Death, Destruction, and Lars Von Trier

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Death, Destruction, and Lars Von Trier

Death, Destruction, and Lars Von Trier

In his return to television, a sequel to his 1990s series The Kingdom, the Danish director’s trollish hospital drama aims to shock.

By Beatrice Loayza

Yesterday 10:12 am

In the first episode of Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom Exodus, there’s a gag that hews closely to The Office (the Danish show’s distant relative in cringe-inducing workplace comedy) at its worst. Stig Helmer Jr. (Mikael Persbrandt), the imperious new surgeon at Copenhagen’s Rigshospitalet, condemns the neurosurgical ward’s all-white staff, calling its lack of diversity “beneath contempt.” But wait—the Black doctors are simply running behind. The other lead surgeon, Pontopidan (Lars Mikkelsen), sends for two Black custodians, who are given lab coats and no explanation for their sudden promotion. They look confused. Helmer Jr. grumbles. On to the next item on the agenda.

Helmer Jr. is Swedish, you see, and the Swedes pride themselves on being more civilized than their bigoted neighbors in Denmark; they take seriously the modern codes of propriety and professionalism. Later in the meeting, he calls for the department-wide adoption of hir, a gender-neutral pronoun. In the following episode, he responds to a coworker’s advances with an e-mail asking for her consent to slap her ass. More than 25 years after The Kingdom’s second season was broadcast on Danish television, chaos reigns yet again in von Trier’s labyrinthine hospital of phantoms, hellhounds, and incompetent medical professionals, meaning Helmer Jr.’s principled efforts cause more problems than they solve.

Watching the latest (and final) five-episode season of The Kingdom, I couldn’t help but relate its jabs at woke culture to the generational discord at large—the proclivity of everyone from washed-up stand-up comics to your uncle inveighing against the groupthink of college students. One can imagine where the 66-year-old von Trier fits in this equation. Since he came onto the international art-house scene in the 1980s, his films have passed through several circles of hell: Nazi collaborationism (Europa), the faking of mental disability (The Idiots), and the spectacular and violent humiliation of women (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, etc.), with the latter being singled out as a trademark of his work. Then there is the man himself, a joker figure shadowed by sexual-harassment allegations and an unsavory track record with the international press corps—most notorious being his 2011 press conference for Melancholia, in which he jokingly admitted to sympathizing with Hitler. In life, as in art, he’s a troll.

Still, it would be hard to accuse von Trier of lacking self-awareness. For all his self-righteousness, Helmer Jr. emerges as a kind of tragic buffoon. His Danish coworkers mockingly refer to him as “Halfmer” because he’s “half” of his father, Helmer Sr., one of the protagonists of the original series. He’s also a hypocrite, muttering slurs under his breath, indulging in locker room talk with his attorney. His supercilious bearing thickens the clown makeup—as does his specious commitment to workplace improvement, which betrays not only the hollowness of his enlightened methods but also his desire for control.

Ethics, guilt, and complicity often figure as animating forces in von Trier’s work: See how sex and murder are held up to the philosophical looking glass in Nymphomaniac and The House That Jack Built, or the Old Testament–style retribution that concludes the morality play of Dogville. In the end credits for each episode of the 1990s series, a goblin-grinning von Trier appears before a red-velvet curtain—dressed in a tuxedo that belonged to the first great Danish auteur, Carl Theodor Dreyer—and performs a cryptic monologue about the preceding events whose send-off is always the same: “Take the good with the evil.”

The phrase comes across like a slogan for von Trier’s entire filmography, filled as it is with Manichean imagery that externalizes the tempestuous inner conflicts of his characters and that makes symbolically legible the world and its unrelenting cruelties. These dualities are perhaps most freely exercised and expressed in The Kingdom. Hospitals are always sites of life and death, but von Trier’s literally pulses with the weight of its own history. The real-life Rigshospitalet (nicknamed “Riget,” which translates to “Kingdom”) was built on marshlands used as bleaching ponds centuries ago, which von Trier visualizes in the opening-credits sequence as a jaundiced netherworld of rustic ghouls. It is here, in this operatically rendered microcosm of Danish society, that von Trier unleashes his latest brood, again sculpted from his countless phobias and childhood traumas and psychological crises. Obsessed with authorial self-fashioning, he aims to shock—which is one and the same with tending to his neuroses.

Von Trier has said that The Kingdom was inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, another sprawling mystery that pits reason against the occult. In a 1994 interview, von Trier called the American TV show the product of a director unhampered by the objective of making a great feature film, an ethos that must have energized the Danish filmmaker as much as the series’ surreal good-versus-evil blueprint. Von Trier and his collaborator, Niels Vørsel, wrote The Kingdom’s first season quickly, and he described the experience as one of “automatism and full freedom”—a marked departure from the controlled sets and more focused narratives of his features up to that point. In its disregard for the classical rules of film grammar, the series also anticipated the codified anti-commercialism of Dogme 95 (a film movement, complete with a written manifesto and rules, spearheaded by von Trier and his countryman Thomas Vinterberg) while adding actorly improvisation to the director’s arsenal of uncanny effects.

