Rudolf van den Berg’s film “Bastille”

Some blog posts mysteriously ended up in the sidebar as “pages” (v. “posts”) after the transfer to WordPress (in 2005??).  This is one of them… 

The following is a journal entry I wrote on June 1, 1985. I came across it at the end of August 2004, and was startled at how clearly it brought back the movie I discuss: It was called “BastilIe,” by Rudolf van den Berg. A Dutch film, it was made in 1984, and tells the story of a man, born in 1943, Jewish, who lost his parents as well as his twin brother at Auschwitz. He has repressed his Jewishness, he’s a school teacher in Amsterdam, married to a non-Jew, has two daughters. He was never really able to mourn the loss of his family, and instead directed all his sorrow into a rather fantastic theory of history — he happens to be a history teacher, although, I should say, he doesn’t teach this fantastic view to his pupils as a matter of course; only sometimes does a hint of it come out. His theory has become his own private project in the form of a book he’s writing about Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette’s flight through Varennes, where he explores how one or two incidents could have changed the course of history. If Marie-Antoinette hadn’t left the coach at Varennes, the king and queen wouldn’t have been recognized and they would have escaped, for example. And then the French Revolution wouldn’t have taken place, etc. Sounds pretty reactionary at first hearing — one wonders if this guy is advocating royalism and monarchism — but it’s not, because this business with the French revolution is only a simulacrum of his own situation: if the French revolution hadn’t happened, then Napoleon wouldn’t have happened and the Franco German war of 1879 wouldn’t have happened and World War I wouldn’t have happened, nor the Treaty of Versailles, and then the rise of Hitler wouldn’t have happened, and that means Auschwitz wouldn’t have happened, and without the genocide, he would still have his parents and his twin brother. Anyway, our man (Paul) goes to Paris to do research on Varennes and Louis et al., but instead of doing this, he has an affair with a Jewish woman called Nadine who brings out his own repressed Jewish identity (needless to say this wreaks a bit of havoc in his own marriage when he gets back to Amsterdam) and he finds an obscure office where one can try to have relatives and/or friends who were presumed lost to the holocaust (but not confirmed) traced. Paul wants to have his brother Philip traced because unlike his parents, Philip’s death was not confirmed. All of this happens due to a concatenation of extremely flukey events, thereby underscoring Paul’s theory that chance is the key factor in history, not any kind of determinism. (Of course he doesn’t consider that chance itself may be a kind of determinism.) Photographing Nadine on the Place de la BastilIe, he also catches a passer-by in the picture. When he gets back to Amsterdam and he has the pictures developed, he realizes that the man in picture, in the act of turning to look before crossing the street, and hence looking directly at the carnera, is his own spitting image, i.e., it must be — thinks Paul — his twin brother Philip. The film never clears up definitely whether or not it actually was PhiIip because of the way the film worked with flash-forwards as welI as flash-backs. But just before the bizarre ending, Paul is on his way to an obscure town in the Bretagne where he fully expects to find his brother, i.e., he has some real reasons to expect this although it never really was made explicit what they could be. The taxi he’s taking there late at night drives into a ditch and he starts to walk the rest of the way despite the fact that it’s pouring and the road is dangerous. The film flashes back to his last fight with his wife in Amsterdam: she has left a letter with him which is from the agency in Paris that is looking for his brother; then the film flashes — where? forward? — to a dream-like sequence where Paul has fallen and passed out on the road leading to the town where his brother supposedly lives. An eighteenth-century carriage with liveried coachmen drives by and puts him into the carriage and drives on. A kind of enveloping feeling of peace filIs out the last scene. End of film. I think the viewer was supposed to get the message that the letter from the agency must have been about the man living in this town in the Bretagne which the agency had good reason to assume was Paul’s brother. Paul was on his way there, he had the accident with the taxi on the treacherous road, started to walk and had another accident whiIe walking. The image of the 18th century carriage — obviously representing Louis and Marie-Antoinette’s flight and by implication Paul’s dream project of proving his theory of history correct or possible which could imply the existence still of his presumed dead brother Philip — was meant to function as a symbol that Paul’s theory had triumphed, i.e., that he did in fact find his brother. Or else it meant that he died on the road. Anyway, it was a good film.

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