A Peter Greenaway Film; Produced by Kees Kasander.
Filmed on location in
The year 1642 marks the turning point in the life of the famous Dutch painter, Rembrandt, turning him from a wealthy respected celebrity into a discredited pauper. At the insistence of his pregnant wife Saskia, Rembrandt has reluctantly agreed to paint the Amsterdam Musketeer Militia in a group portrait that will later be come to be known as The Nightwatch. He soon discovers that there is a conspiracy afoot with the Amsterdam merchants playing at soldiers manoeuvring for financial advantage and personal power in, at that time, the richest city in the Western World. Rembrandt stumbles on a foul murder. Confident in the birth of a longed-for son and heir, Rembrandt is determined to expose the conspiring murderers and builds his accusation meticulously in the form of the commissioned painting, uncovering the seamy and hypocritical side to Dutch Society in the Golden Age.
Rembrandt’s great good fortune turns. Saskia dies. Rembrandt reveals the accusation of murder in the painting and the conspirators plan revenge. They set out to discredit him at home and abroad. They plant a treacherous mistress, Geertje, to seduce him. They try to blind him. They plan his social and financial ruin, and to create the circumstances for his slide into penury, insult his young mistress Hendrickje, conspire to destroy his son, and bring Rembrandt to his knees. The bold and courageous painting of the Nightwatch, exceptional in aesthetics and content, is Rembrandt’s most celebrated painting, it consolidated his reputation as a master-painter but it also destroyed him socially and financially.
A theatrical, ironic costume drama of Rembrandt, his women and a conspiracy of foul murder in The Nightwatch, the painting that both made and ruined him.
Four ideas about Rembrandt, couched almost as questions, were germinal to NIGHTWATCHING, and I suppose I have been thinking about them, on and off, ever since I was at art school in the mid-sixties, when Rembrandt’s reputation was unassailable amongst my lecturers. The ideas could be summarised under the headings of money, sex, conspiracy and the very condition of painting. The first question is social, the second question voyeuristic, the third question is intellectual, and the fourth question is philosophical, and probably, though a general public might not see it as such, the last question is the most important.
If we visit each question again. It is difficult to understand why a man so rich - considered to be a guilder millionaire in the 1640s, with all the trappings of fortune - big house, smart, good family wife, large atelier, many pupils, printing shop - should end up so badly. Financial mismanagement surely cannot entirely be blamed. There are no records of real wanton spending or abject drunkenness, and his output was continuous and prolific, even after the bankruptcy declaration. Rembrandt would have had to squander money very vigourously to be so high and then fall so low, and there is no evidence. Many have blamed political and social change economically altering the market, but other painters did not fail, and the success of the Dutch painting school continued to develop for another generation until the French marched into Holland in 1674. Some have blamed a change in artistic fashion - a move towards more Italianate models, but Vermeer follows Rembrandt in the century and he succeeded with non-Italian characteristics. Some have suggested Geertje stole and spent and squandered, but it is not easy to see that she could have created such a financial problem. More understandably, some have suggested that Rembrandt began to speculate on the shipping and trading markets - a quick way to lose money. Such speculating was often necessarily keep secret to avoid exploitation and market competition - such secrecy could explain why there are no ready records to prove the theory entirely, though there are some telling comments in various bureaucratic documents. It could be that Rembrandt was persuaded to speculate against his better judgement, and there is some recently uncovered evidence to suggest this.
