1994 Danish Television Mini-Series (Four Parts) by Lars von Trier

Distributed as The Kingdom (English language title), Hospital der Geister - The Kingdom in Germany, L'Hôpital et ses fantômes in France and Riket in Sweden.

Lars von Trier—award-winning director, writer and notoriously eccentric filmmaking favorite son of Denmark. Von Trier's mind is a dark place indeed. In his 1994 television series Riget, we learn just how deep and disturbing those dark places in Mr. von Trier can be. The mini-series revolves around the strange happenings in the Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen, Denmark's largest state hospital. According to the opening narration, the Rigshospitalet was built on a haunted old bleaching ground. This eerie, atmospheric and deeply bizarre series follows the adventures of a small group of medical professionals and patients and their involvement in the twisted goings-on in this weird hospital.

With its complex character interactions, this show, written by von Trier, Tomas Gíslason and Niels Vørsel, has much the effect of a severely insane soap opera with hilariously funny parts, gruesome horror and chilling terror. Some of the storylines are based on classic Scandinavian ghost stories, which results in some complex mythology as the tale unfolds. The tale, while highly entertaining, also contains some clever satirical elements, especially about the modern medical system in Denmark. Riget, directed by von Trier and Morten Arnfred, has frequently been compared to Twin Peaks due to its soap opera quality combined with the oddball and often funny elements.

Exceptionally atmospheric, Riget pulls the viewer in with its remarkable cinematography (director of photography was Eric Kress). Combining contrasty sepia tones, shaky hand-held footage, odd angles and extremely tight closeups with more conventional footage, the viewer is left with the eerie, claustrophobic feeling of a strange, rotting and forsaken place with a lot of very old secrets. The haunting and very effective soundtrack music was created by Danish composer Joachim Holbek.

The overall feel of this strange series sneaks up on the viewer—Riget starts off a bit slowly, as though it were a run-of-the-mill (if highly eccentric) hospital drama. Within 15 minutes, the audience is dragged into the creepy world of this off-the-wall medical center. The show can be very disorienting, as the numerous characters play hide-and-seek though the seemingly endless hallways of the hospital. At times chilling, at times severely bizarre, Riget is often absurdly funny and certain parts of this warped series stick in the mind. One friend describes the experience "it's like a funny, angry monkey was hanging on the back of your brain."

The World of Riget

Just a few elements in this bizarre series include (and I am working hard here to avoid spoilers): stolen body parts, ghosts, botched brain surgery, a haunted ambulance, zombification–Haitian style and a weird (and absolutely goofy) secret society.

Von Trier and his associates assembled a team of very talented actors and crew largely from his native Denmark. As such, the cast and crew of Riget will probably be unfamiliar to most viewers outside that country. The cast of characters is large, but among the standouts are:

Dr. Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård)—Possibly the most memorable character in this crazy cast, Dr. Helmer is a pompous and thoroughly unlikable neurosurgeon. A bigoted Swedish expatriate, who fled his country to escape the consequences of his own ineptitude, Stig constanly rails against his Danish hosts and occasionally goes to the roof to look out at his beloved homeland and offer brilliantly kooky rants about the Danes, always punctuated with upraised fists and a shout of "Danskjävlar!" ("Danish scum!"). Stig is a villain for the ages.

Rigmor (Ghita Nørby)—Stig's girlfriend helps him cover up his mistakes, but when she reaches the end of her rope, things turn sinister, as she roams the basement with a pistol in hand, looking for rats.

Sigrid Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes)—A hypochondriac and spiritualist, Mrs. Drusse stays in this haunted hospital to help explore its mysteries. Her son, Bulder (Jens Okking) is an orderly and helps her gain access to areas that might otherwise be off-limits. Kirsten Rolffes' excellent acting is one thing that many people notice about Riget. Despite her eccentricities, Mrs. Drusse comes across as one of the warmest and most sensible characters in the show.

Dr. Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen)—The hospital administrator, Dr. Moesgaard seems a lot less concerned with the health of the patients than he is with the reputation of the place. A bit of an ineffectual, inattentive flake, he actually winds up hiding under his desk to avoid confronting government inspectors.

Dr. Bondo (Baard Owe)—Pathologist and professor, Bondo becomes obsessed with a record-setting tumor–so much so that he has the diseased organ into his own body, nurturing it ... even talking to it and acting much as if it were his child.

