Feb 15, 2015

Mariken van Nieumeghen

Forget Ken Russell’s alpha-nunsploitation masterpiece The Devils (1971), Michael Armstrong’s abortive artsploitation piece Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält (1970) aka Mark of the Devil starring Udo Kier in the preposterous against-type role of a heroic heterosexual, and Paul Verhoeven’s entertainingly macabre Late Medieval Period epic Flesh & Blood (1985), Dutch auteur Jos Stelling’s darkly decadent and depraved directorial debut Mariken van Nieumeghen (1974) aka Mariken from Nieumeghen is the most brutal, grotesque, and aesthetically merciless work of period-based European ‘folk horror’ ever made, which is somewhat ironic when one considers that the most obscene and offensive scenes were cut out of the film so as to make it more digestible for polite society. Indeed, based on the popular anonymously authored late medieval Dutch ‘miracle play’ of the same name that was written in a bawdy ‘Burgundian’ lumpenprole style, Stelling’s first feature was a longtime in the making as a work that the director began planning in 1966 and ultimately spent five year on pre-production and almost another two years shooting as a largely homemade ‘labor of love’ that was shot on weekends with the help of about three hundred dedicated miserable souls, including bright graduate students, real-life toothless bums and limb-less cripples, morbidly obscene women of the unfortunately exhibitionistic sort, authentic wanton whores from the Red Light District and various other sorts of people. Despite the work being shot on an extremely low-budget (although the average Dutch production was around two million guilders during that time period, the film only cost about 146,000 guilders), Stelling managed to produce seven hours of useable footage that he had a frustrating time editing (the original cut was apparently three hour), so he brought in producer Rob du Mée—a man who had much experience dealing with ‘difficult’ auteur filmmakers as someone who had previously produced works by Harry Kümel and Adriaan Ditvoorst—for pre-production and the film was edited down to a mere short but deliciously bittersweet 80-minutes, with the more morbid and grotesque moments unfortunately apparently excised from the film. As a production that was comprised of about three hundred or so amateurs who enjoyed drinking on the set, real-life and fiction apparently became indistinguishable during the making of Mariken van Nieumeghen, which is a sort of apocalyptic Dutch medieval bacchanalian celluloid orgy-cum-freakshow of the largely godless sort where Christianity is used as a pretense for misogynistic mass murder, among other things. Notably, Stelling decided to drop the major theme of ‘repentance’ that is a prominent in the source play and ultimately sired a ‘humanist’ (in the most wholly negative sense of the word) cuming-of-age piece where a blonde virgin becomes a ‘woman’ in a backwards barbarian-minded hell-on-earth where woman are considered disciples of Satan whose seemingly rancid medieval pussies are more or less considered responsible for the plague. Needless to say, Stelling’s Mariken van Nieumeghen does not feature a romanticized Hollywoodized view of the Middle Ages, but instead depicts the period as a god awful time when virtually everyone was stinking filthy, murderously superstitious, uncontrollably rape-hungry, and pathologically bawdy. A work apparently guided by the director's motto, “If it’s dirty and brown it looks authentic” in regard to realistically depicting the Middle Ages and featuring hissing dwarfs carrying decapitated heads and real half-rotten dead animal corpses being gnawed at by live rats, Mariken from Nieumeghen ultimately contains an unrelentingly brutal and morbidly merry yet nonetheless preternaturally pulchritudinous depiction of one young dumb bleach blonde dame’s figurative dance with the devil in disguise. 