To find a consistent way to suggest this change in fortune - this film follows the painting of The Nightwatch’s manufacture from start to finish, and offers to suggest a possible plausible reason why Rembrandt was ruined, by suggesting a concerted social and financial vendetta, of which high-minded Calvinism could be responsible, through envy that a painter, an out-of-town, lowly craftsman could play the markets like a merchant and strut successfully on the stage made for them and not for him. Most of all it speculates on how a quite tightly-knit society, through a concerted effort, could punish a man who broke the rules of Dutch community. Rembrandt exhibited overt success, lived openly in sin with a servant, was not prepared to kneel before patrons. They were mortified that he could criticise, mock and scorn their self-righteousness and taint them with moral crimes and possibly include them in severe accusations of criminality, all publicly displayed in a painting commissioned by them for all to see. They curiously paid for their immorality to be advertised - a severe and mocking accusation. In sum, their arrogant murder of a rival who stood in their way to preferment was perceived by Rembrandt who used the Nightwatch as a J’accuse indictment. That first brave J’accuse indictment by Zola in the anti-Semitic Dreyfus Affair may well have lead to Zola’s death by asphyxiation by person or persons unknown when the stove chimney to his bedroom was blocked and his rooms filled with carbon monoxide. This Rembrandt J’accuse indictment could well have lead to Rembrandt’s death; it certainly seems to have heralded his social and financial ruin.
The second question - about Rembrandt’s women - reveal three different sorts of classic gender relationships - with Saskia, a dynastic marriage of convenience that became a business partnership, and the painted evidence shows this. The second, with Geertje, on the rebound from Saskia’s death, and with Rembrandt suffering great misery, was a long carnal affair, like a long drinking binge to shut out and blot out unhappiness, pushed to the limits of excess, grimy, dirty, self-humiliating, subsequently regretted and vigourously denied, was also revealed in the work. And thirdly, the relationship with Hendrickje - twenty years younger than him, and a servant in economic dependence, a classic older man exploiting his lust, finding a free house-manager and unpaid baby-minder, and unprotesting bed-partner, the classic older man younger woman sentimental relationship that reprises a father daughter relationship, and a master pupil relationship.
Rembrandt has been castigated for painting ‘real’ women - eschewing the heroic traditions where every woman has to be a Juno, a Minerva, a Venus - complaints of flaccid bellies, drooping breasts, and the marks of garters on a calf are frequent. Did his wives sit for him? What sort of sexual manners, habits, fantasies, relationships did they enjoy? The Dutch are supposedly contradictory - calvinist and yet extremely tolerant, sensuous and then very matter-of-fact, fastidious and then flagrant. In the end Rembrandt painted very sensuous erotic paintings of women, surely from personal experience. Few would suggest that his vision and his experiences came from the copy-books.
. (Click on the above picture to see a
very large replica of the painting.)
. (Click on the above picture to see a very large replica of the painting.)
1. Is it significant that Banning-Cocq wears a satanic black outfit?
2. Is it significant that Willem van Ruytenburch is dressed in brightly-lit angelic gold? An iconoclast at the Rijksmuseum thought so when he slashed both figures with the evil versus good paradigm in mind.
3. Is it not curious that there is such a difference in height between the two men? Willem van Ruytenburch hardly comes up the Banning-Cocq’s throat. Surely simple propriety could have equalled out the heights of the two men - Willem looks demeaned by being made a ‘shorty’.
4. The outstretched hand of Banning Cocq does not seem to fit so well into Banning-Cocq arm or sleeve. Is there a reason for this?
5. There is a very demonstrative shadow of Banning Cocq’s hand on Willem¹s belly. Is this a deliberate provocation of a sexual nature?
6. The head of the lance held by Willem van Ruytenburch seems to be a flagrant genital substitute - complete with dominant penis and a suggestion of testicles - could this really be so accidental?
7. Banning-Cocq limply holds a glove by the finger with exaggerated distasteful nonchalance in his right hand. The held glove is a right hand glove. Since his right hand is already gloved - and his left-hand very extravagantly ungloved - this held glove cannot be his. Who’s is it? And what is it doing here? What is going on? There are three musketeers in the picture - all copied with Rembrandtian panache from a military hand-book.
8. The musketeer loading the musket is ostensibly doing it the wrong way around - an image of incompetence? Or has Rembrandt been admonished for making Dutch military secret too public for the Spanish?
