Practically all published items on Borgman (2013), no matter how tiny, mentioned the fact that this was the first Dutch film to enter the Cannes main competition since 1975, the year Jos Stelling’s debut feature Mariken van Nieumeghen was selected. That Borgman was no real contender for the festival prizes was only a side note, even though it is rumoured that the film was jury member Nicole Kidman’s favourite. The selection as such was greeted in the Netherlands as if Dutch cinema, despite three Academy Award wins in the 1980s and 1990s, was finally released from what is called its ‘Calimero complex’ (1). This complex is named after a popular Italian cartoon series of the 1970s about the only black chicken (Calimero) in a family of yellow ones who thinks that, as the underdog, he is treated unfairly. Comparably small countries, Dutch film lovers tend to complain, always seem to fare so much better than the Netherlands at setting the agendas within the film festival circuit of quality art-house cinema, like Austria (Michael Haneke, Ulrich Seidl), Belgium (Michaël R. Roskam, the Dardenne brothers), and Denmark (Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, Nicolas Winding Refn) (2).

With the exception of Paul Verhoeven, who, by the way, is a commercial director rather than an art-house filmmaker (closer to Steven Spielberg than to Ulrich Seidl), Alex van Warmerdam’s track record is perhaps the most impressive one of all living Dutch directors, and for that reason the monthly journal De Filmkrant gave him the honorary title ‘the white raven’ of today’s Dutch cinema (3). Van Warmerdam was a theatre director and a painter before he started directing films at the age of thirty-three, his debut feature Abel (Voyeur) from 1986 catapulting him to instant fame. Although Borgman is only his eighth film since then, the quality of his work is regarded as of a fine standard overall. Perhaps only his sixth, Grimm (2003), is considered as a minor picture, whereas his second, De Noorderlingen (The Northerners, 1992), is acknowledged by many as his finest. Moreover, van Warmerdam gets sympathy votes from the general public for his refusal to compromise his artistic vision to commercial appeal, as well as for his loyalty to his cast and crew. Actor Jaap Spijkers and actress Ariane Schluter are among his regulars, just as is his wife Annet Malherbe, who has a role in most of his films. Van Warmerdam’s brother Marc is involved with his films, usually as producer, and his brother Vincent composes the musical score. Further, if Verhoeven was perhaps always-already an American-styled director, judging from, among others, his relatively fast-paced Soldaat van Oranje (Soldier of Orange, 1977), van Warmerdam’s cinema can, by contrast, be seen as rooted in a recognisably Dutch culture, albeit with a proviso.

Voyeur

Voyeur

Austere architecture with square windows

According to Warmerdam, as stated in the television documentary series Allemaal Film (4), the Netherlands has a firm tradition of a Calvinist variant of Christianity. Whereas the cinema of Federico Fellini bears evidence that Italians idolize a baroque and exuberant Catholicism, van Warmerdam claims the Calvinist variant is austere and scanty. Symptomatic is the setting of De Noorderlingen, one of only five post-war narrative feature films to be honoured with selection to the official Dutch film canon (5). After an opening in which a man, his wife and a toddler are instructed in a photo studio pose to look ‘with hope … to the future’, the subsequent scene reveals that the photograph of the happily smiling family is used on a billboard accompanying the text ‘2000 houses will be finished by 1958’. A text over the shot mentions that it is ‘summer 1960’, and it is evident that of the planned estate, to date, only one street happens to be built, surrounded as it is by barren land and rusty building materials already eroded by weeds. The uniform and austere architecture of the houses in this one street are adjoined to the sidewalk and have huge, almost square windows so that passers-by can easily look inside, a ‘typically Dutch habit’, according to van Warmerdam.

In De Noorderlingen these windows repeatedly function as a frame within the film frame. Postman Plagge (Alex van Warmerdam) stands right in front of the huge window of Martha’s (Annet Malherbe) house, gesticulating at her not to wear any lipstick. Since he is in the habit of secretly opening the mail he has to deliver, Plagge knows that one of Martha’s girlfriends has advised her to dress not too appealingly in the hope of restraining her sex-crazed husband Jacob (Jack Wouterse). Similarly, one of the quarrels Martha has with her husband is played out in the street for everyone to observe from behind their windows (she does this deliberately to prevent him from acting too aggressively towards her.) The marital problems aggravate after Martha decided to completely resist the attempts at seduction by Jacob. When she is in bed, a statue of Saint Francis, miraculously, comes alive and it/he gestures to her not to eat the food her husband has brought her. Saint Francis even comes down from his pedestal to pray at Martha’s bedside. Her self-imposed abstinence turns her into some sort of Madonna figure. Lying in her bed near the huge, square window, her female neighbours come to kneel at the sidewalk pavement, looking at her, with their hands clasped as if in prayer. Jacob chases the onlookers away, but in a subsequent shot the small group has become a crowd, with still more people arriving by bus. At one point their son Thomas (Leonard Lucieer) closes the curtains, for he and his father are about to eat, but the noise of tapping fingers makes him pull back the curtains, once again emphasizing the analogy between window and the film frame.

