Several years ago I studied Dutch. A language both foreign and familiar to me. It’s the language I was born into, which my parents and siblings soon supplanted with English cadences, a BBC type English, with its sharp consonants and strict grammar.
It came back to me last night when I began to watch a movie, one set in 1888 in Amsterdam. An historical drama, something I typically enjoy, a so-called period piece, a film that throws me back in time.
Its lofty title, A Noble Intention, suggested something heroic and fabulous in the dramatic sense of the word, but as the introductions rolled on and the Dutch words both filled the screen and my ears, I felt a mix of comfort and unease, which was magnified once the film began.
The story starts in a rough thatched cottage on what looks to be a cold evening somewhere in Holland in the countryside. A family huddles together near a fire and a small boy, maybe four or five, plays with a series of silver objects that look out of place in this rustic setting. Family heirlooms or stolen loot, it isn’t clear, and then the camera pans from the boy back outside to where a group of thuggish young men break through the door of the cottage and begin accosting a young woman inside the house.
She looks to be about sixteen and as soon as one of the louts grabs her, she screams out ‘Laat me gaan’ Let me go.
Another thug pushes the father to get up and play music. He holds a knife to the father’s cheek so the father has no choice but to take up his fiddle and play.
The music in the background intensifies to fever pitch as the thug holds the girl tight and mock dances her up and down the small room, she protesting the whole time.
The father plays and the small boy watches.
There are others in the room, but they are mere backdrop to the thugs or central family members.
The drama surrounds the father who plays and the girl who calls out ‘Papa. Papa.’ Then the thug pushes her onto a table, undoes his trousers and proceeds to rape her. The small boy can’t stand it and races out into the night.
The subtitles across the bottom of the screen throw up words of protest and of cruelty as the man rapes the girl, a scene made worse for me because the spoken words in Dutch sounded so familiar.
It could have been my father raping the girl, my father taunting this man, my father insisting that everyone play against their wishes, while such brutality is inflicted on a young girl, whom we know will never be the same again.
The camera then pans over the city of Amsterdam as imagined in 1888 and a group of dignitaries argue over plans of the city and certain desirable buildings.
Next we see the father character on a train with his much older son – I assume the small boy now grown into an adolescent – and they are travelling into town.
During the train journey the father tells a woman who comes on board with and apologises for her rowdy children,
‘I love children – Ik hou van kinderen. They grow up too soon, like this one here, my son, now almost grown who is not easy. He wants to be an architect.’
And so the film begins, but I could not watch it any further.
Let me guess, the son will grow up to become a famous architect who builds magnificent buildings in Amsterdam and the experience of the young woman, whom I presume is his older sister, will act as a spur to his success.
She may feature in the film down the track or she may disappear altogether, such are the plot devices that use the brutality of childhood, the child as witness to another’s cruelty or another’s victimisation, as spurs to the hero’s journey.
At this point, I’m ready to scream.
How can I judge this film? I have not watched much more than ten minutes of its opening and I feel an ancient disturbance in my gut. I put it down not only to the horrors of the film’s opening, the rape of a young woman, a gratuitous rape I might add but to the insistence of the language.
Women are often the spoils of other men’s battles because in these opening scenes I sensed the thugs were paying out on the father somehow, by raping his daughter. The daughter as object, as possession.
But I don’t know this for sure.
I only sense it and feel it in my bones, through the language and those words:
Do Niet, Don’t.
Hou op, Stop.
Stop it and don’t. Those words I heard my mother say more than once when my father went berserk.
But he did not stop.
The command to play even when the people are terrified, the cruelty of men with strength and weapons and hatred in their eyes, is more than I can bear.
And all of that, an evening’s entertainment.