This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,000, which means I have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies. I’ll watch (on average) one movie a night, many of them requested by donors, after which I’ll write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers! Today’s film, suggested by friend, ex-partner, and talented author Grace O’Connell (Magnified World) is the Dutch curio, Borgman (2013), directed by Alex van Warmerdam (Ober). While not a horror movie in any traditional sense, it is an unsettling story of psychological terror. And a depiction of a very slow home invasion. O’Connell watched Borgman (for a second time) alongside me, and I’ve credited her comments below. You can check out O’Connell’s next novel, Be Ready for the Lightning, when it’s published by Penguin Random House in 2017.
Borgman opens with an epigraph from the Bible – ”And they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks” – though I’m pretty sure that’s not in any translation of the Bible. Then, in an entirely dialogue-free bravura opening, a bald man with a German shepherd joins another who is busy sharpening a pole. The two meet up with a priest toting a double-barrelled shotgun and head into the woods. A bearded vagrant who looks like a miniature Vincent Gallo, Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), is sleeping in an underground spiderhole and hears someone approaching. Through his makeshift periscope he spies the trio with their dog. One of them drives a pole through the ground and pierces the shallow earth, hitting the hidden man’s egg supply. The bearded gentleman attempts to call someone on his mobile phone, but receiving no answer, gathers some stuff in an overnight bag and escapes through a smaller tunnel. Using an axe to angrily hack away at the ground, the priest uncovers the man’s secret lair. They pursue the man, but he’s left smoke bombs behind him, obscuring his escape.
Emerging from the forest ground via a hatch some distance away, the bearded man runs to two other hidden spiderholes to wake his friends Ludwig (Alex van Warmerdam) and Pascal (Tom Dewispelaere), though he’s annoyed they didn’t answer their phones. Borgman finds a gas station bathroom and cleans himself up a bit, then makes his way to a chi-chi neighbourhood to start ringing doorbells and asking the occupants if he can take a bath. Most people don’t take him up on the offer and instead close the door on his face. Finally, he approaches a modern concrete building, set a fair distance from the road. The Netherlands’ answer to Jason Statham answers the door and Camiel asks if he can have a wash. When the man, Richard Van Schiedel (Jeroen Perceval), balks, Camiel introduces himself as Anton Breskens (from Flanders), and claims to know his wife. Maria was his nurse. The only problem: Richard’s wife, who has just joined him at the door, is named Marina (Hadewych Minis), and has never been a nurse.
The vagrant won’t let it go, won’t stop talking about when Richard’s wife was a nurse despite the husband’s warnings. Eventually, Richard punches him, then continues to beat Borgman mercilessly, hitting him with a nearby stick and kicking him in the face. Marina watches in horror and begs Richard to stop. Once they’ve closed the door on the beaten Borgman, Richard demands to know when Marina was a nurse. Has she been lying about her past? Almost immediately, Borgman has sown the seeds of mistrust in this bourgeois family. Unless they were already there from the very beginning…
Later that afternoon, the upwardly mobile couple’s au pair, Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen), returns home with their three Aryan children. Marina puts them to bed ( seemingly at 4 p.m.) while Richard returns to work that evening. He’s dealing with a particularly difficult time at the television station. “There’s gonna’ be chaos,” he says in a totally non-foredshadowy way. After the kids fall asleep, Marina sees a flashing light emanating from their concrete shed. She investigates and finds Borgman hiding there. Marina brings him into the main house and bandages him up. Stine spots them together, and Marina explains she’s just helping out a desperate man, down on his luck. She then prepares a bath for Borgman, serving him food and wine as he watches television in the hot water. (How decadent!) Marina provides him with a robe and slippers, then shows him to the summer house at the other side of their backyard.
The next morning, Marina is cold to her husband – possibly because he nearly beat a man to death the previous afternoon – and Isolde (Elve Lijbaart), her daughter, has the “itty bitty sickies” and must stay home from school. While home alone with Isolde, Marina checks in on Borgman who plays on Marina’s guilt and says he can’t leave right away, he needs to recover from the beating. She tells him to stay out of sight. Borgman suggests she make peace with her husband, as he was only trying to protect her. Marina takes it under consideration as she returns to her on-site studio where she works as an abstract painter.
