Borgman. 2014. Directed & Written by Alex van Warmerdam.
Starring Jan Bijvoet, Hadewych Minis, Jerone Perceval, Alex van Warmerdam, Tom Dewispelaere, Sara Hjort Ditlevsen, Annet Malherbe, & Pierre Bokma.
Epidemic/Graniet Film BV/NTR/Angel Films/Mollywood/Dansk Filmfotograf Forbund
Rated R. 113 minutes.
There’s so much allegory and symbolic storytelling in Borgman it’s hard to know exactly where to begin. Director-writer Alex van Warmerdam (also playing one of the vagrant characters) crafts what might otherwise be just a quirky little story about a homeless man, Camiel Borgman (played by the ever impressive Jan Bijvoet), who enters the lives of an upper class family and turns it into absolute chaos, and spins it into a near masterpiece about the nature of good v. evil— or, our perceptions of good and evil.
Warmerdam weaves together a curious blend of Biblical allegory and German folklore to create his story. Half of the plot and its characters seem ripped straight from the story of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden by God and his archangels— more specifically, Warmerdam appears to have approached this Biblical theme from a Kabbalistic perspective. The other half’s a folktale of German demons and the games they play, how they work their way into peoples lives. Tying it all together is an almost Marxist perspective on the rich v. the poor.
There are confusing moments that, if you’re not overly familiar with the Kabbalistic view on demons or its telling of the Garden of Eden’s story or German folklore, might feel strange, maybe even out of place. Once you dig into Borgman and you’re armed with the right knowledge, its depth opens up and its important themes stand out even better. You can easily watch Warmerdam’s film as just a kind of chaotic, mysterious, and weird thriller. But you can also dive deep into its symbolism and allegories, coming out on the other side of an intense experience similar to European films we saw more often in the 1960s and 1970s during an especially experimental time in cinema.
The opening of the film shows a priest and a couple of men aggressively driving some vagrants out of their underground makeshift homes. Considering these people are quite literally underground, and a priest is pushing the homeless out even though it doesn’t appear they’re bothering anybody, this lends itself to the idea of demons.
But, what’s the purpose of talking about demons? The connections between Borgman‘s characters and the Kabbalah’s perspective re: demons are of importance to the ultimate purpose. For those unfamiliar, in the Kabbalah the concepts of good and evil can intertwine, in that the Absolute of God requires evil in order to exist— no one without the other, all that. That’s why demons can, sometimes, be good, and angels aren’t always good, either. Certain Rabbinic literature transmits the belief that there are angels for every atom in the universe, meaning there’s good angels, then there are those easily considered as bad or negative.
Again back to purpose. Here, we have to remember the name of the titular character played by Bijvoet: Camiel Borgman. The name’s significant in a twofold manner. First, Camiel or Camael, in Kabbalastic belief, is the Archangel of strength, courage, and war, as well as the one who wielded a flaming sword while driving Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after they disobeyed God. Secondly, the name Borgman is a Germanic name derived from landlords who worked for royalty and lords in the Middle Ages. ‘Borg’ comes from ‘to take toll.’ This is perfect, as the combination of Camiel + Borgman works in conjunction: Camiel was, in essence, God’s landlord, evicting the two original humans from Eden, taking the toll for their disobedience.
And so, Camiel, as an angel of the Kabbalah, is shown through Borgman as one of those angels who’s not necessarily an agent of good. We’re presented with the idea that there isn’t much difference between angels and demons. Of course the Marxist POV on the film’s events sees Camiel, even in his evil-like moments, as not an oppressor but rather a liberator— taking back land from the rich for the poor, an angelic Robin Hood figure. Either way, the angel/demon dynamic is important, as it paints a broader picture of Borgman and his friends’ actions. There’s also more demonic influence coming out of German folklore and informing Warmerdam’s screenplay.
