Monoglot Movie Club: The Dutch Angle

by Spank The Monkey


Here’s a scenario that’s been played out in several locations over the last decade. I walk into a cinema in country X, and say to the box office attendant “I’d like a ticket for Y, please.” In that previous sentence, X is a non-English speaking country, Y is the title of a film made in that country, and the section in quotes is spoken (after hours of intense private rehearsal) in the native language of X – let’s call it Xish.

At this point, the box office attendant will look me straight in the eye and tell me, in perfect English, “but this film isn’t in English.” Which is the point where I have to resort to pulling faces and shrugging, because both of us know that “I’d like a ticket for Y, please” is the only sentence I understand in Xish. But cinemas need the money, so they’ll sell me a ticket anyway.

I am now committed to spending the next couple of hours watching a film where I won’t understand a single thing that anyone is saying. And that’s where the fun starts.

The New Kids. L-R: Gerrie, Robbie (being run over by a police car), Richard, Rikkert, Barrie.

The last time I tried doing this in the Netherlands was in 2007. It ended badly. Not a single Dutch narrative film was playing in Amsterdam that week: the only local movie was the documentary Normaal Zijn We Anders. It turns out that when you’re watching a film that fits inside a genre framework, you can second-guess where the plot is heading and just about follow it as a result. But when you’re watching a documentary – shaped like real life, with unexpected twists and turns – your chances of keeping up are virtually zero.

Cut to January 2012. I’m working in Eindhoven for a week, and the local film industry appears to have picked up a bit. A quick search on Google  revealed that there were at least four new Dutch films in cinemas that week. And they were all tied to recognisable genres, which meant I had some hope of understanding them. Although I have to admit that New Kids Nitro felt like a daunting prospect initially. Just looking at the trailer, you can tell that its characters have a previous history – in this case, from a Dutch TV show and another spin-off film. Foreign comedy movies are a flaky enough proposition already, before you factor in the unfamiliar backstory and the language problem.

It’s a tale of five mates – all bad haircuts, alcohol abuse and shouting – and the escalating feud they have with a rival gang, which builds and builds until it has to stop because Northern Holland has been invaded by space zombies. (Dutch cinema appears to have only just discovered the comic potential of the undead: in a few weeks they’ll be releasing Zombibi which uses a suspiciously similar plot.) The potential for all this to get very laddish very quickly is high, but the film only really gets lazy when it comes to sex – particularly in the final reel, when it uses tits as a replacement for an ending.

All the other stuff works, though. The sight gags are sharply edited and come out of nowhere: the verbal gags I missed, true, but I could tell they were funny because the guys in the row behind me kept repeating them. It only feels like you’ve had one thin layer of meaning shaved off the film, although the frequent cries of “homos!” require no translation. And you can see why these characters are popular: they’re like live action versions of Viz cartoons, with the sort of attention to satirical detail in hair and clothing that Simon Donald brought to the early Sid The Sexist strips.

Dolfje Weerwolfje. In English, he’d be ‘Adolf Werewolf’, which is somehow more sinister

You’d think that if you were looking for a film to watch in an unfamiliar language, a children’s movie would be ideal. But there’s a catch. It struck me as I groped around in the dark for my seat at a 4.15pm screening of Dolfje Weerwolfje, that if my hand managed to accidentally touch a child at any point, I’d need a bloody good excuse. (“It’s for a social experiment,” or something like that.)

But I’d finished work early, and the film – adapted from a popular book about a boy who discovers at the age of seven that he’s a werewolf – looked fun. The eponymous Dolfje is abandoned on a doorstep as a newborn: he’s adopted by a kindly family (hot mum, cross-dressing dad, decent elder brother), with a next-door neighbour who keeps tasty chickens. The latter becomes an issue when Dolfje’s seventh birthday coincides with a full moon, and his true nature is suddenly revealed.

The cartoony CGI used to show Dolfje running in long shot is delightful, as is the furry makeup job used for his close-ups. Unfortunately, the film never finds a way of cutting from one to the other without it being really jarring. Also, a large part of the plot is unsubtly based around the preparations for a school production of Peter And The Wolf. Yes, we get it! Move on! But the film has a sharply-observed take on the traumas of being seven – bullying, school crushes, the way grownups get all antsy whenever you bite someone. The climax where Dolfje discovers his purpose in life might have seemed mushy in English, but when it’s reduced to incomprehensible burbling and smiles it’s actually quite touching.

