Another example of a film that was meant to be released theatrically in Chicago but now isn’t (due to new COVID-19 restrictions effective today; I’m not sure how soon it will be available for home streaming), The Last Vermeer is a genuinely interesting lost story of the World War II and post-war era. Capt. Joseph Piller (Claes Bang, The Square) is a Dutch Jew (and a one-time fighter in the Resistance) who is brought to investigate artwork stolen and purchased by the Nazis. As they were acquired from dealers who sold off national treasures (including some Vermeers), those dealers became collaborators and traitors, an offense punishable by death if found guilty. Eventually, Piller’s search for lost masterpieces leads him to a Vermeer that was part of Hermann Goering’s massive collection, allegedly sold to him by one Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce), an unsuccessful art student known for throwing wild parties at his home where Nazi officers mingled with beautiful women and other people of influence.
Van Meegeren swears he was no collaborator, and even claims to have ripped off the Nazis for millions by selling them fakes, including the Vermeer’s long-lost “Christ With the Woman Taken in Adultery.“ But the paintings passed the authentication process, so Van Meegeren’s claims are a tough sell. It doesn’t help that he also has a carefree attitude about the whole process, insisting on being given his paints while in captivity in exchange for answers to the many mysteries about his life and the inner workings of the art world of the Netherlands.
Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Dan Friedkin and based on the book The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez, the film also focuses on Capt. Piller’s life outside of this interrogation, including his fractured relationship with his wife (Marie Bach Henson), who spent the war working for the Nazis while secretly feeding information to the Resistance. She sleeps with her superior in order to get him to trust her, a fact that Piller has let cloud his feelings for her. It probably isn’t helping that he’s also being tempted by his industrious assistant (Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread), who is the first to be convinced that Van Meegeren is innocent.
All roads in The Last Vermeer—which include a corrupt museum director (Adrian Scarborough), an overly eager young local police investigator (August Diehl) who can’t wait for the Allies to leave so he can take over the investigation, and Van Meegeren’s ex-wife as well as his current mistress (Olivia Grant)—lead to a court case in which he is portrayed as Public Enemy #1 of the Dutch people. Piller is so convinced of his innocence, he even offers to be his attorney. I’m sure the Dutch justice system was a little different at the time, but something about the courtroom scenes in the film seem very staged and not particularly believable. Even though he still has s few tricks up his sleeve, these scenes seem to be the only time in the movie where Van Meegeren seems fully concerned about his fate.
The Last Vermeer is part art-history lesson, part post-war mystery, part family drama, and it all comes together in a fascinating way, even when it doesn’t completely engage you in the nuances of its story. Pearce’s performance is unlike anything I’ve seen him do, and he’s positively charming, mischievous, and so confident in his innocence, it comes as a bit of shock when we learn about some of his dealings during the war that fortunately do not make it into the trial. The film is layered, full of far more emotional content than I was expecting, and also quite a bit more humorous than the subject matter might lead you to believe. All in all, an enjoyable watch that I hope you actually get to see some time soon.
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