The family continues in this way for some time, with Borgman living in the summer house like a Dutch Fresh Prince, sneaking around Richard to take his baths, occasionally telling Isolde weird bedtime stories about a white child who rises above the clouds (maybe it’s a Dutch classic?), all while Marina and Richard’s relationship suffers. Marina begins to experience nightmares of her husband beating her and of her houseguest crouching naked over her sleeping body, a la that devil thing the famous painting, The Nightmare. As she brings food to Borgman one night, Marina looks back to discover two lanky dogs loping through her house. Borgman, emerging from another bath (he loves baths), tells the dogs they’re “early,” and they retreat.
However, Borgman is tired of being Marina’s dirty little secret, and goes to leave. Marina stops him – she wants him to stay. (Obviously our Dutch friend has become quite fond of Rasputin.) Borgman wants to eat at the table with everyone else, not hide his entire life. He asks Marina some cryptic questions about their gardener and whether he has a family. Later, our bearded friend makes a cell phone call to two associates, Brenda (Annet Malherbe) and Ilonka (Eva van de Wijdeven), and they seemingly discuss the ingredients for cement. Borgman insists the two women, when they arrive, must look immaculate and civilized.
Later, the most posh-dressed gardener in history is planting some flowers when Borgman, from the bushes, shoots him with a blow dart. The gardener, suddenly quite ill, struggles to get to the house and collapses in the garage, knocking over a whole mess of perennials. Borgman, now dressed nicely in a suit, comes to the garage and offers the gardener help. He puts the gardener in his own car, drives to a hardware centre to first pick up some supplies, then drives him to the gardener’s home, as he requested (via strained gasps).
Borgman lays the gardener in his bed and mixes him a drink. His wife finds them and begins to panic. Borgman explains he’s already called a toxicologist, as the gardener has clearly been poisoned. (Though he neglects to inform her he was the one who poisoned him.) The doorbell rings and the wife goes to answer the door. As soon as she’s out of sight, Borgman raps the gardener on the head to knock him out. Dr. Karper, the toxicologist, is, in fact, Borgman’s associate Brenda, looking very civilized. She’s brought along her daughter (really Ilona), as they were allegedly on their way to a wedding. When the wife’s back is turned, the pair choke her with Borgman’s necktie. Then the trio place the now-dead couple’s heads into pails set on the bedroom floor and pour in a wet concrete mixture.
Back at the Van Schiedel compound, Marina spots the gardner’s tools (and one shoe) strewn across the backyard. She covers for Borgman, quickly becoming an accomplice to his crimes, and hastily cleans up all the garden refuse before any of her family members see. She tosses his shoe over the hedge and begins to sweep up the mess of plants in the garage. When Richard finds her cleaning up a pile of soil, she claims she’d tripped and knocked over the plants. When Richard asks where the gardener is, Marina says he resigned that morning. They then have a weird heart-to-heart in the garage, with Richard advising Marina she shouldn’t feel guilty about the wealth and good things they’ve got. They’re not that wealthy. Everyone in the west is like this.
Back to the murder trio: Borgman drives his female associates down the highway, blowing past Ludwig and Pascal, and Brenda and Ilona are confused as to why they didn’t stop. They pull up to an isolated dock and dump the two bucketheads into the creek. Borgman then makes a call to Ludwig and Pascal and asks for a favour. Marina and Richard have to hire a new gardener, so Ludwig and Pascal pay a few disreputable characters to apply for the job and throw the interview. Though in one case, all an applicant needs to do is be black to get rejected by Richard. (Ulp.) When a real applicant shows up on the Van Schiedel property, Ludwig has to jump him so he won’t make the interview. They’ve laid the ground for a freshly shaven Camiel Borgman to show up in his cool jacket and easily nail the job interview.
Borgman starts working as their gardener almost immediately. One morbid child asks, “Is our old gardener dead?” (Which is funny because it’s true.) And another of the morbid children, Isolde, finds the unconscious job applicant at the edge of their property, and instead of going for assistance, drops a stone slab on his head. The decision is made to have Borgman live on the property – in the summer house – because the gardening job they have in mind – adding a large water feature to the backyard – is so large, they’ll need him on-site every waking hour.