De Noorderlingen

De Noorderlingen

Fear of meaning

In Allemaal film, van Warmerdam mentions that he was surprised that people do not consider the film a Christian movie, despite the austere architecture, the role of Saint Francis and the adoration for Martha. It is doubtful, however, that he is serious about his surprise. The Calvinist form of Christianity in which Dutch culture is embedded, according to van Warmerdam, is a particularly modest and restrained tradition. Such a tradition, as Christopher Collins argues in his account of ‘iconophobia’, tends to display a distrust of images and a suspicion of the visual potential of verbal texts, for they can unleash an ‘uncontrollable imagination’ (6). Hermeneutics is a core practice of Calvinists, for their goal is to suppress the possible ambiguity of images/texts, reducing things to only one, preferably very rational, meaning, or, in the words of Collins, to an ‘abstract-propositional function’ (7). Van Warmerdam’s work is totally at odds with this tradition, which is best affirmed by his ‘confession’, on the extras of the DVD of Allemaal film, that he has a ‘fear of meaning’. He will waive the use of a crow in his films, because this animal too easily connotes death. As soon as a character, an animal or an object evokes a too obvious association, van Warmerdam will avoid his or its inclusion. He prefers an animal without a fixed connotation to encourage the viewer towards unsuspected interpretations. Hence, in contrast to the strict Dutch Calvinist tradition of unilateral meanings, his films should evoke ‘accidental’ meanings, which he himself never had in mind.

Van Warmerdam’s third feature De jurk  (The Dress, 1996) is a supreme ironic take on this caution for ready-made meanings. To start with, the film does not have a character as a main protagonist, but an object. This object, a dress, has a strange genesis, for a designer has been asked to propose a particular motif for a summer frock. All the designs have been declared unfit for use, for in the eyes of the advising committee, they are too ‘avant-garde’ and not ‘sunny’ enough. When Van Tilt (Henri Garcin) continues to doubt the willingness of the designer to think commercially, director Loohman (Frans Vorstman) is so annoyed that he quite randomly picks a ‘timeless leaf motif’. This motif, as the spectators well know, is no more than a copy-cat from a dress worn by one of the designer’s neighbours, an Indian woman. Van Tilt and Loohman get embroiled in a physical fight, whereupon the latter not only fires his employee, but also wishes Van Tilt to be doomed to an unhappy life.

As soon as the dress is manufactured the film follows one particular item, bought by a woman in her early sixties. While wearing it, she gets ill and spills coffee on the frock. Her husband washes the dress, but at the very moment of her death, a heavy wind sweeps the dress from the clothesline. This is the beginning of the journey of the dress, with one constant factor: each and every woman who wears the item experiences something dreadful, like, for example, being harassed by a horny train ticket inspector, and gets rid of it forthwith by giving the item away for charity, or whatever. At the end, the dress is stolen by a female vagabond, who starts wearing it in combination with other clothes. Bearing in mind that the piece of cloth was officially made as a summer dress, what black comedy, then, that she some time later freezes to death. Also darkly comic is the fate of Van Tilt, who pops up at intervals in the story, but time and again in a different guise. After his discharge, we see him selling coffee and snacks in a train, and as an ultimate sign of his downfall, we see him as a tramp befriended to the female vagabond. After her death, he tears a part of the dress and uses it as a shawl. With some of his very last money, he pays a woman to French kiss him in a park and after that he throws away the improvised shawl, which is immediately torn to shreds by a lawnmower.

De jurk

De jurk

De jurk invites the spectator to draw an analogy between the sorry fate of Van Tilt and the development of the dress from a window shop item to a relic shredded to pieces. The editing of De jurk suggests causality, for Van Tilt is made to cross paths with this particular frock regularly. Therefore, it seems as if his boss Loohman’s angry firing of Van Tilt and wishing upon him bad luck has, in retrospect, the status of a godlike prophecy. If there is anything godlike about Loohman, however, it is his authority to make arbitrary decisions. No matter how obvious the analogy between the whereabouts of both Van Tilt and the dress, drawing such a parallel seems a trap set for the spectator. It is tempting to suggest that Van Tilt is punished for trying to prevent the manufacture of the dress and that the dress can cast a bad spell on practically anyone, since most characters appear to be affected by it somehow. Van Warmerdam’s film seems to satisfy the viewer’s desire for meaningful connections, but this is so deceptively logical that it, being a van Warmerdam film, had better be distrusted. Is the striking discrepancy between the utter simplicity of the item and the tragic effect it seems to have on several characters not primarily played for laughs? Originally, the dress was produced as an object supposed to radiate joy, but it became a token of despair for the majority of characters. And at the same time, there is no clue at all that it is anything more than a strictly random item, and all the events that befall the characters are purely fortuitous. The simple summer frock can be interpreted both as a highly significant garment and as a banal object, and as such it is a sign of unstable irony.

