Lars von Trier has wrapped up his surreal hospital series The Kingdom (or Riget). The first season was aired in Denmark in 1994, becoming a cult programme in the vein of Twin Peaks. The latest, The Kingdom Exodus (now streaming on MUBI) comes twenty-five-years after the season two finale. In this Q&A, the ever-eccentric and elusive Lars von Trier explains how he completed his trilogy and what he plans on doing next.
What made you want to come back to The Kingdom?
LvT: I was in a state, a mental state, kind of a depression. And the only way to get out of that I know is to do something. And then I looked back on all my trilogies that are only two films. And I felt that The Kingdom was the easiest one [to complete], which it turned out not to be. It took four years.
How did it feel to get back behind the camera after making 2018’s The House That Jack Built?
LvT: I didn’t know that I was having symptoms from this Parkinson’s disease that I unfortunately found. So it was not so pleasant. I feel I let the project down a little bit. But I did what I could.
So was it physically quite a struggle?
LvT: Yeah, sure. And mentally also, because I didn’t know what disease it was, and it was a little complicated to find out.
When you first made The Kingdom, you were inspired partly by Belphegor, Phantom of the Louvre. Do you remember what sort of impact that made on you when you were young?
LvT: Yeah, enormous. I hadn’t seen any television series at that time. And I thought a lot about [it] before I started The Kingdom, because the idea to have a film that takes place in the Louvre was good, because there were so many worlds inside the building, and I tried to find something similar. And it ended up at a hospital.
So you didn’t think of just doing a strict remake of that series?
LvT: No, I wouldn’t be able to. I was very small when I saw it. But it was fascinating.
So what gave you the idea of originally setting it in a hospital? Does it come from a fear of such institutions from when you were young?
LvT: Well, yes, I’m quite sure. But I was talking on the phone to the producer and the producer said to me “You have to come up with a title.” And then I looked out the window and there lay the Kingdom hospital. And I said “It’s gonna be The Kingdom. Didn’t I tell you?”
Do you feel this new season is very different to the earlier seasons?
LvT: I would say that we focus more on humour than horror. Also because the script was quite long and we had a time issue. So horror is something that you need time to develop. Whereas humour is something you can present in a much shorter scene.
When it comes to horror, we see an eyeball removed from its socket. What led to this?
LvT: Well, the nerve is not as long as we showed it. But it’s like this. And I heard a story, because I know some doctors, about a little girl that kept losing sight in one of her eyes. And then they found out that she took her eye out every day. So it was kind of self-harm. And I didn’t think it would be possible…but it is.
This season is certainly more meta. What led to that?
LvT: All these years had gone by. So the only way I could find out to make a new start was to say that Karen in the film watches the old episodes on TV.
What do you think Karen’s journey is through this season? How would you describe it?
LvT: Confused! Like the audience.
Do you enjoy confusing the audience a little bit?
LvT: Oh of course.
You’ve worked with Bodil Jørgensen, of course, on The Idiots. Had you always wanted to reunite with her on something?
LvT: She is a terrific actor. And I know her well. And then I got to know Mikael also some years ago. And we both had some alcohol issues. And he helped me and I helped him. So it was obvious that I should write a part for him. At that time, I knew him privately. So it was writing for him, not about him.
Did you enjoy having a professional relationship as well with him?
LvT: Yeah. If you look away from the fact that I was ill, I think what I enjoyed the most was to work with the actors.
Did it feel like a really strong community around you, of these actors?
LvT: Yeah, I think I felt that in many of the films that [I’ve done]. If you argue with an actor, I can’t work with that. Then I’ll stop shooting and take some days off to get things straight. I can’t command anything. And the way that I’m filming is a benefit to the actors because they can do whatever they want. And they come with their suggestions. And I come with mine. And that’s how it comes to [fruition].
What convinced you to reunite with Udo Kier? Are you friends?
LvT: I see him now and then. So it was obvious. I would have had nothing but emails from him if I didn’t take him in. So he was an important figure.
His character is very unsettling to look at…
LvT: OK, good! It was also practical since Karen has two voices. It was really difficult [for Udo] the first time with all the Danish and he tried to learn the mouth movements, but there was much more text here so we had to find a trick. And that means that she’s talking for him.
How did Willem Defoe cope with coming into a Danish production?
LvT: He demanded to be part of it. So I did my best.
Was he another one that was emailing you and saying, ‘I must be in The Kingdom’?
LvT: Yeah, I stay in contact. And he said “Are you doing anything? Why am I not in it?” You are in it, I said!
This season, you feature a falsely suspected rape. Was this a reaction to MeToo?
LvT: Oh yes. I don’t know very much about MeToo. But I think that basically, it’s a good idea. But it’s risky also, with the internet. In the old days, a man was guilty if he was convicted by a court. And today, it’s very easy to make criminals out of innocent people. They’re probably doing their best at MeToo not to do that. But it is a risk.
Underneath the humour of this, are you quite worried about the way language is being corrected?
LvT: Oh, yes. To me, it is like the burning of books in the Second World War. If you start taking words out, then you start a process that is really negative. I believe in total freedom of the word.
What interests you about trilogies?
LvT: I think it appeals to everybody. I was studying Bergman when I went to university, and there were a lot of trilogies. Even trilogies that he hadn’t named trilogies. It’s something that happens when you see a lot of films…you stack them together.
You famously did Dogville and Mandalay but didn’t ever get round to shooting Wasington. Would you like to complete that trilogy?
LvT: Yeah, yeah. Why not?
Why didn’t you previously finish it?
LvT: It demands a really good idea. I had the idea of maybe directing it from back here. Because the two other films, as you know, are only stripes on the floor [to denote buildings]. And if I could do a film in Washington by remote, it could be an idea.
Where do you think The Kingdom fits in your body of work?
LvT: I would say I have been in this very lucky situation that everything I wanted to do has come through. In this country anyway. And I know in a lot of countries, it’s very difficult for a director to have a hundred-percent control over what he wants to do. So I can only say that I wanted to do it. And that’s why it’s in the family of all the other films.
In the earlier episodes, from the nineties, you’re a presenter on screen. Did you not want to appear on screen this time?
LvT: I was hit quite hard by this Parkinson’s and you can still hear it in my voice, but at that time, I could hardly speak. And even though I did not expect it, I was quite vain about trembling. But then that was also what I said in the text. So I hid.
So that is your feet that we see behind the curtain?
LvT: It’s my shoes anyway!
Do you have any immediate plans for another project?
LvT: No. I’m fantasising about a project where my new physical condition would be a benefit. I don’t know how it should be. But that’s how I’m always thinking: to find a good way to use it. I don’t have the idea. But there must be something…a good side to it all.
Critics have compared The Kingdom: Exodus to Twin Peaks: The Return, which director David Lynch returned to after a similar gap of time. Do you know Lynch? Have you talked to him about this?
LvT: I have met him, I think. The idea with this, Exodus, was to have some kind of closing to the whole thing. Whereas I know that David works with things that are opening up more and more. I remember he tried several times to make an end. But the one I saw was not so successful. The first part was incredible. I was really blown away. And that was of course, a big inspiration for this.
Do you feel like you have closed the door now entirely on The Kingdom?