There is something that surrounds us, an agreeable warmth that both intoxicates and confuses; a sheath of something that means to do evil
Marina van Schendel
While it’s true that Borgman (2013) strongly resists interpretation, ironically enough it invites, even dares us to do precisely that. Although the director, Alex van Warmerdam, seemingly undermines every attempt to interpret the film, his point, rather, is to displace the penchant to rationally explain and ultimately contain it. His use of the absurd, the comedic, not to mention juxtaposition, and ironic reversals, achieve that displacement to great cinematic and philosophic effect.
There’s a delicate difference then between mining a film (as one would a written text) for the golden nuggets of meaning, and exploring it for markers that point toward its truth without pinning it down. This difference is not lost on van Warmerdam; quite consciously, I think, his films encourage the latter and eschew the former. It’s no surprise then that the very structure of Borgman frustrates every attempt to corral it, oscillating, as it radically does, for example, between tragedy and dark comedy, between horror and farce.
Writing for Senses of Cinema, Peter Verstraten, suggests that “van Warmerdam’s ludic approach to the cinema can be taken as a response to the strict Calvinist tradition that Dutch culture was still steeped in during his childhood and adolescence.” Since that particular brand of Protestantism has an austere, rationalistic, and morally restrained orientation, it “protests” against the (moving) image and it’s potential to “unleash an ‘uncontrollable imagination'” and thereby lead the faithful away from the (written) truth.
In this deeply religious scheme of things, Verstraten observes that the hermeneutical “goal is to suppress the possible ambiguity of images/texts, reducing things to only one … very rational, meaning”. He contends, however, that van Warmerdam’s entire approach to filmmaking “is totally at odds with this tradition, which is best affirmed by his ‘confession’ … that he has a ‘fear of meaning.'” But although van Warmerdam appears to resist his Calvinist upbringing at every turn, on my reading, his overall cinematic sensibility has ironically been shaped by that tradition.
When one considers (1) the larger European, social-democratic, secular veneer that papers over centuries of pervasive and profound religious influence; (2) van Warmerdam’s own strict religious upbringing and his reaction against it; and finally (3) the religious markers throughout Borgman itself (not to mention his other films), it’s hard not to see the film as a quasi-religious parable dealing with guilt, sin, and the insidiousness, even mundanity of evil. But let’s back up a little and begin at the very beginning.
And they descended upon the earth to strengthen their numbers.
I would argue that the opening epitaph frames Borgman in a more or less specific way; and this particular frame has definite religious markings that orient what we will see and how we’re to think about it. At first blush, one might easily assume that this is a biblical quote, but in the first reversal among dozens throughout the film, it’s not. In fact, in keeping with the logic of reversals, we might even consider it anti-biblical in an ironically religious sense.
When, in the opening sequence, we see two severe-looking men carrying pikes, being led by a dour, shotgun-wielding priest, we have a strong sense there’s something evil afoot in the local forest, and that a righteous cause is underway. And when the scene cuts to an underground hideaway of what appears to be a homeless man we quickly realize that he is both the focus of their search and the locus of evil.
Just as the men arrive at the clearing and begin poking the earth and chopping their way into the underground lair, the hirsute man, later revealed as Camiel Borgman, narrowly escapes through a hidden passageway. On his hurried way out of the forest, he warns his two friends (both of whom later join him) living in similar dwellings. After Camiel makes himself presentable in a gas station bathroom, he walks the affluent neighbourhood ostensibly looking for a place to wash up more thoroughly.
When he arrives at the wealthy home of Richard and Marina van Schendel, his brazen request for a bath is met with incredulity and refusal; and when Camiel becomes oddly insistent, even claiming to know Richard’s wife, his insistence is met with a physical beating. But that’s just the beginning because he has already intuited the cracks in the couple’s relationship which he begins to exploit for his own dark purposes. And it is precisely here where Camiel, Archangel of “peaceful relationships”, insinuates his presence, exerts his power, and slowly, insidiously and quite literally, possesses the family.
Given the frame I’m proposing, I suggest that Borgman can be fruitfully seen as a loose, even transgressive re-telling of the Garden of Eden story, the parasitic presence of evil, and the subsequent Fall of humankind into sin. Ironically enough, precisely because of its transgression, the film breathes new life into the story, thus giving it a novel language and fresh relevance. In this way, it is less a denial of the biblical story and more an attempt to re-imagine it through a cinematic sensibility shaped by the very tradition it resists.
Except for a momentary glimpse of evil afforded to Marina, the van Schendel’s are completely oblivious to its presence and personifications; and this makes them all the more susceptible to its machinations. To be sure, Camiel, the chameleon, effortlessly waltzes into the family’s lives, and by exploiting their deep-seated vulnerabilities, he unleashes the hounds of death which destroy their Edenic existence and devour them without mercy.
Like the hunter and prey images that flash across the television monitors at various times throughout the film, Camiel and his hounds are on the hunt. And while Marina appears to be the primary target – since she is the key by which the house and family are accessed – it’s the three children who are the focus. It becomes clear that the goal of the hunt, however, is not to kill them, but to mark and recruit them in order to increase and thereby “strengthen their numbers.”
In opening the door to the serpent, Marina entertained evil, fell prey to its lies, and unwittingly sacrificed her entire family on the altar of her own exploited desires. She realized too late that evil always promises what it can never deliver; and as a result, she never discovered what her heart was searching for. Sadly, she found no peace, no catharsis, and no redemption. Indulging her misplaced desires only created a larger, gaping hole in her soul which in the end swallowed her and her family in tragedy and death.
Van Warmerdam’s film testifies to the fact that, contrary to popular belief, evil hides in plain sight, in the mundane details of everyday life, crouching at the door of human freedom where it silently waits. And the truth is, the more that evil goes unnoticed the more it’s able to assert its power. Far from an anti-religious statement that makes light of, or even denies evil, Borgman imaginatively encourages us to face it, name it, think about it, wrestle with it, and ultimately resist it. Employing the language of cinema in the unique and idiosyncratic way he does, van Warmerdam’s film, ironically enough, helps us do precisely that.