Lars von Trier's Kingdom: A Complicated History

Oh, boy. If you weren't collecting DVDs back in the early 2000s, you missed a lot of headache and over complication. Lars von Trier's The Kingdom (or Riget, originally) was and is one of the greatest, craziest television mini-series ever produced. It was released on a ton of different DVD editions in a ton of different countries, and they all had different things wrong with them, with each release fixing one or two issues, sometimes introducing another, and slowly inching our way to a respectable home edition. Forget double-dipping, we were quintuple-dipping! But we finally got there in the end.

Update 5/1/24: It's a big update for The Kingdom.  Trier has finally completed the trilogy, and now all three series have been compiled on blu from Mubi in one comprehensive set.
Until recently, there have really been two Kingdoms, Kingdom I and Kingdom II, a trilogy that went unfinished... due in large part to the passing of lead actor Ernst-Hugo Jaregard. The Kingdom was full of wild and wonderful characterizations, but Jaregard still managed to stand out as the greatest performance. But even without a perfectly satisfactory conclusion, The Kingdom is a hell of a ride. The "kingdom" of this story is a high-end Denmark hospital, which is not only haunted but staffed with such a colorful cast of characters, they manage to make the ghosts look pale by comparison. Captivating and endlessly entertaining, each Kingdom consisted of four, hour-long episodes... mostly.
Occasionally, the series was broken up into five episodes, depending on what country you ordered this from. And that's just one of the many screwy quirks that made the various DVD editions as almost as eccentric as the show itself. Unfortunately, I sold off a lot of my older copies as I upgraded them, so I can't present the ultimate library screenshot comparison. But it's really not that important, because so many of the older discs were so flawed and without lasting, redeeming qualities (meaning unique extras or something), there's really no reason to go back to them. Still, I did own them at one point, so I can briefly run down the deals for some of the important .

The first set of DVDs came from China. They were NTSC and had English subtitles, so they were the original go-to DVDs. Unfortunately, the subtitles were terrible. They had constant spelling errors, mis-translations, and would sometimes just go away, leaving entire monologues untranslated. They also cut two of Trier's closing monologues, where he would speak directly to the audience during the closing credits.

Then the PAL DVD came out from ICA Projects in the UK. That one I've actually still got, so we'll take a second look at it a little further down. But the basic story with this one is that it had better picture quality and subtitled Trier's monologues, plus it included Tranceformer, an excellent, hour-long documentary on Trier. BUT - and this is a big but - it's cut. Some sites report it as missing only a few seconds of graphic violence, but that's not true. It's missing a bunch of stuff, often completely innocuous material, which was probably just shaved for more commercial time. It's also the first release to edit the series into five episodes instead of four. And they only released The first Kingdom, so it left you hanging for Kingdom II anyway.

Seville released it next, in Canada. They still broke the show up into five episodes, but weren't missing all the footage the ICA Projects disc was. For a while, this was the best release. It had forced subtitles, no extras, and never got to Kingdom II. But at the time, you couldn't do better. Oh, and are you wondering how the show could have special monologues at the end of every episode, then be re-cut to include an extra episode and still somehow have a monologue for the end of each episode? They just repeated the closing from episode three on episode four and hoped nobody would notice it was the same thing twice. :/

Then, in 2003, Triers' own company, Zentropa Films, did it right. And that's the main DVD edition we're going to focus on here. There have been subsequent releases: Koch in the USA and Madman in Australia, which essentially mirror the Zentropa release. And in 2011, Second Sight reissued it in the UK, with all of the features and qualities of the Zentropa disc, plus Tranceformer.

And finally, Mubi has brought the series to HD, with a brand new, 7-disc set (four discs for The Kingdom I & II, and three for Kingdom: Exodus, which I'll swing back to later), in both the US and UK.  For years, I've known to be Mubi just a streaming platform that held a couple of interesting titles, like the new Kingdom, hostage behind their paywall.  But lately they've branched into physical media, and I'm excited to welcome them to the fold.  They've got all the episodes, uncut, with improved translations, and all the extras from the Zentropa set (except the music video).  One potentially controversial detail, though, they're re-framed everything to widescreen.
1) 2002 ICA Projects DVD; 2) 2003 Zentropa DVD; 3) 2024 Mubi BD.
So starting with the DVDs, the first thing you might notice is that even though ICA fixed the horrendous subtitles of the old Chinese discs, Zentropa still wound up producing still alternate translations. Both discs are slightly windowboxed, non-anamorphic 1.41:1 transfers (specifically, they're non-anamorphic full-frame 3:4 with slight letterboxing to matting them further down). The Kingdom II, which is only available in the Zentropa set, is given a slightly taller 1:34.1 frame. The Kingdom was intentionally given a funky, grainy look, so it's never going to look anywhere near pristine, but improved picture of the ICA disc has been pretty well duplicated on the Zentropa disc. Image quality-wise, they're about the same, except ICA's has a lower contrast, less saturated and more washed out look.

