Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 20, 2020 10:22 pm 
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Saving a slick operator

The Last Vermeer begins on May 29, 1945, in Austria, with a train car, in a mine, and some soldiers, one of whom puts an explosive pack on the side of the car and blows it off. A surprising gesture, because what's inside are priceless works of art. They are part of a Nazi cache. And therein, as we know, lie many tales. This mildly entertaining film isn't the best of those, and it teases us with fascinating material that it distorts, and tells us less about than it might have done. Nonetheless it's an entertaining watch in its way. At the heart of it is one of modern history's most fascinating charlatans.

Watch The Last Vermeer for Guy Pearce's enjoyable performance. He plays the Dutch forger Han von Meegeren, typically, with the lightest of touches and a slightly wounded elegance. He has impersonated elegant scoundrels before, King Edward VIII, for instance. This is a good one. The movie? Not so wonderful. Respectable, and admirably accoutered, but a little obvious and over explicit and without many more surprises like that explosion on the railway car. The focus of the filmmakers takes us off-center, to the dogged effort by a Jewish ex-resistance fighter, Joseph PIller (The Square's very tall Danish actor Claes Bang), to save van Meegeren from death for treason, which he suspects would be wrong, and turning him into a momentary hero for duping Hermann Göring in a very big way. Göring paid a record-setting fortune in traded artwork to the forger (137 looted paintings) for Christ with the Adulteress, a fake Vermeer painted by van Meegeren himself.

Having failed with his own work, Dutch artist Van Meegeren was the most successful painting forger in all possible ways: he fooled everybody, and he made a great deal of money doing it. What's really interesting is that he got away with passing off six forged paintings as Vermeers - that rarest and hardest to forge of artists - and selling them for a fortune. He was rich from his forgeries, and careless of his wealth. Why we don't learn here, he gave away most of his extensive property holdings to his ex-wife, including many houses in both Holland and France, enumerated in the lengthy trial segment at the end of The Last Vermeer. Perhaps what mattered more to him, he made fools of a host of art experts, including critics who had debunked his own work. His forgeries got into museums, both his "Vermeers" and other fake Dutch 17th century paintings.

Van Meegeren probably focused mostly on religious themes that Vermeer had touched on early in his career because in an odd way they would arouse less suspicion, being less familiar. The non-religious ones were pretty good. (Even all the 34 confidently authenticated, real Vermeers don't look as good as the handful, perhaps half, that are perfect and sublime.) But the religious ones? They repeat this same funny-looking full-frontal face of Christ. Why did the experts find these convincing? Apparently, one expert may have led to agreement by another, like dominoes. The exposure of van Meegeren in the trial is said to have generally put in question henceforth e use of expert opinions as proof of artistic authenticity. These experts' ultimate test at the time was to wipe a corner of the painting with alcohol. If no paint came off, the painting was old. That's what the movie tell us, anyway. We learn how van Meegeren invented a special medium to produce paintings - on old canvas mounted on old wood - that survived the alcohol-wipe test.

Van Meegeren's fraud is the fact that, in the movie version of events, Piller unearths. (Historically van Meegeren did the self-exposing himself; Piller is a cinematic device.) Dutch government heavies, who look down on PIller - sometimes giving off remaining fumes of anti-Semitism - keep battling with Piller to lock van Meegeren up and put him to death as a collaborator for selling prime Dutch cultural property to the Nazis. Art experts that have benefitted from identifying van Meegeren paintings as Vermeers want to vouch for their own expertise by insisting, in a trial, that they were right and the paintings are authentic.

The production values of The Last Vermeer are high, all of it nicely photographed by dp Remi Adefarasin of Match Point and two Elizabeths We get many forties-looking people rocking perfect forties clothes, riding in forties cars: the crowd scenes are fun. A train ride to Rotterdam that runs by ruins worthy of 1917, wandering children, shells of Dutch buildings, a hollowed out car that particularly delighted me because period cars in movies are nearly always in wrongly mint condition and this one is the opposite. Young women wearing forties suits and walking in forties heels are looking better now than ever. There are lots of big high-ceilinged rooms with to-die-for furniture. Van Meegeren's house is a grand, elegant mess. Pearce plays him as a stylish poseur with just enough cool and panache to earn our sympathy while remaining a little mysterious and odd. For what it's worth, the fake Vermeers look very good too, like real fake Vermeers, and the production included 50 of them, by Scenic painter James Gemmil NewsArtNet article says, executed with a special peel-off layer so Pearce could appear to be painting them on camera. Unfortunately, all this authenticity of look is seriously undercut when history is crudely bent and everyone speaks English, with different accents, in a plot that contains irrelevant complications and too many characters to follow.

There's also the trouble that such World War II settings and situations as these are over-familiar by now, including all these pretty, somewhat interchangeable ladies struggling to survive moving in and outside prevailing law and acceptable loyalties (also hard to follow). The whole search for Nazi caches of stolen art thing was covered in as popular an American movie as George Clooney's 2014 The Monuments Men.* And there are enough thorough books for a treatment as superficial and false as this one - which rearranges events to foreground the invented story of Joe Piller - to seem passé.

The real-life outcome was more or less the same as this but it didn't happen quite this way. Van Meegeren's death by heart attack a few weeks later isn't mentioned here. While what he put over on people may be more interesting than the man, surely van Meegeren is more interesting and would have deserved more screen time than Captain Piller. He was more complicated than shown here. And if he traded his fake Vermeer to Göring for looted paintings, was the deal so heroic after all? This key complication is left out of the film too.

The Last Vermeer, 117 mins., adapted by three writers from the book The Man Who Made Vermeers by John Orloff, debuted at Telluride Aug. 2019 and showed at Toronto Sept. 2019. It opens in the US Nov. 20, 2020. In local theaters. Metascore: was 61, now 55.

*A documentary version is Stéphane Bentura's 2015 Dealing with the Devil/Les Marchands d'Hitler.

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