“The Kingdom Exodus” begins with a joke, and for the next five hours, it never gets serious, not even for a second. That’s not what you might expect for the long-delayed finale to Lars von Trier’s made-for-TV horror series, though it sure makes this over-the-top return to the haunted Rigshospitalet — that big, brutalist medical center in the heart of Copenhagen — a lot more fun.
For all of two minutes, von Trier tricks us into thinking that maybe this third season is going to look like a polished, peak-TV miniseries of the sort you might find on HBO or Netflix (after all, the original series came out in 1994, one year before the artifice-renouncing Danish revolution that was Dogme 95, and von Trier has since gone back to making dark fantasies with heightened style). We open on a closeup of a woman’s eye, ideally lit and steadily framed, reflecting a TV screen on which a tuxedoed von Trier appears, a quarter-century younger, over the credits of Season 2’s final episode.
“How can they peddle such half-baked hooey? That’s no ending,” grouses Karen (Bodil Jørgensen) — a character whom von Trier brings in from “The Idiots” — ejecting her “Kingdom” DVD and heading to bed. From then on, the show reverts back to the sickly, iodine-tinted stylistic anarchy fans of the cult series embraced before. (DP Manuel Alberto Claro, who did such elegant work on “Melancholia” and “Nymphomaniac,” tries to match the grungy, aggressively handheld camerawork that was the show’s signature.)
As it happens, Karen’s not wrong: In the director’s commentary that accompanies that same DVD, von Trier and co-writer Niels Vørsel essentially admitted that they’d written themselves into a corner. “It may be a good thing there isn’t a Part 3,” they quipped. Still, the pair had always intended to wrap things up, and here, 25 years after Part 2, they’re back to making mischief again. In the five hours that follow, there will be secret passages, ghostly apparitions, magic puzzles, questionable-taste provocations (including comments made about the region’s Nazi-related past), a near-death experience and what threatens to be an interdimensional annihilation event.
Having taken notes from the TV show she just watched, Karen shows up at the hospital and immediately heads for the basement, where a giant Ogier the Dane statue blocks her path. Remember, per the prologue that intros every episode, the hospital was built on haunted bleaching grounds. It’s high time audiences witnessed the cosmic consequences of that unfortunate past — which, in this case, means chicanery from a devilish Willem Dafoe and the unforgettable sight of Udo Kier’s oversize head slowly drowning itself in tears. Those latter shots are just gorgeous, like something out of an Andrei Tarkovsky movie. No question that Kier (returning once again as mutant baby Little Brother) has gotten to perform the most surreal moments on this show.
Upstairs, meanwhile, a mostly new staff of bureaucrats, blowhards and blatantly unprofessional MDs are back to their old habit of holding ridiculous staff meetings and getting on one another’s nerves. It’s the first day at the Kingdom for Dr. Helmer (Mikael Persbrandt), neurotic son of same-named Swedish neurosurgeon Stig Helmer (late actor Ernst-Hugo Järegård), who turned a patient into a human vegetable and spent hours analyzing his turds. His colleagues start bullying him the moment he walks in the door; to cope, he organizes the other Swedes on staff to start wreaking havoc on the hospital.
Like Järegård, “Kingdom” star Kirsten Rolffes — who played fan favorite, sick-ward psychic Sigrid Drusse — passed away shortly after Part 2 wrapped, which means that “Exodus” needed fresh alternatives for its two lead characters. That’s where Karen comes in, making steady progress in her task of opening the gate to the Kingdom, while everybody else behaves like characters in a deranged workplace comedy.
It’s easy to recognize today that this whole project was ahead of its time, taking license to be weird from “Twin Peaks,” while anticipating British satires such as “The Office” and “In the Loop” (and their U.S. equivalents, “The Office” and “Veep”), where sloppy, doc-like footage of outrageously wrongheaded on-the-job conduct provides laugh-out-loud catharsis for people who thought their own real-world colleagues were insufferable. Even they probably don’t have a coworker as bad as Filip Naver (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), who threatens to gouge his eye out with a spoon — and actually follows through on it — or Anna (Tuva Novotny), who wears prosthetic nipples under her scrubs to provoke a sexual harassment suit.
Most of the time, “Exodus” is so anarchic that von Trier and company seem to be making it up as they go along. Maybe they are, to some extent, but the irreverent and often farcical comedy benefits from a quarter-century of self-imposed creative discipline by the director. What von Trier took away from the Dogme 95 experiment was the challenge of navigating his way out of seemingly arbitrary logistical “obstructions.” Here, he not only has to give audiences an ending, but he must also remain at least somewhat consistent with the off-the-wall characters, circumstances and aesthetic he established back in the ’90s, minus the escalating series of outrageous horror cliffhangers.
“The Kingdom Exodus” really does build on what has come before, bringing back players such as Balder (Nicolas Bro) and Judith (Birgitte Raaberg), while “upgrading” the dishwashing duo — two characters with Down syndrome — who seemed to be the only ones who understood what the hell was going on. Though striving for unpredictability, von Trier crams the miniseries with religious references and layered allusions to other texts, like the danse macabre seen in silhouette on the hospital’s roof, lifted directly from Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” with all the end-of-times symbolism that conveys. Eventually, the meta gimmick of holding von Trier responsible for all this nonsense comes back around, although it’s clear the director doesn’t fancy himself playing God so much as Satan, with a sense of humor, of course.
Mubi plans to release “The Kingdom Exodus” on its streaming service later this year.