Tuesday 17 July 2018

Het Bombardement (Ate de Jong, 2012)

Six years ago, Ate de Jong's Het Bombardement did fairly well at the Dutch box office yet received a critical mauling.  Much negativity surrounded the film's decision to centre on a routine romance tale, while the 1940 bombing of Rotterdam - the bombardement of the title - was largely relegated to a background event.  Once you get past that rather large hurdle, the film isn't actually that bad - sure, it's pretty rickety stuff: the love story is over-familiar; there's no chemistry between the leads; the explosions look cheap; and the pacing is poor, making the 100 minutes or so feel more like 150 minutes.  Yet the main problem with the film lies in its title, which sells us a tale about the destruction of the open city at a time when it became clear that the Phoney War was truly over; audiences expecting a war film were greeted by a romantic tale in which the razing of Rotterdam is an incidental backdrop.

The two main characters are working class amateur boxer Vincent (Jan Smit) and high society lady Eva (Roos van Erkel), whose paths cross when Eva arrives in Rotterdam to marry an insufferable, wealthy older man who will guarantee safety and sanctuary for her German-based family.  Although they're from very different sides of the tracks, a mutual attraction soon develops between Vincent and Eva.  But the real drama begins when the two are caught up in a surprise German attack, and as the Dutch prepare for an invasion, the pair undertake the time-critical quest to rescue Eva's family.  Eva's husband-to-be, however, is desperate to rush through the wedding - the reason being that his compensation for the help he'll give Eva's family is lined up in the form of her father's company.

Het Bombardement is bookended by scenes in which the elderly Vincent reminisces about that time in 1940, his memories triggered by a news report of a particular UXB which he eventually attends the detonation of.  This rather clunky framing device at least puts a different, more sympathetic slant on Vincent - while the younger man is by no means especially unappealing, Jan Smit's performance is too bland to elicit much of an audience response.  While Smit's probably better off sticking to his singing, van Erkel fares a little better, even if her Eva is a stock haughty rich girl who, in that most by-the-numbers of scenarios, falls for a boy of a much lower social class.  While neither of the two leads are great in isolation, this could perhaps be overlooked if they formed an interesting, believable couple, but, as already mentioned, zero sparks fly as the two grow closer as they progress on their arduous journey.

While Vincent and Eva's story reigns supreme, intermittent title cards inform us of the days left until the bombardement.  Bizarrely, in a film called Het Bombardement, these appear rather intrusive as they place an emphasis on an event that's significance isn't reflected in what we're watching - it's almost as if these intertitles belong in another film.  If anything, these inserts prove to be most frustrating as they remind us of what we really should be watching: the Wermacht on the streets, the Luftwaffe circling the port, and Rotterdammers gradually coming to terms with what is about to be inflicted on their city and country.  You can see why the Algemeen Dagblad considered the film to be offensive to victims of the bombardement; it's a film purportedly about the bombing which doesn't seem particularly interested in its titular event.

In many ways, de Jong's movie is reminiscent of James Cameron's Titanic, a film in which a huge maritime disaster proved little more than a milieu for an asinine romance to play out against.  The main stories in both Titanic and Het Bombardement could essentially be told without the title disasters figuring at all, which doesn't say very much for de Jong and Cameron.  While Het Bombardement is not one of the better WW2 movies to have emerged from the Netherlands - Zwartboek, Soldaat van Oranje and Oorlogswinter being just three examples of infinitely better films - it's actually quite tolerable, even if there are frequent spells in which it fails to fully engage the viewer.  If you can overlook some ropey acting and creaky sets - as well as the fundamental flaw already discussed - you might just find it to be a passable diversion; you can watch the film on VOD.  Ate de Jong has made much more interesting films, and we'll look at some of his other work in upcoming posts.

Darren Arnold

Image: Rob Mieremet [CC0]