1994 was a time of change for a Danish filmmaker who had yet to become a European household name. Lars von Trier had made a few arthouse films that gained attention, especially Europa (1991), which had an international cast of actors like Barbara Sukowa, Max von Sydow and Udo Kier. In 1992, von Trier had started Zentropa together with producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen, a production company meant to give the director greater creative control. Apart from making money from erotic films, Zentropa also agreed to make a TV series for Danish television, which is how von Trier came to write The Kingdom, a strange series that brought him worldwide attention before making his most famous films.
Built on the “bleaching ponds”
”The Kingdom” was a nickname for Rigshospitalet, Denmark’s greatest hospital, a huge building in Copenhagen erected on the site of the ”bleaching ponds”, a place where the spirits are frequently trying to make contact with people who work above them. We were introduced to a rich cast of characters, including Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård), a prominent Swedish neurosurgeon who hated being in Denmark. Spending most of his time insulting colleagues, Stig Helmer also tried to hide evidence of having botched a surgery that left a young girl permanently brain damaged.
There was also Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen), Stig Helmer’s inept superior who was always trying to create a friendlier atmosphere at the hospital; the younger doctor Krogshøj (Søren Pilmark), a wheeler-dealer who actually lived in the basement of ”The Kingdom” even though few people knew; and Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), an elderly patient who realized that supernatural powers were making themselves known from below. Two dish washers (Vita Jensen, Morten Rotne Leffers) at the hospital with Down syndrome provided running commentary throughout the series, perhaps more aware of what was going on than anyone else.
Getting increasingly crazier
At the premiere of the first season, there were people who made comparisons with both Twin Peaks and ER, the first example being more relevant. Von Trier always was a huge fan of David Lynch and The Kingdom is true to that filmmaker in many ways – there are supernatural elements, many characters whose stories could go in wildly different directions, a mystery that really doesn’t need to get solved, and a quirky sense of humor. Rigshospitalet is a Danish Twin Peaks, the location that ties all this weirdness together.
The show began in a somewhat controlled fashion, but soon got increasingly crazier. The first season ended with the birth of Little Brother, an absurd creature played by Udo Kier whose head was seen on top of a mountain of prosthetics; he was connected to what you might call the ”Killer Bob” of The Kingdom, a spirit who was also played by Kier. A tragic mother-son relationship played out between Little Brother and the woman who gave birth to him. There was also voodoo… and an attempt by Stig Helmer to poison Krogshøj (resulting in a hilarious, brilliant sequence where his poisoned coffee cup gets mixed up during a chaotic staff meeting). Let’s just say this was an incredibly uneven experience, at its best in the first season.
Both a precursor to and opposite of von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s famous Dogma manifest the following year, The Kingdom deliberately looks trashy. Above all it has a magnificently hostile and juicy performance by Järegård who gets all the best lines.
The Kingdom 1994-1997:Denmark. Made for TV. 8 episodes. Color. Created by Lars von Trier. Directed by Lars von Trier, Morten Arnfred. Theme: Joachim Holbeck. Cast: Ernst-Hugo Järegård (Stig Helmer), Kirsten Rolffes (Sigrid Drusse), Holger Juul Hansen (Einar Moesgaard), Søren Pilmark, Ghita Nørby, Jens Okking, Otto Brandenburg, Baard Owe, Birgitte Raaberg, Peter Mygind, Vita Jensen, Morten Rotne Leffers, Udo Kier.
Trivia: Original title: Riget. The first season was released as a feature film in the U.S. and Britain. Stellan Skarsgård makes an appearance in the second season. Later an American TV series, Kingdom Hospital (2004).
Last word: “Ghosts… I believe in them. Or I hope for them, I should say. We did some research in connection with the script and talked to people who know about the occult. We merely had the problem that we’d got too close, in that there seem to be spirits around us all the time. All they want is for somebody to be aware of them. The moment you are, they queue up to talk to you. It soon turned out that anyone more open-minded had lots of spiritual experiences in connection with shooting and completing the film. Some sound recordists quit the film because of the spirits present.” (Von Trier, TCM)