(Van God Los)
Directed by Peter Kuipers. Holland. 2003.
So what’s the film about? Essentially the story, based on true events that took place in the early 1990s, of a young man Stan, beginning as an adolescent in contempt of society and who cares little for authority. He has an absent father and has a respectable dentist for a stepfather. Stan meets Maikel a criminal who he idolises and they both become involved in a destructive relationship involving robbery and murder. The film ends in tragedy. Van God Los dramatises destructive relationships, flawed characters with no sense of humanity, reflecting the society around them.
The film opens with Stan narrating the events that took place in the town of Venlo in the Catholic South of the Netherlands. Shots of a body being prepared for burial are interspersed with blurred shots of the town’s people at Easter Carnival A voiceover (which turns out to Stan’s) says that the people don’t see anything – the main protagonists at the beginning of the story have no foresight or insight.
The film’s main narrative thread is on the relationship between Stan, the criminal Maikel and his girlfriend Anna. There is also emphasis put on a childhood incident when Stan was abandoned by his father; his mother has now remarried and Stan obstensibly comes from a middle class family. But all is not well with Stan. Early scenes show him loitering in a bar, and dismissing education and the people of the town. Stan’s point of view is summed up by a shot of the town’s Carnival which is blurred and as if seen with a hangover. Stan sees his mother as hypocritical –Stan is the product of her “mistaken” relationship with a long distance lorry driver, he has rejected all middle class values, he identifies with his working class father and tries to mould himself into an imagined model of this kind of life.
It is the appearance of Maikel as a substitute father to Stan, that marks the turning point in the narrative. Maikel , to Stan, is a romantic hero, an anti-hero or outlaw that appears in fiction and films. Stan’s relationship with him is a romantic one, which is contrasted with his disillusioned tone in the voiceover. Stan relationship with Maikel is overshadowed by death/sex imagery _ such as the “death head” ring that Maikel gives him when he makes his first killing- the ring represents first blood and also a homoerotic token. Maikel is the father that will let Stan break taboos, but when he tries to control him for his own ends Stan ends up rebelling against him and killing him. The Oedipal undertones are evident. Images of sex/death and religion are recurrent in the film.
Stan’s character is one of psychopath at the beginning of the film. Recently attention has been given in fiction and in the law to youth crime, Van God Los fits quite neatly into this strata as it depicts a character with a lack of feeling or affect for the people around him, a boredom with normal societal conventions and anti-social behaviour. Maikel is a mad and bad character who suffers from some kind of inferiority to the rest of society and wants recompense – when he is rejected by Anna he flies into a childlike rage, and he soothes Stan’s conscience after the first killing; he tries to mould Stan into an image and creates a kind of blood tie by giving him a ring and saying, “Whatever happens to you, happens to me” this is to have disastrous results.
Van God Los is a film more stylistically influenced by U.S. cinema than Dutch cinema, especially that of De Palma and Scorsese. In fact there are striking similarities with De Palma’s Carlito's Way and Scarface in the opening scenes with a deceased narrator and many of Scorsese’s gangster films- with the type of character psychology on display, with a similar critique of masculinity.
There is also a parallel in the aspect of the story as being a rites of passage for Stan (when Stan finally takes his cap off, his transformation from sullen youth into serious criminal adult takes shape after he has killed his first victim.) Again this has parallels with Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1991), where a young boy is seduced by the gangster lifestyle. They also dress like gangsters (the fact they call themselves the Venlo Gang reinforces this. The romance of the outlaw lifestyle holds must hold an attraction for the young audience that the film is aimed at, Van God Los lacks the adult morality of other earlier films. In the end Stan says “at least the bastards can’t get me now” which reflects his hardened viewpoint and also his view of the judgemental nature of society. Van God Los thus finishes on a bitter note with no winners.
The film also fits into recent Dutch cinema history. Films such as Robert Jan Westdijk’s Siberia have similar concerns with young disaffected male protagonists. However Van God Los gives a more sympathetic ending whereas in Siberia the central characters are ultimately depicted as idiots. Like Siberia, though, Van God Los show a different side to Dutch life. Both are films about amoral youth who turn to crime as a way of life and are highly cynical. Van God Los takes Dutch film in a stylish new direction and into a more internationalised mode where it fits quite neatly into a whole series of contemporary films by young directors which deal with crime and the effect of it on young people.
Van God Los is a film in the American style, a story of urban youth who take the wrong end of US culture who live off its dark underbelly. Along with films like Lek and Siberia it is worth seeing not just for Dutch culture enthusiasts, but also for fans of all contemporary crime films – it takes an American style and applies it to a European locale with powerful effect. The director’s new film Offscreen, is also available on DVD.
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