The Last Vermeer: Hunting Nazis as escapist entertainment

B+ Historical mystery
Written by James Mcgee, Mark Fergus, & Hawk Ostby, from the book The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez
Directed by Dan Friedkin

Art, fame, and Nazis make a potent mix in this story set in the Netherlands immediately after the fall of the Third Reich. The new government is publicly executing people accused of collaboration. But it’s hard to tell if someone was collaborating or doing their bit to hurt the occupation.

The Last Vermeer is not a serious anti-Nazi drama. Although based on actual events, much of what happens is more dramatic than plausible. To a large degree it’s a work of entertainment. That’s probably why this story, set entirely in the Netherlands, is entirely in English.

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The Last Vermeer’s protagonist, Joseph Piller (Claes Bang), is unquestionably one of the good guys. A Jewish officer and former pianist, he went underground and worked in the resistance throughout the war. Now that the country is free, he’s in uniform and clearly ready for revenge. He’s particularly interested in one art dealer who sold a very expensive Vermeer to Göring.

Although Bang play’s the movie’s hero and is in almost every scene, the better-known Guy Pearce gets top billing and the more fun role of the art dealer. Han van Meegeren is a failed artist, an extremely successful businessman, and obviously a sociopath. He’s charming, funny, and unpredictable. He’s not a collaborator, he insists, because the painting he sold to Göring was a forgery. Pearce plays van Meegeren over the top, but that’s appropriate for the character. It must have been a fun role to play.

Both Piller and van Meegeren are historical figures, but as with every movie involving actors reciting dialog, it’s a work of fiction. Things happen that wouldn’t happen in real life. I don’t object to these creations; this is not a documentary and there’s no reason to stick too much to the facts.

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As an actor, Claes Bang makes a good hero. He’s tall, handsome, and resolute. But I had a lot of trouble looking at him and believing that he’s Jewish. It’s hard to say why, but he didn’t quite look or act right. He’s in good company; I had the same problem with Robert De Niro in The Comedian.

In the film, Piller has marital problems. He left his gentile wife when he went underground. When he returns, he discovers that his wife had partied with the Nazis, possibly sleeping with some of them. He isn’t sure if she was a collaborator or part of the resistance.

Near the end, the movie becomes a courtroom drama. If the newly-discovered Vermeer painting is proven to be the real deal, van Meegeren was working with the occupation, and therefore guilty and will be executed. If it’s a fake, and he intentionally robbed the Nazis, he’s innocent.

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Watching this movie, you might learn a bit about how paintings are authenticated. But you’ll certainly have a good time.

The Last Vermeer opens Friday in a lot of theaters – assuming that the theaters will still be open.