Commentary Magazine


Dutch Treats

If you are a neurotic, alcoholic, Mariolatrous, Catholic homosexual on the verge of going over the edge, have I got the film for you! It is Dutch, yes, Dutch, The 4th Man. For Holland has suddenly developed a first-rate, “quality” cinema, capable of turning out decadent films with the best of them—films on the cutting edge of the new sensibility and even of social change, such as A Question of Silence, a movie so rabidly feminist as to be pathological, the most lunatic feminist film I have ever seen. And both movies are skillfully directed, of course, for Holland is hot. There is a large element of fashion in this, naturally, but also a bit of mystery. The muse of the cinema has touched with her magic wand Sweden, Poland, Argentina, Brazil, Cuba (for the first two or three years of the Castro regime), Australia, postwar Germany, Hungary—all minor film countries suddenly thrust into the limelight. But the Netherlands, you say, Holland, with its tulips and windmills, where housewives do not sweep the sidewalks in front of their houses but get down on their hands and knees and scrub them to make sure they’re spotless (I’ve seen it many times with my own eyes)? Where the average per-capita attendance at movies used to be half that of neighboring France? Where Dutch film production was until the day before yesterday positively negligible? Well, yes. It has come to pass. Holland has caught the movie bug.

It did not all start with The 4th Man. Paul Verhoeven, that film’s director, is responsible for a sizable share of the New Dutch cinema himself, having already made Soldier of Orange (a World War II story which, in an innovative U.S. release strategy, showed its commercial strength first in Los Angeles before opening in New York), Turkish Delight (swinging Amsterdam), and Spetters (Rotterdam bikers). Both Soldier of Orange and Turkish Delight were nominated for Academy Awards as the best foreign-language films of the year, and it is worth noting that even though foreign films account for only a small fraction of the American movie market, the denizens of Hollywood are among their most avid consumers. The average U.S. moviegoer might not see a foreign film from one year to the next, but the chances are that the director of his favorite American movies sees them all, and foreign films are consequently very influential. Spotted in Soldier of Orange, Rutger Hauer was cast by Ridley Scott as the second lead in Blade Runner. Renée Soutendijk, who starred in both Spetters and The 4th Man, has already been signed for the next film by John Frankenheimer. Director Verhoeven himself, as I write, is in Spain, making a new movie for Hollywood’s Orion Pictures.

The 4th Man is based on a loosely autobiographical novel by a Dutch enfant terrible named Gerard Reve, who has spent most of his life alternately winning Dutch literary prizes and scandalizing the Dutch public. Openly homosexual, he converted to Roman Catholicism at the age of thirty-five (there are now almost as many Catholics as Protestants in the Netherlands). Having already been found “in conflict with public order and morals,” Reve was brought to trial for “contemptuous blasphemy” in 1966, not long after his conversion, and the sensational trial proved to be the scandal of the year. In 1968, awarded still another literary prize, Reve kissed the Minister of Culture enthusiastically, and later gave a televised party at the Church of the Sacred Heart to celebrate. There is something about a Puritanical society in decay that produces sports like Gerard Reve. After an attractive young woman schoolteacher masturbated on camera on the Dutch national television network in the interests of “sex education” several years ago, one would think it was getting pretty hard to shock the Dutch, but Gerard Reve has a gift.

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The film of The 4th Man stays fairly close to the Reve novel. Not to put too fine a point on it, it is about a man with an obsessive dread of women, or at least of aggressive, sexual women. If the woman could arrange to be like the Virgin Mary, of course, Holy Mary Mother of God, that would be something else. But how often can you expect a break like that? Under the film’s opening titles we see a crucifix, with the crucified Christ, and over Christ’s face, portrayed in his final agony, a spider has woven her web. A fly has become caught in the web, and the spider is slowly beginning to devour him.

The film’s opening scene is hardly more cheerful. Gerard Reve (the novelist has given the protagonist his own name) wakes up one morning with the cold sweats, hallucinating, haunted by nightmares, needing a drink. Brilliantly played by Jeroen Krabbé, he is not noticeably homosexual, but after a big glass of red wine he calls to his boyfriend downstairs to drive him to the Amsterdam railroad station. After being answered with a surly “No,” he hallucinates that he is strangling the boyfriend with what looks like a woman’s black bra, but then, shaking and trembling, makes his way by himself to the station and, several incidents and hallucinations later, to Flushing, a Dutch coastal town where he is to speak before a literary group. For he is (autobiography again) a celebrated if scandalous writer. During the literary evening Gerard meets a beautiful, blonde, rather forward young woman named Christine (Renée Soutendijk) and, to the surprise of no one and due more to her initiative than to his, he ends up that night in her bed. During a slightly odd coupling, she mounts him and he presses her breasts sideways to flatten them out and make her look more like a boy. Once asleep, Gerard has his usual assortment of nightmares: first a peaceful vision of a woman dressed in the Virgin’s pale blue whom he saw carrying an infant on the train, then three butchered bulls, then roses, then finally Christine, his bedmate, who calmly, with an ordinary pair of scissors, lifts his genitalia and castrates him. He wakes up screaming.

