Controversial art-house director Lars von Trier revolutionized the TV miniseries with The Kingdom in 1994. It was such a unique production that nothing followed in its footsteps.
The Danish 9 hour / 8 episode miniseries Riget (English title; The Kingdom) is clearly a product of a director-writer with ambitions and visions. That is clear from the onset, as soon as the opening credits have rolled and the creepy vibes of the Danish national Rikshospital start radiating. Anyone who has ever suspected that weird things are going on in large hospitals are getting their concerns confirmed here. Riget follows several story lines based on the doings and personalities of various hospital visitors and staff, among them a Swedish neurosurgeon who hates Danes, old mrs. Drusse who can communicate with the dead, and a chief surgeon who always thinks the best of anyone and anything, no matter the situation. The basis for all this is that the hospital itself is built on a site where people got no rest before they died. Riget is not a complex story but it weaves several lines together to form a fabric that looks and feels different from anything seen on Nordic TV.
On the surface the series is also unique in the sense that it is a major genre entry, produced in a time where Scandinavian genre TV was limited to crime dramas, unless speaking of children’s TV which always has had plenty of fantasy elements. It took almost a decade before something similar entered our screens, the Swedish fantasy series De drabbade (2003) which matched Riget for fantasy but not for weirdness. Riget offers an assorted mix of zombies, demons, freaks, ghosts, splatter violence, woodoo, satan worshippers, even mr Death himself, and of course the expected selection of hospital weirdos such as the medical student who tries to remedy her fear of blood by watching horror movies, and the pathology doctor who puts a cancer infested liver into himself. The reason for all these pretty disturbing employees, visitors and patients is that all film creators know that you can do more things in a fantasy, horror or sci-fi context than in straight drama. Not just in visual and effects terms, but also in terms of subtext and social critique. There is no way von Trier can claim that Riget isn’t an attack on modern medical practices and get away with it; much of the story is focused on alternative worlds and belief systems, and the faults of the traditional medical system.
Conceptually and visually, Riget is either love it or hate it. It’s filmed to a large portion with handheld cameras, in existing light and with a monochrome sepia colour that gives everything a yellow/brown-ish look. The image is also somewhat pixelated and rough compared to most other TV productions even from that time, but this actually adds to the ghostly nature of the hospital in a way that more realistic images would not. The shaky visuals are a visual portal to an underground world and tells you that anything can happen.
Riget is not without flaws though. It was produced as two seasons, and the second season clinges more to desperate comedy than the first. Events and characters go more and more crazy, and the story slows down in a Twin Peaks-esque way – will it ever reach a conclusion? Riget is perhaps similar to Twin Peaks in mood and impact, but unlike David Lynch’s cult series, Riget never reached its conclusion because that was to come in a third season that never was made. This of course reduces the value and overall enjoyment of the second season, and causes frustration, but is also part of what makes Riget special; you don’t know quite what is going on, and you won’t know it either.
Riget is essential watching in a Nordic and global perspective, not only for its suspense and bizarre events and characters, but also for the way it twists and bends genre definitions. I doubt if anything like it has been made anywhere, ever. One moment serious drama with political and social satire, the next moment a freak show of epic proportions.
Directed by Lars von Trier (also creator) and Morten Arnfred.
Denmark, 1994 and 1997.
Season one rating: 10 of 10.
Season two rating: 8 of 10.