which took inspiration from The Kingdom in its main premise: a haunted teaching hospital with a dark past (in this case, the American Civil War) becomes the unwitting battleground of near-Biblical forces. In a fun coincidence, one of the producers of All Souls was Mark Frost, co-creator of Twin Peaks, which von Trier was heavily influenced by for The Kingdom.

The other, perhaps slightly more well-known, is Kingdom Hospital, a 2004 miniseries directly adapted from The Kingdom by none other than Stephen King. The show hews closely to many aspects of von Trier’s show: a cruel brain surgeon fleeing his greatest mistake, an elderly lady who can see ghosts, a young medical resident with a crush on an older female sleep nurse, a secret society, and a hospital built upon the site of some grave sin.

King makes a few additions here and there: the hospital dog from The Kingdom becomes a spectral anteater with sharp teeth, who ushers spirits from the world of the living to a sort of basement purgatory. An additional character, a comatose painter hospitalized after being hit by a car, can communicate with the hospital’s ghosts on the astral plane. Neither of these shows had a large viewership, and both were canceled after a single season. (Kingdom Hospital, though, is well worth a watch.)

Lars von Trier’s creation lives on in a final conclusive season, broadcast on DR and on Mubi in America as The Kingdom: Exodus. The director didn’t spend too much time revisiting the earlier episodes, preferring to focus on the new story he wanted to tell, and Exodus is indeed something of a departure from the first two seasons—with a more metatextual take on the ideas of the show before diving back into all the weird stuff.

The Drusse character arrives in the form of Karen Svensson (​​Bodil Jørgensen) an elderly sleepwalker who believes the events of a Lars von Trier TV show from the ’90s to be real (ha-ha), and the absence of the original Dr. Helmer is remedied by the arrival of his son, Helmer Jr. (Mikael Persbrandt), whose fear of politically incorrect improprieties swiftly lands him in hot water. Both of the omniscient dishwashers have been replaced by new actors, one of which is a talking robot.

Unlike the first two seasons of the show, von Trier’s end credits monologues in Exodus are delivered from behind a curtain. The director was unknowingly suffering from the beginnings of Parkinson’s disease, a diagnosis he announced this year, while he was filming the show, and told reporters at the Venice Film Festival that he had “a rotten time.” Instead, during his monologues the camera focuses on an Advent wreath hanging in front of the ever present red curtain, at the bottom of which you can see, presumably, the toes of von Trier’s shoes.

After each episode, another of the four candles on the wreath is lit, signifying in no uncertain terms the Biblical nature of the story von Trier is attempting to tell, substituting hospital orderlies and sickened inmates for gods and monsters, reminding us, as always, the importance of taking the good with the evil.


November 2022