So, I had the opportunity to ask the head of remastering the first two seasons about the new framing on, and he had this to say, "The original seasons were shot on super 16mm celluloid film which is closer to the 16:9 AR with 1.66:1. It was then cropped to fit the 4:3 AR of TVs. The remastered has more footage on the sides and a slight crop in top and bottom." And yup, that bears out.  In the shots above, we can see a bit more on the sides, with a little less along the top in the first set, and less along the bottom in the second.  It's nice that they took time to carefully re-frame things.  I still wish they hadn't taken the liberty to get all revisionist and change the AR, but I can't honestly say it bothers me that much.  And it's worth noting that the restoration was done by Zentropa, not Mubi themselves, which at least adds a little legitimacy to any creative adjustments made for these new transfers.

What will jump out at you much more distinctly than the aspect ratio when you first fire up one of the blu-rays is the grain.  Wow, is this grainy!  Makes sense for 16mm, and it's safe to assume the DVDs smoothed it all away just by virtue of being unable to render it all.  But when you zoom in close, there is a very pixelated look to the grain, suggesting some sharpening or other tinkering, which could be the result of the new remastering or something Trier did to the footage in the 90s.  I don't know, but it's not just natural film grain.  Looks like some edge enhancement, too, or the unsharpen tool; like they worked a lot to "fix" this footage.  But they also appear to have recovered actual, additional detail (look way down the hall), so for the most part you could call it a success.

Apart from that, the saturation looks more like the Zentropa than the faded ICA, with some of the original colors popping back up (i.e. the garbage bag in the second set of shots appearing the most visibly blue).  A welcome fix is to the video tape-y color separation.  Note the green haloing in the lights (and other spots) in the second set of shots.  That's been cleaned up.  In brief, I think most viewers will find it a much less soft, frustrating viewing on their modern sets, but they'll be saying, "WOW, is this grainy!"
And now, 25 years after The Kingdom II ended, we have the final chapter: Kingdom: Exodus - a move likely inspired at least somewhat by Twin Peaks: The Return.  Fans will be happy that this gives a satisfying conclusion, presumably close to what we would've gotten in the 90s, but with some accommodations for the leap forward in time.  Sadly, of course, some actors couldn't return, but many do, and we get some newer, younger doctors added to the mix.  Alexander Skarsgård drops by to play the son of his father's character, while the most exciting new cast member is surely Willem Dafoe.  I don't want to spoil any of the many surprises, so I'll just quickly say that this really is the third and final chapter, not just some new material tacked on.  And aside from Trier taking a few grumpy/ easy jabs at wokeism and a couple corny little comic misfires, it's great and everything fans have been hoping for.
2024 Mubi BD.
Exodus maintains the color-drained sepia look of the original series, as well as 1.78:1 aspect ratio if you're going with the blu-rays all the way through the run.  In fact, the new episodes start with the same bleach pit opening as the 90s episodes.  That's probably part of why they re-framed the old series to 1.78, to make all the Kingdoms feel of a piece.  Still, you'll immediately notice that Exodus isn't nearly as grainy as the previous series, and what grain is here looks like actual film grain.  Detail is now much clearer, so the new shows still have a distinct look.  You can tell they're starting with a much higher def image.

The audio situation is the same across all three Kingdoms.  ICA's subtitles are burnt in, but Zentropa's are optional, and they offer a plethora of language choice, including: Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Serbian, Swedish and the English.  Mubi has the original audio in both 2.0 and 5.1 DTS-HD, with removable English subtitles.
Extras-wise, the ICA disc just has the Tranceformer documentary, but it's pretty darn good, and it's not on the Zentropa disc. That's actually the reason I've held on my ICA DVDs while I sold my other old sets. The doc was also included on Criterion's DVD of Elements of Crime, however; so if you've got that there's no reason to bother with the ICA anymore. And, as I said, Second Sight included it on their 2011 release.