Christine comforts him, and pampers him the next morning with breakfast in bed and gifts. She has recently been widowed and—strangely composed and with no sign at all of vulnerability—she invites him to move to the resort town of Flushing to live with her. Gerard declines in some kind of inner panic, saying he must continue to live in Amsterdam. As it happens, Christine runs a beauty parlor on the ocean front. She has her own line of beauty products named “Delilah” and, even as Delilah unto Samson, Christine trims Gerard’s hair. It is off-season and we see the cold, gray waves of the North Sea beating relentlessly against the winter shore. By night, we notice the name of the beauty shop, “SPHINX,” outlined in chilly, blue neon. Except that the “H” and the “X” are electrically defective and dark, leaving only “SPIN”—a detail lost on much of the American audience but which in Dutch happens to mean “spider.” On the train down from Amsterdam, in fact, Gerard had stared nervously at a reproduction of a painting of the biblical Samson and Delilah—she who robs Samson of his strength by cutting his hair. In the beauty shop a woman—her face hidden by a beauty mask—says to Gerard ominously, “When you are warned, you must listen.”

But he does not listen. While Christine is out of the apartment, Gerard snoops through her private correspondence and sees a photograph of an attractive young man whom he had pursued at the train station in Amsterdam. From the correspondence it is not hard to deduce that he is Christine’s regular lover—away most of the time in Germany—and Gerard decides to stay with Christine for a spell in order to meet him. Cunningly he induces Christine to make a trip to Cologne and bring back her friend, Herman (Thorn Hoffman), and while she is away he burrows through all her private possessions and finds home movies which reveal that Christine has been married and widowed not once, but three times. All three husbands, moreover, have died in suspicious circumstances.

Gerard’s neurotic anxieties seize him and he becomes wild-eyed with fear. Who will be the fourth man? Herman? Himself? Trembling, Gerard drinks himself into a stupor—and wakes up to find Christine and Herman, already in the house, back from Germany. On a recreational drive which ends up in a cemetery, Gerard and Herman chance on Christine’s family tomb with the urns of her three cremated husbands. After seducing Herman sexually (accomplished without much difficulty), Gerard warns him that he must flee Christine; she is deadly. He announces that he himself is going to get as far away from her and as fast as possible. Herman laughs off the warning, but agrees to drive Gerard to the train station so he can make good his “escape.” On the way to the station, with Gerard driving, they swerve to avoid being stopped at a construction site by a truck carrying a load of steel-reinforcing rods and one of rods, protruding, is driven into one of Herman’s eyes and straight on through his brain. A gruesome death.

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Gerard has a nervous breakdown and is taken to a hospital, where his explanation of the accident sounds, indeed, like the ravings of a madman. Christine visits him in the hospital and while there falls in with a tanned, handsome young wind-surfer to whom she takes a fancy. They go off together, and one has the feeling that, if all goes smoothly, the young wind-surfer with a bit of luck will end up the fifth man. Gerard, for his part, is saved by the Virgin Mary. The woman in pale blue whom he has been catching glimpses of all during the movie, clearly portrayed in such a manner as to symbolize the Virgin, turns out to be a nurse at the hospital and, taking Gerard in his wheelchair, she wheels him out into the hospital garden to a place of peace. Hail Mary, full of grace, Save me from predatory women.

As I say, if you are a neurotic, Mariolatrous, homosexual with a morbid dread of aggressive women, this is the film for you. The big surprise, however, is that droves of apparently healthy heterosexual Protestants and Jews are seeing The 4th Man also, plus, no doubt, many a backsliding heterosexual Catholic, to the point that it is by far the most successful foreign-language film of the season. At this writing, it has almost a three-to-one box-office lead over Jean-Luc Godard’s latest offering, First Name: Carmen, which is in second position. Volker Schlöndorff’s unspeakable adaptation of Marcel Proust’s Swann in Love, although still in its first month, is trailing by a four-to-one margin. And the highly touted Eric Rohmer’s new Full Moon in Paris, also in its first month, is trailing by nine to one. There is no doubt about it. For Holland The 4th Man is something of an event.

