Danish director Lars von Trier is a strange, inscrutable cat – to judge from the films he makes, let alone his public pronouncements. One of the most risibly excessive movies I saw during the 1980s was by the then relatively little-known (outside Denmark) von Trier was The Element of Crime (1984). I realise now that it was a forerunner to mainstream successes like Seven (1995) or Natural Born Killers (1994): gruesome movies about serial killers and contemporary nihilism, shot in a flashy, super-saturated, music-video style. Von Trier’s film (as I recall it) was replete with scenes of rape and mass suicide, and full of sombre pronouncements about the excremental Hell of the world. It had a rough, subcultural edge, as if modelled on avant-garde experiments, Super-8 movies and guerrilla video. In those mid ‘80s, I took it as some last gasp attempt to take the general punk sensibility and coin it into a filmic idiom … in this case, a bombastic and quite hideous attempt.
Von Trier came back into my purview at the start of the 1990s with Europa (aka Zentropa, 1991), the last volley of a trilogy – he’s fond of launching trilogies. Here again was the grand bombast, high style and easy nihilism expressing itself in aphorisms like “Europe is Hell”. But von Trier was no longer some feral punk: now, with a reputation in his homeland and bigger resources, his elaborate visual tricks and games were borrowing more from Stanley Kubrick and Raúl Ruiz than from the freakier ghettos of film and music culture. Von Trier had turned to dazzling colour effects and ghostly superimpositions – and Europa’s cast even contained a certified Euro-pop-cult star of yesteryear, Eddie Constantine (filtered via Godard, Fassbinder …). I didn’t like it much, but it was some kind of monument to zany European co-production in the ‘90s.
Why is von Trier inscrutable, even perplexing? Because his personality, concerns and style appear to shift gears so markedly every few years, or even faster. He has richly earned the title of world cinema’s Mad Clown! We’ve seen him dance, in record time, from his version of Medea (1988) made for TV from a script left behind by the great Carl Dreyer, to the first part of his schlock-horror TV soap epic The Kingdom – and onto his later declaration of a rigid cinematic Dogma that he and his disciples must henceforth follow. With the major career swerve, in-between, of Breaking the Waves (1996), before returning to the Kingdom project. Is this necessarily a problem? Film directors make what they can, when they can – and von Trier clearly doesn’t like to be pinned down to just one mode or worldview. Breaking the Waves, however, was (as they say) a game-changer.
This truly odd and unique film is about a simple, passionate woman (Emily Watson as Bess) who talks to God, and whose extreme faith takes her down some grimly melodramatic paths of action. In many ways, it aims to be in a certain tradition of revered films made by men about women: like some tortured art film of the 1950s where the woman is all at once saint and sinner, sacred and profane, elevated and damned. As far as I can gather, making the film coincided with some kind of religious conversion on von Trier’s part; he began speaking of his work as an ongoing exploration of faith, divinity and miracles. When he made the Medea adaptation, he even claimed to have been granted approval by the spirit of Dreyer himself, with whom he was in constant psychic contact. OK, that could be a joke. But with von Trier, it’s often tough to tell the silly jokes from the earnest intentions. Many are ready to suspect that, with most things von Trier, it’s all a big put-on.
I don’t really have a clue about von Trier as a person and what drives him, but I can sense from where the curiosity and suspicion about him derives. His films transmit mixed signals. Even in Breaking the Waves, apparently his most sombre and dramatic work, there is still a weird, droll humour that makes you wonder whether he’s having us all on. Even more crucially, there’s an exceptional degree of ambiguity about the characters and stories. Breaking the Waves hesitates, virtually right to the end, on the questions of whether Bess is a nut or a visionary; whether the events that occur in the course of the story are miracles of divine intervention or simply freakish, chance accidents; and whether the more compassionate God is one represented by stern church elders, or the one who speaks personally to our heroine and demands that she bear such an impossible cross. Breaking the Waves, ultimately, is a film that can appeal equally to atheists and believers alike, each group able to find evidence for their own viewpoint of value-system – and that, after all, is no mean feat.
Shifts or reorientations in von Trier’s personal belief system might also to be reflected in the differences between The Kingdom I and The Kingdom II (the two parts have also been combined, in some territories, into a 5 hour theatrical version – while the projected final four episodes comprising The Kingdom III have never eventuated, mainly because of the deaths of various cast members). The first four episodes mix horror with soap opera – as David Lynch did in Twin Peaks – but the emphasis was on the horror, mainly a kind of schlock gore that lets von Trier get back in touch with his wilfully tasteless, punk roots.
There are at least two classic horror themes or motifs animating The Kingdom I. The first theme is that of the “horror hospital”. Hospitals, medicine, diagnosis, surgery: all ripe material for this genre. That’s because human bodies are being cut up, tampered with and reorganised; no news there for anyone human. But also because a certain social terror is involved. In the hospital situation, we give up our body and will to a possibly fearsome State apparatus: we are helpless, passive subjects. All up, it’s a monstrous metaphor for any of us coming under the sway of a manipulative political system, of whatever ideology. A savage “interpellation”, indeed. I remember a merry B movie by Larry Cohen, The Ambulance (1990), where, whenever anyone keels over in the street, an ambulance instantly rocks up and takes them away – but it’s a scam, a way to procure body parts for the black market and illegal genetic experiments. I also recall a fine essay written in UK’s Screen magazine by Pete Boss in 1986, “Vile Bodies and Bad Medicine”, that captures well this regime of daily, social terror.
