Jan 17, 2015

The Northerners

Although my grandfather was a native Dutchman, he decided to immigrate to the United States after the Netherlands went kaput as a result of the Second World War and eventually started an ‘American’ family with a woman of old English, German, and Irish stock. Probably like many foreigners, especially those from Western Europe, my grandfather regretted moving to the United States and naturally took trips back to the Netherlands long after he had acquired American citizenship and started a family. Needless to say, I thought it would be interesting to watch a Dutch film set during the post-WWII reconstruction period in the exact year my mother was born in 1960 and luckily the delightfully debasing Dutch dark comedy De noorderlingen (1992) aka The Northerners directed by Alex van Warmerdam (Kleine Teun aka Little Tony, Borgman) offered me that completely rare and ultimately rather bizarre opportunity. Admittedly, I was not that impressed with van Warmerdam’s De Jurk (1996) aka The Dress, nor his extra loose ‘postmodern’ Brothers Grimm adaptation Grimm (2003), but considering the context of the film and the fact it is oftentimes considered the director’s best work, The Northerners was something that I could not help but seeing, especially after learning that iconoclastic auteur Theo van Gogh appears in the film as a mischievous moped-riding man-child. Van Warmerdam’s second feature following his shockingly successful hit directorial debut Abel (1986) aka Voyeur, the film is more or less the Dutch equivalent of a German anti-Heimat film, as a work that depicts a small Dutch village as an unrelentingly claustrophobic and ridiculously repressive virtual hell-on-earth that is haunted by the metaphysical plague of both Catholicism and Calvinism, but especially the latter. Somewhat ironically produced by mainstream Dutch writer, director, and producer Dick Maas (De Lift aka The Lift, Amsterdamned)—a mensch that is about as far as away from the arthouse world as a filmmaker from Holland could be as the creator of the internationally successful Flodder film franchise and as someone that makes poor and pointless Hollywood remakes of his own films (i.e. Down (2001) aka The Shaft starring Naomi Watts)—and featuring a relatively large budget for a Dutch production (4.7 million Dutch guilders, which was a little bit over $2.6 million) that enabled the work to be shot entirely in a studio located near the tiny and relatively new planned city of Almere, The Northerners features a somewhat unnerving, hyperrealistic aesthetic that feels like an Edward Hopper painting come to life as assembled by the sadistically sardonic spawn of Luis Buñuel and Jacques Tati, albeit with a discernibly Dutch flavor that will certainly dumbfound and probably upset the majority of American Hollywood-lobotomized viewers.  Unquestionably, the film feels like a work that could have been directed by perennial hipster Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel) were he Dutch and had some actual testicular fortitude (in fact, I am willing to bet my life that The Northerners and van Warmerdam are both Mr. Anderson's greatest ‘cryptic’ influences).  Set in a superlatively sterile and conspicuously contrived realm of static nothingness just before the Netherlands embraced sexual liberation and all other forms of post-WWII degeneracy in a no bullshit fashion that surely transcended their neighbors, The Northerners follows in a strong but largely unknown tradition of Dutch savage (anti)humor that makes it rather clear that the Dutch tend to find things funny that would certainly make numerous other peoples and cultures cry and wallow in disgust. Notably, at the end of the 17th century, the Dutch Reformed Church denounced humor and laughing out loud as poor public etiquette in a curious trend that lasted at least until the Second World War when occupying American GIs were warned not to tell the Dutch jokes, as they would not understand them.  Certainly, The Northerners is a truly absurd and sardonically surreal depiction of the singular essence and unrivaled idiosyncrasies of the once-humor-hungry people from Holland. 

