I had to look up this Dutch translation after taking in the tense, suspenseful World War II drama “Riphagen,” retitled “Riphagen: The Untouchable” for its Netflix release.
“Nagelbijter” is the only Dutch word for it — “nail biter.” It’s a gripping, ugly movie built around one of the great villainous Nazi turns. As Bernardus Andries “Dries” Riphagen,Jeroen van Koningsbrugge is more than a hulking, evil presence. He is cunning incarnate, a brute with brains, the ability to read and manipulate people and as utterly ruthless as any death camp commandant or gas chamber guard.
Riphagen was a mob-connected Dutchmen who betrayed Jews and got them shipped to Poland to be gassed. But not at first. No, “I believe I can help you,” he’d purr. You just need to sign over your house, hand over your cash and jewels. Give me the keys to your roadster, your motorboat. Some of it will help pay off the Nazis,” he’d assure them. The rest he’ll “hold. Just…until all of this is over.”
And after he’d won their trust and bled them dry, gotten them to convince friends also in hiding to trust him, only then would their names turn up on SD (collaborationist Dutch State Security) lists so that they could be rounded up and turned over to the Germans.
Director Pieter Kuijpers and screenwriters Thomas van der Ree and Paul Jan Nelissen set out to air some Dutch dirty laundry about World War II and remind us that whatever simplistic treatment it gets in most history books, no Occupied Country came off wholly clean. And the man whose story they use to illustrate this is the very embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, “the banality of evil.”
We see Riphagen work his reassuring magic with desperate people fearing for their lives, the ultimate salesman. He poses for photographs with every “client” as a way of reassuring them of his intentions.
Never mind that he and a partner, acting on tips they paid the cops for, carried out these searches and “discoveries” themselves. Once he’s sat down and started talking business, the used car, vacation timeshare or swampland in Florida is as good as sold.
That punching bag he keeps in his office? That’s not just for show. Bald and brawny, he isn’t shy about punching-out or head-butting anybody else who tries to extort or threaten his pigeons.
Konigsbrugge made a brief, memorable impression in “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” just a single scene as a Dutch soccer hooligan. Yeah, he’s credibly frightening.
But he has to suggest nerve and native cunning in this performance, as well. Here’s a man who is commissioned by the Nazis to round up Jews, and who is cheating the Germans out of the loot they expect to collect. Riphagen is condemning civilians to a horrible death, and the Resistance suspects as much and is keeping a file on him.
He has to placate the German Army commander in Amsterdam (Richard Gonlag), who has the power of life and death over him, and keep the police insider/secret Resistance fighter Jan (Kay Greidanus), an idealistic young man who suspects the worst of him, at bay.
The operating principle that separates good thrillers from great ones is that the villain must have a point of view. It’s easy enough to suspect that Riphagen sees shades of grey in his monstrous activities. That’s the side he shows the cute waitress (Lisa Zweerman) he courts and marries. She’s also seen him pummel her abusive, drunken father into behaving better on what amounts to their first date. She can see him as noble.
But as the film reminds us, wartime occupation creates an entire country of double lives. Jan, already living a double life and a married cop, is tempted by a new member of his Resistance cell (Anna Raadsveld). But she is Jewish, compromised and in the clutches of Riphagen. Some day, he’s going to find a way to profit from her “associations.”
One thing that separates this film from similar movies (Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book” and “Soldier of Orange” are two of the best) is that it takes the story past the German surrender and into the murky waters of post-Occupation collaborator-hunting.
Riphagen is cunning enough to disappear. Jan is dogged enough to keep searching. But in the shifting priorities of the returned “government in exile” and the new Soviet threat halfway across Germany, “communists” are as bad as Nazi sympathizers. Mistrust and betrayal are added to a populace where few could claim to be patriots, with the bonafides to prove it.
And all the shifty, smooth-talking, well-connected operators like Dries Riphagen would need to do is rewrite a little history, make things a lot more gray than black and white and convince yet another set of authority figures that they was indeed on their “side.”
Justice could seem a soft-focus pipe dream when compared to the simple clarity of wartime, where suspicion, just enough evidence and a pistol could bring matters to a swift, messy end.
Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence, sex, smoking
Cast: Jeroen van Koningsbrugge, Kay Greidanus, Anna Raadsveld, Lisa Zweerman, Huub Smit, Michel Sluysmans, Sigrid ten Napel and Richard Gonlag.
Credits: Directed by Pieter Kuijpers, scripted by Thomas van der Ree and Paul Jan Nelissen.A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:11