Dr. Donna Copeland’s
If you like your films strange and so full of symbolism that you have to read about them afterwards just to understand various interpretations on what you saw, then Borgman is for you. Selected as part of the line up at Cannes (first Dutch film in 38 years to appear at the film festival), Borgman is quite the story based on German folklore as well as The Bible. Certainly open for interpretation, Borgman is devised in a way to welcome questions and scenarios. It’s an open ended psychological nightmare of sorts. Borgman isn’t without appeal, but offers American audiences more work than they are likely ready to give to cinema.
We first find Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) living underground, literally beneath the earth as a priest. Local parish members come after him, causing him and his two other underground friends to flee. Borgman comes upon a wealthy family in the countryside, and when he asks for a shower or bath from Richard (Jeroen Perceval), he is nearly beaten to death. Richard’s wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) takes pity on the bearded man and offers him shelter in the guest house. Borgman convinces her he should stay, then becomes the gardener and slowly begins to infiltrate every aspect of the family’s life until they turn on each other.
The representation of Borgman as the devil or a demon seems a fitting one; it’s also backed up by a line in the film where he tells the three children a story about how “Jesus is boring”. Others have compared Borgman and his henchmen in the film to an “alp” from German folklore. Some audiences can watch this film and entirely miss the symbols and director Alex van Warmerdam has engineered it that way. However, when you read various critic's and writer's interpretations, it’s easy to bend the narrative to a few scenarios.
The acting and performances here are very good, especially Mini, who endures the most change in character. I do admire a film that can be explained one way or another, and after reading more into Borgman following the credits, it’s fairly clear the message Warmerdam is delivering. It’s the disturbing images throughout the film (not always violent in nature) that will stick with the viewer, i.e. the way Borgman infiltrates the family's dreams (visualized by him sitting and staring at the wife each morning). Evil is often visualized in many forms; Warmerdam certainly delivers a creative and engaging portrait of that here that should leave audiences debating and discussing long after the film's conclusion.
Final Thought – An obtuse and symbolic vision of evil that’s as interpretive as it is literal.
By: Dustin Chase
Borgman has to be seen as a satanic figure interested in ensnaring people into his evil world, rather than a real person; otherwise the film just does not make sense. I cannot imagine economically well off people allowing a scruffy homeless-looking man into their home just because he asks. However, if he is regarded as a metaphor for the devil worming his way into people’s lives, then I can appreciate it. The way we generally conceive of the devil today is that people willingly allow him to influence them, whether out of fear, guilt, or unhealthy appetites. For instance, in this story, the woman of the house allows him to come in and use her bathroom after her jealous husband (who has believed his story that he has been familiar with the man’s wife) beats him up and storms off to work. The devil has no compunction about lying, of course.
The film has a puzzling opening after the statement, “and they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks.” We see priests arming themselves and going into the forest, clearly to capture some kind of evil force. And we see Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) coming out of an underground cave and rounding up others from their caves, anticipating the arrival of the priests. They escape, and we never see the priests again. Instead, we see Borgman, who looks like a homeless man, knocking on the door of a house in a well-to-do neighborhood, and asking Marina (Hadewych Minis) if he could take a bath there. She refuses and closes the door, but he keeps knocking, and that is when her husband, Richard (Jeroen Perceval) comes up and attacks Borgman for indicating he has known Marina before. Marina is dismayed by this, and feels so guilty about Richard’s behavior she ends up allowing Borgman in after Richard has left.
Borgman continues playing a satanic figure in his ability to wile his way into the family’s home; that is, he talks Marina into letting him stay in the guesthouse. From there, he continues to intrude upon them, and brings in his agents to help him deceive the family and literally uproot their home. He influences them subtly, just as religious people regard the devil’s work to be, and things go from bad to worse. There are chilling scenes where the children are involved, but Borgman seems to want to introduce them to a way of being more than to harm them outright. Whereas he has no problem at all in doing away with adults.
To add weight to the idea that Borgman is the devil, writer/director Alex van Warmerdam has speculated that he may be a fallen angel. If this is the import of the story, he has certainly achieved his goal.
Go only if you want to see a devil at work.
By Donna R. Copeland