But Zentropa introduced a bevy of Kingdom-specific extras. First, Trier provides an audio commentary, along with co-writer Niels Vorsel and editor Molly Stensgard. They don't tackle the entire 8+ hours, but they do sections of each episode, which can be directly accessed from the Special Features menu. It's not in English, but there are English subtitles for the commentary audio. There's also a 25 minute Behind the Scenes featurette, a second 40 minute one entitled In Lars von Trier's Kingdom, a collection of "outrageous" television commercials directed by Trier and starring Jaregard, a music video for the show's main theme, bloopers from that music video, and a collection of trailers for Trier's other films.
Mubi basically retains all the Zentropa extras, except for the music video and its bloopers, without adding anything new.  It's disappointing they couldn't have gotten any interviews or anything for Exodus.  But at least they include a full-color 24-page booklet with a new Trier interview talking about the new series.  You should definitely read it; as it answers a lot of questions (not in-story but about the thinking behind everything), and it's as satisfying as you could hope for outside of a proper video piece on disc.  They also throw in six art cards of Exodus images, and the whole thing is packaged in an impressive, fold-out digipack and outer slipbox.
The Kingdom is a fantastic series, and fortunately, the horrible state it was in on DVD has been corrected. The missing footage, broken subtitles, screwy-five episode format, etc were cleaned up in Zentropa's 4-disc set, and all subsequent DVDs have used their improved set-up, down to the extras. And then Mubi gave us HD remasters and, of course, Exodus, which is of course absolutely essential. You might, if you're a real stickler, want to hang onto one of the DVD sets (but nothing from before 2002!) for the sake of the original 4:3 aspect ratio.  But I'm completely happy with the new set and think the upsides more than make up for the arguable downsides.


  1. Thanks for a great article. I can't agree about something though: I have just bought a 4 disc set released by Second Sight in UK and the translation is really horrible - on many occassions I had no clue what they were talking about, some dialogues seemed to have been translated by a google translator and not by a human being. Big shame really as it's the only complete DVD edition and I can't borrow it to people saying "look at this masterpiece" as the translation is ruining it... ICA version was much better in that terms, but again - no Kingdom II released by them...

  2. Wonderful article! I've been watching through the Mubi set as my first viewing of The Kingdom and it does look spectacular! Perhaps the strange, kinda processed look of the first two series you mentioned has to do with how the film was chemically processed - according to the restoration notes in that included booklet, the original film elements were bleach bypassed. If you look up that process and examples of what the results look like, you'll notice a lot of similar qualities with the first two series of The Kingdom. Beyond that, I really wouldn't blame them doing a little bit of digital work to try and bring out as much detail as possible from the material. It looks like it was shot on the highest-speed Super 16mm film Trier could get his hands on at the time, and it almost doesn't have enough visual information to make it to 1080p! I'm very happy with the results - the reframing is barely noticeable, it could've been a miserable cropjob but they clearly did the work and it's sometimes even difficult to tell what was lost/gained looking at your own screenshots side by side!

    Still, some purist part of me wants to track down that Second Sight DVD set just for completionist's sake haha.

  3. Oh, it also may be worth noting that the UK version of the Mubi set runs at the correct, original 25fps (1080i50 by the limitations of the blu-ray spec, but you can put 25p video into a 50i stream and it's functionally identical), while the US version of the same Mubi set (and, for that matter, every US release) slows the show down to 24fps for NTSC compatbility, since some American televisions and even blu-ray players will throw a fit at 25p/50i content. However, the UK set is Region B locked, so those importing it for the correct frame rate will either need a region-free blu-ray player or do what I do and use software like MakeMKV or AnyDVD HD to bypass those restrictions.

    25fps to 24fps slowdown doesn't impact media visually that much, it's not like anything will look like it's running in slow motion, but they generally have to stretch the audio out to keep it in sync, which then requires pitch compensation, which usually sounds awful to my ears. All pitch compensated audio I've ever heard (mostly from the US Doctor Who blu-rays which do the same thing) applies a weird unpleasant tinniness to certain voices or frequencies. The UK blu-rays don't have this issue, so I spent the little extra money to import it haha.