The story of Borgman would be fitting of the Bible if it had been written in modern times for modern times. It is a parable about the corrupting seduction of evil and how easily it can enter human lives, so one must be ever vigilant. Interestingly, the story is also presented in the way that one might read a parable, with little unnecessary detail to distract from the moral lesson. However, while the commitment of the filmmakers to this style is admirable, Borgman falls short of delivering a satisfying film specifically due to its deliberate presentation.
Hunted by local men with guns, which includes a priest, Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) and his cohorts Ludwig (Alex van Warmerdam) and Pascal (Tom Dewispelaere) are forced from their underground lairs in the woods and into the city. Separated from Ludwig and Pascal, Borgman discovers an out-of-the-way home where Marina (Hadewych Minis) lives with her husband (Jeroen Perceval) and their three children and their nanny, Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen). Despite looking like a transient, Borgman finagles his way into this peaceful family’s life, preying on their sympathy first, then on their needs, and finally on their desires. Throughout this psychological nightmare, no one in the family will be left unscathed.
While the film obviously has religious undertones and symbolism, Borgman is not overtly a religious movie. Audiences could just as easily see the film as a slow-paced psychological thriller, featuring very subdued villains. However, the religious references cannot be overlooked, and when viewed through the lens of a spiritual battle between good and evil, the abstruseness of Borgman begins to unravel. The film opens with a simple title card that features text that reads like scripture. All of the villains seem to have a kind of spellbinding aura about them, corrupting and seducing those that come in contact with them. In one of the more surreal moments, the villains perform an interpretive dance that ends with a possible reference to the demon Legion in the Christian Bible. Borgman disparages Jesus outright during a story he tells. Finally, there has to be a very good supernatural reason for a priest to hunt another human being down with a gun. Could Borgman and his crew simply be sadists, wandering in and out of lives? Or are they something more sinister?
The filmmakers use a spartan presentation to tell this parable, ranging from the minimal dialogue to the wonderfully crafted set, which is full of severe angles and too many entrances. There’s very little to know about the characters in this story beyond what is necessary to know. There’s even less to know about the villains in the film, who rarely talk besides Borgman. On one hand, this is delightful, because the story becomes a light puzzle to solve rather than being a straightforward morality play. On the other hand, the lack of details and the inexplicable behavior of many of the characters will render Borgman inaccessible to many viewers, who are watching the film literally. In spite of this, the utilitarian presentation adds to the overall creepiness of Borgman and his companions slinking into this family’s life. These people are so strange yet so close to the family that the circumstances somehow make the word “stranger” even more meaningful.
Unfortunately, the parable style of storytelling will only take the film so far. In a parable, the only thing of value is the lesson taught at the end. As such, characters don’t really matter beyond being vehicles to get to the lesson. The same can be said about Borgman. None of the characters have any real arcs nor is there any significant conflict in the film. This is not a plot- or character-driven film; instead, it’s a lesson-driven film. But what that lesson is isn’t entirely clear, if there’s a lesson to be learned at all. For those that want to read into Borgman, this film will no doubt spark long conversations about the nature of good and evil, God and Satan, and personal vulnerabilities. For everyone else, this might be the longest way to tell a very short story.