May 7, 2015
Somewhat recently, a Soiled Sinema reader from the Netherlands recommended to me a number of notable female-directed Dutch films about mental illness, thus leading me to discovering the tragically hopeless and mostly melancholic cinematic work Hersenschimmen (1988) aka Mindshadows aka Mind Shadows directed by Heddy Honigmann (El Olvido aka Oblivion, Forever). Technically a Dutch-Canadian production that is in both Dutch and English, the film is in many ways typical of Honigmann’s other works in that it is a cross-cultural piece but what distinguishes it from most of the other flicks in the director’s oeuvre is that it is a fictional feature based on a popular novel as opposed to a documentary. Not unlike Suriname-born filmmaker/producer Pim de la Parra (Frank en Eva, Wan Pipel aka One People), Honigmann is not actually Dutch but a South America Hebrew (her grandfather was a Polish Jew that relocated the entire family to Lima, Peru just a month before Uncle Adolf invaded Poland) who moved to the Netherlands where she established her filmmaking career and eventually gained Dutch citizenship. In fact, Honigmann is the widow of belated Dutch avant-garde auteur filmmaker Frans van de Staak (Rooksporen aka Traces of Smoke, Kladboekscènes aka Waste Book Scenes) who, although championed by filmmakers like Jean-Marie Straub and Aryan Kaganof, is little known even among seasoned cinephiles, especially outside of the Netherlands. Although Honigmann is a noted documentarian who has received many awards and much critical acclaim for rather unconventional docs like Metaal en Melancholie (1994) aka Metal and Melancholy and O Amor Natural (1996), one would not be able to tell this from watching Mindshadows, which is a carefully crafted piece of perturbing yet poetic narrative cinema featuring various somewhat oneiric flashback scenes about a retired white collar Dutchman living on the outskirts of a snowy northeastern Canadian coastal town who is suffering from the onset of dementia as brought on by the chronic neurodegenerative nightmare of Alzheimer's disease (AD). Based on the popular 1984 Dutch novel of the same name by pseudonymous author J. Bernlef, Honigmann’s film probably offers the most realistic depiction of age-related mental deterioration ever committed to celluloid. Indeed, as someone who saw their own grandmother’s mind deteriorate from dementia as a result of late-stage Parkinson's disease (PD), it was surely refreshing to see an artful depiction of the degenerative mental illness that does not succumb to senseless Hollywood-esque sensationalism or sentimentalism. Featuring a retired Dutchman going from complaining about the snow to his dog to burning all of his family photos and not realizing he has soiled himself as a direct result of his progressive mental degeneration, Mindshadows is one of those uniquely unpleasant arthouse works that might inspire you to kill yourself if you find yourself in the same superlatively sorry situation as the forsaken protagonist.
Retired protagonist Maarten Klein (Joop Admiraal) may have a surname that is typically associated with German Jews but he and his wife Vera (Marja Kok) are as stereotypically Dutch as can be in terms of appearance and demeanor as modest and highly individualistic people who lead fairly simple and quiet lives, though now they reluctantly call Canada home after living there for about two decades. Indeed, Maarten hates the seemingly perennially snowy weather in his rural seaside Canadian town on the outskirts of Halifax as demonstrated by remarks like, “Maybe it comes from the snow…that I’m already tired in the morning. Not Vera…She loves the snow. For her there’s nothing like a snowy landscape. When everything turns white” and “I long for spring.” Aside from the snow, Maarten has recently had other problems, especially in regard to his memory. Indeed, only four years after retiring after working his ass off for virtually his entire life doing boring as hell bureaucratic office work, Maarten begins to suffer from senility as brought on by early stage Alzheimer's disease, which not only causes him to lose his short-term memory but also causes him to think that he is living in the past to the point where he mistakes waitresses for old lovers and the bathroom in his own home for one that his old boss committed suicide in. Undoubtedly, it is a scary experience for Maarten as he not only succumbs to senility but is also forced to confront repressed memories of less than nostalgic events from his life that include being yelled at by his Dutch elementary school teacher and failing to come to the aid of a suicidal friend who ultimately offed himself. Maarten’s wife Vera first becomes aware that there is something not quite right about her hubby when she finds him fully clothed at the kitchen table in the middle of the night while talking to the dog in the dark and he strangely says to her when he asks what is wrong, “Nothing. Only my head is transparent. Like ice or like glass. Totally clear, but I’m not thinking at all.” To help him sleep, Vera recommends that Maarten work on a crossword puzzle, but that only reinforces his foreboding fear that something odd is happening to his mind.
