Han Van Meegeren was such a cunning, apt artist that he convinced the world his own paintings were actually painted centuries earlier by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. In fact, such a believer in his own talent was Van Meegeren that during World War II, he sold one of his phony Vermeers to Hermann Göring himself.
The postwar aftermath of this incredibly unlikely but true tale forms the core of the new film “The Last Vermeer,” starring the always-entertaining Guy Pearce as the rather effete forger Van Meegeren. When we meet Pearce’s bon vivant artist, his appetites for women, drink and various other vices are well known around Amsterdam. (We also suspect, though it is never explicit, that Van Meegeren likely had male lovers as well.) But the Netherlands, still reeling from having been run over roughshod by the Nazis, has no small appetite for revenge, and those discovered to have collaborated with Hitler are summarily shot in the public square.
Things get complicated for Van Meegeren when he too is accused of conspiring with the Third Reich. The artist insists that while, yes, he did in fact take Göring’s money for a hefty price, what Van Meegeren in fact sold the Nazi chief was a forgery. Ergo, how could a man who knowingly sells a fake be guilty of collaborating with the enemy?
The Dutch state sees it otherwise. In addition to “doing business” with Germany during wartime, Vermeer’s work was so singular, so important to the Dutch sense of identity, it could not possibly have ever been faked. Thus Van Meegeren is put on trial not only for his life, but for his art.
But could he be telling the truth? Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang) thinks so, and sets Van Meegeren up in an apartment to paint, well, a new Vermeer to prove his case. Piller also brings in an older attorney to help out in the case, an odd choice considering that, during the inevitable courtroom scenes, it is Piller who does most of the talking on Van Meergern’s behalf.
But while Piller is essentially the main character—who also tangles in a low-wattage love triangle tossed in for good measure—the film absolutely belongs to Pearce, whose career as a shapeshifting thespian of seemingly endless changeability gets yet another turn with the mercurial Van Meegeren. Pearce has made a career of interesting choices (two of very many that come to mind include “Memento” and “Ravenous”), always daring us to guess what he might do next, and he has once again pulled the wool over our eyes with the charmingly duplicitous Van Meegeren.
First-time helmer Dan Friedkin directs from a script by John Orloff (writing under the pen name James McGee), Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, based on the book “The Man Who Made Vermeers” by Jonathan Lopez.
It’s a little-known chapter of post-WWII history that, well, finally gets its day in court.
Opens in select theaters today.