By the earlier 1990s, Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier was already an internationally well-known art-house auteur, fresh from winning a slew of awards, including the Palm d’Or at Cannes, with Europa, the final film in a trilogy of the same name. His increasing notoriety and the end of Europa had brought his career to a crossroads, but figuring out what he would do next was complicated by the fact that his personal life was falling apart all around him. There was the divorce from his first wife, the death of his father, or at least the man he thought to be his father until his mother, who passed away soon afterward, informed him otherwise, and if that wasn’t enough, he had his cash-strapped production company, Zentropa, to worry about. In an attempt to raise some money, while also keeping things low impact, Von Trier agreed to co-write and direct a miniseries, the supernatural hospital drama Riget (The Kingdom), for Danish TV in 1994. From the outside, it must have looked like a step backward, career-wise, but if it had inauspicious beginnings, Riget would turn out to be some of Von Trier’s best remembered work and have a profound effect on what came after it.
Riget borrows its title from the nickname of the real life Danish hospital where it takes place, Copenhagen’s Rigshospitalet, though if it’s anything like on the show, you probably wouldn’t want to be a patient there. For one thing, it’s haunted as fuck, with the ghastly cries of a young girl emanating from an elevator shaft and a phantom ambulance making a nightly run (not surprising really, the Kingdom was built on the ancient, swampy “bleaching ponds” after all). Still, the spooks are nothing compared to the staff, among them the Swedish consultant with an unconcealed hatred for the Danish, but also a secret he’d go to great lengths to cover up, a professor of pathology obsessed with getting his hands on a dying man’s rare tumor, an anesthesiologist who lives in the basement and the benevolent but hopelessly inept administrator who vainly attempts to retain control. The doctors are too busy plotting against each other and trying to get laid to pay much attention to ghosts, but more and more unusual things start to occur when a meddlesome, spiritually inclined old lady, sick with nothing more than a desperate need for attention, gets herself admitted and starts poking into the hospital’s past.
The horror aspects of the show are compelling, but in many ways Riget is a somewhat generic hospital soap opera, drawing you in to the lurid goings-on that happen once the rubber gloves come off. It’s a familiar format, and an effective one, but in much the same way that Twin Peaks lured unsuspecting viewers in with a murder mystery and a seemingly recognizable small town setting, Von Trier uses the power struggles and trysts of the medical staff as a springboard into the surreal and fantastic. In fact, the influence of David Lynch’s TV masterpiece, which aired a few short years before, permeates the show. This becomes particularly clear in the scenes featuring a pair of Down’s syndrome-afflicted dishwashers, who are forever toiling somewhere deep in the bowels of the building and share some mystical knowledge about the damp, dark force that’s invading the hospital and about the fates of those who live, work and die there, but can only observe and comment like a Greek chorus. There’s also something very Lynchian about its disorienting tonal shifts, going from corporate thriller to gruesome darkness to offbeat comedy in the blink of an eye, which adds a bitingly satirical dimension to the proceedings.
Even with its lighthearted, impish streak, the overall mood of the show is one of corruption and decay, which goes together well with the theme of an angry earth reclaiming this corrupt paragon of science and reason, but is also a byproduct of the sepia filter Von Trier put on the digital footage to make it look less cheap. The show’s budget wasn’t big (dig some of those special effects) and they were filming within the hospital itself, often with no props and little lighting or time. Finding the restrictions counter-intuitively liberating, he in turn incorporated many of them into the tenets of the Dogme 95 school of filmmaking he founded with Thomas Vinterberg in 1995, between Riget’s first four-episode series in 1994 and it’s second in 1997. In their manifesto, Von Trier and Vinterberg took those artistic and technical limitations even further, forbidding optical effects and non-diegetic music. Though the Dogme 95 collective eventually disbanded a decade later in 2005, and Von Trier has made many films since then, he and the movement he helped launched are still more or less synonymous in the minds of many, but none of it may have happened without Riget.
Beyond being a creative coup, the series was also a blockbuster commercial success for Von Trier, not only reinvigorating his reputation among Danes, who had felt somewhat left out of the international tone of the Europa films, but becoming a big hit abroad, so much so that none other than Stephen King, usually not one to work on projects other than his own, developed an adaption for American television. The result, Kingdom Hospital, ran for one season on ABC in 2004 and while moderately well received, didn’t leave much of a lasting impact with audiences (the British comedy Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place was also inspired in part by Riget). The series garnered even more fans when the eight episodes were recut as two features to be run theatrically abroad, and for a time, many were even holding out for a third installment, since Von Trier, ever the compulsive, usually does things in threes, but following the deaths of some key cast members, that began to seem less and less likely. Riget may have been born out of desperation and uncertainty, but it became a classic; it’s like Von Trier himself says in his bizarre personal signoff at the end of every episode, you have to “be prepared to take the good with the evil.”