While working on the crossword puzzle, Maarten becomes stumped upon trying to figure out a six-letter word that means “refusal,” which is somewhat ironic considering his incapacity to fully accept that his mind is becoming feebler and feebler with each passing day. When Maarten finally figures out the word he was trying to think of for the crossword puzzle is “denial” while taking a stroll with his dog, he triumphantly jumps up and down while yelling, “Of course, DENIAL! Of course, DENIAL! Another word for refusal,” as if he has just come up with the cure for cancer. To celebrate his belated conquering of the crossword puzzle, Maarten walks into a bowling alley and absurdly attempts to order some alcohol, which they obviously do not serve, so he settles for a soda while wondering to himself why the waitress does not remember him. Indeed, Maarten thinks the waitress is a Dutch girl with a bushy beaver named ‘Lotje’ (Inge Marit van der Wal) who he lost his virginity to when he was ‘just a boy.’ Of course, the waitress is not Lotje and when Maarten finally comes to terms with this, he absurdly leaves her a $20 bill for the soda and abruptly leaves. After leaving the bowling alley, Maarten heads to a bookstore owned by his friend who asks him if he read the copy of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter (1948) that he recently bought there, but the protagonist does not remember buying the book. To appease his friend and make it seem like he is not totally feebleminded, Maarten purchases a copy of Greene’s Our Man In Havana (1958) and discusses Carol Reed’s 1959 film adaptation of the same name starring Alec Guinness. After leaving the bookstore, Maarten’s wife Vera spots him and yells at him for disappearing and leaving the dog to wander around. On the awkward drive home, Maarten manages to make things all the more uneasy by confusing Vera with his young love Lotje.
The next morning, Maarten confuses his own bathroom for that of the one where his Slavic boss and best friend killed himself, stating to himself of his confusion that it is, “as if someone inside of me remembers a different house.” Maarten’s ex-boss Karl Simmitch (Peer Mascini) liked him especially because he was the only person he knew that could properly pronounce his surname. While remembering the tragic event of seeing Simmitch’s corpse in a bathtub full of blood as a result of a suicide that involved slitting his wrists, Maarten thinks to himself, “I never should have left him alone that evening” and proceeds to cry. As it turns out, Simmitch committed suicide on his birthday not long after he had practically begged Maarten to stay with him, thus causing the protagonist to suffer repressed guilt which has flooded his mind ever since suffering dementia. After shaving, Maarten and his dog take a bus to the protagonist’s old workplace where he gives a speech that he completely botches to an imaginary audience. When a janitor abruptly walks in on Maarten while he is giving a speech that is half in Dutch and half in English on the pointlessness of speeches, the protagonist panics and runs out of the building while his loyal dog follows him from behind. Of course, Maarten has forgotten the fact that he retired four years ago. When Maarten gets home, he unwittingly reveals his terribly faulty memory to his wife by asking her if the book she is reading is on Cuba upon seeing her looking at the copy of Our Man In Havana that he bought the day before. Needless to say, Vera breaks down and confronts Maarten about the fact that he seems to forget the fact that both he and she retired four years ago and that his father died all the way back in 1956. When Vera begins crying hysterically and shouts, “You’re hurting me. You’re hurting me,” Maarten attempts to comfort her while being seemingly completely oblivious to the severity of his mental affliction or the dubious future that he has with his wife.
