A triumphant return to television from Lars von Trier, The Kingdom: Exodus, is hilarious, tongue-in-cheek and oddly fascinating.
The Kingdom (original Danish name Riget) is an interesting oddity in the filmography of Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dogville, Melancholia), a series about a hospital that is built upon haunted wasteland, whose spirits continue to terrorise the vicinity, in a realm where scientific genius and progress clash with the supernatural. It ran for eight episodes of about 70 minutes split across two series in 1994 and 1997. The gap between then and now is about as long as the gap between the Twin Peaks film and The Return, with David Lynch and Mark Frost’s brilliant, genre-non-conforming series often cited in association with The Kingdom, though the two series are two very different beasts.
The Kingdom at first appears like an ordinary hospital procedural; patients lie sick, junior doctors get to grips with seeing gore, established surgeons disagree on operation procedures, etc., but it soon becomes clear that the realm of the Kingdom Hospital is one where ultimately no human being is in full control. Von Trier is renowned for his dark sense of humour and often very damning appraisals of humanity (the original series’s protagonist, Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Europa), was a scheming, dishonest, spiteful man who hated the indigenous ethnic group of the country he had moved to!), and doctor Hook (Søren Pilmark, Vikings: Valhalla) hated disabled people. Helmer was on the run from authorities after a botched operation that left a child, Mona (Laura Christensen, The Killing), severely disabled, but not without the ability to communicate esoteric, occult messages with her toy letter blocks.
In these new episodes, von Trier is keen to remind us that a lot of time has passed since we last heard from the hospital, and as much of the original cast was already quite old back in the mid-1990s, a lot of them have passed away, leaving room for lots of new characters. New self-referential, metaphysical elements provide an additional comedic dimension, as characters slate von Trier for apparently ruining the reputation of the hospital with his ‘stupid’ series. The theme of reflexivity that these aspects bring forward can be read as bearing biographical significance, as this is von Trier’s first work to be released since he announced he is suffering from Parkinson’s, and the new series begins with somebody finishing a DVD set of The Kingdom II.
The new characters, or at least the ones seen in the first two episodes, don’t appear that much different to characters from the original series. Halfmer (Mikael Persbrandt, Sex Education), the son of Helmer, laments coming to ‘the country that drove [his] father mad’, and Balder (Nicolas Bro, Riders of Justice), replaces Bulder (Jens Okking, Old Men in New Cars), a gentle if gormless man who pushed along the wheelchair of a wise old woman who was a medium to the hospital’s ghosts, who is also replaced. This is largely logistical, really, as they are replacing actors that have passed away, but it does allow for some great jokes that refer back to the original series. Halfmer is tremendously proud of his father, which baffles the people who actually know of his hospital work.
In the original series, von Trier signed off each episode with a monologue, where he’d usually encourage the viewer to ‘take the good with the evil’, and offered tongue-in-cheek comments that would call into question how seriously we’re meant to be taking everything. For the second series, he was even standing in front of a snazzy red curtain. Fans will be pleased to know that von Trier returns to offer a monologue at the end of each episode of Exodus. Though I did not enjoy the original series, I believe the concept on paper is brilliant, and every episode still had good ideas. Exodus feels a lot stronger because its new meta elements are not overdone, and there seems to be a much greater self-awareness this time. The results of the cruelty and suffering witnessed in the first two series are really yet to be seen, and a mysterious newcomer, played by Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man), will prove to be significant.
So, would I recommend you watch the original series (which will be available on Mubi in new remasters before Exodus premieres)? I’d suggest you give it a try. It’s a very unusual series that, if you can get onto its wavelength, will give you outrageous entertainment and characters you’ll love to hate. The Kingdom: Exodus can still be enjoyed by itself, but missing out on the eight preceding episodes will mean you won’t understand some of the in-jokes. Just remember to take the good with the evil.
Episodes 1 and 2 of The Kingdom: Exodus premiered at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival on October 13, 2022. The series will be released on MUBI on November 27.
Read our list of films to watch at the London Film Festival this year.