It is interesting to me when a filmmaker takes a subject which has been investigated many times and brings a new angle to it. World War II has been in films over and over. Mostly focusing on the causes, the Nazis and the battles. Here director Dan Friedkin (first film) brings to us a story, based on real events, of how the war and art intermingled.
Based on the book The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez, this is the story of Joseph Piller and Han van Meegeren. A largely forgotten story. One of many, I am sure, coming out of WWII.
Being a Dutch Jew, Joseph Piller (Claes Bang – The Square, The Girl in the Spider’s Web) found himself fighting in the Resistance during World War II. At the same time the quick-witted, jaunty art connoisseur/dealer Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce – Mary Queen of Scots, Iron Man 3) was hosting boozy parties and selling paintings to the Nazis.
After the end of the war these two men come in contact. Piller is now an investigator for the Allied Forces with the order to identify and redistribute stolen art. He is told that van Meegeren procured Vermeers for the Nazis. This form of collaboration is a crime punishable by death.
During the course of the investigation, aided by Esper Dekker (Roland Moller – Atomic Blonde, The Commuter), the evidence against van Meegeren begins to really pile up. Piller has him arrested. But as he further looks into what happened, Piller begins to believe van Meegeren is innocent and is soon fighting to save the suave man’s life.
Tricky ask. Making a thrilling WWII film and mixing it with art knowledge. Not many out there make the link between art and thrills. Though when told in this way, keeping the tension and mystery high, it is successful.
A complicated story is told here. We find ourselves initially attracted to the van Meegeren character. Though he is a snob, Han is also lots of fun. Then when we are sold that he collaborated with the Nazis, including HItler’s second in Goring, to get them art illegally during the war. A war crime. Then when we begin to doubt, as Piller does, that he is actually guilty, we swing back the other way.
Fun and interesting to watch for several reasons. One is the performance of Guy Pearce, who totally commits to the scene chewing character. He embodies van Meegeren. Bringing to life a complex character who had many layers to him like most of us do. He burns so bright that at times he really overshadows whomever he is sharing the screen with. An actor at the top of his game.
While some dramatic license is taken, it is still a film which will teach the viewer a lot. These two men existed and much of what is depicted in the film actually happened. We learn about the extent of the risks people took during one of the darkest times in human history.
What I am not sure of is how many people will be attracted to a World War II film that centers on art and a Dutch art dealer named Han van Meegeren. Might be a small group, but they will be happy with how they spent these two hours.
The film is available on digital, VOD and DVD.