 The Northerners begins simply enough with a family posing for a photograph and the photographer telling them they should look less gloomy and more “hopeful.” When the father asks, “Hopeful, for what?” the photographer replies, “For the future, of course,” which inspires the family to smile in an exaggeratedly phony fashion typical of Americans. In the next scene, the portrait of the family is featured on a billboard reading “2000 Apartments to Be Realized in 1958,” yet it is the summer of 1960 and only 9 apartments have been built in the seemingly aborted town, which has such a small population that everyone knows everything about anyone, whether they want to or not.  Indeed, privacy is virtually nonexistent in the world of The Northerners, except for a quasi-magical wooded area nearby that seems like a parody of a völkisch National Socialist propaganda film like Ewiger Wald (1936) aka Enchanted Forest co-directed by Hanns Springer and Rolf von Sonjevski-Jamrowski.  More like warped archetypes than real and nuanced individuals, the people of the town all have their own glaring quirks and vices which ultimately make for explosive combinations when mixed together, as a series of misunderstandings between the characters ultimately leads to death and tragedy.  Auteur van Warmerdam also seems to believe that sexual repression as brought on by religious psychosis can lead to rape.  While the town is as sterile and contrived as humanly possible, a nearby forest features a Grimmian fantasy realm that inspire rape, murder, and mutilation in the locals. If there is anyone resembling a sort of central protagonist to the film, it is a 12-year-old by named Thomas (Leonard Lucieer) who regularly sports blackface and jungle garb in tribute to his hero, Congolese independence leader and Pan-African revolutionary Patrice Émery Lumumba, who by the end of the film will be dead. Thomas does not like his butcher father Jacob (Jack Wouterse)—a visceral man with a big beer belly and iconic mustache—because he is constantly fighting with his devout Catholic wife Martha (van Warmerdam’s wife Annet Alherbe) over the fact that she will not even let him touch her rather larger derriere, let alone have sex with him. Indeed, while Jacob worships Martha’s sizable rump, she equally fanatically worships Jesus Christ at a makeshift altar she has assembled in the home.  Possibly a sufferer of schizophrenia, Martha imagines seeing inanimate figurines on her altar of a saint and a red bird coming to life, thus further confirming her belief in the Lord and Savior and, in turn, causing her butcher hubby to suffer a prolonged case of blue balls that ultimately incites him to attempt to rape local women.  Although just a preteen, Thomas’ best friend is a rather nihilistic and anarchistic middle-aged mailman named Plagge (fittingly played by director van Warmerdam who, like his character in the film, is a mastermind of pernicious absurdist situational chaos), who regularly reads his neighbors' mail and sometimes even burns it for fun.  Plagge also regularly spies on his neighbors so he has dirt to use against them, thereupon making him a much loathed man in the neighborhood. Plagge’s archenemy is a local four-eyed ‘fascistic’ hunter named Anton (Rudolf Lucieer) who, despite having a hot and loving Aryan blonde wife named Elizabeth (Loes Wouterson), is sexually impotent and thus cannot sire the progeny he and his wifey so hysterically desire, hence the rather large chip on his shoulder.  Anton is a human ticking time-bomb of the literally impotent sort and it is only a matter of time before the nefarious nerd explodes on someone.  Unfortunately, it is ultimately the most innocent of individuals that succumbs to Anton's infertile fury and deep-seated seething hatred.

 The more butcher Jacob’s wife Martha begins to suffer surreal and seemingly schizophrenic religious hallucinations, the less sexual relief he receives, thus resulting in ultimately violent tensions to build up in their household that are unreleased in the most irrational of ways. In fact, Jacob becomes so sexually frustrated that he decides to lock the door of his butcher shop and then coerces a young big bosomed blonde female employee to come into his office where he forces himself upon her. Needless to say, the big breasted blonde storms out of the butcher shop screaming after being nearly raped in an embarrassing scenario that is witnessed by every single woman in town. Instead of being repulsed by Jacob, the women of the town begin regularly visiting the Butcher and symbolically buy large phallic-like pieces of meat from him, thus giving him the typically esoteric feminine signal that they would like him to penetrate their gravy-giving meat-curtains with his beefy blue-veined steak. Since she’s desperate to have a child, the hunter Anton’s wife Elizabeth becomes especially interested in receiving Jacob’s throbbing knockwurst and naturally the beefy Butcher cannot deny her attention. Meanwhile, Thomas discovers a graceful fairy-like feral waif that lives in the forest named Agnes (Veerle Dobbelaere) who likes showing offer her derriere in a merrily mischievous fashion while hiding behind trees. Agnes is unquestionably the sole bright light in the town, so it is only natural that she is senselessly snuffed out by asshole hunter Anton, who accidentally shoots her, ties her corpse to a large boulder, and rolls it into a pond where the quasi-fairy girl loved to swim. Before killing Agnes, Anton also manages to get his nemesis, mailman Plagge, arrested and imprisoned after catching him burning mail and reading a ‘nudist’ magazine that he has stolen from one of his neighbors. Meanwhile, Thomas’ mother Martha falls into a bedridden borderline catatonic state after her husband confronts her regarding her cock-blocking spiritual cramp and manhandles her in front of the entire town. 

