Koch Lorber // 1994 // 291 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // January 11th, 2006
No living thing knows it yet, but the gateway to the Kingdom is opening again.
In 1994, Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark), co-founder of the Dogme 95 movement and aggressive critic of America, created Kingdom, a four-part miniseries for Danish TV. In 1996, the four episodes that comprise the mini-series were strung together into a four and a half hour movie that received limited release in American cinemas. Due to near unanimous critical acclaim, as well as von Trier's burgeoning reputation as an esoteric genius, Koch Lorber recently released Kingdom in the segmented, Danish-television version.
The mini-series takes place in a state-run Danish hospital -- nicknamed The Kingdom due to its enormous size. The hospital staff is an unimpressive bunch: Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen) is an oblivious and incompetent director; Stig (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard), head neurosurgeon, is an arrogant, uptight Swede who has a near pathological contempt for his placid Danish co-workers; Hook (Soren Pulmark) may be one of the few competent doctors on staff, though he also hordes mood elevating medication in his apartment and keeps a severed head in his refrigerator. He is also dating a fellow doctor whom he suspects is a ghost.
You see, Kingdom Hospital happens built on top of a "bleaching pool." I do not know what a bleaching pool is, but judging from the show's visual depiction, it was not a very pleasant place. In addition, building on a bleaching pool apparently violates some sort of otherworldly etiquette. As a result of the intransigence, Kingdom Hospital is now haunted.
Old Mrs. Drusse (Kristen Rolffes), one of the hospital's regular patients (she has been admitted over 25 times despite persistent good health), is certain that she has made contact with a young female ghost in the hospital's elevator shafts. While she trolls through the bowels of the building in search of supernatural life, the doctors work feverously above her to retain the semblance of a fully functioning health care facility.
Kingdom aired on Danish television in 1994. The following year, von Trier collaborated with three other Scandinavian filmmakers to create Dogme 95, a movement that promotes simplicity in filmmaking. There are 10 rules (collectively known as the "Vow of Chastity") that a Dogme 95 film must adhere to. Some of the more prominent rules (restrictions might be a more apt word) call for the absence of unnatural sound (no sound effects or overdubbed music) and the restriction of all camera work that is not handheld. Though Kingdom was produced before von Trier developed the Dogme 95 strictures, the movement's minimalist philosophy is clearly reflected in its production. Poor lighting, shaky camera work, and natural sound all serve to set a tense, claustrophobic mood that is actually one of the series' great assets.
The purpose of Dogme 95 is to eliminate props, soundtracks, and other post-production gimmicks that distract audiences from the actual story and performance of the actors. The strong storylines and superior acting in Kingdom make the series a superb showcase for Dogme-style aesthetics. In fact, Kingdom is generally least effective in the scenes that require special effects. Though the mini-series was produced in the not-too-distant past, its effects are only on par with those of a modern high school AV class production. Von Trier's ill-advised use of the then nascent green screen technology (in which a character is superimposed over his dreams) is particularly ineffective. It is so poorly executed that the gaggle of zombies eating a man's arm ends up being unintentionally hilarious.
Kingdom's strongest plots do not even involve the supernatural. Stig (who is by far the show's strongest character) and his subplots involving possible medical malpractice and an initiation into a sort of Danish Stonecutters society are humorous, unnerving and almost entirely self-contained from Mrs. Drusse's search for ghosts. Jaregard's cantankerous portrayal of Stig is pitch perfect and actually made him a star in Denmark, despite his character's obsessive hatred for the Danes. In addition, there are several other entertaining subplots that are odd, but entirely terrestrial: an overzealous student presents a nurse with the head of a cadaver as a symbol of his affection; a doctor transplants a tumor-ridden liver into his own body so that the tumors may grow and therefore, be easier to study; Hook cunningly exploiting the hospital's bureaucratic waste for his own gain. Von Trier ensures that the mundane goings-on in the Kingdom are abnormal enough that Mrs. Drusse's ghost hunt never seems discordant with the rest of the action; still, her subplot fails to compel like the rest of the series.
Despite uneven storylines, and the dodgy special effects, as a whole, Kingdom is worth watching. It has an appealingly distinct style and, for a low-budget television drama, is admirably ambitious. As this collection retains the format of the show that was originally broadcast on Danish television, at the end of each episode a sweaty Lars von Trier makes an appearance over the end credits. He grins in clear self-satisfaction, and implores the audience to tune in for the following episode. While watching the series, it may be hard to resist his urgings.
There are quite a few problems with Koch Lorber's DVD presentation of Kingdom. Though the series was shot on video and often used unflattering lighting, I still wonder whether this fuzzy picture was the best they could do. In addition, there are several times after a cut where the picture momentarily pixilates before returning back to normal. In addition, about halfway through the third episode (on the second DVD) the picture again pixilates then cuts for a few minutes to a scene from the first episode. After checking some internet message boards I have found that this is a problem that is consistent on all DVD copies.
The extras on the DVD are unremarkable as well. I was quite anxious to listen to von Trier's commentary but unfortunately it seems to be in Danish and Fox Lorber does provide English subtitles. There are also nine commercials von Trier produced for a Danish newspaper. Eight of the nine are of the actor Ernst-Hugo Jaregard (who plays Stig) ranting while waiving a copy of the paper. The other commercial is actually quite amusing, but be warned: it contains graphic full frontal nudity. Don't be scrounging through Kingdom's extras with your kids in the room.
Though the series is not always well served by its supernatural storylines, it does end with a few otherworldly cliffhangers that made me hope Fox Lorber (or somebody) releases Kingdom II on DVD soon.
Lars von Trier had originally planned to produce three seasons of Kingdom. Unfortunately, Ernst-Hugo Jaregard died not long after production wrapped on the second season. Kristen Rolffes, who played Mrs. Drusse, died in 2000. Without these two actors, it is very unlikely a third season will ever be made.
Kingdom is an odd little mini-series. Belying the DVD's exceptionally creepy art, the show lacks many frights, and actually works much better as a cynical comedy than a ghost story.
Koch Lorber's not talking its way out of this. Guilty. Kingdom is free to go.
Review content copyright © 2006 Brendan Babish; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Danish)
Running Time: 291 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Behind the Scenes Footage
* Selected Commentary by Lars von Trier
* Misc. TV Spots Directed by Lars von Trier