9.The musketeer firing the musket in the centre of the painting is fully dressed in armour, has an obscured face, is obviously a youth, is firing in a crowded melee with great danger to everyone, is not so securely balanced on his feet and wears an oak leaf twig on his helmet - too many mysteries here to suggest arbitrary concerns - a figure like this would take a day - several days to paint. We are surely sincerely meant to take careful note.
10. There is a man in the centre of the painting making an ambiguous gesture - is he avoiding the firing, helping it, aiming it to shoot?
11. Then the curiosity everyone sees - the girl in the brightly painted dress - is it a girl - some say it is a dwarf - perhaps they are thinking of Spanish painting - say Velasquez’s or Ribera’s Court dwarfs? And Rembrandt orders Spanish prints through the print shops in Antwerp. Spain is the traditional enemy. Is she all that is left of the Spanish threat for these useless merchants playing at soldiers - the enemy is now no more than a plaything, a female dwarf, as in the Spanish court itself. Is the enemy now a Spanish dwarf? She is crowned, she has a chicken dangling at her waist - a spiteful bird with claws, the cockerel crowing his empty macho cock-a-doodle-doo - metaphor for the ultimate cuckold. There is a money bag at her waist - paying off the Spanish threat rather than fight it - are there accusations of cowardice here? And she ostentatiously brandishes a goblet. What does all this mean? Dutch painting is full of signs and symbols, metaphors and emblems, allegories and referred narratives - here surely are they all again. How are they to be interpreted?
14. There is a one-eyed man at the very back of the crowd in the centre peering over everyone’s shoulder - is it a Rembrandt self-portrait? Rembrandt, it is said, after more than a few people have scrupulously studied his 57 self-portraits, had a lazy eye, an astigmation in his left eye, his sinister eye, but this is his right eye - right for left - because Rembrandt had to paint his self-portrait in a mirror.
The only figures looking significantly directly ‘at the camera’ at us, are
16. The composition of the painting centres strongly on the two central figures, Banning-Cocq, Willem van Ruytenburch, and the man in the middle of them, Jongkind. The pointing hands, the gestures, the compositional lines - are they more than just compositional - are they accusational? And if a little of the painting is removed, cut off from the left hand side of the painting - these characters become even more central. And a little of the left hand side of the painting was cut off. In 1715. The painting stayed under Banning-Cocq control. Did they cut off this portion for merely practical considerations, or is there a more important reason?
17. There is a man - Bloemfeldt - with his comedy hat and false moustache -centre. What is an actor doing in this painting?
CAST / MAJOR CHARACTERS & THE FAMILY
van Rijn aged 36 through
to 41 Martin Freeman
THE FOUR MAJOR CHARACTERS
Rembrandt van Rijn
Unlike Vermeer, Rembrandt is difficult to construct in any way other than his received reputation, which suggests a ribald sort of man, sensuous, sensual, even carnal, probably not so clean, humorous, with a mean streak, prone to changing mercurial emotions, not an intellectual though had intellectual pretensions, a social-climber, certainly inefficient with money, probably too generous, and an optimistic spendthrift easily manipulated. Maybe he spent his money like a provincial, eager to show how successful he had been. This is likely to maybe alienate the Dutch sense of modesty and their sensitivity over the concept of the embarrassment of riches. He has a very good eye for copying and the main chance, and the easy abilities of natural talent to do so quickly. He is often unashamedly a poseur, happy to assume disguises, enjoys dressing up, and challenging others to better his abilities. One can imagine spasms of anger and fits of melancholy, considerable alcohol drinking. By no means handsome in any conventional way, stocky, pot-bellied, hirsute, squat, large hands, splayed fingers, paint-filled finger-nails, not especially sexually endowed. Somehow his insight into psychological character seems at variance with his rougher, blunter, more scurrilous opportunistic characteristics. Sometime his paintings seem at variance with his personality - his profundity in painting seems to outstrip his profundity as a person. We are not a little suspicious of his need for self-advertisment, which at times makes him seem superficial.
