The King Is Alive. Directed by Kristian Levring, Pathé, 2000.

Reviewed by Carolyn Jess
The Queen's University of Belfast

Jess, Carolyn. "Review of The King Is Alive. Directed by Kristian Levring, Pathé, 2000." Early Modern Literary Studies 10.1 (May, 2004) 17.1-5 <URL:>.

Directed by Kristian Levring. Written by Kristian Levring, Thomas Anders Jensen. Produced by Christopher Ball, Malene Blenkov. Cinematography by Jens Schlosser. Production manager, Kristina Kornum. Sound, Jan Juhler. Editor, Nicholas Wayman-Harris. With Jennifer Jason Leigh (Gina), Janet McTeer (Liz), Romane Bohringer (Catherine), David Bradley (Henry), David Calder (Charles), Bruce Davison (Ray), Brion James (Ashley), Peter Khubeke (Kanana), Vusi Kunene (Moses), Miles Anderson (Jack), Chris Walker (Paul), Lia Williams (Amanda).

  1. The fourth production to be released under the Dogme 95 banner, The King Is Alive appropriates Shakespeare's King Lear specifically to establish the political aims of the twentieth-century's last 'new wave' cinema. Dogme 95 was founded by a body of Danish filmmakers (Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, and Kristian Levring) at the international symposium in Paris, 'Le cinéma vers son deuxième siècle', on the centennial anniversary of the Lumière's primary cinema screening in Paris, which was held on 22 March 1895 and not 28 December 1895 as was originally believed. Dogme's 'Vow of Chastity' sets out ten rules that filmmakers must obey if their film is to be certified as a 'Dogme' film, whereby 'superfluous' film modalities and methodologies such as extra-diegetic sound, tungsten lighting, genre, camera tripods, black and white film stock, props, and 'personal taste' are forbidden. As stated in the two-page manifesto, Dogme's aim is to restore as much as possible of the 'purity' of New Wave innovation, and in particular, as much of the 'innocence' of the Lumière era as it is possible to revive. In pronouncing Shakespeare's Lear as 'alive', Levring's film delineates the interests of Dogme's goals by positing Shakespeare's text at the juncture between a 'dead' aesthetic, and one that is re-born.

  2. Set in an abandoned mining village in Namibia, Africa, Levring's film sets Shakespeare's text at the centre of a diegetic framework around which the film's basic narrative circumnavigates. A group of tourists get stranded in the desert when their coach follows a broken compass for hundreds of miles in the wrong direction, and subsequently runs out of fuel. The most desert-savvy of the bunch (Jack) goes off to get help, while the rest of the team get drunk, begin illicit affairs, and eventually perform a version of King Lear that is re-written according to Henry's memory of the play. The events of the play begin to reflect and heighten the reality of the characters, revealing the cracks in their relationships and emotional selves that gape open by the film's end. Including fragments of Shakespeare's original text, the Lear soundbites nonetheless provide the film's allegorical and diegetic framework. Each role brings judgment upon the characters who participate in the play, and even those who opt out of the performance (such as Catherine) find themselves mirroring and 'performing' more than one lascivious character throughout the film's duration. In accordance with the 'doubling' effect inherent in Lear, Gloucester (Charles) is more convincingly a veritable Lear, and Catherine and Gina each serve as 'Cordelias'. Liz is both Goneril and Regan in one flesh, and the part of Lear is played first by Ashley, who is replaced by Henry (also the play's 'director') when he suffers a mild heart attack. Reflecting the doubling of actors, directors, and narratives inherent in the production, the film appears to announce the dichotomous partnership of Shakespeare's text with Dogme's manifesto, one refracting off the other to illuminate the death of cinema as we know it and the beginning of a cinema that adheres to Dogme's rules.

  3. The film's strengths lie in the strikingly post-apocalyptic cinematography that soaks up Namibia's parched landscapes, capturing the rippled spines of dunes via helicopter shots on three DV cameras without filters, tripods, or special lenses. The lack of music (in keeping with the 'Vow') recalls Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away (2000), which (predominately) employs silence to enforce the protagonist's subjectivity and suffering. The cast's impressive and largely improvised performances are heightened by shooting in sequence, making the actors' visible fatigue and desert-shock apparent. Despite the film's patent portrait of and engagement with Dogme's ethos (treating the desert as the barren cinematic aesthetic of recent years), Lear is employed as a commentary on human frailty, and the low-budget docu-drama production style serves to exemplify many of the characteristics of the play and the narratives that evolve from its cinematic engagement.

  4. Indeed, in bringing the text 'back to life', the tourists jeopardize their own lives. Catherine poisons Gina/Cordelia over what appears to be a 'sibling' rivalry for Henry/Lear's affections, but, unbeknownst to Catherine, Charles beats her to the punch. When Gina scorns his lecherous advances, he strangles her to death and hangs himself, suffering Cordelia's fate in the play at his own/Gloucester's hands. Two marriages come to an end, though one appears to be on the mend by the film's close. Catherine will never discover that her actions towards Gina, though bent on killing her, did not result in her demise, and Henry suffers from the torment of knowing that his memories of the play and his decision to lead the performance have somehow caused these cataclysmic deaths.

  5. As with many of the (now 35) Dogme films, Levring's production does not adhere strictly to the 'Vow' (shooting, for instance, on DV instead of 35mm), yet does not wander far from the parameters of Dogme's philosophy and rules. As one quarter of Dogme's founding body, Levring appears to convey his individual approach to cinematic 'purity', and presents an intriguing methodology for appropriating a Shakespeare play, whereby the Bard is employed to authenticate, judge, and comment upon upheavals in the cinematic aesthetic. Particularly compelling in its effective performances, cinematography, and direction, the film joins a growing collective of staple independent productions and filmmaking movements that demonstrate counter-Hollywood ways of producing films, and, in this case, showcase approaches to Shakespeare via the latest filmic rhetoric.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).