To guarantee indeterminacy, main characters often have common, even archaic names, such as Jacob, Anton, or Martha, names particularly popular in the Netherlands in the 1950s. Such names, as van Warmerdam has noted, refer to a period of class differences and paternal authority, implying a hierarchically ordered neighbourhood where one still lived according to strict social roles (8). While the option that this bygone era can still exert some nostalgic fascination is not denied, Warmerdam’s depiction of the period is presented in an ironic and relatively detached manner. This duality between fascination and irony is never truly resolved in his films, most evident in the representation of blacks in De Noorderlingen. About halfway through the film, two white priests arrive to showcase a black African man, labelled as a ‘negro’, for an educational exhibition. In its portrayal of the black man as a caged animal, this image reproduces the worst of stereotypes, but it can also be regarded, contrariwise, as parodic mimicry of a cringingly white patronizing attitude (9). To underscore this latter option, we see the priests busy hanging a wooden board announcing the exhibition, but it breaks in halve. The function of the ‘negro’ becomes even more complex when we consider the obsession the young teenager Thomas has with broadcast news about the figure of Patrice Lumumba, a resistance fighter in Congo who contributed to the country’s independence from Belgium. Thomas even paints his face black and dresses like Lumumba, identifying with a man totally foreign to his own petty-bourgeois environment. Seeing how the priests do not permit the ‘negro’ to smoke, Thomas aids him in escaping from his cage. He also helps him to take shelter among others by sitting on his shoulders in the guise of Lumumba, while wearing a long coat. Thomas gets away with the trick because Anton (Rudolf  Lucieer), the forest ranger,  presumes that the postman Plagge, who is pestering him all the time, is hidden underneath. Strictly speaking, Thomas’ attitude is marked by exoticism, but since the teenager is presented as a down-to-earth boy, shorn of any pathetic gestures, it is at the same time a particularly dry-comic variant of exoticism. Later, the black man is once again shown as stereotypically wild. Thomas has brought him to a subterranean place of refuge in the woods. There he witnesses the accidental killing of a young girl by the forest ranger, who drowns her body in a small pond. The black man takes revenge in a primitive fashion: dressed only in a skirt, he jumps from a tree upon the forest ranger and lances the latter’s eyes with a self-made spear. Later he hides in the postman’s house dressed in his uniform. Thus, the black man’s role in De Noorderlingen constantly oscillates. On the one hand, he is depicted according to old-fashioned notions about black men still current in the 1950s: he is either a primitive brute or a token of exoticism. On the other hand, the blank and deadpan presentation is so wilfully odd that the option of irony keeps resonating throughout.

Averse to psychology

Van Warmerdam tends to shoot relatively straightforwardly and prefers the use hard cuts, deep focus and elliptical editing. At the end of Kleine Teun (Little Tony, 1998) a husband murders his wife, but the act of killing is only shown obliquely. From inside a house through the window we see him raise an axe, but the woman is slain off-screen. In production, an establishing shot had been filmed, showing her in a flower field with a wound in her back, but no matter how good the shot, van Warmerdam cut it because, upon reflection, he considered it excessive (10). The majority of shots in his films are static, and when the camera does move it is to follow a character or observe a situation, hardly ever to accentuate a mood. There is some musical accompaniment to scenes, but it is never intrusive, for that might affect the general mood too much. Hence, cinematic devices are used quite soberly, without van Warmerdam ever becoming as puristic as the (extreme) long shot cinema practiced, for example, by Jacques Tati in Play Time (1967), or the films of the Swede Roy Andersson, who almost exclusively uses lengthy static tableaux shots in his Sånger från andra våningen (Songs from the Second Floor, 2000) and Du levande (You, the Living, 2007).