With licensed evidence from his work and life, this project posits Rembrandt as highly talented, discovered as a young prodigy to be exploited by Amsterdam dealers, is very ambitious to better himself as a provincial, to be the local boy made good, certainly with great promise, who marries opportunistically, assumes arrogance by obvious commercial success, then on the death of his dynastically-arranged marriage-partner, Saskia, is easily seduced into carnality with Geertje, and finds a truer, prouder love, as a mature man, with a younger woman in later life. He remains the provincial in his love life, finding satisfaction in less experienced women (and servants) than himself. He feels easier with female servants than he might with bourgeois female equals and certainly than with his aristocratic female sitters.
Niece of the painting-dealer Uylenburgh, an orphan of sorts, her parents died when she was a young teenager. She was pushed forward as a likely family pawn to keep the money-spinning Rembrandt within the family circle. Personable, quiet, serious, understanding her marriage-contract role, she is Rembrandt’s reward for bourgeois services, and is dutifully affection to him as a bourgeoisie spouse, an affection which he happily reciprocates but probably patronises. Being associated with dealers and painters, she understands his role, and hopes through him, to live a balanced, money-comfortable life with children. She sees his painting as a bourgeois trade, seeing the necessity of pleasing clients, staying in with the establishment, encouraging Rembrandt to behave, and not rock the boat. Her inability to wean healthy children beyond two years old is a misery, though there is no evidence to suggest she could not conceive, and her urban-living ill-health is at a contrast to Rembrandt’s provincial rude health. She is very proficient at house-keeping and financial management in a large house with many servants and many family members and frequent live-in apprentices and pupils. She is literate and has large family connections.
Geertje is undoubtedly a servant on the make. Widow of a trumpeter associated with the army, quay-side and canal-side shipping and tavern-keeping. She is sensuous and know how to sexually excite and please. She seduces Rembrandt, winning his interest through caring for his sickly infant son. He is stimulated by her carnality and reaches excitements he has never experienced before. She hopes to marry him, but it is an extravagant hope. A gossip, she knows his business, alienates his bourgeois sitters by her pretensions, which he initially forgives or pretends not to notice because of the sexual rewards of her company. She is a comfortable bounce-back candidate to mop up his disagreeable inconvenient grief over Saskia’s death, and she takes advantage of her sexual fascination to dig deeper and deeper into Rembrandt¹s life. The young child Titus undoubtedly learns to love her and depend on her and she takes him off Rembrandt’s hands. When she overplays her success by wearing Saskia’s clothes and jewels, Rembrandt realises she is exploiting him and begins to doubt her motives. Persuaded by his bourgeois friends to repudiate her as a lower-class companion, who would scarcely be able to comprehend his activity as painter, he begins to despise her. His carnality for her body becomes coarser, their sexual activity cruder, until his pretensions for refinements become offended and he begins to repudiate her. They begin to quarrel, and she gradually becomes a nag and a scold, accusing him of staying out late, over-spending money, excess drinking. These quarrels are patched up by sensuous love-making, but he tires of her body which she imagines will always attract him. She grows sloppy, not caring to be so clean and her caring for Titus ceases to be so perfect. She insults him in public and the quarrels begin to erode their relationship. He catches her pawning Saskia¹s jewellery for sums that are ridiculous because she does not understand their bourgeois value, and there is suddenly no way back. He throws her out. She brings in her relatives, especially her army-serving trumpeter brother, a drunkard, who insults Rembrandt and blackmails him, and ultimately attacks him in the street, attempting to blind him. Furious, Rembrandt is obliged to pay her off, a private arrangement which is seen as an attempt to silence her.
