Lars von Trier: a visceral terror

In 1994 something smelled bad in Denmark. It all started in November, when the DR network aired the first episodes of The Kingdom. The story takes place in a hospital, but the miniseries owes almost nothing to medical drama, a popular television genre since the early 50s, from which Dr. Kildare or Ben Casey still resonate.

Directed and written by Lars von Trier (together with Niels Vørsel and Morten Arnfred), The Kingdom appropriates the referential universe of the medical drama but disarms it in seconds with the irruption of an unknown ambulance that stops every night in front of the hospital and, act often, the entrance doors open by themselves. The viewer immediately recognizes the unmistakable patterns of terror, but still does not suspect that the series reserves an unprecedented mix where they coexist trash horror, comedy and nonsense.

We had to wait until 1997 for the four episodes of the second season. The sequel retained the previous characters and conflicts, as well as the ability to switch back and forth between the uneasiness of the supernatural and the stupor of nonsense. The second part replicates the provocation of the first by keeping numerous narrative threads open and seals the cult character of the miniseries. From then on, The Kingdom, known by its original title, Riget (“Kingdom” in Danish) becomes legend, a treasure lost in the cold Nordic lands that horror fans and moviegoers alike go out to find by any means at their disposal.

“The Kingdom Exodus”, the third season of the series, was presented at the Venice Film Festival.

For some, it is a question of discovering an exotic chapter of television horror, while others want to consult the work that functions as the (almost) missing link between the Europa trilogy, which placed Lars von Trier on the map of world cinema, and the Dogma 95, manifesto with which a handful of directors called to reinvent the way of filming movies limiting their procedures. The series did not have its long-awaited third season: that truncated destiny contributed to consolidate the myth. Twenty-five years later, after passing through the Venice Festival, the denouement arrives. The five chapters of Riget: Exodus They were released on the Mubi platform.

The origin of evil

1994 was a strange year: it was released ER emergencieswhich reinvigorated the medical drama, as well as Twin PeaksDavid Lynch’s disjointed town police (more of a UFO than a series), and The Standabout a novel by Stephen King, which narrated one of the fights of good against evil, those that the writer likes so much, to which some current series such as stranger things. Away from the United States, that same year Riget seemed to be regurgitating that panorama.

The series begins when Mrs. Drusse makes a new excuse to return to the neurosurgery ward of the Rigshospitalet, the largest in Copenhagen. The protagonist discovers scattered signs that announce the return to the world of an evil whose epicenter would be the hospital, built on a territory that in the past served as a laundry pond.

Through Drusse, given to spiritualism, the story introduces other key characters: Bulder, her nursing son, short-witted, always ready to fulfill maternal orders; Helmer, a newly arrived Swedish doctor who despises the Danes and carries his car tires with him everywhere; “Hook”, the chief resident; finally, a boy and a girl with Down syndrome who, while washing the hospital dishes in the basement, like a Greek chorus comment on the facts with inscrutable phrases.

The first two seasons develop the state of affairs at Rigshospitalet, around which a silent battle is played out between nameless forces. that will decide the future of the world. Once this elementary narrative background has been deployed, Von Trier begins to do his thing: as if it were not enough for the clash between the supernatural and the scientific to have a hospital as a battlefield, the story includes a sect made up of service chiefs who secretly meet to perform para-academic rituals, the tormented ghost of a girl and a pregnancy that takes its course in just a few weeks and culminates in the birth of the “little brother”, a monstrous offspring that his mother, Judith, refuses to liquidate (both the son and his spectral father are played by the great Udo Kier).

But the simple narrative account does not allow us to reconstruct the unmistakable marks of the series, such as the effect of the 16mm texture and the general dispossession of light, which gives the whole a precarious invoice that oscillates between the urgency of the documentary and the concerns of class terror. B (a year later, the Dogma manifesto was to promote these shoots), nor the yellowish palette that invades everything until it saturates spaces and perception (as Von Trier had already done in The element of crimehis 1984 debut), nor the belligerent and rarefied climate between Helmer and his staff, which in turn anticipates the labor satire of The office.