While staring at a traditional white and blue Dutch Delftware vase, Maarten thinks to himself, “A present from mama to Vera. For someone else, it’s just a souvenir. He doesn’t see it. Without memory, you can only look. I have to remember this…in order to explain a lot to Vera.” Undoubtedly Maarten’s remarks on the vase is the only time where he seems to be fully cognizant of his precarious situation in life and mental decline. Maarten also soon remembers how he once cheated on his wife with a French chick named Sylvie (Catherine ten Bruggencate) while on a trip in Paris. As his mind further deteriorates, Maarten will unwittingly reveal to Vera that he once cheated on her after confusing his own living room for a Paris ballroom and mistaking her for Parisian babe Sylvie. While Vera initially attempts to deal with Maarten’s mental deterioration by going along with his delusions, it eventually becomes too much for her and she hires a young and attractive live-in blonde nurse with the curious male name Phil Taylor (played by Canadian singer Melanie Doane) to take care of her hubby. Maarten suffers the paranoid delusion that Vera and Phil are part of a conspiracy against him, stating to himself, “Too much is happening behind my back just like at the office.” Meanwhile, Maarten’s memory gets so bad that he forgets what he looks like and angrily yells upon seeing his own reflection in a window, “Go away, you. Go away, you. I see you. Go away. Go away, you.” Upon subsequently finding a photo album with old pictures of himself, Maarten states “There he is. That man must go” and then proceeds to burn every single one of the photos in his fireplace. When Maarten wakes up one morning and complains, “It sure stinks here. My ass is ice cold. God damn it, I shat in the bed. What do you think about that? After a while, one can’t hold anything inside anymore,” it becomes quite apparent that he has now reached an infantile state and needs special professional care. Indeed, Maarten is placed in a nursing home where he suffers the delusion that the nurses want to deport him back to the Netherlands and says bizarre things like, “I’m the only survivor of my own language.” In the end, Maarten mumbles to himself one night whilst lying in his hospital bed in the dark, “Don’t fall asleep. Don’t fall asleep. Really want to. But I won’t.”
Undoubtedly, Mindshadows is one of those rare films that I rather enjoyed but would never be interested in seeing again, as it offers a decidedly dejecting experience that reminds one how truly eclectically miserable old age can be, especially if one contracts one of the various mental ailments that oftentimes plague old farts. Indeed, as someone that personally witnessed my grandmother’s mind deteriorate as a result of dementia about a decade before she actually died, Honigmann’s film gave me a bit of nauseating déjà vu. Like the protagonist of the film, my grandmother would oftentimes confuse me and other family members with long dead people from earlier points in her life, including her early childhood. By the last couple years of her life, my grandmother had completely lost touch with reality and could not remember a single one of her family members, thus I found it completely pointless to even visit her anymore, with her death ultimately being a sort of bittersweet relief as it ended her seemingly endless suffering. Towards the end of Honigmann’s film, it becomes disturbingly clear that there are few things that induce such a forsaken sense of physical and especially metaphysical loneliness in the sufferer than late-stage dementia. Unquestionably, one of the most interesting aspects of Mindshadows is the way that Honigmann decided to portray the protagonist's wife, who ultimately seems more concerned with herself and her own future than that of her dementia-ridden hubby, who she barely takes care of and eventually throws in a nursing home after a live-in nurse proves to be not sufficient enough. Indeed, it almost seems as if wife Vera resents the protagonist, as if she feels cheated in that she always expected him to take care of her and not the other way around. Of course, Vera was put in an impossible situation that is arguably worse than losing a loved one to an unexpected death like a car wreck, or at least that’s how Honigmann’s film makes the situation seem. Ultimately, Mindshadows is a film about the tragically merciless and seemingly senseless character of nature and fate and the impossibility of dealing with and confronting such things, especially when you’re mind is deteriorating. Indeed, if anyone is wondering why someone like Flemish novelist and sometimes filmmaker Hugo Claus would opt to end his life via euthanasia after learning that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Honigmann’s work gives you more than enough reason why.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 8:57 PM
Soiled Sinema 2007 - 2013. All rights reserved. Best viewed in Firefox and Chrome.