biennale cinema 2022

Lars von Trier Has No Final Reassurances

The final season of The Kingdom is twisted and distressing, yet returning to the series’ confines is like slipping into a warm embrace. Photo: Henrik Dithmer

When Lars von Trier’s face appeared on the enormous screen of the PalaBiennale to introduce, via video, the world premiere of his The Kingdom: Exodus at the Venice Film Festival, you could feel the mood in the room shift dramatically. Some of the stars of the show were in attendance and had already received a warm round of applause. But seeing von Trier — arms crossed but still visibly shaking and slurring his words because of Parkinson’s disease — was something else entirely. In part, it was because many of us had become so familiar with this director’s public image over the years: Though he often notoriously speaks without a filter, there has always been a careful, studied quality to the way he presents himself. He rarely travels and never flies (he’s never been to the United States, though he’s made several films set there), but he has remained a very familiar face in Denmark and the international film world for several decades.

For years, an ever-present twinkle in his eye and constant half-smile suggested he was a kind of cinematic trickster-god, an artist whose knowing perversity could at once encompass tragic melodrama, dry comedy, and gruesome violence, both physical and spiritual. Even when he famously found himself officially declared persona non grata at Cannes back in 2011 after joking about being a Nazi at the Melancholia press conference, some wondered if it was all part of a master plan on the director’s part to make everyone deeply uncomfortable on the eve of his film about the apocalypse. Von Trier still exerts plenty of control over his work and how it’s seen. But seeing him physically frail, struggling to control his actual movements, was a poignant, slightly ironic moment.

There was more to it than that, however, because The Kingdom: Exodus isn’t just any Lars von Trier joint. It’s the long-awaited third season to The Kingdom, the monumental TV series he created in 1994, in between making such groundbreaking classic films as Europa (1991) and Breaking the Waves (1996). Back then, von Trier was the undisputed bad boy of international cinema, a prolific visionary who issued manifestos with each new project and seemed able to dash off masterpieces with little effort. (The year after he released The Kingdom, he inaugurated the Dogme 95 movement alongside his younger colleague Thomas Vinterberg, based partly on some of the aesthetic principles evident throughout The Kingdom.)

For a certain generation of Über-nerds, the theatrical screenings of The Kingdom were pivotal moments in our development as film buffs. The fact that it was a TV show was incidental, a kind of aesthetic frill. (This was before such debates became vitriolic, cancel-worthy affairs.) I remember seeing the first two seasons in packed screenings at New York’s Film Forum, in five-hour installments, back before anyone had come up with the term binge-watching. It was shot on video, it stretched out via addictive episodes over hours and hours, and it was a tonal roller coaster, delving into surreal comedy and medical satire and grim horror, always with a playful touch. Yes, it was basically a soap opera set in a hospital, but it was also a particularly twisted piece of distressingly unpredictable nightmare-fuel. The kind of show whose idea of humor is a doctor temporarily transplanting a liver with a rare deadly tumor into himself so as to better study it and then — womp womp — discovering that he can’t get his old, healthy liver back. The kind of show whose first season finale ended on the horrific and ludicrous sight of a woman giving birth to the familiar and very grown-up face of Udo Kier. The kind of show whose second season then jerked tears out of the spectacle of Kier as, now, an enormous 20-foot-tall spider-baby who just wants his mom to kill him.

Von Trier might be dealing with a debilitating illness, but as a director, he does not appear to have lost a step. (For the record, he fully intends to continue working. This is not some sort of valedictory project.) And Exodus is as hyper, hilarious, and hypnotic as its prior installments. It picks up where the previous shows left off. Von Trier had always planned to shoot a third season, but his lead actor, Swedish legend Ernst-Hugo Järegård, who played the comically stuck-up and criminally inept Doctor Stig Helmer, died in 1998. Luckily, he has a replacement: Mikael Persbrandt now plays Stig Helmer’s son, whom everyone calls Halfmer. Much like his father, he’s a proud Swede who has come to Denmark’s Kingdom Hospital to show these primitive Danes how to properly run a medical operation. (Among the great advances he brings are such progressive goals as diversity quotas, though it quickly becomes clear that he is, at heart, a huge bigot.)

