Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.
We’ve been going through the early work of Danish wunderkind Lars von Trier, who so far has been maddeningly hard to pin down. His efforts so far have been interesting, to be sure, but all of them are incredibly dense stylistic exorcises as much as they were films that a normal person could go in and enjoy. In fact, the only movie that I think is even approachable by normal people was his made-for-TV version of Medea (covered here).
That said, as he began to develop as a directorial voice von Trier began to recognize the need for further creative control of his work. In 1992 he founded Zentropa Entertainment with producer Peter Aalbæk Jensen, with the main goal to fund von Trier’s work without the oversight a more traditional production studio would enforce on even a critically significant director like von Trier. The history of Zentropa is worthy of someone with far more interest in production than myself covering it, but it has so far been a fairly successful enterprise, not only producing all of von Trier’s works up until today but also producing almost the entirety of the Dogme 95 movement (we’ll talk about that in two weeks, don’t worry if you have no clue what I’m talking about). It also has the dubious distinction of being the only mainstream production company to produce hardcore pronography, with a slate of movies (obviously not covered here) released around the turn of the millennium, mostly aimed at a female audience.
That said, starting a production company is an expensive affair, with a need for initial capital. So von Trier returned to television, a much more lucrative use of his time especially around this era of his career, and produced the two television miniseries we’re going to cover today. I’ve never actually written about TV before, a decision I made when I started out because I find the usual TV writing culture to be exhausting to read, much less produce. I salute the brave folks who do episodic TV write-ups, they are better people than me. So instead of doing that, I’m going to talk about these two miniseries as a whole, a long ten-hour film divided into two parts. That isn’t entirely accurate, but honestly this is as un-episodic as TV gets, so I don’t feel like I’m invalidating the experience of watching the shows in question. Hopefully you’ll be prepared to take the good with the evil.
Riget (1994, 1997)
Riget, also called The Kingdom, is the story of a hospital of the same name. As each episode opens, the history of the hospital is laid out before us. Rigshopitalet, in Copenhagen, was built on the site of bleaching ponds, where supposedly enough suffering or trauma took place to cause a sort of spiritual focal point to form. The result was a bastion of science built on top of a cesspool of nascent paranormal energy, and the entirety of what is to come to pass in the halls of Riget stems from that initial, fundamental conflict of realities. That is, when it bothers to remember that at all.
You see, Riget is a lot of things, and it handles them with an absurd disregard for convention that is often as hilarious as it is infuriating. Part hospital drama, part ghost story, part black comedy, part murder mystery, it’s obvious that Riget is one of the first TV shows to really be informed by the genre-bending miasma of madness that was David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and really run with it in its own direction. I say informed by, because it’s really not much of a homage, unlike many American shows that tried to do the same thing again without the deftness and thus failed. Riget, on the other hand, succeeds on its own merits, even if it takes its time doing so.
The main character of Riget is neurosurgeon Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård), a troll of a man who comes to Denmark from Sweden, fleeing a medical scandal where he was accused of botching an operation and turning a young girl into a vegetable. He’s still under investigation as the show opens, but most of the staff mostly know him as an authority in his field, and he carries a sort of national pride with him to backwarter Denmark, cursing the Danish and generally being an insufferable prig. As one might expect, the show revolves around making him suffer at every possible turn, especially as he represents the far-rationalist side of the two warring factions of Riget.
On the other side, there’s Sigrid Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), an old woman who admits herself regularly due to her hypochondria. She’s also an avowed spiritualist, and upon this visit to the hospital encounters what appears to be the sound of a girl crying in the elevator shaft. Determined to get to the bottom of what would cause such a strange occurance to manifest, she spends most of her time inventing illnesses and trying to avoid the wrath of Dr. Helmer, who sees her as not only a nuisance but an archenemy in his all-business approach to life and hospital administration. And her investigations begin stirring up more and more occurrences, with increasing frequency and strength.
What’s interesting is that the show mostly unfolds, especially in the first few episodes, as not much more than a slightly-askew hospital drama. Patients come on, get treated. People quibble over money and who has authority over who. Relationships start to form, with doctors hooking up with nurses, and so on and so forth. But over all of this hangs a pall, not only in that it’s too conventional to last given the director, but also a deep sense of impending doom encroaching from the sides. Maybe it’s the way it’s shot: a constant orange hue, a toned down version of the same sepia that graced The Element of Crime. Maybe it’s the two dishwashers, a young man and woman each with Down syndrome, who act as a Greek chorus: they constantly seem to know everything that’s going on, and comment intermittently throughout each episode.
And all of this ends up leading to the end of series one, where Mrs. Drusse realizes the young girl is the ghost of a patient who was murdered by her father, who used to run the hospital. At the same time she tries to perform an exorcism, the spirits all collide to invade the life of one of the pregnant nurses, bringing her child rapidly to term and giving birth to a creature that shares the face of the murderous former hospital administrator (played by Udo Kier). Series 2, then, deals with how the hospital manages this sudden intrusion, as the child rapidly grows to monstrous size, gaining a preternatural intelligence as the ghosts vie to determine whether or not this creature is going to be used for good or evil.
The show ends up, then, being a kind of examination of what it means for people who are bound by science and rationalism when they’re confronted with undeniable proof of something ‘other’ in their lives. What’s most interesting is what von Trier’s answer to that is: mostly they try to deny it, and go insane in doing so. I feel like that in many ways speaks to many of the themes in von Trier’s work, from The Elements of Crime all the way to Melancholia. There’s a certain longing for the fantastical in his work, fascination mixed with dread that there’s something more than the basic world that’s presented. And whenever that supernatural or magical thing intrudes, people respond usually with mental illness or a horrible grotesque sort of comedy as they try in vain to cope with it.
Not to draw too distinct a parallel, but von Trier himself is a person who historically has always suffered from depression and other neurosis, at times being completely debilitated by his problems. He professes to be a rationalist, but he’s also wildly superstitious, to the point where he’s so afraid of flying he’s never once visited America and probably never will. He is, much like his characters and his stories, a strange contradiction, someone who tries to enforce an ordered, logical universe even as something that can’t exist in such a construct pulls them and him apart. That war between the two seeps into many of his movies, even if it’s only on the very periphery. And coming out of Riget, often becomes much more explicit than it was in his earlier pieces.
I always hesitate to recommend television shows over movies, because they’re such a big time investment, but if you ever get the chance to watch Riget and have an appetite for weird shows don’t hesitate to do so. It’s a heady 10 hour dive into some strange places, but few things are so evocative and juggle tone so well as this. Sadly, many of the plot threads were going to tie into a third series that never got off the ground (many of the stars died after Riget II, unfortunately) so it’s an experience without a resolution, but at the same time I doubt an ending would have given any sort of closure. It’s a pretty incredible miniseries, influential enough that it was semi-adapted into English with the participation of Stephen King to make Kingdom Hospital. And it’s one of the most approachable things von Trier made in his early career, which essentially ends with this series.