Marina starts to lose patience with everyone: with her husband; with the nanny, Stine; with Isolde, for filling her teddy bear with sand: “Why did you make this kaput?!” Having learned Borgman’s real name (not Anton Breskens), Marina tries to chat with him, leave him food and water, but Borgman gives her the cold shoulder. Stine, who is always in Marina’s bad books, asks if her boyfriend, a soldier who’s in town for a brief period, could stay overnight. Marina refuses. Maybe if he came for dinner first and Marina could assess him. “I want to know what I’ve got under my roof,” she says, with some serious dramatic irony.
Before long, Borgman’s chums Ludwig and Pascal are on the gardening payroll, ripping up the ground with bulldozers, and Borgman is telling weird fairy tales to all three children. Marina continues to have nightmares of a nude Borgman perching on her chest and awakes angry at her husband. She corners Borgman and insists that he touch her; she can’t take their sexual tension any longer. Borgman again declines: he’s a gardener now, and Richard is his boss. She must be patient.
One hectic morning, when Stine has the day off and Marina won’t get out of bed, Richard entrusts his three kids into the care of Ludwig and Pascal, who are to chauffeur them to school. Instead, however, they lead the kids down a dry well, feed them some Kool-Aid from a Tazmanian Devil mug, and break out some surgical tools. When they return home that afternoon, they are exhausted.
Stine does, in fact, bring her soldier boyfriend Arthur (Mike Weerts) over for dinner. But it’s a work dinner, since Marina sends Stine to gather some flowers for a centrepiece. While on the compound grounds, she runs into Pascal and asks where she can find flowers, but he insists she sit with him before he tells her. Stine arrives back in the kitchen suspiciously late and is very edgy and easily irritated with Arthur. She’s not the only one: Richard realizes Arthur is the son of his work rival, who fired him earlier that day. (It’s like Guess Who’s Coming to Avondeten!) The dinnertime arguments reach Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf heights, even though Richard expressly forbade alcohol at the table, as it would make their emotions “too bright.” (“What’s wrong with emotions?” Marina asks.) As if in direct response, Richard and Stine’s boyfriend quarrel right at the dinner table before Ludwig walks up to them and punches Arthur out.
Stine visits Pascal in his room that night, basically throwing herself at him, but he doesn’t want to sleep with her. He just wants to sleep. Ludwig, meanwhile, dumps an unconscious Arthur at a bus stop. Richard and Marina begin to realize (maybe a little too late) that things are getting very weird. Richard tells Marina about the ‘X’ he found tattooed on his shoulder one morning, and Stine informs them that all three of their children are ill. A visiting doctor – again Brenda in disguise – diagnoses the children as overtired. “Because of the modern world,” she explains. In another bedroom, Pascal has Stine drink some of that Kool-Aid and out come the surgeon’s tools once again.
In another dream sequence, Marina again imagines Borgman squatting on her chest, while also imagining herself and Richard in the midst of a hot lovemaking session that climaxes in Richard cutting into her thigh with a box-cutter and tearing off her flesh. (That old sex dream.) When she wakes this time, she starts hitting her sleeping husband and the two of them struggle. Richard drags Marina into the shower and sprays her face with cold water while calling her a bitch. Their marriage may have hit a spot of trouble.
Marina then goes privately to Borgman and tells him she wants Richard dead. Marina feeds her kids more Kool-Aid, dons a necklace that Richard bought her, and Borgman sets the final act of his sinister play in motion. He gathers the Van Schiedel family and tells them he has something to show them in the backyard. His associates then perform a strange showcase of talent (mostly ribbon dancing), and the family applauds as if this were a totally normal thing for their gardener to do. (“Our last gardener did a really good Equus, but I guess this is okay, too.”)
Borgman then poisons Richard’s drink, and they all toast. Marina puts the kids to bed and, soon after, Richard begins to convulse in the throes of death. The whole Borgman gang walks in as Richard dies under the dinner table and Borgman turns on the record player. (He turns everything on, man.) But this romantic evening is not going quite as Marina planned. She didn’t envision her husband dead on the floor, nor did she envision all these other weirdos lingering around. She goes to kiss Borgman, but, as if this were an extreme version of The Game, he negs her hard, turning her down and instead dancing with Brenda. While Ludwig is busy again operating on the kids’ backs, Marina drinks by herself in her car, and the others toss Richard’s body into the pond they’ve built in the backyard.
