Just as I’ve entered the cinema and settled into my seat to watch the first two episodes of Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom: Exodus, a brain-shattering headache starts pounding along the entire right side of my skull – six seconds of excruciating pain that will not blissfully fade away. Perhaps because Zentropa’s name suddenly appears on the screen, redirecting my attention to the production company that has always been a reliable go-to for Danish film and TV productions, as well as poor working conditions and abusive management.
Welcome to the Danish art industry, where the sky is the limit and the foundations are so damp and rotten that even the mould has long since sought pastures new in other, better parts of society. And just as the winds of identity politics and national patriotism alike are blowing with full force, Lars von Trier returns to his legendary hospital horror satire The Kingdom (Riget, in Danish) originally broadcast in 1994 and 1997 as an eight-episode miniseries that gave the entire nation a delightfully warped relationship to Denmark’s premier hospital, Rigshospitalet.
Exodus is set in a fictionalised version of the present day. The legendary actor Bodil Jørgensen, whose distinctive blend of fragility and strength works so well in all kinds of stories, plays the sleepwalker Karen who, after watching the first two series The Kingdom on DVD, is frustrated by its unclear ending. In her sleep, Karen finds her way to Rigshospitalet to look for answers. She gets herself hospitalised with the help of a Swedish hacker who slips a medical record into the system, giving her a diagnosis of somnambulism (sleepwalking), a disorder in which the hot-tempered neurologist Naver (Nikolaj Lie-Kaas) is greatly interested and seeks to resolve unconventionally by surgical means.
The meta-layer of having The Kingdom be a TV series in the world of Exodus is quickly wrapped up and entangled in a regular plot where characters from the series-within-the-series enter the world in the new season. Many of the original actors are back to reprise their roles, while a deceased actor Jens Okking, who played the porter Bulder, has been replaced by Nicolas Bro, whose name is Balder, but is amusingly called Bulder to straighten out the continuity a bit.
Similarly, chief physician Stig Helmer is no longer with us, but his son, Helmer Jr., played by Mikael Persbrandt, arrives by helicopter as a newly hired consultant, partly to investigate the nation that drove his father mad and partly to raise Danish medical science to the otherwise unattainable Swedish standards. The taunting banter between neighbouring countries picks up exactly where it left off. In fact, it is taken to even greater extremes, for example, with the addition of a society – Anonymous Swedes – whose members meet in the hospital basement to share their grotesque feelings for their motherland.
After a beautiful and colourful intro to the series, where a bat causes the heavy revolving doors to open so that Karen can enter through the gate to the hospital, the footage is once again bleached by the same sepia filter as in the 1990s, a nicotine-yellow fog settling over the Danish medical sector and its imaginary employees. A sick atmosphere still pervades the hospital despite new measures of institutional transparency known as “the universal open-door policy”: no doors may be locked, a policy instituted by Lars Mikkelsen’s vague and sensitive chief physician Pontopidan – even though he constantly locks himself in to nurse his basic anxiety. Hypocrisy is once again a prominent personality trait for many of the show’s characters.
For example, Persbrandt is utterly excellent as the hypocritical head consultant, who sweepingly and coolly neutralises all pronouns and introduces wokeness in the hospital. In an acerbic jab exposing our need for quick fixes to white supremacy, two brown cleaners are quickly dressed in doctor’s robes to satisfy Helmer Jr.’s superficial demands for diversity in the workplace. But the laugh fades quickly because instead of diversifying his cast to reflect the current realities of Danish society and its institutions, von Trier has chosen an all-white cast, thereby neglecting this most basic of responsibilities by simply satirising the issue of representation. Bummer.
It quickly becomes clear that one of the new social issues Exodus sets out to address is that of identity politics. A misunderstanding about a pronoun results in a botched operation for Karen’s sleepwalking, and on the bottom shelf of this scene’s dramaturgy lies the message that gender-neutral pronouns are clearly dangerous for society.
The above may be an oversimplification, but that is how Exodus comes across on the whole: a deliberately coarse oversimplification of complexity. A dedicated snowflake like me (honestly, is there anything more poetic than being a snowflake?) has to spend a lot of energy sorting through the show’s satire and the motivations behind it. I am becoming hyper-aware of the growing need to know exactly where artists stand in relation to their statements. There can be no doubt that, at least within the visual arts, we now need to know who the artist is as a person before we can fully relate to the work. For better or worse, biography is more important than ever to hold artists accountable and make art an even more finely honed space for treating society’s problems.
In other words, you can’t mix Paramol and Panadol. Or you can, but you’ll feel bad. Just as bad as seeing Helmer Jr. played by Persbrandt – who in the real world has several #MeToo allegations hanging over him – trying to wriggle his way out of a case of sexual harassment in the workplace after he awkwardly tries to get consent, via email, to slap the behind of Tuva Novotny’s character, Anna Gram. A Zentropa production that pokes fun of sexual abuse feels about as sad as a traffic accident on the E20 accompanied by canned laughter. In fact, if only Exodus had a backdrop of malicious canned laughter, then the coarseness might actually stand a chance of transcending something – anything at all – and prompt a genuinely eerie emotional response.
An obvious parallel to Exodus is David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return, which hit the screens in 2017, more than twenty-five years after the original series was broadcast. But in contrast to Lynch, who surpassed his original show in sheer weirdness, twisted psychology, and downright uncanniness, von Trier goes straight back to the same recipe which made everyone leap in their seats during prime time with his insanely macabre exposition of the Rigshospitalet, the stronghold of Danish medical science. But this time around, the results come across as bland and washed out. The national-pathological satire that once had significant bite now tastes like diluted lemonade after a hard trip up the hospital’s many stairs. Another bummer. Did we really expect that Lars von Trier and Zentropa would still be capable of delivering nuanced social satire? It is difficult to navigate and take in the series’ good scenes and characters when the anal hijinks and jokes made at the expense of the less privileged are delivered in the most pedestrian and Danish way imaginable.
The mantra “pain is your friend” echoes at a conference on the subject, where we see cheerful doctors receiving rolling goodie bags bearing the inscription “free shit” as if they were pieces of pharmaceutical Rimowa luggage signed by Virgil Abloh. But all the existential pain that underpins von Trier’s works feels so remorselessly tiring today when it is mostly – and repeatedly – expressed and expunged through misogyny, phobic anxiety, and half-assed humour.
Of course, I cannot offer a full diagnosis until the entire ‘examination’ has concluded. But Exodus does feel rather like a routine visit to a doctor who still believes that “anxiety is a gift for an artist,” as my former doctor once told me when I desperately needed a referral to a therapist. The series misses out on an obvious opportunity to comment on a hospital system and, indeed, a public sector, which is crumbling as the welfare society is dismantled institution by institution. Instead, von Trier and his cohorts let off trivial cheap shots against identity politics, digitisation, and #MeToo.
Von Trier has always been very keen on belittling himself. Or at least on exposing the miserable existence of the perfidious white man. The theme is obviously not completely irrelevant, as the world is full of them. Still, the world turns, and the dreary nihilism that drives Exodus feels like a creative autopilot producing a dose of old-time TV for anyone suffering from the syndrome nostalgia universalis.
The Kingdom Exodus is premiering at Viaplay on October 9. Later also at Danish television DR1.