Review: Lars von Trier’s TV Miniseries The Kingdom Trilogy on MUBI Blu-ray

Von Trier’s miniseries plays like the unholy love child of St. Elsewhere and Twin Peaks.

The KingdomComprising 1994’s The Kingdom, 1997’s The Kingdom II, and 2022’s much belated The Kingdom: Exodus, Lars von Trier’s television miniseries trilogy plays like the unholy love child of St. Elsewhere and Twin Peaks, the latter an acknowledged influence on the director. The trilogy works brilliantly as a blackly comic piss take on running a hospital, with all its attendant frustrations and absurdities, as well as a blast of surreal weirdness that seeks to expose the dark underbelly of its titular locale.

But the parallels between The Kingdom series and its forebears are even more specific. The final episode of Exodus dramatically hinges on a snow globe containing a miniature of the hospital, just as St. Elsewhere famously ended on a similar image. As with Twin Peaks: The Return, over two decades passed between the second and third season of The Kingdom, allowing for some intriguing narrative resets and retakes.

The Kingdom’s opening sequence contrasts the medieval quagmire of bleaching ponds that once existed where the Kingdom hospital now stands, depicting them as emblematic of superstition and science, respectively. But this monument to modern medicine sits atop shaky foundations: The return of the (barely) repressed is represented in the credits by a disembodied hand thrusting up out of the uneasy earth. The supernatural superstructure of the first season hinges on the admission of Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), a psychic medium who soon finds the spirit of a young girl, Mary (Annevig Schelde Ebbe), calling out to her for help.

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Von Trier and co-writers Niels Vrsel and Tómas Gislason sow the seeds of various plot developments in an intricate latticework that often only pay off several episodes later. These storylines include disquieting sleep studies, the black marketeering of medical supplies, a gladhanding secret society known as the Sons of the Kingdom, and the machinations of a diabolical figure played by von Trier mainstay Udo Kier. The various threads all culminate in a sequence of remarkable comic brio that ends the first season, wherein a tour by hospital bigwigs goes awry in true Murphy’s law fashion. But von Trier chooses not to go out on an entirely comic note, but rather on a gonzo bit of grotesquerie: the indelible image of nurse Judith Petersen (Birgitte Raaberg) seemingly giving birth to a full-grown man (Kier).

The Kingdom II picks up soon after these events, immediately ramping up both the horror and the humor. Like a metaphysical Miss Marple, Mrs. Drusse is off on another paranormal quest, and there’s a hooded sect of satanists casting spells in the bowels of the Kingdom hospital. The hijinks involve Dr. Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Jregrd) and his Haitian voodoo potion, not to mention Dr. Bondo (Baard Owe), who’s so obsessed with researching a rare kind of cancerous tumor that he has a diseased liver transplanted into his own body. But beneath all that, there’s the unexpectedly affecting tragedy of Little Brother (Kier), Judith Petersen’s doomed offspring, whose rapid growth soon outpaces his skeletal development.

While the first season concludes largely in comedic mode, The Kingdom II ends its multiple storylines with betrayal, blackmail, and sudden death. Like the second season finale of Twin Peaks, the ending of The Kingdom II leaves as many questions raised as it does answered. And for a long while, it looked as though answers might never be forthcoming, especially after the passing of lead actors Ernst-Hugo Jregrd and Kirsten Rolffes. But Exodus actually provides satisfying resolutions for many of the dangling plotlines.

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Exodus opens in surprisingly meta mode, with Karen Svensson (Bodil Jrgensen) watching the final episode of The Kingdom II, which she sardonically writes off as sloppy and somewhat dumb. Later that night, she sleepwalks her way over to the admissions desk of the Kingdom hospital. Von Trier engages in a little aesthetic legerdemain, shooting the opening sequence in a vividly hued 2.35:1 Scope frame, which only reverts to the anticipated sepia-tinged 1.85:1 widescreen when Karen enters the hospital’s revolving doors. Later, von Trier doubles down on the cheeky self-referentiality, when we glimpse a hospital tour being conducted by a guide who helpfully points out various points of interest from the original TV shows.

