Nazi collaborator? Scam artist? Or both? With art, there are tests you can do to figure out a painting’s authenticity, but an alcohol test won’t prove Han van Meegeren’s innocence. That job falls to Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang) in Dan Friedkin’s straightforward but inoffensive picture, The Last Vermeer.
Based on a true story and Jonathan Lopez‘s book, The Man Who Made Vermeers, The Last Vermeer begins in 1945. WWII is over, the Allied Forces are still in control of Holland (though not for much longer), and Piller is trying to find the people who took and sold stolen art to the Nazis – an investigation that leads him to van Meegeren (Guy Pearce, looking like a conductor in a Bugs Bunny short with cartoon eyebrows).
It’s Piller who puts van Meegeren in jail for selling Vermeer’s Christ and the Adulteress to Nazi leader Hermann Göring. But it’s his assistant, Minna (Vicky Krieps), who realizes there’s more to van Meegeren’s story, and that he might be innocent after all.
The trouble is the Ministry of Justice in Holland — and while it’s believable that the Allies and the Ministry would have different agendas (the Danish government wanted control of their county back), allowing the face of the Ministry to be a smarmy detective by the name of De Klerks (August Diehl) makes things seem a little black and white (even if it’s also believable that some people were using their connections to get away with their crimes).
Van Meegeren is one of the people whose name the Ministry of Justice has no interest in clearing, and while the first half of the movie is basically Piller going from beautiful house to the beautiful house to interview suspects who are way too cool about being questioned, a large chunk of the second half is spent on van Meegeren’s court trial.
There’s also some personal drama involving Piller and his wife, Leez (Marie Bach Hansen). Both of them worked for the Resistance during the war, but their marriage is in trouble. And from the way Leez reacts to seeing Minna, it’s clear the film wants viewers to be primed for an affair. Despite the heavy-footed start, however, James McGee, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby’s screenplay actually handles these relationships with care and it’s not salacious like the film initially implies, which is good because the female characters deserve better (and too often that doesn’t happen).
All of the questions raised by the film make great debates, like who decides what art is worth money and which artists warrant praise? When do you have to move on, or should you move on if justice isn’t served? Why does history always go back to public executions? The Last Vermeer doesn’t necessarily draw any new conclusions, but it doesn’t have to either.
The Last Vermeer is available on Blu-Ray and DVD now from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.