I love history, it is where some of the most amazing stories get told and they are not fiction. While you always want to be careful about taking a feature film as authoritative on a subject, many of them do reflect events fairly accurately or at least convey the essence of that history. This is a story I’d not heard of, it is apparently largely true, and it worked twice as well for me because I have never encountered it before. This independent film was the only new film opening this last week and as soon as I saw who the star was, I was ready to commit.
Set immediately at the conclusion of the war in Europe in 1945, Captain Joseph Pillar of the Canadian military, who is a Dutch Jew, has returned home to locate art treasures plundered by the Nazi’s during the occupation. After discovering a Vermeer, in Goring’s personal collection, he attempts to track down how this piece of art ended up in the hands of Hitler’s second in command. The story appears at first to be a mystery about collaborators in Amsterdam, who allowed these treasures to be taken in return for money and special treatment by the invaders. Pillar tracks this painting as a legitamate sale, through brokers and others in the Dutch art community. Here he encounters Han van Meegeren, an unsuccessful artist who somehow seems to have thrived during the war.
The interviews and cat and mouse games played out in the first third of the story suggest that the film is headed in a particular direction, but of course there is a turn that drives the rest of the story in a very different direction . Van Meergeren is played by Guy Pearce, an actor who has always been a favorite of mine. Han is a contradictory personality, he faces execution for collaboration with the enemy, but seems to be a charming, slightly eccentric social climber, who was popular in the party circuit, despite being perceived as a mediocre talent. Pearce plays him as aloof from the threat he faces and distracted as he tries to continue painting while incarcerated. Pillar and his partner are befuddled a bit by this attitude and they delve deeper into the events that lead them to Han in the first place.
As I said, there is a twist that alters the relationship between Han Van Meergeren and Captain Pillar. When the film focuses on that relationship, it usually works well. Unfortunately, we get a back story about Pillar and his wife during the war, and there is a potential Romance between him and his art curator assistant Mina. The Captain is played by Danish actor Claes Bang, and he is sullen, guilt ridden and not really very interesting. When the focus of his role changes, he doesn’t seem to be very motivated. Maybe the first time director Dan Friedkin, didn’t see that his leading man was coming off like a stiff. It is additionally problematic because Pearce is infusing his character with a sly energy that firs the way the story ultimately plays out.
There is a creepy side story about the Dutch government trying to punish the collaborators, and it is represented by two characters that add to some confusion at the end. There is an obstinate judge who seems uninterested in justice and more committed to the government’s narrative than he should be. Then there is the police detective who claims jurisdiction over the case and motivates the trial in the last third of the story. He comes across like the Dutch version of the Gestapo, rather than a dedicated civil servant. There is one more twist and I can’t say I quite understood what point was being made. I am also unclear as to how accurate it is to the real story.
As I said at the start, what makes this film worth seeing is not necessarily the drama but rather the history. Regardless of motivations, Han Van Meergeren seems to have been a brilliant artist, unappreciated for those talents but remembered for his cleverness. The film has accomplished at least one objective, I want to read the book this is based on and find out more about this less known aspect of WWII.