The other central horror theme in The Kingdom I is what specialists of the genre such as Robin Wood call (après Freud) the return of the repressed. Once again, this theme works on both the personal and social levels. The personal repressed is every horrible thing done to an individual that has been forgotten, buried or somehow erased – usually some traumatic abuse, or the sight of some unimaginable evil. The social repressed relates to various types of political and institutional crime. Like the Overlook hotel in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) or the infernal basement in the A Nightmare on Elm Street series (1984-2010), the hospital in The Kingdom is built upon a sacred site where the souls and spirits of the dead dwell; these spirits have been disturbed and maligned, and the official building itself is a monumental cover-up, a facade hiding immortal crimes. But, as the credit sequence of each episode shows us, there are inevitably cracks in this edifice, doorways to the realm of the dead that open for a moment – and through these passageways the dead are going to return, mad as hell and looking for payback.
The Kingdom II is angled more toward soap opera (i.e., TV melodrama) than classic horror. There are still pale ghosts superimposed on mundane hospital rounds, and a gruesome, greenish Evil Eye belonging to … well, we’re not exactly sure to who or what it belongs. There’s also a stretched-out crawl to an ambiguous apocalypse, again centred on the devilishly charming Udo Kier as Little Brother – like Eddie Constantine, but with an even richer modern pedigree, Kier is a camp-cult figure of international art/underground cinema since his days in Paul Morrissey’s Frankenstein and Dracula films of 1973 and 1974. Here, he grows from being a baby to a grotesque giant in a few days’ worth of plot – and von Trier clearly knows this cultish slice of his audience well, because he gives them exactly the metamorphic Kier they crave.
Von Trier massages our ever-growing sense of dread – which always makes us imagine the worst – and he uses, more skilfully this time around, the device of the narrative slow burn. His under-discussed co-director on this project, Morten Arnfred (later to rack up various illustrious “Scandi Noir” TV credits), is no doubt part of the reason for this. Mainly, von Trier is interested in the doctors, their bizarre rituals and games, their mad excess of rationality and scientific method – these loony doctors who watch splatter movies, flirt with murder and suicide, and offer themselves on an operating table to their own students so that various cancers can be analysed. [Postscript 2019: Rich comparative material here with Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick [2014-2015], another interrupted, two-season special! More so than with the 2004 Stephen King-scripted homage/remake of von Trier, Kingdom Hospital.]
One of the great pleasures of The Kingdom II is its definite grasp of what could be called large or extended narrative form, the kind that we can only get on TV or in epic, serial novels. There was something sluggish and choppy about the first season, as if von Trier finally didn’t like TV much, or didn’t take it too seriously; but now (alongside Arnfred) he’s real pro, and his use of little plot set-ups that get their punchline sometimes three or four hours later is a total treat. I also have to say that II is a lot funnier than I. A typical joke occurs when one doctor consults a patient’s file that appears to be in gibberish: it says she suffers from “glup, nips and plum”, something of that order. His colleague helpfully explains that this is a new code instituted so that patients are unable to read their own files: in this case, what it really means is that the woman in question suffers from hysteria, hypochondria … and a hatred of doctors.
The entire Kingdom project is shot on video and then transferred to film. In I, that process gave the work a murky, almost unwatchable, orange wash – another of this director’s screw-you punk gestures aimed at the audience. Here, it’s thankfully a little easier on the eye. Von Trier’s mesh of film/video techniques and textures, here and in Breaking the Waves, is intriguing and confronting: like the Australian film Kiss or Kill (1997) but more jarringly, everything is jump cuts, pictorial blurs and wipes, sudden dead moments of action, alternations between ear-splitting noise and hushed silence, with the camera roving and diving all over the place to fleetingly catch the hastily staged encounters between characters. It all drove me crazy in The Kingdom I and in parts of Breaking the Waves, but now I’m accustomed to it: that’s another tribute to the skilful TV effect of The Kingdom II, the way it makes what is disconcerting and strange somehow cozily familiar, ticking over in your lounge room.
I said earlier that the aggrieved spirits in von Trier’s hospital drama are looking for payback. However, in horror movies, this is rarely a straightforward, righteous quest for justice. Science-fiction movies often depict their alien figures as fundamentally evil. The same happens with the various monsters and spirits “from the other side” in horror. There’s often an ambiguity in this genre about the nature of other-worldly creatures: once they get over into our world, will they be divine, religious spirits or bloodsucking anarchists out to wreak chaos? In many ways, this ambiguity – the ambiguity, essentially, of Good and Evil – is the central subject of The Kingdom II. And von Trier, for a change, here manages to give a point to the often frustrating fuzziness of his projects.
Again, like in Breaking the Waves, the drama appears to have the flavour of a philosophical or even theological meditation, laced with a bit of good old, cheap horror-movie frisson. But I found episodes 5 to 8 of the series completely compelling on this level. There’s a running commentary, as in the first season, a kind of chorus from two dishwashers: a man and woman, down in the basement. They have a naive but supernatural vision, an understanding of everything that is going on around them in the hospital. They pose all the big questions of the show, such as “If you see a thing of evil, is it the thing that’s evil, or you, or the glasses you’re wearing?” Later, they wonder about the grotesque Little Brother figure, half-human and half-demon, and speculate as to which part of his dual nature will win out, ultimately defining his character, destiny and purpose. This is an ambiguity that becomes very pronounced within the plot itself when it becomes unsure whether, if Little Brother dies prematurely, he will be thereby taken off to a peaceful Heaven, or the Gates of Hell will open.
This inability to tell the difference between Good and Evil manifestations is ultimately situated both in the characters and in us, the TV viewers. Our delightful dishwashers even wonder, at the end, as they propose marriage to each other, whether they have been contaminated by this tale, whether the Evil is now in them. “Maybe we are the evil”, the guy says, “and maybe we are not. And our uncertainty is what makes it really beautiful”.
© Adrian Martin October 1997