Seven years ago, Theo van Gogh was biking through Amsterdam when he was shot and stabbed through the heart.
The assassination of this film director, a descendant of the world renowned painter, rocked the Netherlands and made headlines the world over. It was a turning point in the small country’s cultural life, touching on film, politics and religion, and touching off xenophobic violence throughout the country.
The string of events leading to the murder is well documented; earlier that year van Gogh produced a ten-minute short Submission (2004), positing the veil as a sign of the submission of women in Muslim culture. His partner in producing the film was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somalian refugee-turned-model-turned-Parliamentarian who fled forced marriage to become a controversial spokesperson against Islam – not just the fundamentalist strains of the religion but the religion fundamentally.
Already lightning rods for controversy, the duo started receiving death threats after the film aired on television. Then one autumn day, a young Muslim man acted, killing van Gogh and stabbing a 5-page threat to Hirsi Ali into van Gogh’s chest. Across the country, mosques were burned in retaliation.
Hirsi Ali has gone on to become fairly well known in the US. She fled to Washington DC to work for the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has written several books and occupies an odd juncture of feminism, outspoken classical liberalism, and anti-Islam and anti-immigrant views that has garnered her awards, recognition and critique from all angles.
Van Gogh, however, remains relatively unknown outside of the Netherlands for his actual work.
The recent release of 3 by Theo attempts to fill the gap. The DVDs offer little in terms of context, history or extras, so viewers who aren’t familiar with his work or his role in Dutch culture are left to their own devices. There’s no stated rationale for why these three films from his extensive filmography of almost 30 films from his 20-year career.
What they do have in common is that they are small films, focusing in on verbal wrestling between a man and a woman. Van Gogh specializes in the No Exit school of torture – hell is other people. In the 3 films of 3 by Theo, a man and a woman, trapped together by the circumstances of modern life, dig up the pain in each other’s souls. The veil is an apt metaphor across the three earlier pieces, with each character hiding and revealing their worst secrets and most searing personality flaws. Men and women equally manipulate each other to points of no return.
In 1-900 (1994), a man and a woman push each other to the limits of humiliation and role playing on a phone sex line. The two dial in, seeking a connection while preserving anonymity, and find an imaginary playground of sexual pleasure. They transcend taboo, role-playing bondage, incest, and other relationships that transgress into the absurd.
As viewers we know little more about the details of these two than they do. We only know what they look like, and the visual disconnect between what we see and what they say. Blonde, 25, in lingerie, says the middle-aged redhead coming home from the office in her work gear. These little lies, the lies that prop up fantasy, grow more and more absurd. We know that nothing our narrators say are true, but we trust that everything is in service of their sexual imagination.
In Blind Date (1996), a couple estranged by tragedy tries to cope by meeting at a bar and telling each other story upon story, lie upon lie, in a distinctly unfun game, that devolves into out and out cruelty. Starting to sound like a familiar theme? The film feels claustrophobic, uncomfortable, viscerally like an unescapable relationship that’s dragged down and bound together by an unhappy past.
In Interview (2003), a former war correspondent reluctantly interviews an embittered young movie star. The stark difference between the 25-year-old actress’s middle-class comfortable dramas and the 45-year-old journalist’s near-death experiences during the Yugoslav war is only the starting point in the emotional warfare. The Yugoslav war is itself a scar in the Dutch psyche, and the two tear apart all the official stories and find the dark truths that lie beneath.
Van Gogh’s final provocation, 06/05, isn’t included here. It examined the 200x assassination of Pim Fortuyn, a flamboyant gay Dutch politician whose inflammatory attitudes towards immigration opened up floodgates of suppressed anti-immigration sentiment that was hidden but festering throughout the “politically correct” ‘90s.
As individual films, these are hard to watch, like less clever rehashes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or meaner and more current Fassbinders. Yet together, they examine the hypocrisy of who we pretend we are, in our personal relationships, and for the Netherlands, as a society.
Note: There are no extras, only a set-up with subtitles and the ability to switch through scenes. It’s an unfortunate oversight since even basic features like commentary could provide much-needed analysis of Van Gogh’s work.