However, van Warmerdam shares with these filmmakers a scrutinizing attention to mise-en-scène. For van Warmerdam, the manner in which characters are positioned in space is seminal, and for that reason the décor has a determining function. For De laatste dagen van Emma Blank (The Last Days of Emma Blank, 2009) as well as for Borgman, he had a whole house built, simply because he could not find what he was looking for. The house for De laatste dagen van Emma Blank was constructed with an eye to the cinemascope frame, which enabled him to show a room in the background in each and every shot. On the one hand, this choice is an invitation to the spectator to discover details within the shot, on the other hand, a tragicomic effect can ensue because the framing of characters can anticipate the oppressing situation they are about to meet.

De laatste dagen van Emma Blank

De laatste dagen van Emma Blank

In addition to this sober approach, his cinema is shorn of flashbacks. Conventionally, a flashback is inserted to offer psychological motivation: by digging into the past the logic behind a character’s behaviour or actions can become clearer. Van Warmerdam will have none of that in his films. Is the train conductor in De jurk simply obsessed by women who wear that particular dress or is that a coincidence? Or is it his regular habit to harass women, regardless of the clothes they wear? Why does postman Plagge in De Noorderlingen secretly open the mail near a small lake in the woods at the risk of being caught in the act by the bespectacled forester? Thanks to him reading the mail of his fellow town folk, he knows about the latter’s infertility, and one of Plagge’s nasty jokes is to hide himself in the woods and to call to the forester, with a high-pitched voice: “Sweet little hunter, make me a child”. We can only guess whether Plagge has been bullying the forester for quite some time now. We have no clue whether the animosity is due to some past incident. Or is Plagge simply taunting him as some sort of resistance to his own obliging role as a postman?

If psychology is alluded to, it is done so by negation, as in the case of Abel (Voyeur, 1986). The titular hero does not seem to have any particular ambition. Abel (Alex van Warmerdam) is 31-year-old guy still living with his parents and, it would seem, not been outside the family home for a number of years. He only screens the environment with binoculars and has the pointless habit of trying to cut bluebottles in half with a pair of scissors. In fact, his sole goal is to annoy his father. When the father wishes the family a merry Christmas and adds, “And let us for once try to have a dinner without any arguments”, the son calmly replies that by accentuating it, there is sure to be an argument. And indeed, a quarrel ensues. When a psychiatrist visits Abel’s home, on the request of the father, the son acts like a total retard. In response to the psychiatrist’s suggestion that the root of the problem is that the father is ashamed of his son, the father retorts: “Wouldn’t you be ashamed of a son like that?” Apparently the son rebels against the father by giving him all the more reason to be embarrassed by him. This leads to a series of scenes which are as straight-faced as they are hilarious. When the father invites a girl to their place for Abel to meet, the son ruins the date on purpose, sometimes by his lengthy silences, sometimes by blathering on about his favourite subject (the Iron Curtain and the poor working conditions in Russia). Or he may ask the girl, an amateur actress, a silly question like, “Could you also climb in to the skin of … a potato?” After her puzzled reaction, he says: “I think you’d make a very good potato”.

Pervaded with role-playing

The starting point of a van Warmerdam film is often fairly ordinary, or so it seems. A family having Christmas dinner in Abel; a waiter serving patrons in a restaurant in Ober (Waiter, 2006), or a household watching while a woman is eating her meal, as in De laatste dagen van Emma Blank. Soon, the identifiable setting takes a slightly bizarre turn, and as the story progresses, more slightly bizarre twists start to accumulate. In several of his films such a twist concerns an element of deliberate role-playing. When, in Kleine Teun, feelings of affection arise between Keet’s (Annet Malherbe) husband Brand (Alex van Warmerdam) and the female instructor Lena (Ariane Schluter), Keet does not get angry, but rather encourages their romantic interest. She provokes her husband by telling him he is not bold enough to sleep with her: every other man would have done it already by now, she taunts. She also suggests they tell Lena that they are only play-acting at being married, but that they are really brother and sister. This charade leads to a complicated love triangle, which is an overture to another bizarre twist. Keet instructs Brand that she wants him to act in an authoritarian manner at her own expense, so, her argument goes, that Lena will be overwhelmed by his manly power and wish to be impregnated by him: infertile herself, Keet plans to make the kid her own in due time. Her plan fails finally because Brand in the end no longer sides with his ‘sister’, who wants to reclaim her position as his wife, and thereby he kills her.

