This is the second imported chunk of the miniseries that director Lars von Trier devised for Danish TV in 1994, four more episodes spread over five hours, depicting the hugely comical interactions of the denizens of a large, and largely mismanaged, hospital known as the Kingdom -- which also happens to be haunted.
The Kingdom is a hotbed of Manichaean struggles -- good vs. evil, progress vs. the status quo, science vs. the supernatural -- as acted out by a variety of pompous fools, amiable dimwits, well-meaning bunglers and cynical manipulators. Returnees from the first installment include the irascible chief of staff Dr. Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard), a Swede who thinks that Denmark is a hopeless backwater and all its inhabitants "scum"; Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), a spiritualist who roams the hallways communing with the hospital's dead and trying to get at the Kingdom's literally hellish secret; and Dr. Bondo (Baard Owe), whose dedication to science is so total and warped he refuses to be operated on so that he may remain the proud possessor of the world's largest cancerous tumor.
The most significant newcomer is a monstrous baby, a spawn of Satan, who has skipped the mewling and puking stage to become a grotesque giant, played by the always-strange Udo Kier. It's typical of the director's playful perversity that this queasy-making apparition is supposed to be one of the movie's most wholly sympathetic characters.
The film bulges with cast and incident. Von Trier's style, a mock-documentary combination of hand-held camera, jump-cuts, indifferent lighting and faded color, gives the fantastic proceedings a realistic gloss and moves things along at a breezy clip. Familiarity with the earlier episodes isn't completely necessary, though it doesn't hurt (and, apparently, there's a third part waiting in the wings ).
Von Trier remains, as in his films Breaking the Waves (1996) and Zentropa (1992), more clever than profound, but it's difficult to gainsay his prodigious gift for invention; even those viewers who detect his underlying glibness will easily remain impressed.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].