 While little Thomas naturally never gets to meet his ebony hero Lumumba, he experiences the next best thing when two dubious bearded Belgian Catholic missionaries come to his town with a nicotine-loving caged negro warrior (Dary Some), who they put on display for the townspeople as if he is some sort of rare exotic panther that caught after entering the mysterious jungles of the Dark Continent. Naturally, as a proud Lumumbaphile, Thomas helps the negro escape from his cage and of course hunter Anton makes it his business to find him in what ultimately proves to be a failed manhunt.  As a feral man from feral-land, the negro makes the forest his home and soon creates various boob-traps and paints primitive Africa art around the area, thereupon bringing a little slice of the Global South to the Nordic north.  Unbeknownst to Anton, the Negro witnesses him murdering Agnes while hiding in the woods and he takes it upon himself to avenge the fellow nature-lover's death at the hands of a nature-hating hothead. When Anton later makes the mistake of pulling a gun on Thomas, the Negro uses a a makeshift Zulu spear to gouge his eyes out, thus blinding the hunter and, in turn, destroying his livelihood as a woodsman in the process. Meanwhile, to the abject disgust of the Butcher, his house becomes a religious shrine of sorts, with his rotting bedridden wife becoming the object of vigils and adoration by all the local women, who seem to use the borderline catatonic woman as a therapeutic source of solace for their own sexual repression.  Meanwhile, the butcher gets so hopelessly horny that he attempts to violently rape a nearly-elderly woman, but he is ultimately stopped after suffering the major embarrassment of his son Thomas witnessing him in the act.  Luckily, as van Warmerdam’s film seems to more than hint, the sexual revolution, women's lib, and birth control will eventually save the frigid chicks and pulsating dicks of the Netherlands from the shackles of Christian patriarchal oppression and whatnot. 

 A sort of ‘evil fairytale’ and (anti)folk fable that is as shamelessly Dutch as it is anti-Dutch, The Northerners demonstrates that, despite their rather (in)famous reputation for being some of the rudest ‘finger-waving’ people in Europe, the people of the Netherlands also happen to be some of the most self-deprecating people around. In a somewhat unwitting way, van Warmerdam’s film depicts many of the mental pathologies and vices that the Dutch possess today. Indeed, in his love for ‘black Jesus’ Lumumba, the character Thomas exhibits the sort of rampant xenophilia that is common among more ‘enlightened’ Dutchmen today. Also, the Negro character that Thomas befriends who ultimately decides to live on the outskirts of the town in the forest is symbolic of the Netherlands’ new ‘post-racial’ citizenry, as he certainly has a major problem assimilating into the mainstream population and probably never will.  Of course, the tragic 2004 assassination of The Northerners star Theo van Gogh, himself a vocal critic of multiculturalism and the Islamization of the Occident, made it quite clear that the racial assimilation of the ‘racial other’ is a preposterous liberal humanist fantasy and Zio-American globalist scheme (notably, van Gogh's assassin was born and raised in Amsterdam, thus demonstrating that you can take the camel jockey out of the desert but not the desert out of the camel jockey).  As for the sources of distinctly Dutch pathologies, van Warmerdam seems to blame over four centuries of Calvinism and, to a lesser extent, Catholicism.  Of course, in its uniquely unflattering depiction of Belgian Roman Catholic missionaries with goofy beards bringing caged negroes to the Netherlands, van Warmderam also attacks Catholicism for colonization.  More recently, the Catholic Church, like most post-WWII brands of European Christianity, has done its part in promoting multiculturalism and proliferating the flooding of Europe with mostly uneducated and oftentimes medieval-minded citizens from the Global South. In its almost oneiric depiction of a somnambulist-like middle-class population that suffers from more mental pathologies than an Israeli mental institution, The Northerners vaguely resembles the dystopian anti-Heimat flick Ich liebe dich, ich töte dich (1971) aka I Love You, I Kill You directed by Uwe Brandner, but aside from that I can only really draw comparisons to van Warmerdam’s oeuvre and works by other Dutch arthouse filmmakers. Indeed, Dutch couple Maartje Seyferth and Victor Nieuwenhuijs’ pitch black absurdist comedy Vlees (2010) aka Meat—a work featuring a horny hog-like butcher who likes playing with all sorts of meat, especially of the youthful flesh-flower sort—almost seems like a modernist update of van Warmerdam’s film and thus it is all the more unhinged because of it. Notably, The Northerners won the Golden Calf (aka ‘Gouden Kalf’)—The Dutch equivalent of an Oscar—for “Best Director,” thus reflecting the drastically different mindsets between the Dutch and Americans. Certainly, the commercial and critical success of van Warmerdam's in the Netherlands is the equivalent of Todd Solondz’s unsung masterpiece Palindromes (2004) becoming a blockbuster film in the United States.  While some, if not most, of my Dutch grandfather's children and grandchildren would probably have a hard time appreciating, let alone understanding, The Northerners, to me the film seemed almost too restrained, thus reflecting the whimsical nature of genetic inheritance.  Indeed, I don't know much about Calvinism, but somehow I suspect that it has contaminated by blood and van Warmerdam's iconoclastic celluloid romp has only reinforced my suspicions.

-Ty E

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