The Last Vermeer is the true story of Han Van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire, who knocked out old masters by the likes of Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer, among others, during the Second World War and even managed to sell a “Vermeer” to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring for a fortune. Van Meegeren was initially brought to trial in the Netherlands after the War for having sold Göring what was supposed to be a real Vermeer, as a collaborator who had facilitated the expropriation of the cultural property of the Netherlands. But when he eventually admitted that the picture was fake, those charges were dropped. However, because of the skewed logic of a state barely able to come to terms with itself, the trial still went ahead, on the lesser charge of forgery. Van Meergeren became a national folk hero, which is an odd position for a convicted forger to find himself in, though Van Meegeren was no ordinary forger – he’s often claimed to be the best of all time.
The problem for a film like this, which wants to deal in heroes and villains, is that Van Meegeren was far from a hero. At the very best he was a selfish opportunist who managed to do very well out of the war. At worst he was a Nazi collaborator. And so, rather than tell Van Meegeren’s story straight up, the film inserts a decent character with whom we can all sympathise – an investigator got in by the occupying allies to restore looted art works to their original owners, and who just happens to run into Van Meegeren along the way.
Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang) is a Dutch Jew who spent the war fighting with the resistance against the Nazis. He’s a decent, though understandably angry man, cultured, fair, determined not to use a victor’s advantages to ride roughshod over justice. On the domestic front his wife, Leez (Marie Bach Hansen), has spent the war getting along famously with the higher echelons of the Nazis, and Piller’s marriage is now if not in ruins then extremely precarious.
However, all this set-up is thrown right into the background by the eventual, far-too-late revelation that Van Weegeren is more than just an art dealer who acted as middle man in the sale of a few dodgy works to some very dodgy people. In fact, this failed artist has been conducting a parallel career as a master forger, and doing it quite possibly for decades.
That’s the interesting story, Piller’s not so much. As for Piller’s assistant (Vicky Krieps, underused, having been so commanding in The Phantom Thread), his aide-de-camp Dekker (Roland Møller, brusquely oikish) and Ministry of Justice rival De Klerks (August Diehl, dressed as if playing a comedy Nazi), they all also get in the way of Van Meergeren, fine actors though they all are.
Though there’s too much Piller, Danish actor Claes Bang is a gift to the role, a commanding, urbane presence capable of being silky and threatening (as he was again in the BBC’s Dracula a year later). As for Guy Pearce as Van Meegeren – foppish, preening, effete, dandyish, prissy – we’re never left in any doubt about what we’re meant to feel about him, even when he’s beginning to look like one of the good guys, which is an unlikely switcheroo for someone in a silvery page-boy hairstyle.
It’s a really good story told in a bafflingly obscure way, though if I were first time director Dan Friedkin I’d be congratulating myself on the solidity and movie-ish-ness of the finished product. For all its peek-a-boo attitude to Van Meegeren, it’s an otherwise admirably straightahead telling of the story – fine Amsterdam locations, a cast that’s solid all the way down, evocatively lit and scored, without ever tipping too far into heritage film-making cliche.
Two other films about looted Nazi art and restitution spring to mind – 1962’s The Train, starring Burt Lancaster, and 2014’s The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney and his pals. This tends to the latter, tasteful rather than urgent.
Qualms to one side, it’s still a good-looking and fascinating film, and it’s to a large extent redeemed by its the big courtroom finale – experts exposed, Piller vindicated – done with a flourish. And, finally, we start to get as much of Van Meegeren as the story really needs, though we’re also still getting plenty of Piller. So there is such a thing as having too much Bang for your buck.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021