I am usually not very interested in understanding a film one hundred percent. I like a little mystery and certainly I prefer movies that don’t spell out everything for you. However with Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman I feel that I just didn’t get anything at all and that rarely happens. So I decided to do a little bit of research, okay I basically just read some discussions on IMDb, and it turns out that I got more than I thought.
What I’ll attempt to do with this essay is present a couple theories of what the film means. I’ll discuss some theories I read on IMDb and I’ll try to come up with my own or blend the two. In doing so I will inevitably discuss some of the themes of the film as well, but I’ll always point out when something is just based on my own ideas or my interpretation of what the filmmaker was trying to say. Lastly, I’ll briefly review the film and discuss it from an artistic standpoint. To do all this of course there will be lots of spoilers.
A Religious Reading
What is Alex van Warmerdam trying to say with Borgman? First of all let me premise that this is the first film I’ve seen by this director, therefore I’ll not be able to discuss his career or his stylistic trademarks and recurring themes. An interpretation of Borgman, reads the whole movie as a metaphor for the evil in the world. Camiel Borgman and his buddies are forces of evil: Evil spirits, demons, dark forces. The film opens with what seems to be a quote from the Bible “and they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks” however if you google you won’t find a positive search result.
Why is that? Quite simply, that quote is not from the Bible. Why would the director do something like that? To play with us, is my best guess. The quote is most likely made up, but cleverly written to sound like it could be from the Bible. Most people won’t look that up and just assume it’s from the Bible. It sounds like something out of the Old Testament (like the story of Noah) or the book of Revelations. That is not really important. What you can see from the beginning of the film however is that a religious reading makes sense.
An interesting theory I read, mentions how the whole film could be seen as a reenactment of the banishment of man from the Garden of Eden. What supports this theory? Well, for one Borgman’s first name is Camiel, which is very interesting, because in the Bible Camael is one of the seven archangels and even more interesting is the fact that he was the one responsible for kicking Adam & Eve out of Eden and protecting the garden with a flaming sword. If we look at the movie, Borgman could be seen as the snake (satan), tempting Eve, Marina (Hadewych Minis) in the film. Yes, that makes Richard (Jeroen Perceval) Adam.
Just like in the Bible story it is Marina, the woman, who is tempted by the snake (Camiel). She is the one that lets him in. She opens her home to him and lets him in. I’m not saying that Camiel is the devil in Borgman, but it’s clear that he also “works” for someone (like his buddies work for him). What’s the forbidden fruit in the movie, you ask? Well, I’d say it’s lust, Marina clearly desires Camiel. She kills her husband to be with Camiel, who’s only deceiving her, much like the snake was only trying to deceive Eve. What’s the sense in all the killings in the movie then? Wrong question. Evil does not reason in these terms. It does not matter.
Pure evil‘s only reason to exist is to destroy everything that is good. Marina and Richard have a good life. They’re wealthy, they have lovely children, great jobs etc. Camiel and his buddies ruin everything, for no particular reason. Why don’t they just randomly kill everyone they meet? Well, first of all that’s no fun. Also, they want to make followers. They corrupt the youths. Camiel is clearly anti-Christian. In one story he tells the children how Jesus has no time for people’s problems. He insinuates doubts. That’s what he does from the very beginning. He lies and creates discord.
Also, notice how Camiel seems to have supernatural or psychic powers. He speaks to animals (dogs). He is able to make Marina dream bad things. He clearly has an effect on Richard as well, although we don’t know much about his character, it seems unusual that a person in his position would have such a bad temper and beat up someone on his doorstep. In my opinion Camiel provokes him in an invisible way. It is his plan all along to insinuate himself into this family and destroy it from the inside. It is no surprise then that it’s a priest that his hunting him down in the opening scene.
Amateur Sociology or More Rational Explanations
The film offers itself for non-religious theories and readings as well. What about the scars on their backs? What’s up with that? Why do the kids and the nanny get them as well by the end of the film? My first instinct was that they’re organ traffickers. In this sense it’s a little weird that the kids live by the end, but the film is not meant to be taken literally. Is it a surreal film however? That’s a though question. It depends on your definition of surreal. In my view film had surreal elements, but overall the narrative isfairly straightforward.
