An American watching the Dutch war parable “The East” can’t help but see it through a Vietnam War lens. This film is about European soldiers fighting a phantom enemy and battling for “hearts and minds” in Indonesia, not Southeast Asia. And it takes nothing from the film to notice a little “Apocalypse Now” here, “Casualties of War” and “Platoon” story arcs and even a hint of “The Green Berets” there.
The Dutch commandos here even have their own green berets (like the British before them) to distinguish themselves from ordinary infantry.
Like Vietnam, The Netherlands experience fighting a different foe in different jungles was bathed in arrogance and racism. But as this bloody, unsettling and somewhat mythic combat thriller from musician, DJ and actor turned director Jim Taihuttu points out, there were distinctly Dutch failings and scars in play here.
Martijn Lakemeier stars as Johan DeVries, a volunteer in the corps shipped over to the former Dutch colony which Japan conquered in World War II. Johan and his comrades in arms are there to “restore order” to the islands of Java, Celebes, et al, governed out of Batavia, the city now known as Jakarta.
Their commanding officer declares “The disgrace ends with your arrival here” (in Dutch with English subtitles), which is the most psychologically telling line in the movie. Holland was invaded and occupied by the Germans in World War II. The queen under whose name these soldiers were sent to “fight peasants with swords and spears” spent that war in comfort, in London. And it’s not like she’s here, either.
Add to that national “shame” the stark reminder that some soldiers in this unit fought with the Resistance, but most assuredly did not.
They’re in country, taking up positions at remote jungle outposts, just as “the Japanese Nazis” are forced out at gunpoint. The ethnically and religiously diverse country is teetering on the brink of civil war, with the “terrorist” Sukarno fighting a guerilla war aimed at uniting them all in independence. This “war” is a series of patrols out of those bases, interrogations of civilians in the countryside. The attacks they face are ambushes, their reprisals include atrocities.
Johan throws himself into the routine, studying the Indonesian phrase book, thinking along the lines of what the American Pentagon later labeled “winning the hearts and minds” of the locals.
But Johan won’t be the classic “white savior,” the above-it-all “observer/watcher/narrator” of this story. He’s very much a participant. Just how much so becomes clear when he hears a tip from a local about a rebel cadre holed up in a nearby village, and his condescending commanding officer (Mike Reus) dismisses the idea of action.
Johan takes that tip to a soldier with the air of lethal, commanding mystery about him, The Turk. Marwan Kenzari plays his Greco-Dutch commando with bravado and self-righteous cool, a mustachioed man among men, the one some whisper “should be in charge of this war.”
He is ruthless and unwavering in his pursuit of the rebels, unflinching in the summary extra-judicial “justice” he metes out. He is Sgt. Barnes in “Platoon,” Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” a monster lauded for his results, abhorred for his “methods.” Johan will become his (somewhat) devoted student.
Taihuttu tells this story along two compelling timelines. We follow Johan through his introduction to Indonesia, his “blooding” in combat and his immersion in local culture.
But as the opening image of the film is that of an older, weathered Johan returning home to Holland to protests, there’s a fictive present set after his service. “The East” is about what Johan did there, how it scarred him and what he brought home with him from that war.
The racism expressed by the soldiers for the “brown monkeys” they’ve traveled there to fight is jolting, and also a pre-Vietnam echo of the demonized, dismissed and under-estimated Asian “other” the United States and a few allies fought decades later.
And Taihuttu isn’t shy about revisiting other Vietnam elements with this fictional story. When the flame thrower comes out, we know what’s going to happen, the old “destroy the village in order to ‘save’ it” nonsense.
He lets us see the war lost exactly the same way Vietnam was lost almost 30 years later.
If the American legacy of Vietnam, echoed in film, history and literature of the war, was “going in like John Wayne” and realizing out that sort of simplistic heroism heedless of geopolitics exists only in that draft dodger’s movies, some 150,000 Dutch troops shipped East to fight to atone for what they, their parents and their leaders didn’t do from 1940-45.
The filmmaker isn’t above tumbling into the same “traps” filmmakers of the lesser Vietnam films succumbed to. Of course there’s a cocktail party. Of course The Turk is into opera. Of course there’s a hooker — played by Denise Aznam — whom Johan falls for.
But Taihuttu’s created a fascinating twist on the “reckoning-with-our-ugly-past” war film. By building it on a shamed national psyche and having that reflected in the characters, he’s found dark new explanations for how things happened, and why.
MPA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, sex, smoking, profanity
Cast: Martijn Lakemeier, Marwan Kenzari, Jonas Smulders, Coen Bril and
Credits: Scripted and directed by Jim Taihuttu, additional material by Mustafa Duygulu. A Magnolia/Magnet release.
Running time: 2:21