Dr. Krogshøj (Søren Pilmark)—is a young, good-looking fellow with a faintly roguish cast. Krogshøj has a somewhat unconventional way of going about things, even managing a sort of black market operation out of the basement where he re-directs medical supplies from one part of the hospital to another in an effort to streamline the often outrageous bureaucracy of the place. This and his ability to spot and remember questionable medical practices (he keeps a tiny model graveyard memorializing the worst ones) has brought him head-to-head with Dr. Helmer on a few occasions. The conflict between these two is one of the most interesting driving forces in the plot of Riget.

Judith (Birgitte Raaberg)—Clever, sharp and scrupulous Judith is a doctor in the neuro ward where she works alongside Krogshøj and Helmer. While they do not exactly advertise the fact, she and Krogshøj are lovers and this puts her in Stig Helmer's sights as well. Judith becomes the focus of some extremely disturbing and eerie phenomena in the course of the story, starting with an ancient evil ghost named Aage Krüger (played by the incomparable Udo Kier).

the Dishwashers (Vita Jensen and Morten Rotne Leffers)—Two young people with Down's Syndrome who act like the chorus in a Greek play, narrating and elaborating with creepy omniscience and innocent-seeming amusement. They comment about the latest twists in the plot with good-natured humor and a curiosity that manages to seem at once vaguely cute and somehow slightly sinister, as if these two were some kind of childlike deities that could view the troubled people of the Rigshospitalet from their secluded lair.

Lars von Trier—At the end of each episode, the notoriously eccentric director of this series, tuxedoed, makes a brief commentary about what we have just seen. His comments are a high point for many viewers (myself included)–a tiny dessert of inspired madness from our host. He finishes each intense monologue off by admonishing us to take the "good with the evil...".

Riget Provokes Reactions

Riget was well-received in Denmark. To the surprise of very few people who had seen it, it quickly gathered an international following, and was soon released in a large number of countries. Critics and fans alike were blown away by its combination of humor, scares and drama—artistry with absurdity. In the United States, a few critics were displeased with the lack of solid plot conclusions. Some that the ridiculousness of some of the situations in the story diluted the dramatic tension.

I have shown this series to almost everyone that I know and without exception they have loved it. The only complaints I am aware of are that it is too gory (there is a lot of gross-out stuff, even a couple of moments that can make a hardened horror fan wince) and that it poses a lot more questions than it answers (in this fact it reminds me of Carnivale). Some people don't enjoy reading subtitles, and these are far from the best subtitles I've seen, but Riget is good enough to draw in even people who don't care for them.

This intriguing series was first released on VHS and is now available in several different DVD releases. Von Trier went on to create Riget II in 1997, which ties up a few of the loose ends that Riget spun (while maddeningly posing more). With the deaths of Ernst-Hugo Järegård and Kirsten Rolffes, there are no plans at this time for a third series, which is unfortunate.

In 2004, Stephen King collaborated with Richard Dooling to create Kingdom Hospital, which is a very well-made retelling of Riget (in my own opinion, it qualifies as the world's most elaborate fanfic, as King put a character who is basically himself into it*). Kingdom Hospital is set in Maine (of course it is, I DID say Stephen King!), with an American cast. Much of the plot, humor and strangeness were preserved ("Maine hick scum!!!"), but some fans were not ready for Riget USA. I thought it was kind of fun, even if it was not quite the same as getting more Riget.

In my own opinion, Riget is absolutely wonderful–intriguing and mysterious with fascinating characters, weird situations and enough genuinely creepy stuff to set your skin crawling for quite awhile after the show is over. A few years back, a friend who lives far away saw Riget, never having heard of it before. He said it reminded him of me. In a warped kind of way, I was flattered.

*I am informed that this phenomenon is called "Mary Sue-ing."

imdb writeup:
Berardinelli, James, (review) at Colossus.net moview reviews: http://movie-reviews.colossus.net/movies/k/kingdom.html
Wikipedia article on The Kingdom: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Kingdom
Tangherlini, Timothy R., "Ghost in the Machine: Supernatural Threat and the State in Lars von Triers Riget" Scandinavian Studies, Spring 2001, vol. 73, Issue 1, Pg. 1
plus, of course, watching the mini-series many, many times