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But the other new Dutch movie, A Question of Silence, is also an event, if of a somewhat different order. The first film of writer-director Marleen Gorris, it caters, to say the least, to a somewhat different audience. It is the story of three “ordinary” Dutch women, played by Nelly Frijda, Edda Barends, and Henriette Tol (lacking the names of the fictional characters, I shall use those of the actresses). Judging by their behavior in the movie, life—which is to say mankind (as opposed to womankind)—has treated them very ill. They have a sense of intense, generalized grievance toward men which, according to the author, seems to entitle them to take the most extreme actions in honest retribution. Are they justified? Do they win and hold our sympathy? Be forewarned: A Question of Silence is by intention a “gender-gap” movie. When I saw it at the Waverly in Greenwich Village in New York, women (three-quarters of the audience, including by all appearances an appreciable number of lesbians) went all the way, their faces manic, laughing hysterically at the moments of retribution. Men sat in silence, their faces glum. The author’s bedside book—which we glimpse once or twice during the film—is apparently Ann Jones’s Women Who Kill, one of those “must” books for the ultra-feminist set. A quote to give the flavor: “A baby girl born tomorrow stands a chance of growing up to stick a kitchen knife into an assaultive husband; but her chances of becoming President are too slim to be statistically significant.” (I saw the film after the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro, but I doubt if the audience’s reactions were much altered.)

First: Nelly Frijda, a plump, boisterous, jolly barmaid. Nelly’s husband left her some years back, but we are given no indication of how this came about. Was he a cad? Was there bitterness? Was there mutual estrangement, perhaps even offensive behavior on her part? We are not told. Nelly pours out beers from behind the bar for the tavern’s largely male clientele early in the film, engaging in constant, high-spirited badinage with the customers. There is a certain amount of bad language from these customers, but Nelly gives as good as she gets, laughing constantly, loudly, raucously. Is this demeaning for Nelly, to have been reduced to this state of coarseness? If so, it would be hard to tell, for she takes it all in her stride, giving rather better than she gets.

Our second ordinary Dutch woman is Edda Barends, a taciturn housewife. Her husband returns from his day’s work drawn, tired, perhaps under tension. Grumpily, over some connubial chore left undone, he asks Edda why she didn’t do it: “You haven’t been doing anything all day.” That is all we need to know about this male pig (and it is about all we are told). Here Edda has been slaving all day, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of three children (we are shown none of this, but I imagine it is subsumed), and her husband has the unmitigated gall to say she “hasn’t been doing anything all day” Of course, we are not told anything about what kind of day the husband has had. Perhaps he has been worked liked a horse, abused, and humiliated by his superiors. But no matter. Any man who would make a remark like that to his wife is a callous, unfeeling, phallocratic male supremacist, and his wife is little better than his serf.

The third ordinary Dutchwoman, Henriette Tol, is an executive secretary, working for a male manager—the work relationship alone being enough to establish her condition of serfdom. Although Henriette is shown to have a modest, submissive, self-effacing manner at work, we are—none too subtly—made aware that her grasp of the concern’s affairs might well qualify her for a managerial position.

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At lunchtime the three women, who don’t know one another, all chance to be in a large shopping mall and happen, furthermore, all to be in the same clothing shop at the same time. They browse about, looking at this or that perfectly conventionally, until one of them, Edda, the housewife, seeing an item she likes, furtively slips it into her shopping bag. The manager, a middle-aged man far taller than any of the three women, spots the act of shoplifting and walks over to Edda. His face rueful and ironic, obviously with no intention of turning her over to the police, he opens her bag and shows her the item she has just stolen from the clothes rack. Awareness of the attempted shoplifting somehow spreads through the store, and again we see the manager’s rueful face. At most he has an “Oh, you naughty girl” look, but since there is not a hint of “Thief! Thief! You’ll pay for this, you miserable little sneak!” it seems to me that Edda has had the good luck to fall upon a kindly manager.