De laatste dagen van Emma Blank is pervaded with role-playing from the start, although the spectator only realizes this in retrospect. Bella (Annet Malherbe) is the cook, Gonnie  (Eva van de Wijdeven) is the maid, Haneveld (Gene Bervoets) is the butler, Meier (Gijs Naber) is the handyman, and Theo (Alex van Warmerdam) is a dog. Initially, it seems peculiar that Theo is not an animal, but a human, wearing clothes and, when outside, sunglasses. Despite his human appearance, he behaves like a dog, e.g. by enthusiastically jumping at the Madame while she is eating; and he is treated like one: he is punished like a dog for misbehaviours and he is taken outside when he has to defecate. Later in the film it turns out that everyone is just playing a role – the butler is in fact Emma’s (Marlies Heuer) husband and Gonnie her daughter – in order to please the ‘Madame’ who claims she is on the verge of dying. ‘Madame’ behaves like a true dominatrix, and everyone seems prepared to swallow her vagaries. Their willingness evaporates the moment Emma explains that there is no wealth to be inherited. Lacking the care of her former household, Emma soon dies.

The game of role-playing, however, is most paramount in Ober. After the waiter Edgar (Alex van Warmerdam) is bullied by three male patrons, he knocks at the door of the scriptwriter Herman (Mark Rietman) and requests that he be permitted some smart reply next time they show up. Further, Edgar complains that his chronically ill wife is not only ruining his life, but also the writer’s story. When the writer’s girlfriend Suzie (Thekla Reuten) then reveals that this woman is having a secret affair, Herman intervenes and says: “No, that is omitted from the story at this very moment”. It turns out that the writer has no clue where his story is heading, except that Edgar has to suffer: “You have to be exasperated”. Edgar continues negotiating by asking whether in exchange for all the punishment that will befall him he could get rid of his present mistress and start an affair with a new girlfriend, for “a brief moment of happiness”, he pleads. Herman is prepared to give him one, temporarily, on the condition that he will no longer bother him. Edgar will soon violate this condition by banging at the writer’s bedroom door soon after another encounter with the bullying guests, angry that the only rebuttal to the bullies offered him by Herman was a “lousy term of abuse”– namely, assholes – whereupon the guests beat him up and threw him into an aquarium. Herman, woken up in the middle of the night, then explains to him that he, Edgar, is a ‘modern’ character without purpose, to which the distressed Edgar replies: “A modern character, that is totally outdated”.

Ober explores the overstepping of diegetic boundaries by, on the one hand, having Edgar adhere to the scripted lines in his role as the waiter. The things Herman writes on his computer are immediately visualized for us, as for example, when Edgar says ‘eeeeeeee’ for some time, this being a consequence of the fact that the writer had fallen asleep on the keyboard. Keeping in mind that Edgar has no text of his own, it is ironic that his former mistress tells him she wanted a friend who says something original now and then. On the other hand, there is the ‘independent’ Edgar engaged in a dispute with his spiritual father about the (lack of) ambition of the main protagonist, the waiter Edgar. Humour resides in the writer’s helplessness in the presence of Edgar and the other characters that come to visit him. As soon as they leave his place he can regain control, although, only to a limited extent. Since he lacks the creativity to offer Edgar an escape route, Suzie prompts solutions. When he then blames her for the screenplay going adrift, she decides to leave him, but not after she has inserted some terrible events into the script. In turn, this angers some of the scripted characters and their reappearance is the bloody limit for the writer. He quickly types ‘the end’, so that the last of the visitors dissolves into thin air. The final image is a long shot of the writer, all alone, staring at his computer screen.

Ambivalent abnormality

At the core of the grotesque, according to Philip Thomson in his study on the concept, is an ‘unresolved clash of incompatibles in work and response’, which is only a fairly abstract description of the formal pattern of the grotesque, but he also argues that the grotesque concerns the ‘ambivalently abnormal’ (11) ‘Abnormal’ is the outlandish juxtaposition of elements which do not logically fit together (like the solemnity of a royal court and the buffoonery of the jester). The adverb ‘ambivalently’ applies to the audience’s response: for one, the work (of art) will be nauseating, for another, funny, and a third will consider it both horrifying and comic. In the case of a successful grotesque, ideally, according to Thomson, the latter group will be in the majority, that is, those not really knowing whether to shiver or laugh.

Ambivalently abnormal scenes abound in the films of van Warmerdam. The major achievement of his cinema – and he shares this quality with someone like the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki – is that the more deplorable the fate of the character, the more hilarious it gets. Near the end of Ober, after another of Edgar’s complaints, Herman promises him salvation and a happy ending back in the arms of his girlfriend Stella. And indeed, she shows up in the restaurant, but when he runs after her, Edgar is suddenly run-over by a truck. This accident is cruel, but also hilarious, since it is an actualization of one of the writer’s earlier threats: “If you come to my place once more, I will have you run-over by a truck”. Hence, the writer’s promise of salvation was only a pretext to get Edgar out of his apartment, but he was already keen on revenge. Moreover, during his last visit, Edgar accused Herman of flaccid, sloppy script writing. Having his protagonist killed all of a sudden in fact proves Edgar’s point: indeed, Herman is a third-rate screenwriter, but also, it is utterly ironic and hilarious that Edgar becomes the victim of his own accusation about the screenwriter poor talent.

