Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Ghost in the Machine

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Ghost in the Machine

Article excerpt

Supernatural Threat and the State in Lars von Trier's Riget

LARS VON TRIER'S 1994 four-part television mini-series Riget (The Kingdom) -- one of the most popular television series in the history of Danish broadcasting -- uses the main state hospital, rigshospital, as the backdrop for a contemporary ghost story.(1) In the television series, von Trier tells the story of a young girl who is the victim of a murder and the attempts of an elderly woman to help the girl's distressed spirit find rest (Trier). By situating a classic ghost story within the walls of the hospital amid a series of contemporary intrigues and by presenting a character -- Fro Drusse -- whose abilities as a spiritualist combined with her apparent hypochondria run directly counter to the ideological foundations of the hospital, von Trier enables a multi-layered critique of the discourse of the hospital and, by extension, the State.(2) With the disturbing final resolution of the girl's ghostly intrusion into the ultra-modern hospital in which the attempted conjuring only partially succeeds, von Trier's contemporary narrative endorses an evaluation of governmental authorities and related institutions reminiscent of the position taken by many late nineteenth-century Danish storytellers in their ghost stories, namely that something is indeed rotten in Denmark -- or at least with those who purport to protect the interests of the average citizen (Tangherlini Interpreting Legend; and "Who ya gonna call?").(3)

Most previous considerations of yon Trier's television series have focused on technique (Christensen and Kristiansen; Brogaard and Lindhardtsen), humor (Agger), and his play with various film genres (Agger; Christensen and Kristiansen). Interestingly, most of these studies have assiduously avoided an examination of the ideological critique clearly evident in the work, with the exception of Christensen and Kristiansen who tip their hat in that direction: "Riget kan saledes eksempelvis ogsa laeses allegorisk som en kritik af det danske Rige, eller af den vesterlandske rationalitet for den sags skyld. Men det bliver en helt anden historie" [Accordingly, Riget can also be read allegorically as a critique of the Danish kingdom, for example, or of Western rationality for that sake. But that is another story altogether] (Christensen and Kristiansen 307). This critical project is what I propose to undertake here, along with highlighting von Trier's use of folklore as a basis for this critique and exploring how such a critique is also an essential part of folk legend tradition. Through this examination of von Trier's use of folk legend and folk belief, two facts come to light: 1. folklore can play an important role in contemporaneous ideological debates and 2. in media such as television, folklore can be deployed to serve rhetorical ends similar to those of folk tradition. Although the social criticism found in folk tradition is essentially local and rarely reaches beyond parish politics, von Trier's critique takes place in the national arena. Furthermore, while folk legend always exists within a tradition of more or less equally weighted narratives and counter narratives, the television program stands alone as the sole authoritative narrative. The reach and authority -- attributable entirely to the form of communication (television as opposed to face-to-face conversation) -- are perhaps the most important differences between modern and traditional transmission conduits and have significant implications for the cultural prominence accorded the television program (Degh and Vazsonyi).(4)

In von Trier's chaotic vision of the hospital -- a vision made all the more chaotic by his resistance to standard rules of filmmaking -- ghosts, hounds from hell, physicians, nurses, Voudoun-practicing porters, rats, members of parliament, and -- perhaps most frightening of all -- Swedes play hide-and-go-seek in the labyrinthine halls of the modern institution (Christensen and Kristiansen; Agger; Brogaard and Lindhartsen). …

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