A servant who, aged 14, once accompanied the family when Saskia was alive. Now 20 to Rembrandt’s 40 years, she becomes a maid-servant. Blithe, gay, happy to be of service, she is watched by a morose Rembrandt, struggling with Geertje’s intransigence. He surreptitiously uses her as model, then asks her to pose in domestic duties. She is totally unflirtatious, but irritates Geertje’s jealously to make Rembrandt aware of her body. She treats him like an uncle, careful and studious to look after him. She is deeply curious of his activity as a painter. She respects and admires his reputation. He impresses her and he knows and exploits it. One day he kisses her and the event disturbs her. She is frightened and is ready to leave. He encourages her to stay and is sympathetic to his bachelor loneliness and unhappiness. She is attacked by Geertje and her brother, and rescued by Rembrandt. On a rainy night, she sleeps with Rembrandt and the affair begins. Rembrandt is never parted from her. They eat together, she spends the day in the studio. He draws and paints her incessantly. They regularly sleep together, she becomes pregnant. She is dragged before the local church elders and is defiant to them but tearful and vulnerable on her return to Rembrandt. They are now irrevocably united. Rembrandt learns seriously to want to protect her. He falls in love with her, a love she entirely reciprocates and is deeply grateful for.
PETER GREENAWAY INTERVIEW Q&A
How did you come up with the idea and how long have you been working on the script?
suppose I would really have to take the back story all the way back to, I
suppose, the 1960’s when I was at art school in
How much of the film have you based on historical fact and how much have you created for the purpose of the story?
There’s no such thing as history; there’s only historians; so whether you’re Ridley Scott or Walter Scott you know you are playing games with history and you fashion it and manipulate it the way you want to, I suppose the supreme example of that is Shakespeare, who got every single king wrong starting with Richard 3rd but he was not writing history, he was writing fiction which is needed to entertain but also of course it was all political propaganda and there’s a way I suppose that the very best history is always very good PR. Let me reply to your question that if you challenge me on your facts I will prove that you can’t disprove what I say.
Can you outline the plot to Night watching?
if you look at The Night watch painted in 1642, it contains 34 people all
rushing about in an apparently organised mêlée, apparently all about to set off
for musket practise but right in the foreground there’s a adolescent dressed
very elaborately in a soldiers uniform. His face is hidden so we can’t identify
him- but he is firing the musket and it would be like firing a musket at
Piccadilly station in the rush hour – an extremely stupid thing to do. There
must be something important, there must be some reason and I suppose the origin
of my interest is to explain what is happening there. Where is someone firing
the musket and what was the intention and where has the bullet gone and if you
examine, I think historians have said there are 51 mysteries inside this night
watching painting and boldly I will say that my theory solves all the mysteries
in one fell swoop. It’s a sort of CSI crime scene investigation. Maybe when you
go and see the original Night watching painting, in the Rijks museum in
Amsterdam, there ought to be a police caution saying don’t come too close
because you will be tampering with the evidence, there’s every reason to
believe that Rembrandt was often a satirist, a whole series of paintings where
he’s poking fun at people, laughing at tradition, so its not as though the
Night watch was a total abhoration – he’s done this sort of thing before. Our
contention is that it’s like a finger, an accusatory finger, like J’acusse?
it’s an accusation against the very rich, the very super rich plutocracy; the
12 ruling families that basically ruled Amsterdam in the 1640’s, and at the
centre of that conspiracy everybody negotiating to find a better position for
themselves I suppose in Dutch society, in the centre of all that there’s an act
of violence and it explains this gunshot. If you think of
What do you mostly identify with, in Rembrandt and the time he lived?