The plague has completely ravaged the Flemish city of Antwerp, so all women, be they young beautiful virgins or crusty old fat whores, are wrongly blamed and subsequently brought to trial for ostensibly summing the Black Death via devil worship. Hoping to spare her young friend from a very likely premature death involving torture, a middle-aged whore named Berthe van de Saspoort (Diet van Hulst), who believes, “There are worse things than dying,” helps blonde virginal protagonist Mariken (played by pedagogy doctorate student Ronnie Montagne, who never acted again after appearing in the film) evade from being captured by an angry gang of men lest she be burned alive for being a supposed slut of Satan.  Actually, Mariken's is Satan's slut, but she is totally ignorant of that fact as she suffers from the grand delusion that she has found the mensch of her dreams when in reality he is the harbinger of her most nefarious real-life nightmares.  Berne is right in her suspicions because, despite being an overweight old hag who could not possibly intrigue the devil with her less than delectable body, she is ultimately accused of “having sold her soul to the devil and thus have brought a curse upon the city” and faces execution, though she rightly blames the plague on a charismatic mono-eyed chap who has physically and spiritually possessed poor maiden Mariken. Before Mariken runs away, Berne warns her to keep away from her suave, sophisticated, and seductive yet equally sinister lover Moenen (played by young physicist Sander Bais who, like female lead Montagne, also never appeared in another film) who seems to have disappeared into thin air.  Indeed, Moenen is a one-eyed actor who is really the devil in disguise and he has already taken possession of Mariken’s terribly naive soul.  After bringing the plague to Antwerp, Moenen leaves Mariken behind to fend for herself.

 After narrowly evading an angry mob of archaic misogynists by pretending to be one of the many corpses caused by the bubonic plague in a frightening scenario that ultimately makes the protagonist realize that live humans are more deadly than plague-plagued-bodies, Mariken thinks to herself, “Perhaps the dead are the living…and the living are the dead” and then her life proceeds to flash before her eyes.  From there, the film flashbacks to a time in Mariken's life just before she met and fell prey to the master of deceit, Moenen.  Mariken's story begins with her pastor uncle ordering her to go live with her aunt in the eastern Netherlands city of Nieumeghen, but upon arriving there she makes the grave mistake of watching a miracle play performed in the middle of the town and before she knows it, she is soon spotted by mono-eyed monster Moenen, who is onstage playing the ironical role of the devil as indicated by his Baphomet-esque goat mask. When Mariken ‘feels’ Moenen’s menacing metaphysical glance, she is stricken with a feeling of overwhelming fear as if she has just seen the devil (which she has!) and immediately seeks sanctuary at her aunt’s house, but when she gets there, she discovers that her beloved relative has mysteriously committed suicide by hanging herself. Naturally, Moenen soon tracks down poor vulnerable Mariken and makes her his sort of Satanic Shieldmaiden after promising to “teach” her things as they make their way to Den Bosch and eventually Antwerp where the crypto-devil will ultimately unleash the plague.  Moenen may be a satanically psychopathic liar of sorts, but he ultimately honors his promise to educate Mariken, who is able to survive a literal witch hunt with what she learns regarding human nature.  As Mariken will soon discover but initially chooses to ignore, Moenen incites death and destruction wherever he goes while putting on the front of seeming like a mere bystander amongst the chaos, as if he is able to control the collective unconscious of the people with his mere pernicious presence. When Mariken daintily dips her feet in a pond while the two are taking a break from their long journey to Den Bosch, Moenen humors himself by strangling  to death a miserly aristocrat and subsequently forcing a pathetic legless cripple with seven children to drown himself. Later on that day upon arriving at a whorehouse in Den Bosch, Moenen has Mariken thoroughly washed and cleaned by a group of old women and then dressed in a ‘christening gown’ so that she is in pristine shape to be deflowered. While riding in a carriage to Antwerp, Moenen scares the hell out of the little lady by singing the following lyrics: “…the virgin, the whore and the wife, laid themselves on him…but they didn’t get past his skin, his blood stayed as cold as ice.” Indeed, while the devil is always incognito, he is also a braggart and cannot help but hint at his true identity, which absolutely petrifies Mariken, as she wants to pretend he is a sort of super sophisticated dandy that every woman fantasizes being with. Of course, Moenen will eventually put Mariken in precarious situations just for the hell of it after he begins getting bored with her once he defiles her. 

