Watch further, if you can

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.

4 thoughts on “Watch further, if you can”

  1. We watch so many things on television and in film houses that we would turn away from in disgust if we witnessed them in real life. How many simulated rapes have I seen in my fifteen-seven years I wonder. Only last night I watched a man have his middle finger ripped off and never batted an eye (episode one of the Australian series ‘Cleverman’ in case you wondered).The film I remember, the one that sticks in my head, is ‘The Passage’ starring Malcolm McDowell. In it he plays a sadistic Nazi and even by McDowell’s standards his performance is over-the-top bordering on pantomime and quite deliberately so he’s admitted in interview. It only took me a few seconds to track the film down even though I couldn’t’ve told you the title or even who was in it but on reading the comments I can see I’m not the only person who’s had a hard time forgetting it and not in a good way. I’ve seen worse since and by ‘worse’ I mean more realistic representations of violence and cruelty but what fixed the film in my head is that I watched it with my mum and dad in the room. The film played in cinemas in 1979 so it must’ve been about five years before it was broadcast, say 1984, which would’ve made me about twenty-five. In one scene McDowell rapes a scientist’s daughter. What most people will remember about the scene will be his swastika-embroidered underpants. What I remember is that after he’s violated her once he turns her over and it’s clear he’s going to bugger her at which point my mother had had enough and spoke up. Now here’s the thing: My dad batted her down saying something like, “It’s just a film.” Me? I sat there eyes fixed on the screen, looking neither to the left or the right; there was no way I was getting involved. You saw nothing, it was all under the covers but my dad clearly wanted to watch the scene out. I never forgot that. It reminds me of the time my sister found a dirty magazine when out playing and brought it home. Many years later as an adult she told me later that after Dad had explained to her it was a bad thing he’d not thrown it out and even as a young girl that puzzled her. Why would he put it in the kitchen cupboard unless he wanted to look at it again later?

    Films and TV programmes are not all about entertainment. Certainly the better ones aren’t. I remember a miniseries from 1978 called ‘Holocaust’ which, as the title suggests, tells the story of the Holocaust from the perspective of a fictional family of German Jews. There was some criticism of it at the time and I think that was the first time I heard the phrase “the Hollywoodisation of the Holocaust” or something similar. Of course there was the not unreasonable argument that as this was made for TV they had to soften the edges a bit but some thought they went too far and what was presented was almost propagandic, certainly distorted. Where do you draw the line?

    In 2008 a film came out called ‘Good’. The description from IMDB: “The rise of national socialism in Germany should not be regarded as a conspiracy of madmen. Millions of “good” people found themselves in a society spiralling into terrible chaos. A film about then, which illuminates the terrors of now.” From all accounts it’s not a great film but it is one of a few in recent years which have attempted to present a more rounded view of what went on in Germany in the thirties and forties. Not all Nazis were monsters. Not all Jews were saints.

    I read a review of ‘A Noble Intention’ over on Writers Alive where the reviewer ends with, “Perhaps what is most moving about this film, along with its superb acting, is the sense that the spirit of Anne Frank seems embedded within Dutch sensibilities to the intelligent viewer. In other words, despite the Dutch Protestant desire to dominate the social milieu of their Golden Age, both spiritually and economically, the soft heart of the ordinary Netherlander has really the noblest intention—to lift everyone in their society on the rising tide of progress and protect them from abuse. This sentiment contradicts the adage that ‘when a Jew cries, others laugh.’ Bravo.” I’ve not seen the film so I can’t say but, along with Philip Roth, I’ve wondered more than once where Anne Frank would’ve ended up had she not died in Bergen-Belsen. Maybe she would’ve ended up with the Nobel Prize for Literature or Peace or both or she might just as easily have married badly, turned to drink and faded into obscurity.

  2. Hi Jim. For some reason my computer doesn’t tell me when comments other than spam arrive on my blog, otherwise I’d have responded earlier to this thorough response. You’ve certainly thought long and hard about the topic. Your thoughts here remind me of other films that have disturbed me, including that one:,_the_Thief,_His_Wife_%26_Her_Lover I watched that film from go to woe, protesting the whole time as it was so utterly awful to watch and yet I had to see how it ended up. and also there’s the ending of the film, Don’t look now, which i watched as a young woman. That one gave me nightmares for days after. Films can have a huge impact. I find myself troubled by your father’s desire to watch more of that film and his keeping the magazine. Maybe under his Christian exterior there also beat unspoken desires. I agree with you, Jim, we all have something of this inside. We are none of us so pure we could not behave badly, and certainly we all harbour unspoken and sometimes unspeakable feelings, which we do not want others to know. Thanks, Jim.

  3. My perspective on screen violence changed when watching an interview with a parent of a murdered child. They said that every time a murder was depicted on TV or in film, they relived that child’s death to the point where they can no longer enjoy turning on a television or going to a movie because of the sheer volume of murder images that are so constantly and casually used to excite and entertain us. (my words, not theirs)
    Sadly, I still watch – but with some guilt.

    1. It must devastating to be so traumatised, Karen. I can understand it, and like you I can feel guilty about my curiosity in such matters. Something about wanting to know the limits of my worst fears applied out there in someone else’s lives. Thanks.

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