The first season of The Kingdom was a hit; the desultory second season, not so much. Its non-ending—an electricity outage releases presumably bad spirits into the hospital and Judith, a doctor who has given birth to a monstrous child, mourns the death of her progeny—was the subject of much criticism. Von Trier had intended to make a third season, but his plans were derailed by the deaths of his lead actors, Ernst-Hugo Järegård (who played Stig Helmer, a bug-eyed Swede with a Napoleon complex) and Kirsten Rolffes (as Sigrid Drusse, an elderly mystic who communes with the hospital’s ghosts).

Exodus picks up 26 years later with a characteristic self-own. “How can they peddle such half-baked hooey?” mutters Karen (Bodil Jørgensen) as she takes in the final moments of season two, von Trier’s cheeky outro flashing in the background before she walks away from her television. It’s Christmastime in Copenhagen, and unholy spirits are out to play. Karen, a septuagenarian sleepwalker who straps herself to her bed at night, breaks free from her restraints and shuffles her way to the Kingdom, entering it as one would a portal to an alternate reality. Once she’s inside the hospital, the images take on the same yellow hue of the original, with the neurosurgery department in particular exuding something rotten—a nod to the corrupted nature of von Trier’s brainchildren.

Indeed, this wretched Danish establishment is a cradle of defective systems and shameless power-mongering—reprehensible, yes, but also laughably absurd. A pain management conference takes place in the lecture hall, for example, where attendees receive swag bags labeled “Free Shit”; one of the dishwashers in the cafeteria is a malfunctioning robot that shatters most plates it touches; femme fatale Anna (Tuvo Novotny) casually files a sexual-harassment complaint against Helmer Jr., and the same lawyer (Alexander Skarsgård) represents them both. Meanwhile, Karen hears the whispers of the child paralyzed, and ultimately killed, in the prior season, and like Sigrid before her, takes on the role of the hospital’s resident sleuth, eventually gaining access to the misty purgatory at the cursed heart of the Kingdom.

Exodus unfolds these dramas, along with sundry B- and C-plots, with the same farcical flair of its predecessors, likewise dipping into moments of grandiose horror. It shifts freely back and forth from the antiseptic modernity of a conference or operating room to forsaken regions of the hospital teeming with ancient menace. The shared valence isn’t meant to recapture the magic of the original. Rather, it creates formal parameters that suggest a fundamental continuity, a shared lifeblood, between the Kingdom of the 1990s and today, between the von Trier of then and now—this, despite the passage of time and its attendant transformations.

When von Trier turned his efforts to The Kingdom in 1994, his films up to that point were abstract studies in the shame and devastation of postwar Europe, filtered through the director’s own anxieties; he had recently experienced a kind of existential shattering when, in 1989, his mother confessed to his illegitimate birth on her deathbed. The economic crisis of the past decade had fomented distrust of the Danish welfare state and its byzantine bureaucracies, dealing a blow against the belief in socialized health care that squares with The Kingdom’s Kafkaesque portrait of the institution.

The Denmark of today is another beast, one transformed by neoliberal economic reforms and the rise of anti-immigrant right-wing populism—the menace of which should make corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives seem half-assed at best, if not strictly about reducing employer liability. If things aren’t perceivably worse than they were 25 years ago, it’s hard to claim that they’re better. During the making of Exodus, von Trier was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which drew out the completion of the series. I imagine this is why the director stands behind the curtain when he delivers his end-credits monologues. His shoes poke out from the bottom, but his body is completely obscured.

Von Trier’s work has always possessed a fatalistic streak, his protagonists often the victims of some kind of epic tragedy, yet Exodus is also marked by time and recollection itself—apparent in the weathered faces of its returning cast members, including Søren Pilmark, Gita Nørby, and Birgitte Raaberg; in the characters’ references to the damage wrought on the hospital’s reputation by “that” dastardly show from the ’90s; and in the snatches of footage from seasons past that figure like eruptions of the subconscious. Delicate Karen is undeniably weaker than the plucky Sigrid, and she is no seasoned mystic either, but rather a literal spectator unwittingly drawn to this eerie world, feeling her way unguided through the dark of its mysteries.

These meta-cinematic impulses, absent from the original, betray something new. We see them in von Trier’s previous film, the art-monster serial-killer satire The House That Jack Built, which employs a final-act montage in which Matt Dillon’s psychopath reminisces about his past kills using scenes from the director’s filmography in which women are brutalized. Another Von Trierian inferno emerges in the finale of The Kingdom: The hospital implodes and its residents collapse into ash and dust. If von Trier is off to hell, then he’s taking us with him. Karen—that is, the stand-in for you and I, the befuddled spectators—bursts into flames, screaming as she presumably plunges down to the netherworld. How about that for an ending? von Trier seems to say to his detractors and fans alike, both obliterating his enemies and passing judgment on his fellow sickos.

Finally, von Trier himself materializes, dressed in a crimson jacket and looking out from a helicopter as the loyal Grand Duc (Willem Dafoe) kisses his hand—he’s Satan in the flesh, presiding over the catastrophe. Perhaps the image is too neat, corny even, for a director who has been getting off on playing the bad boy for decades, yet the moment is also pregnant with the off-screen reality of his declining health. “She laughed and danced with the thought of death in her heart,” wrote Hans Christian Anderson of the little mermaid. In The Kingdom Exodus’s final post-credit moments, the camera lingers on her statue, located in the Copenhagen harbor. Signaling through the flames, von Trier invites us to laugh and dance with him—liberation at the cost of ruin.

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