Similarly, in De laatste dagen van Emma Blank, every member feels compassion for Emma and gives in to her capricious wishes, until it turns out that there is nothing of value to be inherited. The charade is over immediately, and from that moment on they let her perish. When Gonnie wants to give her mother a glass of water, her father, Haneveld, takes it away after only a few sips, telling his daughter “She did not have milk to breastfeed you. Is that a mother?” Once Emma dies, Haneveld leans over her corpse and says, “It was out of goodness, you hear? Out of goodness”, in reference to the few sips of water they gave her. In such cases, the situation itself is horrific – Edgar’s sudden death, Emma’s death foretold –, but instead of a shocked reaction, the spectator might nonetheless giggle, because the situation exposes in passing the hypocrisy of apparently benevolent characters like Herman and Haneveld. Hence, a grotesque effect in van Warmerdam’s cinema is achieved, for the spectator can be both appalled and amused at the same time. This twin, and seemingly contradictory, response can coexist because the performance of the characters is relatively blank so that the emotional register of the spectator is not pushed in a certain direction. The characters in his cinema do not gesticulate wildly and their facial expressions are often demure so that we do not get a clue as to their mood and state of mind. They never laugh, no matter how hilarious the situation. This deadpan approach of van Warmerdam turns his films, with their often awkward and/or horrific content, into a mixture of discomfort and dry comedy. To paraphrase Thomson in his description of the grotesque: in such cases, the grimace can become a guffaw, and vice versa.

An actually funny version of Funny Games

In comparison to the films immediately preceding it, (Ober and De laatste dagen van Emma), Borgman is a bit more macabre, but without losing its comic tone entirely. After its premiere at Cannes, reviewers made connections to films such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (Theorem, 1968), Kim Ki-duk’s Bin-jip (3 Iron, 2004), Dominik Moll’s Lemming (2005), and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011), as well as to the cinema of Luis Buñuel and David Lynch. Foremost among the comparisons, however, was Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), except that van Warmerdam’s home invasion film was called ‘actually funny’ by one critic at The Daily Telegraph. In Haneke’s film, two decently dressed and seemingly polite boys have a small request – they ask for a few eggs to bake a cake – but the pair develop into manipulating intruders. The pair start tormenting the three residents – father, mother and boy-child – but as they say, in direct-to-camera shots, they merely commit their violent acts to entertain the audience, presuming that spectators are delighted by watching torture scenes on screen. In suggesting that they have some contract with the public, on whose behalf they perform their evil, the two boys perversely make the spectators complicit with their atrocious deeds. After a series of brutalities, most of which are committed off-screen, or, at some remove from the camera, the woman succeeds in killing one of the boys with a gun. This scene, which is usually greeted with a sense of relief by the audience, is ‘neutralized’ by a notoriously cruel joke played on the spectator. The other guy takes the remote control and rewinds the ‘film’ to the point when the woman got hold of the gun, and then grabs the weapon him self, hence erasing the cathartic moment as the guys take back control of the ‘film’. In the end, the woman, the last surviving member of the family, is casually thrown overboard into a lake, as if the guys have become bored by their ‘funny games’, which in fact have proven not to be funny at all.

Borgman

Borgman

Like Haneke’s film, Borgman also has a small request at the beginning: the vagrant Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), who introduces himself as Anton Breskens, just wants to take a bath, because “I am dirty”. This request is refused him by the middle-class businessman Richard (Jeroen Perceval), who even beats up the stranger after the latter insinuates that he had been on familiar terms with Richard’s wife Marina (Hadewych Minis). Apparently, the woman feels guilty about the violent treatment and she offers the bearded stranger a shed with a bed on the condition that he does not show himself in the house. Time and again, Borgman asks for little favours – one more night, a breakfast, another bath – and the woman gives in to each request. He sneaks into the house at will, but he is for some reason never spotted by her husband Richard, only by the three children and the Danish au pair, who have all immediately fallen under Borgman’s spell. They behave compliantly and obediently and never betray his presence to Richard. The hobo has some hypnotic power upon Marina as well, as is affirmed in the scenes in which he sits, naked and squatting, over her. These shots can be taken as a clear reference to Henry Fuseli’s 1781 oil painting The Nightmare, which depicts a sleeping woman with her head hanging down, surmounted by an incubus (12).  Just as in the painting, it seems as if the demon is capable of injecting her with nightmares. In Borgman, the content of her dreadful dreams is time and again a revelation of her husband’s aggressive nature, which Borgman himself had experienced first hand. The one true, albeit very brief, horror and blood-spilling moment of the film is also one of Marina’s nightmares: her husband sexually assaults her and as soon as he cuts her flesh with a Stanley knife, she wakes up. As a consequence of the nightmares, Marina develops a growing suspicion towards Richard, to the point that she tells Borgman that her husband has to die. But not only will the husband be poisoned, Marina herself will also die after drinking a glass of wine offered to her by Borgman. Their corpses are buried in the garden. Meanwhile, the children, as well as their nanny, have been drugged and undergone a small operation of some kind. The resulting scar on their backs is a sign that they have definitely joined the gang of conspirators.

