Riley Stearns (Faults) Talks Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman

I’m a predictable person. Last April, I saw an unsubtitled trailer for a film called Borgman and even though I didn’t understand...

I’m a predictable person. Last April, I saw an unsubtitled trailer for a film called Borgman and even though I didn’t understand what was happening in it at all, I knew I was probably going to love it. Then Drafthouse Films picked the film up out of Cannes and I knew even more that I was probably going to love it. Then it screened at Fantastic Fest and afterwards I got a text from my friend BenDavid Grabinski saying, “You’re going to love BORGMAN,” followed by this tweet from one of the producers of my film Faults, Keith Calder, a minute later: “I will be really surprised if @RileyStearns doesn’t love BORGMAN.” So I’ll say it again, I’m a predictable person… and yeah, I loved Borgman.

If you’re worried about spoilers, that’s fine, but I don’t really think a film like this can be spoiled so don’t worry about it too much.

My favorite films are those that are unpredictable (the opposite of me). Borgman, een film van Alex van Warmerdam, begins with the biblical quote “And they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks”…At this point, it means little-to-nothing. Actually, let’s come back to the quote later. So there’s a couple of hunters and a priest and they’re carrying an axe, a spear, and a shotgun and they know exactly where they’re going. In the woods, holed up in a camouflaged underground home, is a strange bearded man. It’s clear that the priest and the hunters want to kill this guy and have probably tried before, but he’s always been one step ahead. This day is no different: despite their best efforts, he gives them the slip. In the process of escaping, the man goes to two other underground huts and alerts each occupant (one of them played by van Warmerdam, himself) after neither of them answered their cell phones. Speaking of which, Borgman has the most inspired, nonchalant use of cell phones I’ve ever seen, meaning many filmmakers, myself included, worry about how to avoid the use of cell phones. In Borgman, they’re just sort of there and it’s awesome. Sorry, anyway, that’s the last we see of the hunters and the priest. They’re gone for the rest of the film.

The remaining 105 minutes or so are spent watching as this man who started as prey in our eyes take over the role of hunter, systematically setting traps for the unfortunate family he’s stumbled upon. The man calls himself Camiel Borgman and I’m still not sure if that’s his name or not, but I choose to think it is because he’s really convincing. And after all, they did title the film Borgman! The family, a mother and father and three little children, obviously have their problems, but then again who doesn’t. Even though I knew I was watching this relatively innocent group of people descend into darkness, I couldn’t help but realize I was taking pleasure in the way Camiel seemed to always be a few steps ahead of them (and us). One of the young daughters calls him a “magician” at one point, probably because of his looks, but he is absolutely a magician. His slight-of-hand manipulation of the world around him is almost otherworldly. “How does he know everything he knows? AHHH, how did I not notice him doing that?! Who the fuck is this guy?!”

Van Warmerdam’s film is almost evil in the way it withholds information from its audience. I felt like I was deliberately kept at an arms length the entire film and not in a way that rang false or was due to the filmmaker’s uncertainty. The film is precise. It’s like watching a puzzle being assembled in front of your eyes, only when you get to the end there’s a couple pieces missing. Van Warmerdam basically pocketed a few of those remaining pieces, purposefully leaving it with a few blanks. It’s frustrating at first, but then you step back and realize those few missing pieces don’t take away from the overall beauty of the picture. I find when a story is finite it’s maybe more satisfying in the moment but then there’s no reason to continue to think about it. It’s complete, so what else can I add to it? I can’t stop thinking about this one.

Despite the fact that I’m completely enamored by Borgman, I’m finding it’s not an easy movie for me to talk about. There’s so much I want to say about it, but to be honest I’m having a hard time figuring out how to do it. I feel like all my observations are surface level and lame and there’s so much more to this film but…

Here’s some more surface-level shit:

– Van Warmerdam’s direction is inspiring, to say the least. There’s such an overuse of handheld right now in films that don’t necessarily need to be handheld and I find it refreshing to see a filmmaker be so assured in their compositions. Then when the film breaks it up with a bit of striking handheld photography, it means that much more.

– The distant performances, particularly that of Jan Bijvoet (as the title character), are perfectly understated. The literal lapdogs (or maybe not literal, I don’t know) in their brown suits and the deadly women Camiel has an calm control over are as ridiculously funny as they are terrifying.

– The way bodies are disposed of in the film is breathtaking.

– There’s a beautiful ballet near the end of the film that starts out ridiculous and ends up being profoundly moving.

– Again, the cell phones are fantastic.

– Finally, the slow zoom stare-down between the mother and the lighter-colored dog is one of my favorite movie moments in years. I want to watch a loop of that forever. I’m sure it’ll make a great gif someday.

Let’s go back to that biblical quote, “and they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks.” I’m not a religious person so I had to look it up to see where it came from in hopes that it’d give me a better sense of who Camiel is. The thing is, it’s not from the Bible. Van Warmerdam wrote it and it’s clear, at least to me, that his intention was for the audience to assume it has religious subtext… That Camiel is the Devil or some sort of demonic servant. I guess that’s okay, but for me it’s more interesting that Camiel pretends to be something he’s not in order to get what he wants. He uses his identity against others. For me, it’s infinitely more interesting if Camiel really is just a magician. A sociopathic magician that manipulates those around him because he can. Borgman wants us to think there’s some sort of religious undercurrent, but I like to think van Warmerdam is, himself, just manipulating us because he can. He’s giving us some strange juice to drink and cutting out some unknown piece of our flesh to control. And I, for one, was totally under his spell.

Borgman is better than I can find a way to say it is. It’s incredibly exciting to see a filmmaker doing something like this so incredibly singular and different. And it’s incredibly exciting seeing a distributor like Drafthouse Films go out on a limb and support a film like this that deserves to be seen, for no reason other than the fact that they love the film. Go see it in theaters if you can. It’s incredible. And don’t let strangers take a bath at your house.

Riley Stearns is the writer-director of Faults (2014), The Art of Self-Defense (2019) and his new film Dual, starring Karen Gillan and Aaron Paul, which is available on digital, on demand and AMC+ on May 20. He lives in Los Angeles. You can visit his website here.