Borgman (2013)

There are obviously symbolic movies. There are realistic movies. And there is Borgman.

borgman-poster 2013
Included on Indiewire best 2014 posters list. You can also find out about the artist behind the deisgn here.

This is a weird and complex film. Shot with a stunning precision, it puzzles and asks for explanations. I wholeheartedly recommend it but only if you dare to see something new. I can safely say that I’ve watched a lot of movies in my lifetime, but I can think of few movies to compare Borgman with. I realize it can be a daring experience.

The storyline presented on IMDb already signalizes problems with describing what the movie is about.

„A vagrant enters the lives of an arrogant upper-class family, turning their lives into a psychological nightmare in the process.”

On the one hand it is true, that’s what happens in the movie. On the other hand, it’s like saying Moby Dick is about hunting one white whale. It’s true, right? And every American literature scholar would tear you to pieces for saying so.

"Outside Satan" protagonist.
“Outside Satan” protagonist.

The only similar movie that comes to my mind is a French movie Hors Satan (Outside Satan) from 2011 which is the movie that I watched with awe, not comprehending fully what was going on. I was like “meh” when it ended, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Yet while the protagonist of Hors Satan can be interpreted as the force of good, the title character of Borgman is definitely the force of evil.

The movie that I cannot compare Borgman with and which should immediately come to one’s mind after reading that IMDb synopsis is Funny Games (I watched both versions). Funny Games also tells a story of a privileged white family who is terrorized by unexpected, at first gentle, guests. And their house is also surrounded by the woods. But while Haneke’s movie(s) are naturalistic visions (with grotesque overtones), Borgman is all about grotesque.

Who is Borgman? His name is Camiel, but firstly he presents himself as Anton to the rich couple. The husband, Richard, becomes aggressive on the spot and the wife becomes attached to a strange man. The wife hides him in the gardener’s house. The children accept “the magician” without any protest. The woman, Marina, gradually lets him come nearer and nearer herself and the children.

It is apparent from the first scenes that Borgman is neither a common bum, nor an illusion. I will try to explain why by describing a very European first few minutes (I use European as a compliment here). A man is dressing up, gun included, eating a herring straight from a jar, and fetching his dog; a priest is saying mass; another man is sharpening a long metal stick. The three man meet, the priest also has a gun. Then we see a wild-looking man sleeping in the dark. This is Borgman. He hears something. He gets up and uses the periscope to see the three men walking through the forest with the dog. Now we know he sleeps in the hole in the woods. He uses his cellphone (I’m already laughing at this moment) but no one picks up. He starts packing his things quickly. But the man with the stick already starts to ruin Borgman’s hideout. The priest takes an axe and starts chopping the ground. But Borgman already escaped, because he obviously knows the forest best. He runs to warn two other vagrants, also sleeping in single beds hidden underground, that they are in danger. He is angry at one of them, Ludwig, that he didn’t pick up the phone. He walks out of the forest.

Priest forest Borgman 2013
The priest pursuing Borgman. Notice the colors and brilliant composition.

Seeing Borgman walking to the gas station, trying to pretend he is a perfectly normal citizen, I already knew I will love this movie.

Borgman operates smoothly with a band of similarly odd individuals. They are all masters of disguise and deceit. But we don’t know much about them, except the fact that they like to watch TV silently in each house they have taken over. They form a group that could be a successful gang, having in mind its potential members’ inclination to murder and corpse hiding.

Ludwig_Alex van Warmerdam_Borgman 2013_Why don't you answer the phone
The director Alex van Warmerdam plays the role of Ludwig

The movie is very funny at times, but it’s a laugh at the absurdity of things happening, not because we enjoy the suffering of the couple (or maybe we do?).

It’s also a satire on xenophobia, middle-class hypocrisy, hidden sexism.

– I feel so guilty. We have it so good. We are fortunate. And the fortunate must be punished.

– Marina darling, that is nonsense. We were born in the West and the West happens to be affluent. We can’t help it.

The wilderness takes over the house. The father reads fairy tales to his children from the book. The magician tells them a scary fairy tale which he knows by heart. Their father tells them a fantasy, Borgman tells them about his world.

The movie plays with tribal and Biblical motifs. Borgman is a Christian demon (or angel – Samiel could mean Samael, the Angel of Death), a beast from his story or a pagan shaman.

I won’t tell you how this spectacle of ridiculous violence and terror ends, you have to see it for yourself. My only complaint is that the story drags in the middle, but I can forgive that, given the movie’s slow nature.

Jan Bijvoet as Borgman is totally fascinating to watch. He shows his power in almost every scene he appears. I also liked Jeroen Perceval whose task of playing the sordid Richard was more difficult. He managed to add depth to his character.

Some people say Borgman is a horror movie. According to Noël Carroll, a horror is a movie with the monster, the Other which is a) scary b) disgusting and c) fascinating.

  • I’ve read Carroll’s Philosophy of Horror for my studies recently, and it certainly influenced my thinking about the horror genre for a moment.

If Borgman, with his superhuman abilities, is not human, I think that even Carroll would agree he is a monster.

Is the couple guilty? The wife feels guilty, the husband doesn’t, the children are innocent. And Borgman does what he does best and probably did before the existence of nice comfortable houses and TV. He brings chaos, anarchy and destruction.

Borgman 2013 houseNature vs. man is the main conflict in the movie in my opinion. Notice how the couple tries to tame the wilderness with their tidy garden while the forest is just a few steps away.

Naivety of men is another. It’s often hard to tell whether this is stupidity or goodness, but the problem is that Borgman and his companions gain trust easily when they should never be trusted. All it takes is a smooth lie, a clean shave and a set of decent clothes to be taken for “one of us”.

I liked the movie very much, as you can tell. It was Dutch candidate for the Oscars, it didn’t get nominated. I cannot tell I’m surprised. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or instead. It didn’t get it. Again, I’m not surprised. The awards rarely go to movies that dare to be different, to have an unspecified genre, to feature protagonists whose motifs are not understandable. I don’t give awards, I just run this humble blog about grotesque. I’ve got a feeling Borgman will be on my 2015 best-watched list.

***

This review was inspired by Texas’s Frisco Kid’s post. He gives really interesting insights about the movie. You can read his post here: http://friscokidtx.com/2015/01/02/borgman-2013/

I also found out a great interpretation by Nafees Speaks if you want to learn more about the film’s possible symbolism: http://www.nafeesspeaks.com/borgman-dissectedstory-explained-and-analyzed/

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6 thoughts on “Borgman (2013)

  1. Movies like this are the whole definition of “the uncanny.” I haven’t heard of this one before. It vaguely reminds me of another film (in that a man comes to a family and ingratiates himself in their lives) called The King from about 10 years ago. There is something about a stranger entering our homes that is probably the most unnerving.

    1. Yes, the uncanny is the perfect word for this movie.
      In my opinion the moment a stranger in such stories is accepted or starts to rule the household is the most terrifying. All the movies with home invasion theme prove it’s one of the most common fears. Yet Borgman is more than a home invasion movie. I think you would like it. It mixes the ordinary with the supernatural really well.

  2. I thought you would like this one! “Borgman” truly is about the grotesque. Many mainstream reviewers saw significant similarities between “Borgman” and “Funny Games,” so it’s refreshing that you made a clear distinction between the two films. The latter, as you pointed out, has grotesque overtones, but not the full-on grotesquery of “Borgman.”

    1. Thanks again for recommending it! :) I always dislike this kind of superficial comparisons. Another film it was compared to was Dogtooth (2009) and I would disagree even more.

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