The intent of Haneke’s Funny Games was unashamedly didactic. The film was made as a provocative reflection on the too alluring depiction of violence in much contemporary cinema. By way of its coolly detached and minimalist style, Funny Games was deliberately made as a nauseating antidote to films like Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994) and Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), which (too) eagerly depict graphic violence for the viewer’s entertainment (13). As stated, Borgman refrains from graphic violence, except for a very brief shot, only a few frames, and as such recalls Funny Games, but it lacks the didacticism that Haneke’s film is pervaded with. Since van Warmerdam always shies away from offering social criticism, it is only consistent that the motivations of his villains are ‘blurry’, and that his horror-pastiche lacks a true ‘killer punch’ (14). In the first half of the film, Borgman sets up the expectation of being a spellbound horror-thriller. At one point, Marina tells her husband that something surrounds them, “an agreeable warmth that both intoxicates and confuses one; a sheath of something that wants to do evil”. All the ingredients for a vicious criticism of middle-class values in the form of an occult horror film are present, including a no-nonsense husband who downplays Marina’s intuition as a hallucination. Instead, Borgman starts to shift gears, as if van Warmerdam wants to ‘eschew standard genre trappings’ (15), just as do his other films. One might have expected that Borgman would take revenge upon the bigoted and decadent lifestyle of Richard’s, but that would have been at odds with van Warmerdam’s reluctance to inject his films with social messages. In fact, Borgman, as he tells Marina who halts him as he is about to depart, has no bigger ambition than to ‘play’: “I am bored. I want to play. I do not feel like hiding. I want to eat at the big dinner table”. If he is so bent on playing, could he then not, Marina proposes, return in a different guise?

By foregrounding the element of play, the promise of an occult horror film is twisted to scenes of absurdist and black comedy. Borgman’s eagerness for play becomes the preamble to a series of calmly executed and elaborate plans. Aided by his offbeat accomplices, Borgman disposes of the gardener and his wife by encasing their heads in a bucket of concrete and then sinking the bodies, upside down, to the bottom of a greenish lake “like a submarine sculpture” (16). Since the job of gardener has become vacant by now, Richard will select among five applicants a new employee. Unbeknownst to him, Borgman and his co-conspirators have selected a number of prospectless candidates whom they pay to ring at the doorbell: non-western foreigners without experience, “Even a Negro”, Richard exclaims in despair. When Borgman then offers his services, Richard immediately takes the bait. The fact that he does not recognize the shorn and scrubbed applicant as the bedraggled tramp he had previously mistreated is a token of his self-absorption. By contrast, Marina immediately sees through his appearance. Having Borgman around the house gives her the idea that she might become close with the gardener, but he discourages any advance as “too early”. He insists that he plays the gardener, and that as such Richard is his superior, and one is not supposed to mess with the boss’ wife. Only after Richard’s demise does he get intimate with her, but it is a kiss of death.

Middle-of-the-road absurdism

In reply to the question of why van Warmerdam made Borgman, he answered: “I felt like making a horror film. Or rather something along that line.” Borgman is a typical Warmerdam film in the sense that as soon as one might expect to watch a genre film with some social purport, he will frustrate that expectation. Out of his ‘fear of meaning’, he bends generic conventions to such an extent that it either becomes a pastiche (as in Borgman) or a different genre (as in Grimm, going from fairy tale to road movie to horror to western). Moreover, in each and every film, the scales tip in favour of playful elements over social and/or ideological aspects. On the one hand, this playfulness expresses itself in dry-comic scenes, ranging from the son’s attempt at cutting flies with a pair of scissors in Abel to the sinking of bodies with their heads in buckets of concrete in Borgman. On the other hand, deliberate role-playing is especially used to humorous effect in his late films. The husband and wife in Kleine Teun pretending to be brother and sister; the waiter who aims to obtain redress from his very own scriptwriter in Ober; Emma’s family members who play an utterly servile household in De laatste dagen van Emma Blank; and the idler Borgman playing the role of a gardener in such a serious manner that it becomes slightly absurd.

