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The Last Vermeer has the kind of twists and nuances only history can provide.

Satan or Saint

Han van Meegeren: master painter or fraudster?
Han van Meegeren: master painter or fraudster?

Even 75 years after its conclusion, World War II is still fertile ground for fresh cautionary tales.

A lot has already been documented about Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich’s obsession with art. Stories such as Monuments Men and The Woman in Gold have been brought to the silver screen with A-list talent, while documentaries like The Rape of Europa lay bare the related devastation.

And yet there are still stories to be found and lessons to be taught. The Last Vermeer is one such stunning example. Based on the book The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez, the focus here is on a Dutch artist named Han van Meegeren (Guy Pearce, Memento) and his questionable dealings with the Nazis.

As first-time director Dan Friedkin unwraps the story, Han is at first nothing more than a self-impressed, flamboyant con artist — more con than artist. His is a high-society life that frets over access to a ready supply of champagne and caviar while surrounded by a world falling apart. But his story has much more lying beneath that glossy veneer.

Similarly, on the surface, The Last Vermeer is a courtroom drama. But the heft lies underneath. The guide through the story is Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang, The Burnt Orange Heresy). Joseph is a Dutch Jew who went underground during the war and served as part of the Resistance. His mission is to find people like Han van Meegeren and either put them in jail or in a noose. But Joseph’s research reveals three interlocking stories.

A Triptych of Sorts

First and foremost, Han’s story carries a surprising amount of substance. While growing up, his father would beat him for painting; his distress in needing to find a creative release led him to the brink of suicide. But, ultimately, he started to generate some buzz in the Dutch art world. He started to collect a following. Then the critics — those empowered to build the legends in galleries and museums — derided his work as emotionless. Even as Han poured his soul into his work, his admirers disappeared, essentially on the unsolicited guidance of the cultural elite.

As the war escalated, Han’s work took a novel turn. In short order, six paintings were found and then certified to be the work of Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch master perhaps best known for The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Regardless of the fact Vermeer had painted his last more than 250 years ago and his career ended with only a few dozen paintings, those same critics lauded the discovery of these long-lost (and previously completely unknown) works after rigorous analysis and chemical testing provided scientific verification of their authenticity.

At the center of The Last Vermeer is one such work, entitled Christ and the Adulteress. It’s a disgrace Han van Meegeren would profit off the war by selling this Dutch treasure to the Nazis for a record-breaking sum of 1.6 million Dutch Guilder. Equally troubling, other works had since fallen into the possession of museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.

What is revealed about the painting is only one of the movie’s three great stories.

What Lies Beneath

Studying Christ with the Adulteress
Studying Christ with the Adulteress

As Joseph continues his work and shifts from prosecuting Han to defending him, he also has to contend with disruption at home. While investigating Han’s activities and lavish parties, he discovers his very own wife had cultivated questionable relationships.

This is where the themes run much deeper and offer considerable food for thought — particularly during the current tumultuous times of a pandemic and a divisive national election in the U.S.

To what ends are relationships with the enemy — real or perceived on any number of fronts — purely evil? Or are there acceptable ulterior motives?

It’s amazing how, 75 years after Han van Meegeren went from national lamb to lion, his actions and logic resonate today. Sometimes it’s the simple truth: not everything is what it appears to be. Whether its protests driven by historical activity in the U.S. or questionable leadership in Myanmar, sometimes life simply isn’t cut and dry. Sometimes you have to work with the devil at hand; sometimes the only other alternative is to actually become a monster while attempting to defeat a monster. Which path is worse is certainly up for a (reasoned and moderated) debate.

Revenge Painting

While Joseph confronts his wife about her associations, he also has to come to terms with his own war-time life and the business dealings of the shady Han (so well played by a prim and proper Pearce with wavy gray hair).

Even then, there’s still a third thread to the story: the power of media to influence the general public. Initial stories of Han van Meegeren whip the public into a feeding frenzy; they want him swinging from the gallows or front of a firing squad. But it’s through the course of objective, rational analysis that Han is transformed from being a sort of whore to a new kind of hero. In that regard, The Last Vermeer pulls of a neat trick. It’s in the courtroom when the story truly comes alive; typically, that’s the point when other dramas start to lose momentum.

There’s been a string of art fraud movies lately — including The Burnt Orange Heresy and Driven to Abstraction, plus art fraud plays a role in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. In The Last Vermeer, the intricacies and motivations are presented on a canvas rich with themes and subplots, all in the context of a European landscape recovering from war and a populace still untangling the web of Nazi-led racism.