These days, if you’re looking for cinema as pure non-verbal sensation, 3D is the way to go. It’s astonishing to discover that Nova Zembla is the first Dutch film made using the process. It’s based on a famous naval expedition – not famous to me, though – and is told through the eyes of Gerrit de Veer, a ginger-haired writer who’s punching way above his weight when it comes to his girlfriend (played by Dutch model Doutzen Kroes, as seen at the top of this page). I think her father may agree, as it looks like he’s manipulated de Veer onto the expedition purely as a means of keeping them apart.

While de Veer and crew are sailing around the frozen wastes of Nova Zembla, their ship becomes trapped in the ice. At this point, the seafaring action stops and is replaced by freezing-to-death-in-a-confined-space-and-occasionally-being-eaten-by-bears action, which is less entertaining and actually rather dull. Which is a pity, because the layers of rigging on the ship in the first half provide some beautifully composed 3D shots. Once the crew have taken shelter on land, we have to make do with gratuitous dream sequences involving Kroes sitting on a swing and being launched towards the audience, which is the closest modern 3D has come to that ball-on-elastic gag in House Of Wax.

Doodslag. It’s the Dutch for ‘manslaughter’, and not a dialogue exchange from an early Guy Ritchie movie like you thought.

At the end of a week in Eindhoven, it was nice to finish off with Doodslag, a thriller whose protagonist lives in the shadow of the PSV stadium. Max is an ambulance driver with a conscience and a smouldering fuse: he finally loses it when a gang of teens obstructs his journey to the site of an emergency, and he ends up accidentally killing one of them. The trailer focuses heavily on this part of the story, making it look like an emergency services version of Taxi Driver. But it’s what happens to Max after that which makes up the bulk of the film.

That thing I mentioned earlier about losing a layer of meaning through the lack of dialogue? That applies even more in the case of Doodslag. For example, it took me a while to realise that Max’s conflict with the teen gang would escalate because the dead kid comes from a Muslim family, and you know what they’re like. Now it’s possible that the film is setting up that bit of racial stereotyping to subvert it later on. Or, it could be that we have to take this at face value. Without understanding the verbal subtleties, it’s hard to say one way or the other.

Meanwhile, the increasing role of stand-up comedian Felix in Max’s life is a peculiar plot wrinkle. He appears to be a clumsily constructed device to discuss the moral dilemma at the centre of the film – Max saved two lives on that emergency call, but he had to kill someone to do it, so does that make him good or bad? Later on, Max is appearing on stage as part of Felix’s routine, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. And then it all falls apart in a pile-up of guns and melodrama, just like a British thriller would.

But there are plenty of good reasons to watch Doodslag. Theo Maassen’s performance as Max is incredibly strong, and his breakdown is intricately calibrated from beginning to end. There’s a sharp sense of visual style, which only really comes a cropper in the naff decision to switch to black and white for the middle section. And there’s some terrifically impressionistic sound design to depict Max’s mental disintegration: the sort of thing you really come to appreciate when you can’t follow the dialogue.

All the films I saw had their moments (although Nova Zembla had fewer of them). You certainly miss something by taking away the dialogue, but it’s fascinating to see what you can pick up from all the other cinematic elements. Having said that, I’m not sure how fascinating this is to anyone else, especially when I’ve arrogantly given this piece an umbrella title which suggests it could be part of an ongoing series. Do people really want to read a load of reviews written by someone who simply doesn’t have the mental capacity to understand the films?

But then I remember that Chris Tookey has a career, and I don’t feel so bad.

Spank The Monkey would like to thank the bewildered staff of Pathe Eindhoven and Service Bioscoop Zien  for their unwitting assistance in the writing of this piece.

About Spank The Monkey

Spank The Monkey has been talking nonsense about popular culture on the internet since 1998. He can be found doing that in long form on his blog, and in short form on Twitter. He is a regular contributor to Mostly Film, where his specialist subjects are Asian cinema, cult movies and TV, and watching foreign films without the benefit of subtitles. He lives in London with somebody else.

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