The Kingdom

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Friday November 10, 1995

     Lars Von Trier's monumental, 271-minute "The Kingdom" goes beyond its hilarious, brazen satire of incompetence and corruption at a vast Copenhagen hospital to warn of the lack of spirituality in modern life and to suggest that we must never forget that evil is an eternal adversary.
     Presented in two parts with an intermission, it was made by Trier last year for Danish TV and is composed of four segments; next year Trier will resume shooting the series, eventually to number 13 segments.
     A kind of Danish answer to "Twin Peaks" and then some, it is remarkably entertaining and consistently imaginative throughout its daunting length yet becomes sufficiently wearying to make us remember that we are not seeing "The Kingdom" in the form for which it was designed.
     Although it shares the visual bravura and dark vision of Trier's "Zentropa," a film noir fable of corrupt postwar Germany, it thankfully has none of the insufferably pretentious obscurantism of the earlier film. Essentially, "The Kingdom" is the Arthur Hiller-Paddy Chayefsky "The Hospital"--plus a swath of "General Hospital" for good measure--and given cosmic, supernatural dimension.
     It unfolds like one of Joe Frank's bizarre odysseys for radio and has been shot from the hip by endlessly flexible cameraman Eric Kress. To ensure a grainy, sepia cinema-verite look to "The Kingdom," Trier filmed it in 16mm, transferred it to video, then back to film and finally blew it up to 35mm.
     A weird, dream-like prologue showing peasants bleaching fabric in a murky pond announces at the start that, according to Trier, the National State Hospital in Copenhagen, nicknamed the Kingdom for its immense size (and perhaps also for its self-contained world), has been constructed, highly symbolically, on a marsh.
     A recently arrived, self-important Swedish consulting neurosurgeon, Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard), a jowly, wavy-haired middle-aged man forever condescending to the Danes, sets an increasingly convoluted plot in motion when he embarks on a barrage of petty complaints when a young junior physician, Jorgen Hook (Soren Pilmark), goes ahead and orders a CAT scan for an elderly patient, Sigrid Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), because Helmer is late for the morning staff meeting.
     Mrs. Drusse is no ordinary patient. She may in fact be a malingerer, but far more important she is a dedicated spiritualist who senses the tormented spirit of a little girl lurking at the bottom of an elevator shaft. A formidable actress of humor and intellect, Rolffes' Mrs. Drusse becomes, along with Helmer, the story's other major character. Although an amusing figure in her indomitable nosiness, she and her cause are key in creating an underlying andever-increasing seriousness and poignance to the film's glorious outrageousness.
     The hilarity blooms from humanity's infinite capacity for absurd, often tragicomic behavior. The pompous Helmer is driven to comical ends in trying to cover up his incompetent surgery that has left a little girl brain-damaged. The neurosurgeons form their own Masonic-style lodge, complete with rituals, to create a protective system of highly elastic ethics.
     The head of neurosurgery, Dr. Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen, very Leslie Nielsen), is a fool who's embarked on a program of "Operation Morning Air," which amounts to launching daily staff meetings with a silly song exuding false good cheer. Pity the poor patient who ends up at "The Kingdom."
     With so much screen time at its disposal and an exceedingly large cast with a substantial core of principals, "The Kingdom" crackles with good acting. In addition to those actors already mentioned, others who excel include Ghita Norby as a middle-aged physician intent on landing Helmer; Jens Okking as Mrs. Drusse's long-suffering son, a hospital porter; and Birgitte Raabjerg as Pilmark's attractive colleague and eventual lover.
     Ubiquitous German actor Udo Kier serves as the film's creepy symbol of evil, a role he's played effectively many times before. While its sheer length makes "The Kingdom" demanding, it is not only as rewarding as many other ambitious screen odysseys but a lot more fun.


The Kingdom, 1995. Unrated. An October Films presentation. Director Lars von Trier. Producer Ole Reim. Executive producers Svend Abrahamsen, Peter Allbaek Jensen. Screenplay by Von Trier, Niels Vorsel. Cinematographer Eric Kress. Editors Jacob Thuesen, Molly Marlene Stensgaard. Music Joachim Holbek. Sound designer Per Streit. Art director Jette Lehmann. In Danish, with English subtitles. Running time: 4 hours, 31 minutes. Ernst-Hugo Jaregard as Stig Helmer. Kirsten Rolffes as Sigrid Drusse. Ghita Norby as Rigmor. Soren Pilmark as Jorgen Hook.

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