The Last Vermeer  
Directed by
Dan Friedkin, Starring Guy Pearce, Claes Bang. Running time: 118 minutes.

One indication of whether a movie is worth seeing is the box office sales. If that were the litmus test for The Last Vermeer, it would be the last movie you would go and see. It has only raked in a miserly US$683,000 worldwide. But since Covid-19 has stopped many from watching movies at the cinemas, let’s push this to the back of our minds and focus on its inherent merits, not its profitability.

The film is based on a novel that is based on the true story of Dutch painter Han Van Meegeren (Guy Pearce) who became a celebrity for his ability to forge paintings by the great masters and barter or sell them for huge profits. One artwork he sold (in real life he exchanged it for other paintings) was a forgery of the Christ and the Adulteress by the renowned 17th Century Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer. It was sold near the end of World War II to Hitler’s right-hand man, Hermann Göring, who amassed a huge collection of art looted from countries occupied by the Nazis.

The film begins after the war, in May 1945, when Allied soldiers discover Göring’s stash of treasures, including the artwork, in a salt mine. Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang), a former resistance fighter and a Dutch Jew, is tasked with recovering the art and treasures collected by the Nazis during the short reign of the Third Reich. His investigation of Vermeer’s Christ and the Adulteress leads him to Van Meegeren, who initially is believed to have collaborated with the Nazis.

Piller at first believes Van Meegeren is guilty of selling the classic painting by Vermeer to the Nazis. Van Meegeren denies this and says he would never sell a real Vermeer to a member of the Reich. Piller investigates whether the painting is authentic or a fake. During this time he warms to the eccentric artist.

Although the film is lacking heart because of a poorly structured narrative, stale dialogue and wooden performances (the exception is Pearce as Van Meegeren), it’s a thought-provoking film. One of the most intriguing themes is the moral ambiguity of Van Meegeren’s actions.

Now that the war is over, who are the villains and who are the heroes? Should all Nazi collaborators, be punished severely, even executed? What if they only did a little bit of business with them? Was lying to the Nazis moral? Lying because they are abhorrent? Lying just to make money?

Piller tries to decide whether Van Meegeren is a hero or a villain. A hero, because he dared to make money by selling a forgery to Göring? Or a villain, because he became famous and wealthy by doing business with the Nazis?

To complicate matters, Piller is a Jew and his wife had worked as a spy for the Dutch resistance by sleeping with high-ranking Nazis. If he turns a blind eye to his wife’s actions, shouldn’t he do the same with Van Meegeren?

There are moments of exquisite cinematography, bursts of sublime dialogue, mainly from Van Meegeren during the trial, and snippets of convincing acting. But The Last Vermeer will never be considered a masterpiece, much like the artworks of Han Van Meegeren. However, based on its intruguing themes The Last Vermeer might tickle your fancy. And Guy Pearce redeems it with his brilliant acting.

Finally, there’s some mild nudity, a bit of swearing, lots of drinking and some soft violence.

Sebastian James is a Sydney journalist.