Rotterdam 2015 Review: GLUCKAUF Combines Gritty Drama With Fantastic Acting
Looking at the map of the Netherlands, a few things stand out. The West and North are completely coastal, meaning the province of Limburg in the South-East is the most inland bit there is. Indeed, with most of the Netherlands being as flat as a board, Limburg is the only part which contains some hills. Hills with mines in them, which used to be Limburg's blessing, but which have been made its curse later on. For mining was considered to be an inhumane labor, and decades ago the state-owned mines were closed by the government, leaving almost the entire province without work or industry. Many plans were made to revive the area economically, but few were implemented, and even fewer succeeded. Limburg suffered from skyrocketing unemployment, neglect and poverty.
In this post-mining environment director Remy van Heugten grew up, and it is here that he places the story of his second film Gluckauf, which had its World Premiere at the international Film Festival Rotterdam last week.
In Gluckauf, we follow petty criminal Lei and his son Jeffrey. When Jeffrey was small, Lei took him back from his divorced wife at gunpoint, and father and son have been incredibly close ever since. As Jeffrey becomes an adult in a job-less town, he ventures into petty crime himself, mostly dealing weed and selling the odd stolen goods.
One day, Jeffrey discovers by accident that his father is in trouble. Lei has lent money from old Vester, the local crime boss, and is too slow in returning it. Behind Lei's back, Jeffrey offers Vester to pay Lei's debts by doing all sorts of odd jobs.
Sensing intelligence and talent in Jeffrey, Vester allows him to become a rising star in the organization. He also involves Jeffrey in crimes that go way beyond "petty", something the protective (and jealous) Lei finds increasingly difficult to accept. Soon, the three men start butting heads.
The term "gluckauf" used to mean "wishing you good luck finding something of worth", but over the centuries, as it became the greeting among miners all over the world, its explanation changed to "get back above-ground safely". And indeed, while watching Gluckauf, this is exactly what you cannot help yourself hoping for, for both Lei and Jeffrey.
That you wish anything at all for these unsympathetic losers is a testament to the strength of this film. Using a tight script, director Remy van Heugten picks a pace and keeps it, and coaxes phenomenal performances from all his actors. Special mention needs to be made of the two leads: Bart Slegers as Lei, and Vincent van der Valk as Jeffrey. I can't recall a single moment in Gluckauf where they are any less than totally believable, and even when the plot gets perhaps a bit too dramatic for its own good, the acting by these two easily saves the film.
One of the things also adding to the overall sense of reality is the language used: everyone speaks in Limburg's very strong local dialect, in fact most Dutch people will need subtitles just as much as English-speaking audiences do. And Gluckauf doesn't just sound right, it looks good as well, with both the area's natural beauty and economic devastation having been lovingly shot.
It all adds to a fine drama in a special setting. While the remnants of the mining buildings loom over everything in the background, the unhappy end of their industry looms over the story. It creates an environment where it is entirely believable that people will put more faith in crime, than in whatever laws the "Hollanders" in The Hague have concocted. And all you can do is hope that, at some time, the leads will emerge back above-ground safely.
Audiences in Rotterdam awarded Gluckauf a great 4.3 out of 5, and deservedly so in my opinion.