I am not a sociology major, but the film easily lends itself to sociological interpretation. Why does Marina let this stranger into her home? If you take away all the supernatural elements of the film you’re left with bourgeois etiquette and standard conventions of what it means to be a “good citizen”. Marina doesn’t really want to let him into his home, but since her husband beat him up pretty badly she feels guilty. She also can’t kick him out of the house once he’s getting better, because not only could he sue them, but again that’s not very polite. The film overall is filled with little things like that.
Marina at some point eloquently and blatantly references what is commonly known as “white guilt”. Richard, her husband, is clearly a racist. If you hadn’t picked up on that: Re-watch the scenes where he refuses to hire a foreign gardener. He clearly thinks Camiel is a hobo, when he shows up at their door, probably smelling, with a bad haircut and dirty clothes. He seems to dislike homeless people as well. When Camiel however returns to apply for the gardening job he hires him. It seems that a shower, decent haircut and clean clothes were all it took to convince him that Camiel is a respectable man.
The film is also commenting on the “privileged class” in more general terms. The absent parents, that delegate everything to the nanny, Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen). By the way, hot damn: Is that a sexy nanny or what? But let’s not digress. Marina at some point in the film references her guilt directly, expressing her concerns to her husband by saying that she’s afraid that bad things will happen to them, because their wealthy, but they don’t deserve to be. Richard simply replies that they’re not responsible for where they’re born. These are some of the less subtle moments in the film, but as you can see the message is quite clear.
Reviewing and Recommending
Thematically, Borgman shares a lot of similarities with films like Dogtooth, Funny Games, Teorema (or its remake Visitor Q) and even The Human Centipede (more on an aesthetic level). It’s the religious “twist” that sets it apart from those. Unfortunately, as much as I loved researching this film, dissecting it and trying to decipher what it means, watching it wasn’t nearly as fun. It’s a very cold film and you can’t really sympathize or root for any of the characters, because they’re all blah. Yes, that’s how I’d describe them: Blah.
I appreciate that the film is trying to be as cold and calculating and cunning as the characters themselves, but does it work for me as a piece of entertainment? Only for the first act, which is very intriguing. Once you realize that you won’t get a clear resolution, you won’t be able to like any of the characters and that the film will just go on killing everyone I felt completely detached. What I will say is that I liked that the film is trying to be different from the (mostly) great films I mentioned above, but I’m not sure it works entirely.
I’m also a bit tired of the whole bourgeoisie critique. It’s been done before. It has been done better. It’s been over done. Can we please move on now? I know the film is not supposed to be enjoyed on this level, but I loved the rich white family’s luxurious residence. It’s a beautiful house. It’s basically simple cement blocks, but it’s so understated and almost Asian in a lot of ways. I like the interiors with the wood and the perfectly curated green garden. It’s a nice little villa. Maybe that’s the last thing the director wanted us to take away, but it’s what I liked most. Well, that and the Danish nanny.
My conclusions are that there are no conclusions. There is no absolute, univocal, ultimate reading of Borgman. Everyone has a right to their own interpretation and every interpretation is substantially right, although of course some probably make more sense than others. I encourage people to make up their own mind and try to come up with their own theories. Naturally, I always appreciate comments in the comments section if you have any. I also encourage a religious reading of the film, because, once again that’s what makes this movie somewhat unique.
I recommend this film to anyone who likes a little bit of bourgeois critique or if you like movies that have surreal elements and are not easy to make sense of. If you like characters with clear motivations, definitive endings and traditional storytelling: Stay away from this. This movie is not for everyone, in fact, I’m not sure it’s for me, because as I said, I prefer stories where I can relate to the characters and be invested in them. I’m also a bit tired of all these films about white guilty coming from white people: Be coherent guys. Just accept that you’re white. It’s nobody’s fault. Enjoy.