We should start out by saying that The King is Alive is a Dogme 95 film. That means it was made according to the rules of the Scandinavian avant-garde filmmaking movement whose vow of cinematic chastity calls for natural lighting, hand-held camerawork, no optical work or filters, no built sets and no artificial sound in the making of a movie. The lion's share of media attention was focused on the first two Dogme efforts, Thomas Vinterberg's scathingly misanthropic black comedy Festen and Lars Von Trier's woefully misguided The Idiots. Danish director Kristian Levring received less notice for his single Dogme contribution. That's a shame, because The King is Alive may well represent the most successful and overlooked Dogme outing to date.
The set-up is, by necessity, a spartan one. Eleven disparate passengers on a safari tour of North Africa are waylaid in the Namibian desert when their bus breaks down. Terrified and isolated, they are left to fend for themselves in an abandoned mining outpost that used to be a German manufacturing village in World War II. While awaiting an unlikely rescue, the group survive on rusting canned carrots and collected morning dew, and find shelter in dilapidated shacks and storage sheds that are slowly filling up with sand.
The desperate band of people seems predisposed to clash. Chris Walker and Lia Williams are a bickering young English husband and wife. Bruce Davison and Janet McTeer are a bitterly unhappy American couple straight out of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and thus already prone to inflicting vicious psychosexual wounds on each other. Miles Anderson is a survivalist journeyman who's not as tough as he thinks. The late Brion James plays an alcoholic Texan businessman who doesn't last long before his delirium tremens sets in. Romane Bohringer is a refined but jealously vindictive French intellectual who seizes the opportunity to tap into her dormant malicious streak. David Calder is a smug sixty-something letch with beady eyes for Jennifer Jason Leigh, a bored, brash, frivolous free spirit who gets cruelly victimised and sexually manipulated, but may be less naïve than she first appears.
David Bradley is the kindly, morally superior former actor and theatre manager who comes up with the idea of staging an amateur production of Shakespeare's King Lear (which he transcribes from memory) to amuse themselves while awaiting rescue. The cast is rounded out by two little-known African actors: Vusi Kunene as the roundly maligned bus driver, and Peter Kubheka as an ancient, eccentric native Swahili hermit who has learned to master this hostile landscape and is provided with all the mental and physical sustenance he needs from the desert.
The central idea is hardly a new one, firmly in the tradition of claustro/agoraphobic Darwinian psychodramas that stretch from Hitchcock's stagy 1944 film Lifeboat and Lord of the Flies onto 1965's The Flight of the Phoenix, John Sayles' terrific Limbo, Tom Hanks stranded on a desert island with just a painted volleyball for company in Cast Away, and, of course, The Blair Witch Project. The impact is also blunted somewhat by the recent spate of hugely popular survival-of-the-fittest reality gameshows like Survivor, Big Brother and Treasure Island. It's no surprise, then, that the tourists rapidly descend into primitive behaviour, or that the film takes a pointedly cynical look at the ugly side of human nature. So how come The King is Alive still manages to chill to the core? Maybe it's because this group of people aren't clever, they aren't likable, and above all they aren't particularly resourceful. It helps make the film a bleak, harrowing and searingly visceral experience. The drama feels as primal and organic as possible. In its own way, it's more unsettling than countless "proper" horror films, and possessed of an apocalyptic power that's hard to shake off afterwards.
Shot on three hand-held digital video cameras and later converted to 35mm film stock, this movie is a feast for the eyes, saturated in dazzling, vivid colours. The luminous desert photography evokes such great films as Lawrence of Arabia, Walkabout and The English Patient. Many of the haunting, painterly images will burn themselves into your memory: the ghostly lighting provided by glowing firesides and kerosene lanterns; the icy, blue-tinted night scenes and aerial footage shot from an airplane; the blistering, toxic white sun that occasionally bleaches out all else in the frame; and most of all the stark, eerie natural beauty of the untamed Sahara desert – the rolling golden sand dunes have both a majestic grace and a palpably malevolent power. In some shots, the hapless tourists dwarfed by its vastness, it looks ready to eat them alive. Rotting to death in the lonely desert has never looked so ravishing.