The East (De Oost)

Take me to the river.

(2020) War (Magnet) Martijn Lakemeier, Marwan Kenzari, Jonas Smulders, Abel van Gijlswijk, Coen Bril, Reinout Scholten van Aschat, Jim Deddes, Jeroen Perceval, Mike Reus, Joenoes Polnaija, Denise Aznam, Peter Paul Muller, Huub Smit, Putri Ayudya, Lukman Sardi, David Wristers, Robert de Hoog, Reinout Bussemaker, Joes Brauers, Nanette Edens. Directed by Jim Taihuttu

 

Before the United States sank into the quagmire that was Vietnam, the Netherlands had Indonesia, or the Dutch East Indies as it was then known. It was 1945 and World War II had just ended. The Netherlands had been occupied for the bulk of the war by the Nazis and her East Asian colonies had been occupied by Japan. Now the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army was in the process of booting the Japanese out.

But the inhabitants of the many islands that make up Indonesia were fed up with colonialism. They wanted to rule themselves, to determine their own future. But they were divided by hundreds of islands and so there was fighting sprouting up all over the place and the army was sent in to quell these pockets of unrest that could turn into a full-blown rebellion if the various factions were to unite.

Into this atmosphere comes Johan de Vries (Lakemeier), a young man with redemption on his mind. His father had disgraced the family name – the name Johan had been born with – and when others in the company get wind of who Johan is – or rather, who his father is – things get a little dicey for him. He finds a role model in Raymond Westerling (Kenzari), known to the enlisted men as “The Turk” whose very simple black and white assessment of the situation has won the admiration of the men, and his non-nonsense results-oriented approach has many thinking that he should be in charge.

In fact, Westerling is soon given his own elite team of men in black uniforms that are eerily reminiscent of the Gestapo and they are sent to fight terror with some of their own. Westerling’s methods are brutal and final. At first, Johan is fine with those methods – he doesn’t exactly have a moral compass that points true north – but as he sees that their efforts are giving the Indonesians someone to unify against, he begins to reconsider his allegiance – and that the Turk cannot tolerate.

The depiction here of the Dutch army would prompt a lawsuit from a veteran’s group in the Netherlands who objected to the way the Dutch soldiers are portrayed, but director Jim Taihuttu sourced much of his material from the diaries of men who actually served in the conflict. The lawsuit eventually made its way through the Dutch courts where the defense was eventually successful in winning the case.

The depiction of the fighting men and the steamy jungle warfare harkens back to classic Vietnam war films like Apocalypse Now, Casualties of War and Platoon, and while some of the plot elements appear to have been at least inspired by those films (one could draw a direct line from Colonel Kurtz to the Turk and not be wrong), the movie has a sensibility all its own – perhaps because the war is largely unknown today, even in the Netherlands.

Both Lakemeier and Kenzari play morally compromised characters and do a fine job of making them both reasonably relatable, although Westerling eventually goes right off the rails at the very end. The fact that both men are so flawed makes them so compelling.

As war movies go, there is not nearly as much action in this film as you might expect, which in a nearly 2 ½ hour film may make attention-challenged Americans squirm a bit in their chairs. The middle third of the movie is a bit ponderous, and I could have done without the subplot about Johan’s relationship with an Indonesian prostitute. It’s that last third, however, that is where The East really shines. Truth be told though, I must admit I was a little bit disappointed by the ending, but it is telegraphed a little bit by the opening scenes.

All in all, this is a fairly densely packed movie that gives the audience a whole lot to think about, especially considering the morality of nations and of the soldiers. The Dutch soldiers feel nothing but disdain for the Indonesians, who they call “brown monkeys” (and worse) and essentially assert that the whole idea of independence is ludicrous because they couldn’t possibly govern themselves. Of course, time proved those soldiers wrong as Indonesia has one of the most vibrant economies on Earth currently.

I really liked the movie, but I can see how it won’t be for everyone. The run time might give some pause and the lack of spectacle even more so. However, it does bring to light a conflict that evidently we haven’t learned from nearly 80 years after the fact. If we had, we never would have stayed in Afghanistan as long as we did.

REASONS TO SEE: Gritty and dark. Some strong performances from the leads.
REASONS TO AVOID: Drags a bit in the middle and I’m not a fan of the ending.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, racial slurs, war violence, sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taihuttu’s grandfather fought and died in the conflict as a member of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Alamo On-Demand, Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Platoon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Not Going Quietly

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