Left Luggage

The Dutch have a restless obsession with the Second World War and, as a result, it is the source for much of the subject matter found in their films. So, here we are
Left Luggage
© Shooting Star Filmcompany BV
© MVSP Publicity/Promotion/Public Relations
once again with it taking a different shape and packed this time into the form of "Left Luggage". Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe, who has gained international acclaim through such vehicles as the TV series "Dynasty" and numerous films including "No Mercy", "Jumpin' Jack Flash", "The Living Daylights" and "The Prince of Tides", has turned his hand this time to a double role: lead actor and director. His formidable contacts stretching throughout the film world have been of assistance in lining up an impressive international cast for this Dutch film, which boasts Isabella Rossellini, Maximilian Schell, Topol, Marianne Sagebrecht, Miriam Margolyes and, of course, Krabbe himself. The film has, shortly after its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, received the award for Best Film by a Debut Director.

Chaja, a student in her twenties, is finally fed up with the cockroaches breeding between the dishes in the kitchen sink, and so decides to leave her revolution preaching boyfriend, Peter (Antonie Kamerling), and make a clean start of it on her own. Chaja's mother is constantly offended by the fact that her daughter visits her parents so infrequently. Chaja's father (Maximilian Schell), on the other hand, is preoccupied with two buried suitcases of memorabilia that he hid beneath the earth of his front garden many years ago (during the war) when evading the invading Germans. Now he spends his time in an attempt to figure out exactly where that piece of land is, as transfixed within today's landscape of Antwerp, in order to locate them once again and dig them up. Chaja (Laura Fraser) doesn't understand his fixation with these suitcases or his lifelong nostalgia concerning them. This family's worldly wise neighbor Mr. Apfelschnitt (Topol), understanding that there is a world of difference between the generations (generations of difference, to be exact), tells Chaja of a potential job opening with a Chassidic family which might be suitable for her as baby-sitter for four children. Although she doesn't particularly like the idea of working in the Chassidic milieu, she needs to pay the rent in order to pacify her landlady. And so Chaja enters the old world.

Mrs. Kalman (Isabella Rossellini), who would prefer a Chassidic baby-sitter, becomes immediately aware of the special contact between Chaja and her boy, Simcha (Adam Monty) and considers her to be a potentially positive influence on this problem child, who won't talk and is continually wetting himself. It is, in fact, because of Simcha that Chaja finally decides to accept the job. Mr. Kalman (Jeroen Krabbe) on the other hand, thinks the girl is like a harlot, dressing the way she does and not knowing her place as a woman; after all, he is Chassidic. The number of unexpected rules confronting Chaja become almost unbearable. Nevertheless, under her influence, Simcha, while not yet talking, begins to quack like the ducks. His father, of course, doesn't like this at all because he considers it to be an offense. The confrontation between their different worlds and varying points of view continues. The Passover Seder, to which Chaja has been invited, and for which she and Simcha have prepared a special surprise, brings even bigger problems along with it.

The film attempts to present a portrait of belief systems and life values, both religious and social, that are often at variance with and frequently in opposition to one another, but doesn't succeed in clarifying these points in any satisfactory way. The necessary counterpoint of the tale, which perhaps was meant to be embodied in the person of Simcha, is lacking and, although the film constantly gives the impression of heading toward some final destination, a resolution is never reached. Scriptwriter Edwin De Vries, who adapted the original novel The Shovel and The Loom by Carl Friedman, says, "It was only after I had seen the edited version of "Left Luggage" that I realized the story was a metaphor. The film is about life, the thoughts and the growth of a generation born after the Second World War." Although there are poignant moments in the film, the absence of a binding element makes it seem sometimes unendurably long.

Art director Hemmo Sportel's choice of locations and set decorations have succeeded admirably in creating a completely realistic atmosphere of Flemish households and living quarters in the 70's. The crew assembled for the production is top notch. In a number of seams and stitches, however, it reveals that it is, above all, a creation with an actor at the helm (and at its heart). Announcing the appearance, for example, of Topol (noticeably included in the credits as Chaim Topol) we see the actor approaching from the background (a la Lawrence of Arabia) until he becomes part of the scene. The apprehension created by delaying the first appearance of director/star Krabbe in the role of Mr. Kalman is another such moment which, due to such delay, has increased impact solely created by the late entrance and camera angle (no face). Among the established stars, only Rossellini seems to have been left behind in the list of "entrance & appearance" effects, but she is more than compensated with her "special moment" near the end of the film which remains unquestionably the most emotional moment in the tale. The structure of the whole, in fitting with this method of approach, also leans more toward theatrical effect than filmic effect.

I believe Chaim Topol's remark upon the film is the most telling: He says, "We put ingredients in the oven and we hope that a good cake is coming out. The question whether it has universal appeal, if it is appealing to people from all kind of nationalities. We never know upfront."

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett