Review: 'The Last Vermeer' Interrogates Art, Conscience, History

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Feb 23, 2021
Claes Bang and Vicky Krieps in 'The Last Vermeer'
Claes Bang and Vicky Krieps in 'The Last Vermeer'  

Director Dan Friedkin breathes life, suspense, and tension into "The Last Vermeer," a story about a true-life art world mystery, an audacious tale with a strange-but-true twist. The film, adapted for the screen by James McGee and Mark Fergus & Hank Ostby, revisits terrain explored by films like "The Monument Men," but delivers something entirely different — and utterly compelling.

Guy Pearce commands the screen as Han van Meergren, an actual figure from history who was accused, in the wake of World War II, of having collaborated with the Nazi occupation by selling works of art to the Germans — most particularly, a previously-unknown work by 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, a canvas called "Christ and the Adultress."

Equaling him on screen is Claes Bang (magnetic in the BBC's recent three-part series "Dracula") as Captain Joseph Piller, who is operating under the authority of the Allied forces — and apart from the Dutch government's Ministry of Justice — to bring wartime collaborators to justice. Piller needs a little extra muscle for the case, not least because he's vying with Ministry of Justice Detective de Klerk (August Diehl) for custody of van Meergren, and he fears that if de Klerk gets hold of the prisoner, van Meergren will, like certain other accused men, simply slip away with help of an "old boys' network."

To provide that muscle, he brings the burly, alcoholic Dekker (Roland Moller) onto his team. But Piller also needs someone with a deep understanding of art, and for that he recruits a beautiful and brilliant assistant named Minha (Vicky Krieps) — so beautiful, in face, that her presence on the cases creates friction for Piller at home. (That's a whole different subplot worthy, perhaps, of its own film.)

The film's occasional shift in focus works to create context and backstory. This is an Amsterdam where those found guilty of collaboration are executed by firing squad in public; the Nazis are vanquished, and the Allies are on their way out, leaving the Dutch government to resume its own affairs. But was van Meergren really the point man for a spy ring and criminal financing operation, as Piller suspects? Or is this "third-rate artist and first-rate opportunist," as one museum director calls him, a patriot in his own way?

Van Meergren insists that he did nothing to collaborate with the Germans — despite having received an unheard-of amount of money from none other than Hermann Göring, one of the Third Reich's highest-ranking officials. The money he's been paid has made van Meergren fantastically rich, but is he criminally liable for selling off Dutch cultural treasures? Or is there more going on under the the surface, as gorgeously covered with impeccable brushstrokes as that surface may be?

"The Last Vermeer" examines the need for damaged societies to find villains to blame and heroes to laud, and skillfully shows how the difference between the one and the other can be as much a matter of illusion, prejudice, or whim as one artist's work being hailed as "genius" while another's is dismissed. At a time when even scientifically sound and valid facts are cavalierly disregarded for the sake of political convenience — let alone subjective notions like artistic merit — these are weighty, charged musings, and the film's charged atmosphere, heavy with the residue of fascism, carries a palpable sense of dread and dire possibility — all the more so given that Piller and Dekker aren't above acting like the same kind of heavies that recently occupied their country.

Those who know (or look into) van Meergren's story will know the secret at the heart of the film, but even so this is an effective drama — part thriller, part procedural — that asks questions it's not afraid to leave unanswered. In place of answers there are revelations, and still more questions, and that, perhaps, is as it should be for a movie of this kind: A movie that interrogates conscience and history.


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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