Whereupon occurs the key scene in the movie. Edda, Nelly, and Henriette—and not a signal is exchanged—slowly begin to close in on the manager. Edda looks about 5? 2?, and the other two are not much bigger, but they move for all the world as if they were Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, and Sylvester Stallone coming in for the kill. With such unlikely weapons as coat hangers and an ashtray, the three women strike the manager, fell him, and (his body now off camera) proceed to beat, kick, and pummel his prostrate form until—according to later accounts—he is quite dead and his body is a bloody mess. His genitalia, in particular, as we also subsequently learn, are so mashed and lacerated as to be no longer recognizable as such. Watching this act of butchery are a half-dozen other female shoppers who observe the episode with what appears to be sullen approval. Or perhaps it is merely contained approval. If our three heroines were to step aside and make room for them, perhaps every woman in the store would leap forward to join in the butchery.

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An interesting case, wouldn’t you say? What has the store manager done to deserve such an unappetizing fate at the hands of three unknown women? Are they perhaps crazy? This, in fact, is what the Dutch authorities are wondering; with the three women apprehended and incarcerated in a prison that could pass for your average Hilton hotel, they send a female psychiatrist to decide on their sanity. And this psychiatrist, in her quest for “the truth,” becomes the drama’s central character and its raisonneur.

The psychiatrist and her husband enter the film as an upscale, up-to-date Thoroughly Modern Couple. They are both professionals; she, a psychiatrist; he, a lawyer. They are both “liberated.” After she has been slaving all day over a hot psyche, her hubsand enters with a kitchen spoon in his hand and says, “Dinner’s ready, dear.” There’s none of this macho stuff. So when the psychiatrist begins her questioning of the three murderers, her initial assumption, like that of the authorities, is that in order to have committed such an utterly motiveless crime they must be in some way deranged. But in her lengthy interrogation of each of the culprits, she finds (with the help of the author-director) that each of these women is amazingly normal. The implication—outlandish but unmistakable—is that every normal woman, if she came to her senses and gave a moment’s thought to the servitude and humiliation imposed on her sex, would be perfectly justified if she went about killing men indiscriminately.

Would the punishment fit the crime? The psychiatrist does not address this question directly, but, as she proceeds with her questioning, the justice of the female “cause” is gradually borne in on her and she becomes progressively more troubled. She visits the employer of Henriette, the secretary, for example, and is told that Henriette was an excellent executive secretary. “Did you ever consider appointing her to the board?” the psychiatrist asks. Since not many women or men leapfrog from secretary to the board of directors of Royal Dutch Shell (or whatever), the employer is slightly surprised by the question and answers, “But she was a secretary,” which brings a narrowing to the eyes of the woman psychiatrist. Now here was oppression. Not even that a secretary wasn’t named to the board, perhaps, but an awareness that the whole system kept Henriette confined to the menial rank of secretary. Surely, after such oppression, could a woman who murdered the first man she encountered be anything but normal?

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Now the reader of this plot summary would hardly suspect it, but the female three-quarters of the audience at the Waverly found A Question of Silence uproariously funny, and what they were finding funny were all the occasions, large and small, when a male got his comeuppance. I will give one example. After committing the murder, the three women are in a state of boundless euphoria, and each, in her own manner, finds a way of celebrating. Henriette, for her part, is approached by a man in the street who takes her for a prostitute. Whereupon—one sees it as plainly as if it were writ large on her forehead—she thinks, “Aha! I’ll teach him! I’ll treat him the way men treat women!” They proceed to his hotel room. He lies supine upon the bed in the “female” position. Without taking off her clothes, Henriette climbs on top of him in the “male-dominant” position. Raising her skirt, she permits (I assume) penetration. With no show of emotion, she jogs up and down for a while until she produces (I assume) orgasm, after which she climbs off and stands beside the bed, fully dressed and defiant. This whole scene produces an uninterrupted gale of laughter from the female section of the audience. And when the man, thinking Henriette has rendered him a service (and not realizing, the fool, that he has rendered her the service), gets out his wallet and hands her some bills, which she accepts, the theater positively explodes with female mirth. Henriette leaves the hotel room with a sneer of contempt for the man, which produces another explosion of female glee, plus some cheers. Which is to say that I was sitting in an audience of women who had drunk so deep of feminist doctrine that they had lost their wits, for a male-female prostitute scene makes no sense at all played in reverse.

Enough masculine indignities—real or theoretical—had been injected into the film to keep women in the audience laughing regularly. For the first ten minutes or so I could hear one man’s voice joining in the laughter, but he soon fell silent, aware, somewhat belatedly, that there was nothing for him to laugh at at all. At several subsequent bursts of laughter from the audience, I turned to look at the faces, and it was the same every time, row after row: manic female, manic female, manic female, somber male; manic female, manic female, manic female, somber male. The show, as they say, was in the house.