Back to the Future

Von Trier, ambitious, provocative and shameless filmmaker, inventor of new forms and recycler of forgotten ones, he designed an object ahead of its time that condensed, however, the dispersed tendencies that mobilized television at the time. It is not uncommon, then, that Stephen King, perhaps finding in Riget a good part of his repertoire of favorite songs, he was the architect of an American remake in 2004 (Kingdom Hospital it had thirteen episodes: it was canceled and forgotten almost on the spot). Von Trier assures, in turn, that he was inspired by Twin Peaks, another television alchemy impossible to replicate. The dialogue continues: just as Lynch tried, with mixed success, to continue his series in 2017, Von Trier does the same with his in 2022.

Riget: Exodus It has only a few performers from the previous seasons: most of the cast died, which forced the director to design a new story that would expand the previous one. Now Karen, after watching the original series on DVD, is called by mysterious forces that drive her to the hospital to continue the investigation of Mrs. Drusse, her predecessor. She there she finds the characters of the original fiction, all more or less broken. The hospital now connects with the past and in the old washing ponds, as guardian of the Kingdom resists the “little brother”, whom Judith believed to be dead, drowning in a sea of ​​her own tears.

The threat is embodied this time by inverted doubles of the protagonists, some unsuspected traitors and an emissary of the Grand Duke, played by a hieratic Willem Defoe who pronounces his lines in Danish.

As a good enfant terrible, Von Trier designs the third season as if two and a half decades had not passed since the second.. Beyond some current incorrectness, which revolves around the racial quota or gender violence at Rigshospitalet, the series maintains the irritating amalgamation between terror, comedy and nonsense that used to be the mortar of Riget I and II. The almost total disconnection with the aesthetic conventions of the present does not seem like an involuntary error, but rather the way that its director finds to recover some of the viscerality of the previous seasons: not adapting, denying the narrative mandates of the time and filming as if one were in the 90s looking to disorient the public, get them out of their boxes.

If in the past it was the mixture of improbable elements that immediately distinguished the series, then now, when the mixture constitutes the norm of our time, that the factor of bewilderment, the number of concern, are anachronism and abuse infuriating absurd humor.

Strategies of a provocateur

Lars von Trier he made provocation his own trademark, a trait of personal style as well as a way of promoting his work. One of her first cinematographic controversies unleashed her with The idiots (1998), emblematic film of the Dogma 95 group about a handful of characters who, seeking to awaken the “inner idiot”, enjoy themselves by behaving in public like people with mental problems.

Nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, that film generated an immediate scandal that centered on an explicit sex scene. Later it became known that professional actors from the pornographic industry were hired for the penetration plan, but that did not dampen the reaction.

The films that followed were all touched in one way or another by controversy, both for the narrated themes (such as degenerative diseases in Against the Wind and Tide and Dancer in the Dark), the representation of terrible events (rape and bloody murders), the mistreatment of animals (in Manderley a donkey was killed on camera but the scene was left out of the final cut) or accusations against her, such as Björk’s lawsuit for sexual harassment.

In 2011, Von Trier had his most remembered public controversy. It was at the presentation in Cannes of Melancholia, which narrates how a wedding party is interrupted by the imminent collision of a planet with Earth. At one point in the interview, the director said: “I understand Hitler. What can I say? He did some bad things Absolutely, but I can see him there, sitting in his bunker waiting for the end… And I kind of sympathize with him.” Despite the scene’s vague resemblance to the subject of his film (having to await an inexorable death) and the slightly mocking tone of the statement, the scale of the controversy was such that the festival declared him persona non grata and banned from attending for a year. The Dane, surely pleased by the repercussion, asked for a formal apology.

jack’s house (2018), with which he officially returned to Cannes, also marked his return to film scandal. The story follows a frustrated architect (Matt Dillon) who tells in flashbacks how he murdered different people to later deposit them in a large freezer and imagine fictional scenes with the bodies. One of the most terrifying moments involves his girlfriend and her two children: Jack kills the children before her mother’s eyes and forces her to have a picnic with the corpses. At the end, in an extraordinary scene, a simile of Virgil (Bruno Ganz) looks for Jack to kindly lead him to a grim hell. The sequence was seen by some as a coded apology from Von Trier himself for his past sins.

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Lars von Trier: a visceral terror