With his latest movie Borgman, award-winning Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam has created a dark, comic, incredibly thrilling, and haunting tale that holds the attention long after the final frame.
The film opens with a caption that reads like a quote from the Old Testament:
“And they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks.”
Van Warmerdam has described this as a “perfect summation” of what is to come. But his explanation may quickly be forgotten as the audience is drawn into a tale that is by turns fable, comedy, drama, and horror, leading up to its chilling and inevitable denouement.
Once the caption has gone, we are thrown into a sequence where we witness a priest and two hunters seeking out the mysterious central character Borgman and his two accomplices, who lie sleeping in a giant underground burrow. It is like a dream, a nightmare, where the trio hunt out their quarry by plunging long metal rods into the ground. Nothing is explained (who are these strange men? what have they done?), and we are quickly and cleverly brought straight into the story, pulled along by this thrilling opening.
Watching it, I couldn’t help but think of childhood tales of trolls, or Stoker’s vampires buried with their earth, or even Satan being cast out by the Archangel Michael. These associations may seem intentional and it is easy to connect van Warmerdam’s film with a variety of religious and literary themes, but as he explained to me via email:
“No, that was not my intention. But if you start with [what sounds like] a Bible quote and you immediately show at the beginning a priest who hunts a man under the ground then you should not be surprised if people have these kind of associations.”
Adding by way of explanation:
“I was raised a Catholic, was an altar boy, that is an attractive source to draw from.”
Religious parables can offer inspiration, but there is also another influence at work here, as Van Warmerdam, who writes, directs and stars in his own films, is also an artist—he has been painting since he was a child—and it is this painterly quality (as can be seen most obviously in the reference to Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare”) that adds to the quality of van Warmerdam’s cinematic vision.
From his first movie, the tragicomedy Abel (1986), which examined the strange relationship between a father and son, to his next, The Northerners (1992), a wonderfully surreal black comedy set on one street, up to Waiter (2006), van Warmerdam has developed a delightfully dark, often brutally funny, and absurd vision of the world.
When I asked him, who or what had influenced his directing style, van Warmerdam replied, “Jean Pierre Melville, Buñuel, Hitchcock, Laurel and Hardy.” This could be an almost perfect definition of what to expect from an Alex van Warmerdam movie.
All those elements are present in his latest film Borgman. Van Warmerdam has created an utterly fantastic, brilliant, unsettling thriller that examines the insidious nature of evil. It revolves around the eponymous Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) who inveigles his way into one middle class family’s life (Hadewych Minis and Jeroen Perceval) with horrifying results. The film suggests that every action, every ill-considered desire, has an inevitable cost—which here is often fatal. On the one hand, the film is like a modern parable, a mix of demonic, domestic satire and violent thriller, as seen through the prism of van Warmerdam’s imagination.
The casting and acting throughout are superb, in particular Bijvoet’s chilling performance, as well as those from Minis and Perceval, and Tom Dewispelaere and van Warmerdam as the accomplices.
How would you descibe the character Borgman?
Alex van Warmerdam: He is an evil version of myself. He does what I would do If I were him.
What was your inspiration for writing the film Borgman’?
AvW: I read an interview with Buñuel in which he tells about one of his great inspirations, the Marquis de Sade. Buñuel: “de Sade commited his crimes only in his imagination as a way to free himself from his criminal tendencies. The imagination can afford all the liberties. It’s something different if you committed these crimes in real life. The imagination is free, man is not.”
In a way this opened my eyes. So I start writing with a bigger feeling of freedom then ever before. I really felt the need to descend into parts of my brain I had never been.
If you see my movie it’s not all that bad. I guess I have nevertheless limits of taste and morality. I have read de Sade, sometimes it’s really disgusting. Compared to him, I am a toddler.
Anyway, the understanding that the imagination can afford all the liberties was a great help during the writing.
What do you hope an audience will take away from your movie?
AvW: I’m not a messenger. It is sufficient for me if they have a good time. Even better is if they are still working on it afterwards.
What are you working on next?
AvW: I start shooting a new film coming in July. It’s called Schneider vs. Bax. It’s a story about a contract killer who has to kill a writer in a little house on a lake. It seems like a simple job, but it appears to be a misconception.
Nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival ‘Borgman’ is an incredible film, which goes on release from Drafthouse Films in America from June 6th.