Up on the screen, the film trudged senselessly along. Our woman psychiatrist becomes more and more sympathetic to the three murderers, more and more convinced they are sane, and hence more and more persuaded their act was a reasonable one, a rational, just, and even laudable response to the masculine oppression under which they suffer. The juridical question of the “assignability” of responsibility for the supposed oppression is never dealt with. Why this particular man? Was he an oppressor just by virtue of his sex? Also, the psychiatrist’s sympathies seem to push her in a perverse direction. Practically speaking, if she sympathizes with the women and feels their action justified, she should report them all insane, allowing them to “cop an insanity plea.” The direction in which she is heading, declaring them all sane and fully responsible for their actions, will bring down on them the full rigors of the law. But our author-director, Miss Gorris, is engaged in a pedagogical enterprise which far transcends mere legality or practicality.

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The last scenes take place in the courtroom at the trial of the three women. During a break the psychiatrist and her lawyer husband lunch at a nearby restaurant, and the husband says that his wife really ought to declare the women insane. But they’re not insane! protests the wife. They’re perfectly normal! Their reaction was perfectly normal! Well, the husband answers, say the’re insane anyway. Also, he adds, it will look bad for him as a lawyer if she takes such an erratic position. “So, you see?” the movie seems to say. “For all his cooking and cleaning and, ‘Dinner is ready, dear,’ when the battle lines are drawn even her own husband sides with the oppressors.”

During the afternoon session in the courtroom, the public prosecutor asks, “Could men have committed such a crime?” which makes fat Nelly the barmaid burst out laughing. And she laughs and laughs. Then Edda the housewife begins to laugh. Then Henriette the secretary laughs. Then the women in the public seats laugh. Then the woman psychiatrist, who was in the middle of her testimony, catches this laughing infection. And they all laugh, and laugh, and laugh, and laugh. And, all things considered, it is one of the most intensely boring climaxes for a movie that could possibly be imagined, and might even throw some people into deep depression. The author’s rationale, I assume, is that men commit comparable crimes against women every day, which, even if it were true, would be essentially mirthless. Generalized laughter, in any event, sometimes “at the craziness of it all,” is one of the stalest ways to end a movie.

We are not quite at the end, however. As our lady psychiatrist leaves the law courts, two parties are waiting for her: one, her husband, at the foot of the grand outside stairs, a bit to the right; two, off to the side, a group of women whom we recognize as those menacingly present in the clothing store at the time of the murder, women, we now realize, who would have gladly mashed a testicle or two themselves if they’d had the chance. Just as the psychiatrist is emerging from the building’s main exit, a man brushes by her and snarls, “Get out of my way, cunt!”—a remark, in fact, rarely heard in front of Dutch law courts, any more than it is heard at London’s Old Bailey, or Paris’ Palais de Justice, or the Federal Building in Foley Square in Manhattan. But it is enough to do the trick. Our psychiatrist-heroine turns away from her husband and toward the group of women—her sisters!—and walks into a freeze frame, another hackneyed way to let an audience know the film is finally over.

Well, the real action had been in the movie theater, and now it was outside on the sidewalk, where some two or three dozen feverish, excited women gathered for an ultra-feminist rap session. “God, I was afraid that husband of hers was going to get away with it!” said one. “Me, too!” said another. “Nah. I knew he was going to get his,” said a third. But the main debate was over the propriety of choosing a mere clothing-store manager to kill off. One school of thought had it that the man killed should have been the head of a huge multinational corporation, thereby allowing the women to strike down at the same time the two enemies: male chauvinism and monopoly capital. The other school held that choosing a man of modest rank made the case even more “pure”; it was his masculinity and his masculinity alone that was the villain. I am not certain which of these two schools prevailed as, my consciousness properly raised, I soon left.

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So, you see, Holland, perhaps made especially popular by the neutralist climate Walter Laqueur calls Hollanditis, has suddenly leaped into the very vanguard of world cinema, dealing with the most audacious and timely themes. It has produced the most absurd hyper-feminist film ever made anywhere, plus a lush homosexual psycho-thriller inspired entirely by a dread of women. The feminist film proved to have intense attraction for a quite tiny audience, whereas the homosexual gynophobic movie verged on having rather broad appeal. Judging by the highly unreliable indicator of reactions to these two new movies, then, the question of whether aggressive women are nowadays felt to be wonderful or something of a menace is being answered in favor of “menace”—and by a big margin at that.

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