Seeing The Last Vermeer (2019), even though it had been in theaters for a couple weeks now, was purely for me. Actually, this was true in a physical sense as I was the only one in the theater. But maybe there is hope round the corner. There is a semi-big release this coming weekend, and then an even bigger one around Christmas, so maybe I will see fuller theaters. At this point I think only politicians can prevent this from happening.
The Last Vermeer is set in Holland in the months after World War II, though it is really about that conflict. Each one of the characters in the film has to deal with the effects of that devastating conflict in their own way. The main one is Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang) who is tasked with investigating eccentric local artist and art dealer Han Van Meegeren (Guy Pearce). Though Piller is an officer in the Canadian Army, he is a Dutch national and is seemingly in support of the ongoing public executions of suspected collaborators during the Nazi occupation. Hence when he and his assistant, Esper Dekker (Roland Møller), arrive at Meegeren’s opulent home, they are eager to arrest somebody who seems clearly to have profited from interacting with the Germans. It is also personal for him given what his wife, Leez (Marie Bach Hansen), had to do as a spy for the Dutch resistance, namely sleeping with a German officer in order to obtain information. But Meegeren claims innocence from the start, telling the authorities that the supposedly priceless Vermeer paintings he sold to the German high command were fakes. Ultimately, Piller is a fair man, and has to fend off more vengeful representatives of the Dutch government who seek to make an example of Meegeren. People pointed to the extravagant parties he threw during the war that were well attended by German officers. Here again he posits a lack of guilt, saying that a man in his position did not pay attention to who came to his house at such times. Another piece that convinces Piller that the artist is not guilty of these accusations is the paintings themselves. The seventeenth century Dutch Master produced so few works that each is almost quite literally incalculable in its worth, and as such their provenance (origin, basically) has to be firmly established. This part of Piller’s investigation falls apart because he cannot find a key witness. Nonetheless, the Dutch government forges ahead with its charges. So convinced is Piller, though, that even after he leaves the army and settles into an unremarkable civilian life, he continues to look into the matter. It is at this point that Meegeren lets Piller in on the true secret of these paintings: he had done them. Meegeren could not only precisely copy Vermeer’s styler, but he also knew the way to fool the chemical and material analyses that also help to more conclusively date the pieces. At his trial, no one believes his story, particularly because they doubt his talent as an artist. It is not until the matter is seemingly settled and he is sentenced to death that Piller takes one last desperate measure to prove Meegeren’s innocence. Piller throws acid onto the corner of Meegeren’s latest forgery, one Piller helped to fake, which reveals the copyist’s name underneath the first layer of paint. In this light, Meegeren selling such art to the Nazi’s was seen as a way of subverting the enemy by ripping them off, and he is hailed as a hero. But is he? After the court case is finished, a book is shown to Piller, a book by Meegeren about Dutch art, signed by the author, dedicated to none other than Adolf Hitler, and found in the fuhrer’s personal collection. Hence, while Meegeren perhaps did not steal Dutch art to sell to the Nazis, he was a little more cozy with the Third Reich than he would want his fellow countrymen to know.
There is a lot going on beneath the surface in The Last Vermeer, literally and figuratively, that made it a satisfying film to watch, particularly for this Catholic reviewer. One of the more powerful themes running through it is forgiveness. The title painting is called “Christ and the Adulteress.” It is a representation from the Bible of when Jesus stood between a woman accused of adultery and those who were about to put her to death, uttering the widely used line about the one being without sin casting the first stone. What many seem to forget about this passage and saying is that it does not necessarily change what she did. But Jesus sees her value, which makes her worthy of forgiveness as a created child of God. World War II caused people to do extraordinary things they would not normally do, and technically Leez did cheat on her husband in service to her country. Everyone from her, to Meegeren, to Piller himself seek absolution for the things they did during the war, things that weigh on their consciousness in a variety of ways. Much of what happens in the film is their attempt to avoid that punishment, be it a public execution or a personal one. Faith teaches that the ultimate punishment is simply separation of God, a fate that can be avoided by turning earnestly to Him and seeking absolution. While Meegeren probably did not fully commit to such an idea, I like to think that this painting that he sold to the Nazis, given its subject matter, was his way of attempting to find forgiveness.
What struck me most about The Last Vermeer, aside from its theme of forgiveness, was just how devastating are the effects of war. These two ideas are why it gets my recommendation. It is not action packed, but more enigmatic, and a character study in people coping with their less than savory past. Too often war films tend to glorify the destruction, but this movie is a further reminder of its awful aftereffects. It does so too while unraveling a neat little mystery. Yeah, it might not be the most exciting movie around, but it is immensely satisfying.