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Exodus could just as easily have been called The Kingdom: The Next Generation. Karen quickly assumes the role of the new Mrs. Drusse, assisted by an orderly (Nicolas Bro) nicknamed Bulder (after Mrs. Drusse’s son in the first two seasons). We also meet Stig Helmer Jr. (Mikael Persbrandt), a determinedly “woke” attending surgeon whose scorn for Denmark matches—or perhaps even surpasses—that of his father. Von Trier’s scattershot potshots at political correctness comprise pretty low-hanging fruit at this point, though they do lead to some admittedly fun gags later in the series. An ongoing sex harassment case against Helmer Jr. also tweaks certain allegations made against von Trier himself.

The cast consists of faces both old and new. Most conspicuously, Kier returns as Big Brother, who’s depicted as a giant head submerged up to his nose in a pond of despond filled with his own tears. Frequent von Trier collaborator Willem Dafoe turns up as an emissary from hell, and disguised as a hospital employee, for some suitably satanic shenanigans. And in the series’s final moments, von Trier himself arrives via helicopter to play no less a personage than Satan himself, in a bit of stunt casting that many folks will probably find more than a little ironic.

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Exodus seemingly revels in the most downbeat ending of all three seasons, a truly apocalyptic finale that rivals the conclusion of Melancholia, leaving little wiggle room for future developments. If the nihilistic final moments suggest anything in the way of a tidily wrapped moral lesson, it’s to keep your nose out of matters that “passeth all understanding,” to quote the Good Book. The condign judgment reserved for the main character resembles the one that awaits the eponymous lead of The House That Jack Built, though admittedly it seems far less deserved in this case. At any rate, von Trier’s The Kingdom Trilogy is a prime example of what happens when you let a slightly mad cineaste iconoclast loose in a TV studio.

Image/Sound

MUBI has given the first two parts of The Kingdom Trilogy a brand new restoration, sourced from the original 16mm film negatives, that looks far sharper and richer than the images on Koch Lorber’s DVDs of The Kingdom and The Kingdom II from 2005 and 2008, respectively. (What’s more, the image from the first two seasons is now framed in 16:9 widescreen.) Colors are brighter, including that omnipresent sepia hue, and black levels deeper. There’s still a lot of grain evident throughout, especially in low light settings, but there’s a definite uptick in the clarity of fine details. Audio comes in Swedish/Danish 5.1 surround or 2.0 mono, where the former nicely opens up the more active (in this case more chaotic) portions of the sound design.

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Extras

MUBI carries over the extras from the earlier DVDs, including a BTS profile that includes talking-head contributions from Lars von Trier, a few of the cast and crew, and, most surprisingly, a spiritualism consultant who was on set for much of the filming. Von Trier, writer Neils Vorsel, and editor Molly Stensgard contribute select-scene commentary tracks for episodes from the first two miniseries. A vintage documentary on von Trier contains plenty of interesting interview material about his career circa Breaking the Waves but doesn’t have a whole lot to do with The Kingdom. For variety’s sake, there are a handful of TV commercials that von Trier directed for the Swedish newspaper Ekstra Bladet, several of which feature actor Ernst-Hugo Jregrd, and they’re all pretty hilarious. Extras are rounded out by an illustrated booklet with episode guide and six postcard-sized stills from the series.

Overall

Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom Trilogy is a bewitchingly surreal amalgam of medical procedural, social satire, and gothic horror that’s unlike anything else on television.

Score: 
 Cast: Sren Pilmark, Ghita Nrby, Birgitte Raaberg, Peter Mygind, Udo Kier, Laura Christensen, Ole Emil Riisager, Solbjrg Hjfeldt, Henning Jensen, Birthe Neumann, Ernst-Hugo Jregrd, Bodil Jrgensen, Mikael Persbrandt, Lars Mikkelsen, Nicolas Bro, Tuva Novotny, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Ida Engvoll, Jesper Srensen  Director: Lars von Trier, Morten Arnfred  Screenwriter: Lars von Trier, Niels Vrsel, Tómas Gislason  Distributor: MUBI  Running Time: 885 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1994 - 2022  Release Date: April 23, 2024  Buy: Video

Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins's writing has appeared in Film Journal International and Video Watchdog. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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