Visually and thematically, The Nightmare – Johann Heinrich Füssli’s hugely influential 1781 oil painting depicting a sleeping woman straddled by a demonic incubus – is an important part of Borgman. The painting is recreated at a couple points throughout the film, as Borgman himself sits on top of Marina (Hadewych Minis), the housewife who shows him kindness early on. The reason being, the painting connects with German folklore concerning the shapeshifting demon known as an ‘alp.’
The alp can take on the form of animals – in this case, a dog – and it uses trickery, deception, all those types of techniques on humans. There’s also a sense of seduction about the alp, bordering on the sexual. This is evident in the tense relationship between Borgman and Marina after he’s taken into their home. The alp usually targets women, which is why Camiel has a fascination with Marina and is antagonistic with her husband Richard (Jeroen Perceval). Significantly, the alp connects with Füssli’s painting, as it applies what’s known as ‘elf pressure’ in the night to its victims, so they feel suffocated by the demon atop their chest and body if they do wake in the night. The alp can cause night terrors, but it can also cause lucid dreaming— again, we see this as Marina has progressively more violent nightmares concerning her husband.
What’s incredibly interesting is the link between the alp of German folklore and the Kabbalistic perspective on demons. Particularly, we have to consider the Kabbalah demons have no actual body, they only appear in transient forms – interesting that the demonic characters in Borgman are actual vagrants with no home(s) – and it’s only in dreams when they can make physical contact with humans. At any other time Camiel refuses to have physical contact with Marina, despite her craving his touch as the film wears on, and it’s only while she dreams that he sits on top of her.
“And the fortunate must be punished”
Camiel Borgman – archangel landlord – is a Marxist character, even with all the surrounding Biblical allegory and German folklore imagery. Although the idea of a landlord is not compatible with Marxism, there’s still a commentary buried down in there. It may be that Warmerdam uses the angel/demon dichotomy merely as a vessel to create interesting, haunting imagery. Nonetheless, social themes involving Borgman’s character and his vagrant friends infiltrating the home of a rich couple are prevalent. It’s hard not to see the family’s garden – a big aspect of the plot – as the Garden of Eden, and it’s even harder then not to see the Marxist reading.
The telling part of this hunt for Marxism in the plot/story surrounds the children. We see, at a couple points, how Borgman and the other homeless people indoctrinate the kids into their demonic gang. One of the little girls actually puts an already wounded man out of his misery in the woods, showing a predilection for murder. Then the kids are brought to a place – again, underground – where they’re given juice and prepared for some kind of minor surgery. Later, we see at least see one of the little girls has a stitched up scar on her right shoulder, closer to the middle of the back— a wing?
But the pinnacle of the imagery related to the kids is when the little killer girl is in the sandbox, where she’s gutting her teddy bear of its straw stuffing and filling it with sand. Symbolically, this is the emptying of the human soul – the child, as evidenced by the teddy bear as an image – and its being refilled with dirt (i.e. consumerism, commodities, et cetera). Therefore, in a twisted way, Borgman and his Kabbalistic angel-demons are liberating the children from their bourgeois world, taking them out of a big, beautiful modern home and back to nature, to the real world. In the end, the group takes the kids and the nanny when they leave, heading off someplace else, no doubt continuing their mission of liberation, by any means at all, even if it means murder.
There is so much going on in Borgman. Whether it’s referencing 18th century paintings and Germanic folklore or the Kabbalah and its view on angels/demons, a halfway Marxist reading of the Garden of Eden in which archangels violently evict the bourgeois humans from a place they never deserved, director-writer Alex van Warmerdam evokes so many different themes and so much symbolism the film necessitates multiple viewings.
As mentioned, it’s totally fine to just watch Warmerdam’s film as an odd mystery with a few shocking thrills, a kind of psychosexual thriller about the intersection of different ways of life. It’s infinitely more interesting when all the little pieces come together, from folktales and the Kabbalah to Marxism and the Garden of Eden. Some people don’t like films requiring extra legwork. For those who’ve got an interest in allegorical art, Borgman‘s some of the 21st century’s best cinema.