 Upon arriving at a bar in Antwerp full of bawdy beer-chugging bums, half-witted cripples, sadistic young men, and wayward whores of every stripe, Moenen makes enemies with a gang of four depraved young degenerates that are led by a savage little rascal named ‘Tede’ who plans to defile lady Mariken the first chance he gets. Instead of Tede and his pals, Moenen is the one that gets to sexually ravage Mariken that night while a group of people from the pub watch voyeuristically in delight. In a sardonic assault against the viewer, Mariken drives a dagger in the eye of a disfigured voyeur in a scene shot from the perception of said disfigured voyeur, thus giving the impression that the filmgoer is being punished for watching the devil fuck. Before Moenen even sticks his jolly member in Mariken’s fresh virgin meat-curtain, the group of literally drooling spectators get so horny by what they see that they begin licking walls and fondling one another, so naturally when the devil finally dips his purple-headed love truncheon into his fair lady’s virginal grindstone and she screams in agony as her hymen is ripped apart by the Great Beast, the gang of seemingly possessed hobo-like horndogs begin defiling one another in a rather violent and sadomasochistic fashion that eventually erupts into a full-blown satanic orgy. In fact, things get so heated that a peeping tom standing on a ladder outside loses his balance while peering through a window due to all the erotic excitement and subsequently falls to his grizzly death onto a pole the impales him and ultimately soaks that street in so much blood that pieces of cloth have to be put down the next morning to soak up the vital fluids. 

 After being officially deflowered by the devil, it seems as if Mariken has matured by a decade in a single night and she begins physically and mentally resembling a cultivated countess as opposed to the poor peasant girl that she actually is. Upon later encountering Berne, Mariken is warned that she is enslaved by Moenen and that she must escape his wrath before it is too late.  Being a seasoned old whore, Berne knows more than most women care to know about men and is quite cognizant of the fact that Moenen is no mere man. When Mariken argues, “I’m strong because of him” and “I love him,” Berne retorts, “But your love isn’t enough for him.” Of course, Berne is right as demonstrated by the fact that once Moenen receives Mariken’s complete undying love and devotion, he soon loses interest in her and begins disappearing during the day and during one of these absences, the eponymous protagonist is rudely visited by Tede and his gang of sadistically smirking degenerates, who have one thing on their minds: RAPE! Indeed, while his comrades hold Mariken down on a bed, Tede vaginally pillages her but of course, as the viewer anticipates, Moenen eventually shows up mid-rape and takes his swift and ruthless revenge. Interestingly, instead of deriving satisfaction from personally killing Tede, Moenen’s uses his nemesis’ comrades to get the job done.  Rather fittingly, rape-ravaged Mariken finishes off the job by swinging an axe into her rapist’s unclad body in what is ultimately a more deleterious act of forced penetration. 

 After Tede’s comrades dump their friend’s body into a swamp to cover up their crimes, the somewhat moronic criminals are approached by Berne, who warns them that they are fools that have been manipulated by the devil himself. Naturally, when rats carrying the bubonic plague begin gnawing at Tede's corpse, the Black Death hits Antwerp and Moenen predictably soon disappears in a manner as abruptly and mysteriously as when he first appeared. Ironically, despite the fact that she is the one that originally warned the villagers about Moenen and his marvelously malevolent nature, Berne is burned at the stake by an angry mindless mob à la Russell’s The Devils. Ultimately, the film manages to come full-circle when Mariken awakes in the burial pit where she hid to escape the wrath of the hysterically homicidal mob. As a result of her experiences, Mariken concludes, “The living…Now, I know. It’s the living that bury the living. The dead do nothing. Without evil, they sleep in between all the other things that died.” In the end, Moenen/The Devil, who has rejoined his band of freakish traveling actor friends, rhetorically asks both Mariken and the viewer, “Did you really think you could go on without me?” Indeed, you cannot have heaven without hell, or good without evil, as Moenen so eloquently demonstrated and Mariken so dreadfully learned. 

