Nightwatching (2007)

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Nightwatching
Dir. Peter Greenaway
Premiered at Venice September 6, 2007

British-born director Peter Greenaway is a true visionary, a man whose influences reach beyond the confines of cinema to elevate middlebrow prestige films into forward-thinking art. One other hand, his fundamentalist approach has a tendency to baffle; a fearsome rebuke to the fanboy fallacy that understanding a filmmaker’s intent equates to appreciating the end product.

And yet, just by compelling me to write about him, he is succeeding. Greenaway has made a career not only of expanding the vocabulary of his chosen medium, but getting people to think critically about visual art in an uncaring, text-based civilization. At no time were these aims laid more bare than in 2006, when his adopted Netherlands invited him to make a film commemorating the 400th birthday of Dutch painter Rembrandt von Rijn (he fell behind schedule).

But if you were expecting a straightforward docudrama about the life of the artist, Greenaway’s patrons almost certainly weren’t. Instead, Greenaway posits a provocative fanfiction, a surreal and somewhat tacky conspiracy thriller.

After eighty years of war, the Dutch Republic’s independence has finally been recognized by Spain. Newly freed up and flowing with cash from a burgeoning colonial empire and stock market, the great Rembrandt (Martin Freeman) is at the peak of his wealth and prestige even as his rather dark artistic style begins to fall out of fashion. Accordingly, the film is sumptuously minimal in its lighting (but not underlit, purveyors of grit take note).

But not all is well. Following complications from the birth of their son, Rembrandt’s wife (Eva Birthistle) is dying. He’s visited by a supposed angel (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), the daughter of his patron Rombout Kemp (Christopher Britton), who reveals that the man is running a child brothel out of an orphanage. And after being commissioned by the Amsterdam militia to paint a group portrait– what will later become known as The Night Watch– he discovers a conspiracy to murder within its ranks, and seeks to immortalize their crimes through clever hints within the painting.

Whatever he may say about expanding horizons as a director, Greenaway’s aversion to taking inspiration from other films isn’t total; Rembrandt’s own breaking of the fourth wall is reminiscent of Michael Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story, which was released at the time of this film’s development and itself pays homage to Greenaway’s own The Draughtsman’s Contract (about which more later). The similarities in overall concept to The Da Vinci Code are similarly telling, the foremost evidence of when the film was completed.

And Nightwatching is a difficult film. It’s just too much of everything to grab onto as a viewer: too unpleasant in its subject matter to bask in, to abstract to shock or enliven, too complicated to follow, and (though it tries) too spare and draggy to succeed in its mission to engage the audience with Rembrandt’s body of work. It’s almost exploitative.

How Did It Do?
I could find no information regarding Nightwatching’s financial fortunes, though it notably received no general release in the United States. It did however receive a 76% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, with Trevor Johnston of TimeOut proclaiming it one of Greenaway’s best films.

Apparently unsatisfied with his presentation in the film, Greenaway returned to his pet conspiracy amusement the following year with the film essay Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, in which he lays out the plot more coherently than this movie ever could, if still failing to entertain.

Next Time: 12

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Soldier of Orange (1977)

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Soldier of Orange
Soldaat van Oranje
Dir. Paul Verhoeven
Premiered September 22, 1977

Before the proper review, I need to make a public service announcement: this shouldn’t have been as hard to get ahold of as it was.

Sometimes, even very recent films are unavailable on any legal streaming service– for example, I had to get New York, New York and the Los Angeles Public Library. But on occasion, even the library is inadequate. My next review was supposed to be You Light Up My Life, and I had a whole angle for it, but couldn’t find it anywhere. That movie is by all accounts terrible, but Soldier of Orange, likewise unavailable via streaming, Netflix DVD, or the library, is a goddamn classic and in no way should be this hard to find.

Of all the World War II movies of 1977 so far, Soldier of Orange is the most visceral and lived-in, for two reasons. First, it’s based on the memoirs of a real Dutch Resistance fighter. Second, for director Paul Verhoeven, the war was his childhood, and neutrality was not an option. The Netherlands had more traitors per capita than any other country under German occupation and more resistance heroes, and in Soldier of Orange he gives the proceedings a sense of immediacy and currency that doesn’t so much recall A Bridge Too Far as last year’s Moonlight.

In 1938, Leiden University freshman Erik (Rutger Hauer) is injured in an excessively violent hazing by fraternity chairman Guus (Jeroen Krabbé). Despite this, Guus apologizes to Erik and they become fast friends and roommates. When the Second World War breaks out a year later, nobody is too concerned, as the Netherlands was neutral in the first war. Then the Germans invade. Erik and Guus join the resistance, but face trouble when their Jewish associate Jan (Huib Rooymans) is captured and killed and radio confidant Robby (Eddie Habbema) is blackmailed into spying for the Nazis.

Later on, Erik and Guus escape to England, initially tailing a man they believe to be a traitor, but eventually are welcomed by the British and the Dutch Queen living in exile there (Andrea Domburg), only to return to greater danger and the discovery that one of their circle of friends (Derek de Lint) has become a decorated officer of the SS.

It’s a testament to Paul Verhoeven’s skill as a filmmaker that I was able to watch this without subtitles and had no trouble understanding what was going on. The movie was also a breakout role for Rutger Hauer, who has “movie star” written all over him, bringing an uncommon emotional complexity to such an unquestioningly upright character, and a near-native command of English when the script calls for it. But don’t think the film is simple-minded; Soldier of Orange is an uncompromising epic, perhaps lacking in big action setpieces, but overflowing with heart and conviction.

Additional Notes
Confirming a Dutch stereotype, every major character in the film appears to understand and speak perfect English, to the point that it is taken for granted.

Soldier of Orange may be especially disturbing to American audiences unaccustomed to foreign occupation or wars on the home front, in the same way some American audiences were disturbed by Steven Spielberg’s Munich. The resistance characters have no compunction about summarily executing traitors, often people they know– which is true to events. Even if they may not like doing it, they’d never question their actions. I am not the least bothered by this.

 

How Did It Do?
Soldier of Orange had a ƒ5 million budget, but grosses are unavailable. Oddly, the movie wasn’t released outside the Netherlands until 1979, but its reputation was hardly damaged by it, earning a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film, winning Best Foreign Film from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and a 100% Fresh Rating on RottenTomatoes. The 1999 Netherlands Film Festival voted it the second best Dutch film ever made, after another Verhoeven film, Turkish Delight, and in 2010 it was adapted into a high-concept musical.

Verhoeven immediately became an international star, and though he courted controversy with his 1980 follow-up Spetters, weathered the storm and became one of the 1980’s most beloved sci-fi auteurs. Then he made a bunch of high-profile crap in the ‘90s, went back to the Netherlands, made another true-story Dutch resistance movie, and is now back to respectability.

Next Time: Bobby Deerfield