Van Warmerdam’s ludic approach to cinema can be taken as a response to the strict Calvinist tradition that Dutch culture was still steeped in during his childhood and adolescence. He practices a kind of deadpan humour which I would like to coin ‘middle-of-the-road absurdism,’ whereby a relatively common and ordinary starting point is gradually deformed to increasingly bizarre ends (17). His films allude to this tradition of firm hierarchies and unilateral meanings, but also drift away from these conventions to the point where meanings cannot be fixed at all. Averse to explicit (social) messages and conventional psychological motivations, his films are, despite the common starting points, difficult to read, since they are not easy to categorize, neither in terms of genre nor in tone. They oscillate between the tragic and humorous, between horror and hilarity, between irony and seriousness. If the tone tends to incline towards one pole, one can be sure that it will soon be tilted to the other pole. The more this might confuse spectators, the better.

Endnotes

  1. The three Dutch films which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film are: De aanslag (The Assault, Fons Rademakers, 1986), Antonia (Antonia’s Line, Marleen Gorris, 1995), and Karakter (Character, Mike van Diem, 1997).
  2. If selected, Dutch films are usually shown in the minor programs, like Guernsey (Nanouk Leopold, 2005) and Code Blue (Urszula Antoniak, 2011) for Cannes’ Quinzaine des Realisateurs.
  3. Karin Wolfs, ‘Het verdriet van Nederland’, De Filmkrant, June, 2013. http://www.filmkrant.nl/TS_juni_2013/9619.
  4. Allemaal Film, devoted to the history of Dutch cinema, was broadcast on television by the AVRO in nine episodes in 2007. It was produced by IDTV and presented by actor Jeroen Krabbé.
  5. When in September 2007 the Dutch film canon was presented at the Netherlands Film Festival, the jury had decided to limit the list to a maximum of only sixteen titles while including a great diversity of types like shorts, silent film, avant-garde, animation, documentary, children’s film. De Noorderlingen is the most recent narrative feature film on the list, together with the popular comedies Fanfare (Bert Haanstra, 1958) and Flodder (Dick Maas, 1986), the war film Als twee druppels water (Like Two Drops of Water, Fons Rademakers, 1963), and the macabre ‘porn-chic’ Turks fruit (Turkish Delight, Paul Verhoeven, 1973).
  6. Christopher Collins, Reading the Written Image: Verbal Play, Interpretation and the Roots of Iconophobia. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991, p. x. It is noteworthy that when describing iconophobia, Collins is not talking about Calvinism in particular.
  7. Ibid., p. 1.
  8. Paul Teunissen, ‘”Ik wil dat je ogen alles doen”. Interview Alex van Warmerdam’. De    Groene Amsterdammer, 4 October 2003. http://www.groene.nl/2003/40/ik-wil-dat-je-ogen-alles-doen
  9. As regards such parodistic mimicry, what to think of a scene in Ober (Waiter, 2006) when the main protagonist is trying to seduce his mistress in the guise of a hunter and to enliven the sexual fantasy he had hired four bare-chested black men with spears?
  10. Marja Pruis, ‘De buren speelden altijd een rol’, De Groene Amsterdammer, 26 May 2001.
  11. Philip Thomson, The Grotesque. London: Methuen, 1972, p. 27.
  12. This was brought to my attention by Theo Steen.
  13. Haneke described Natural Born Killers as an attempt ‘to use a fascist aesthetic to achieve an anti-fascist goal, and this doesn’t work. What is accomplished is something like the opposite, since what is produced is something like a cult film where the montage style complements the violence represented and presents it largely in a positive light’. Quoted in Peter Brunette, Michael Haneke. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010 , pp. 58-59.
  14. Catherine Shoard used these terms to express her annoyance at the little (social) aspirations of Borgman. ‘Cannes 2013: Borgman – First Look Review’, Guardian, 19 May 2013 http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/may/19/cannes-film-festival-borgman-review.
  15. David Rooney, ‘Cannes Review: Borgman’, The Hollywood Reporter, 19 May 2013, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/borgman-cannes-review-525208.
  16. Ibid.
  17. This oxymoron was introduced in jest by the Dutch cartoonist Gummbah (real name Gert-jan van Leeuwen) to describe his own (drawing) praxis.

About The Author

Peter Verstraten is Assistant Professor of Film and Literary Studies at Leiden University. He wrote, among other works, Film Narratology (University of Toronto Press, 2009) and Humour and Irony in Dutch Post-war Fiction Film (Amsterdam University Press, 2016). He also co-edited, with two directors-of-photography, Shooting Time: Cinematographers on Cinematography (2012).