Finally, Borgman gives Marina what she wants. He leads her to the bedroom, serves them both wine, and then kisses her as she reclines on the mattress. But she never gets up. She’s been poisoned, too. The Borgman troupe dumps her body in the pond, then fills it in, and seeds the earth above it. The final shot is Borgman and company absconding with the three children, like some bizarro Von Trapp family, into the woods.
- Among the many confusing things happening in Borgman is a sharp bourgeois critique. (Is that why he’s called “Borgman”?) The family he slowly terrorizes are depicted as fairly insufferable nouveau-riche. They are fabulously wealthy but pretend they’re not. They have a gardener and an estate. They have a TV above the tub, for Pete’s sake. They’re aware of social problems – Marina’s comment about child labourers stands out as bizarre – yet refuse entry in their home to the indigent and (strikingingly) to black people, and are terrible to their nanny. So a viewer could be led to believe this movie is entirely about the revenge of the underclass. (Borgman literally lives underground.) But if that’s the case, why are Borgman & Co. so calculating? Why do they kill the clearly lower-middle-class gardener and his wife? In fact, the audience, by the end, has turned against Borgman so much, it’s almost as if the movie is a warning against being kind to strangers. (Fair enough: that’s the moral of nearly every horror movie.)
- Perhaps the main practical question at the heart of Borgman is who are these people? At first, they seem just like Travellers, and I was a bit worried Borgman was a thinly veiled anti-Roma cautionary tale. But it’s impossible to deny the supernatural component to these characters. They’re (maybe) able to transform into dogs. They all appear to have unusual scars across their back. The men, at least, hold some sort of sexual thrall over women, if Marina and Stine are any indication. What at first seems like it will be a critique of bourgeois ethics and culture – and there is some of that – is at least partially discarded by the fact that Borgman and his associates seem to be malevolent entities, more akin to folk tale demons than actual people.
- Further reading suggests Borgman and crew are based on a creature from German folklore called the “alp,” which is part-incubus and part-elf. In fact, that Füssli painting that the movie references, The Nightmare, apparently depicts an alp! (The more you know.)
- Borgman really plays with viewer loyalties. During the striking opening, audience members empathize with Borgman and his friends. This poor homeless man is being attacked by two thugs and a crooked priest, clearly! But by the time he’s had his way with the Van Schiedel family, viewers almost wish the priest had caught him with that double-barrelled shotgun. That priest and his two goon friends were basically like Dutch Van Helsings. Which makes them justVan Helsing. (I’m pretty sure he was Dutch.)
- On a side note, the Royal Cinema in Toronto ran a Borgman / Manborg double-bill, pairing this movie with Astron-6′s hilarious homage to straight-to-video sci-fi. The movies aren’t very much alike, but I have to admit I’d really enjoy that double bill.
Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: Borgman is a very compelling film, reminiscent of the work of Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth), and every frame seems filled with malice and unease. Is it terrifying? Maybe in a vague existential way. As my viewing companion Grace said, it’s more like a “inverted fairy tale.”
Best outfit:Borgman’s drifter friend, Pascal, looks like a rockabilly guitarist. He must steal all the coolest clothing from their victims’ houses. But Marin’s “bang-me-Borgman” dress is pretty sweet, too.
Best line: “This teddy bear was lovingly made with human hands. Maybe children’s hands.” – Marina, complaining after Isolde has made her teddy bear kaput
Best kill: Though the victims were both dead by this point, there was something amazing (and very distressing) about Borgman and his female associates giving the gardener and his wife cement helmets.
Unexpected cameo: Again, my familiarity with Dutch cinema is painfully lacking, so I didn’t recognize any of the actors in Borgman. But Borgman’s associate, Ludwig, is portrayed by the director, Alex van Warmerdam. Additionally, rumour has it that Danish dreamboat, Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal himself) was supposed to play Borgman, but his schedule wouldn’t allow it. It’s just as well; Jan Bijvoet is fantastic as the title character.
Unexpected lesson(s) learned: As Grace O’Connell noted, “Being a gardener in the Netherlands seems like a really dangerous job.” At least two gardeners and one gardener’s wife are the victims of random killings in this movie.
Most suitable band name derived from the movie: Make This Kaput. (M.T.K.) Probably a Dutch black metal band.
Next up: White Zombie (1932).