think a lot of my cinemas (stories), starting with the Draftsman Contract are
very much about the outsider, about the artist as outsider, sometimes rather
pathetically trying to become part of the establishment and probably getting
all of the vocabulary wrong, making a mess of it, I don’t know if anyone ever
remembers the Draftsman Contract anymore but the central character was a
draftsman trying to ape his elders and his betters but he always got it wrong
when everybody was dressed in black he was dressed in white and then when
everybody else was dressed in white he found himself dressed in black – it’s
the problem with the outsider. I think Rembrandt is an outsider, he’s the son
of a miller, he comes from Leiden, not from the big city of Amsterdam, trying
to find a position for himself, because he was enormously talented and because,
as always happens like this, he meets the right people, he gets into a very
good position with the chattering classes very early on. He only meets the
intellectuals after having painted the Night watch, before that its all the
rich and famous who want their portraits taken and they all rushed to Rembrandt
because he obviously managed to put forward a positive and real, I wont say
flattering because I don’t think he necessary flattered people but the Dutch,
being very practical pragmatic people like to see themselves as they are and I
think Rembrandt had the talent to do that so he became very rich very quickly.
It’s fascinating, it’s a sort of phenomenon which is familiar with other sorts
of activities and its true of
Can you describe the relationship between Saskia and Rembrandt and how she was instrumental in the commission of ‘The Night watch’?
Yeah, sometimes that can be sort of looked at sort of systematically and that’s probably dangerous but the 3 relationships he has with the three major women in his life represents three types of peer bonding. The first one is very much of a dynastic marriage, Saskia’s relative who introduced him to Saskia, was a picture dealer and for Rembrandt that was a good thing, he was a good guy to have in the family bringing in the money. There’s every reason to suppose it started off as a dynastic marriage but I think and I argue this in the dialogue of the script was it really a passionate love affair or not but they got on very well. She was an extremely good business woman, looked after his atelier, looked after his finances, certainly looked after his household that’s not so surprising because there is a degree of sophistication and literacy. The second one I suspect was really and utterly a con relationship really pushing a sexual union, a sexual adventure to the extreme almost as though Rembrandt on the rebound after the death of Saskia was really experimenting in a way he could never sexually experiment ever with Saskia and the third one I think is a classic sentimental relationship between an older man and a younger women, there’s 20 years difference between them, of course it was a sexual adventure for him but she was also looking for protection, there was virtually no economic independence for a female in those days, so there were certain sorts of mutual benefit but the sad thing is that all the people around him, his children, all the women of his life they all died before he did, so he ends up as a lonely old pauper virtually in a very modest apartment in the south end of Amsterdam, a long way from the big rich house he once had in the fashionable quarter in the early days of his career.
How will you visually create the world of night watching?
you know how historical films are made, we don’t have Hollywood budgets we
can’t hide all the TV aerials in
How did you go about casting Rembrandt?
Well there have been a number of films about Rembrandt but he’s normally pictured as a benign old man. Think of a film with Charles Laughton with Alexander Korda and I think Klause Maria Brandauer has done one for a recent version for a French TV film. But in 1642 Rembrandt is only 34 so we need to find a much younger person and we think we have found him in Martin Freeman. There’s even a sort of physical likeness.
What are the main themes and issues that the film deals with?
Sex and death, what else is there to talk about? Balzac once said money and I suppose money is lurking in the background but money can always be broken back down into sex and death cant it, if only to avoid one and pay for the other so they are the perennial subject matters. There right in the centre of the frame.
What can we expect from the sound and the music?
I deliberately avoided those difficulties of trying to find contemporary music; contemporary to the time that is, contemporary to 1642. There aren’t really any great Dutch composers so I can’t play those games very well but for a long time now I’ve been utilising the music of an Italian composer called Giovanni Solamar, I suspect you haven’t heard of him but I think he’s particularly appropriate for influence in this film.
What would you like the modern audience to take away from watching this film?
Well they obviously have to be entertained but I hope they are entertained on a lot of different levels. I don’t want people to regard it as you know the cultural polemic about the conditions of painting in the early 17century. It needs very much to be a story with empathy and sympathy. Here’s a man pursuing a career against considerable odds and I suppose it’s a bit of both of wisdom and mortality. What are you in the world for?
Sample Images From the Film