The Netherlands, 1977
Directed by Jos Stelling
With Frans Stelling (Rembrandt as an adult), Ton De Koff (Rembrandt as an old man), Lucie Singeling (Saskia van Uylenburgh), Aya Gill (Hendrickje Stoffels), Hanneke van der Velden (Geertje Dircx)
An old man slowly ascents stairs and awkwardly manages to sit in an armchair. Gazing over the room, he thinks about his life. A fast-paced series of images suffices to narrate his early years, under the watch of an old woman and over the backdrop of windmills (the father was a miller). Then a young man is heckled in the streets of Leyden and he is now advised by a fellow painter to try his luck in Amsterdam. He meets there in 1631 Uylenburgh, an art dealer who helps him in the career.
He marries a niece of the merchant, Saskia, and the movie would spend more time depicting the crises that would mar his life: the clash with Saskia’s family over money, her death, the awkward relationships he has with the maids hired to take care of his home, first Geertje Dircx who suits him for a broken promise of marriage and next Hendrickje Stoffels who loves him until her death, his bankruptcy and the early death of his beloved son Titus.
Even then the episodes generally consist of a series of striking vignettes. They are narratively linked by anecdotes highlighting the hardship brought by the painter’s knack of piling up debts. What gives those elements a common thread is Rembrandt’s attitude, which is not unlike the child briefly seen at the start: a tranquil and mute fellow whose childishly expectant look has simply become a brashly intent gaze. The master doesn’t take part in conversation easily, even when he must defend himself, at a trial or at a dinner gathering rich men who could help him. He definitely comes across as a pig-headed and gruff person whose artistic talent is the only excuse society can find to his temperament.
He is not usually shot while working. Only a few works out of an incredibly huge oeuvre feature in the film. Twice his face is suddenly frozen and morphs into self-portraits, one etched in 1630 and the other painted in 1669, the year of his death. Twice a bevy of characters come into the frame, the camera shooting one face or another haphazardly, and then give way to the paintings representing them: “The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp”, 1632, and “The Night Watch/The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cock and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenhurch”, 1642. Twice Rembrandt is shot directing Saskia in her pose for portraits barely seen (“Saskia with a hat”, 1633, and “Saskia as Flora”, 1634).However, the film does show the master carefully working on his 1663 masterwork, “The Syndics”. The self-portraits are useful tools in the editing to frame the essential part of the narrative while the focus on the group portraits pay tribute to celebrated milestones in his style’s evolution.
How to depict in a movie the life and the work of a famous painter? Jos Stelling seems to have found a radical and intelligent answer that is not really the traditional biopic exercise that would have been the choice of others and was the choice made by Alexander Korda in his 1936 “Rembrandt” (though with a singular outlook). From his career’s beginning Rembrandt seemed keen on seizing in the most vivid, vibrant manner moments of action and life in spite of the limitations of his art. Till the very end, with the famously calculated odd poses of the Syndics in a barely detailed décor, one would argue (like, say, Michael Bockemühl in his survey published by Taschen in 1992 with the telling subtitle “the Mystery of Apparition”) that what he looks for and seems to attain is a composition infusing life into what is only a still image.
To be sure, cinema is not sill; on the contrary the images can move too swiftly and too conveniently. The director’s idea is to focus his narration on the kind of fleeting but telling moments Rembrandt strove to capture on the canvas. No time-consuming dramatic developments and no idle words: the movie goes straight to the salient elements of the unfolding drama or directs the audience’s attention to a few gestures until they reach quietly the last stage in the development of an action. The screen brims with a whole range of emotions thanks to the unflinching focus on the looks and behaviors of the characters, the camera adroitly capturing enough signs to convey the full strength of one’s feelings – think of Saskia casting her eyes or staring at a point beyond the frame at various stages of her life as Rembrandt’s beloved, or of Geertje’s tortured face as she is plainly less lucky (the actors concentrate their work on looks and demeanor in fascinatingly subdued performances).
At first glance Rembrandt seems remote from this teeming pool of emotions, but he does show his feelings in some scenes, in particular when Titus is involved. True, he is neither garrulous nor friendly and yet his art demonstrates the greatest interest in people’s inner life. The movie just takes the full measure of these ambiguities and complexities; it moves as close as possible to the painter’s persona but never tries to solve the mystery. Countless texts have been written expounding interpretations, a task the director vowed not to undertake, favoring a practical portrayal of an opaque talent.
Elliptical and epiphanic, shot in the particular light the Dutch art of this time relished, “Rembrandt fecit 1669” deftly illustrates the idiosyncrasies of a gifted man by giving them the same impressive and illuminating immediacy his paintings convey.