 Somewhat strangely, despite being a low-budget work starring an all-amateur cast and directed by a completely unknown novice filmmaker, Mariken van Nieumeghen is notable for being the very first Dutch film to be invited to compete at the Cannes Film Festival where it competed against big films by well known auteur filmmakers like Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser aka Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle, Bob Fosse’s Lenny, Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Shûji Terayama’s Pastoral Hide and Seek aka Den-en ni shisu, and Walerian Borowczyk’s The Story of Sin aka Dzieje grzechu, among various others. Not surprisingly considering it was the director’s first feature, Mariken van Nieumeghen is indubitably Stelling’s most visceral, excess-ridden, fragmented, and rough work to date, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much as it feels like it was almost directed by one of the bloodthirsty peasants that it so unflatteringly depicts. Indeed, while the work sometimes has an ominously oneiric feel about it that is further underscored during fleeting moments of dream-logic-oriented scenarios, Stelling’s film is like the closest thing to a Cinéma vérité approach to the Middle Ages as a work where it is obvious that the director wanted the viewer to feel the true grit and steaming piles of human shit that haunted the era. In fact, Stelling was so obsessed with creating a sense of raunchy realism for the film that he forbade the actors from washing their costumes in between days of shooting and even encouraged the amateur performers to not wash themselves for excessive periods of time, not to mention the fact that he actually hired real wanton whores for the sex scenes. Marinated in a sort of post-Calvinist misanthropy and keen cultural cynicism as reflected in the fact that Satan is easily the most likeable person in the entire film and virtually all the humans are nothing more than perennially vulgar eating-and-shitting-machines who are almost as hopelessly intemperate as the truly colorful populations of great contemporary Afro-American cities like Detroit and Baltimore, Mariken van Nieumeghen is most certainly decidedly Dutch in its venomous finger-wagging. Indeed, in Stelling's medieval realm, Satan is a pretty cool guy as a sort of dapperly dressed dandy Odin (after all, he has one eye and all) who merely helps guide people to their foreordained destinations of self-destruction, thus merely speeding up an inevitable process.  Additionally, Satan ultimately fulfills his promise to the eponymous protagonist in regard to teaching her about the mysterious ways of the world, and by the end she comes to the life-changing revelation that it is living people and not rotting corpses that are the most rotten. 

 In terms of the importance of Mariken van Nieumeghen in the context of all of Dutch cinema history, Dutch film scholar Bas Agterberg probably said it best when he wrote in his article featured in the book The Cinema of the Low Countries (2004) edited by Ernest Mathijs regarding the work: “In short, it is the remarkable debut of a self-educated director, made over a period of seven years, with amateurs as cast and crew, a stunning depiction of the Middle Ages and uniquely financed, Jos Stelling changed Dutch film culture not only by his production method, but also as a film auteur and as founder of the Dutch Film Days.” Notably, Stelling’s savagely beauteous debut was not the only film he made about the Medieval period as he would go on to direct the morality play adaptation Elkerlyc (1975) aka Everyman, as well as the masterfully eccentric epic De Vliegende Hollander (1995) aka The Flying Dutchman. In fact, Stelling became such a scholar of the Middle Ages that he even began teaching college courses on the subject to earn extra money. If there is anything to be learned from Mariken van Nieumeghen it is, to quote the titillating titular character’s uncle, that ‘living’ is, “A game…Of life and death. It will never let you go. It rips you apart with its invisible claws.” In his own special way, Dutch avant-garde Frans Zwartjes demonstrated the same thing with his cynically titled work Living (1971) and pretty much every other work in his oeuvre, as people might not die of the Black Death nowadays, but is slaving away at an office job for forty hours a week for forty years or chemotherapy any better?! After all, at least people in the past could blame their misery on evil and the devil and look forward to the metaphysical insurance policy of an afterlife in the most immaculate and unimaginable of otherworldly paradises.  In it's post-Calvinist take on good and evil and life and death, Stelling's Mariken van Nieumeghen is completely different than it's source play in that it dares to offers no form of solace or chance of redemption in either life or death, though I guess one can argue death can be a relieving escape from life, especially when you're in the middle of being burnt at the stake or suffering agonizing pain while succumbing to the bubonic plague.

-Ty E


Tony Brubaker said...

Perhaps, but there was a certain stunning 12 year-old dream-come-true who should`ve NEVER experienced it on February 1st 1988.

Tony Brubaker said...

Ty E, now that Finn Norgaard has been savagely snuffed out by another Islamic lunatic perhaps you should reveiw some of his films in tribute, after all Norgaard did fall into that category of European film-makers that you respect so much. I`m not sure about his sexual orientation though, if he was a woofter then forget it.