The Kingdom I & II
"The Kingdom Hospital rests on ancient marshland, where the bleaching ponds once lay. Here the bleachers moistened their great spans of cloth. The steam evaporating from the wet cloth shrouded the place in permanent fog. Centuries later the hospital was built here. The bleachers gave way to doctors and researchers, the best brains in the nation and the most perfect technology. To crown their work they called the hospital The Kingdom. Now life was to be charted and ignorance and superstition never to shake the bastions of science again. Perhaps their arrogance became too pronounced, and their persistent denial of the spiritual. For it is as if the cold and damp have returned. Tiny signs of fatigue are appearing in the solid, modern edifice. No living person knows it yet, but the gateway to the Kingdom is opening once again." (Opening narration.)
In the present day, hypochondriac Mrs Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes) has herself admitted and clashes with the Swedish consultant neurosurgeon Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård), a man who insists on talking in his own language despite being in Denmark. But Mrs Drusse is also a medium and she sees the ghost of a young girl, at first in the hospital lift then elsewhere. Meanwhile, Helmer is facing a negligence claim after another girl is left brain-damaged after an operation. Elsewhere in the hospital, two colleagues are having an affair and Dr Bondo (Baard Owe) has a cancerous liver transplanted into himself to secure a rare sample of a tumour he is researching. Meanwhile, a spectral ambulance holds the key to a mystery, two Down Syndrome dishwashers (Vita Jensen, Morten Rotne Leffers) act as a chorus, and nothing will ever be as it seems...
Lars Von Trier first appeared in the mid-Eighties and his late twenties with three films making up the "Europa Trilogy": The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987) and Europa (1991), three overpoweringly stylised films, more concerned with their look (mixing black and white and colour) than with the human beings it nominally concerned themselves with. In the mid-Nineties, Von Trier performed one of the great self-reinventions in world cinema, which many people first noticed with Breaking the Waves in 1996: far rougher and more spontaneous, more concerned about the emotional truth of the scene rather than whether shots edited together or sometimes were even in focus. However, much of this was anticipated two years earlier in The Kingdom (Riget), a four-part miniseries which also had cinema-showings as a four-hour feature film.
The Kingdom, co-directed by Von Trier and Morten Arnfeld, was made for DR (Danmarks Radio), the license-fee-funded Danish state broadcaster. (Fans of latterday Scandinavian drama will know DR as the broadcaster which a decade and a half later produced such hits as the original The Killing and Borgen.) The series’ look is quite distinctive. The Kingdom was shot in 16mm, mostly with handheld cameras, edited on video and returned directly to film, giving a grainy, contrasty sepia-washed look. (It probably looked even worse in a cinema, after being blown up to 35mm.) The Kingdom throws medical drama, soap. very black comedy and several horror tropes into the pot, and the result is full of weird, disturbing and often very funny touches.
Although the serial was critically successful, DR were initially resistant to make a follow-up, but The Kingdom II did indeed follow in 1997, again in four episodes, slightly longer on average than in the first series. This begins with a recap of what had gone before, and starts where it left off, with the birth of a giant mutant baby with the head of Udo Kier. A third series was written, but the death of Ernst-Hugo Järegård in 1998 put plans on hold, and to this date the final series remains unmade and is likely to continue to be so. A thirteen-part English-language version, Kingdom Hospital, developed by Stephen King, aired in 2004 but only saw one season.
Second Sight’s edition of The Kingdom I & II comprises four discs in a digipak inside a slipcase. All discs are encoded for Region 2 only.
There was a previous release of The Kingdom I from the ICA in 2002, reviewed for this site here by Jon Robertson. That release was of a different edit of the first series, into five shorter episodes instead of four longer ones. That release also omitted two out of the four episode endings where, as the credits roll, Von Trier in a tuxedo and bow tie addresses the audience. It also lost five seconds of rats being shot, at the behest of the BBFC. That cut has since been waived, and Second Sight’s DVD has the serial in its four-episode form, with all episodes complete, and likewise with the second series. Oddly, the episodes in The Kingdom I have English titles and credits, while The Kingdom II has them in Danish, though all the episodes have the original dialogue with English subtitles.
There are two episodes per disc, and they are as follows:
The Unheavenly Host (63:20)
Thy Kingdom Come (66:47)
A Foreign Body (70:26)
The Living Dead (77:03)
Mors in Tabula (62:45)
Trækfuglene [Birds of Passage] (78:30)
Although both series predate the widescreen TV era, the first is transferred on this DVD in a ratio of 14:9 (1.55:1), but not anamorphically enhanced. The Kingdom II is transferred in a ratio of 1.33:1. Given the way this series was made, it intentionally looks very rough and grainy, without much in the way of blacks. This won’t be DVD demo material by any stretch of the imagination, but it is the way this series was intended to look.
The sound mix is mono, with the original Danish and Swedish dialogue. English subtitles are optional, if your command of the two spoken languages is good enough. The sound is clear and well balanced.
Expecting a full-length commentary for nearly nine hours would be too much to ask for. Instead, on each disc we have Von Trier, co-writer Niels Vørsel and editor Molly Stengård giving short commentaries on specific scenes. These are provided on the appropriate disc for the episodes they are associated with. The participants speak in Danish, with fixed English subtitles provided. The commentaries are, in order: “The Kingdom, Krogshøj and Drusse” (6:08), “Helmer, Mona and the Dishwashers” (5:41), “The Operation and the Ghost” (6:45), “Operation Morning Breeze” (2:28), “Helmer, Moesgaad and Drusse” (4:51), “Lars Von Trier's Final Statement” (5:48), “Krogshøj, Judith and Little Brother” (10:03). “Helmer and Krogshøj's Corpse” (5:39), “Judith, Little Brother and Dr Krüger” (4:58), “The Falcon, Moesgård and the Car Accident” (8:30). Von Trier is as self-deprecating as he has been on other commentaries and he’s clear on what he sees as the flaws in the series. He also has a rather morbid tendency to point out cast members who had passed away by the time of recording.
On Disc One is a particularly substantial extra Stig Björkman's documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait Of Lars Von Trier (51:45). Given the shortish running time, this is a remarkably thorough overview of Von Trier's career up to and including Breaking The Waves, featuring interviews with people who have worked with him, on-set footage and clips from all his films to date. Tranceformer also featured on the 2002 ICA DVD referred to above and the Criterion release of The Element of Crime. An extract featured on Artificial Eye’s release of Breaking the Waves, though the documentary is complete on the present release.
On Disc Two is another short documentary, In Lars Von Trier's Kingdom (39:52). This Danish-made piece is mostly based on an interview with Von Trier and overlaps somewhat with Tranceformer as it describes his career up to and including The Idiots. There are clips from all Von Trier's cinema features and from The Kingdom. There are fixed English subtitles, and Danish ones translating English-language dialogue in film extracts.
Also on this disc are what are billed as “Outrageous Newspaper Commercials” (4:41), directed by Von Trier, using some of the cast members of The Kingdom. They do live up to their name, being distinctly unsafe for viewing at work.