Halfmer is even more of a Swedish chauvinist than his father was. Much like Stig, he also cries out “Danske jävlar!” at the end of every episode. (Now translated as “goddamned Danes!” that line will forever be “Danish scum!” in the hearts of anyone who saw the series back in the 1990s.) The jokes about Sweden don’t end there. Over the course of Kingdom: Exodus, everything from Ikea to Tetra Paks comes in for a beating. Alexander Skarsgård shows up as a Swedish lawyer whose office is a stall in a men’s room. (The actor follows in the footsteps of his father, Stellan, who made a brief appearance in the original run of The Kingdom, also as a Swedish lawyer.) The Kingdom had fun with Swedes, but The Kingdom: Exodus takes things to diplomatic-incident levels. Overall, this new season is probably funnier than the previous ones, but it’s a more scattershot style of humor. We see fewer of those elaborate, multi-episode gags that the first two seasons specialized in, the ones where a comic through-line might work its way to a particularly nasty punch line several episodes deep. Instead, there’s a gathering darkness in Exodus — as well as an aching sentimentality. This is a much sadder and more reflective version of The Kingdom. It’s the work of an older, wiser, and perhaps more pessimistic artist — a far cry from the grinning, film-brat bomb-thrower of the ’90s.

But the playfulness and the desire to entertain haven’t left von Trier either. Exodus finds a replacement for Mrs. Druse, the elderly, Miss Marple–like clairvoyant patient who spent the first two seasons investigating the mysterious goings-on at the Kingdom Hospital. (Kirsten Rolffes, the original actress, died in 2000.) The new show begins with another aging busybody, Karen (Bodil Jørgensen), who has just finished up watching the previous seasons on DVD and finds herself with all sorts of nagging questions. A sleepwalker, she makes her way to the hospital, which is now a gleaming, state-of-the-art operation; the people who work there complain about how “that idiot Trier” ruined their reputation.

Once Karen is inside Kingdom Hospital, the old devilry returns: The aspect ratio squeezes to become that familiar boxy video frame, the color drains out to that grubby orange-yellow hue, the image becomes pixelated — and we’re off. The crowd in the PalaBiennale exploded in rapturous applause as we heard the familiar strains of the old brooding basso profundo narration about the bleaching ponds on which the hospital was built and how superstition and dread are returning to battle reason and science. (“It appears the chill and the damp have returned … The gate to the Kingdom is opening up once again.”) And then, Joachim Holbek’s unforgettable banger of a theme song, which sounds like a death-metal band hired to score an ’80s sitcom. (“KING-dom! O death where is thy sting? Morituri te salutant KING-dom!”) I didn’t know whether to cry or cheer. I think I did a little of both.

In other words, for all the insanity and disturbing, in-your-face strangeness of The Kingdom, returning to its confines was like slipping into the warm embrace of a favorite childhood blanket. For some of us, this was our Top Gun: Maverick. Which is why seeing von Trier again was so moving, too. The end credits to the first two seasons originally featured him, in a tuxedo, standing before a red curtain and playfully musing to the viewers about what they had just seen. This time, he doesn’t appear during the end credits. (Though, spoiler alert, he makes an extremely memorable cameo within the narrative of the show itself.) Instead, we see a pair of dress shoes behind the red curtain, silent.

Of course, there’s a practical reason why he’s not there. But let’s muse further. Von Trier always emphasized in his post-credits observations that we had to “be prepared, here, as in life, to accept the good as well as the evil.” So maybe it’s simply that the man behind the curtain has returned to his natural domain; that would be the “good” interpretation. The “evil” interpretation would be that God has finally abandoned us. And given where Exodus goes, I suspect that von Trier himself leans in that direction. We will get no final reassurances from our auteur-deity before the lights go up. The gates have opened, and we’re on our own.

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Lars von Trier Has No Final Reassurances