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The Forgotten: "The Coming of Joachim Stiller" (1976)

A mysterious figure from the past warps what passes for reality in Antwerp in Harry Kumel's comic mystery "The Coming of Joachim Stiller".
An amateur psychic investigator once told a friend of mine that the way to access the other dimensions around this one was to meditate upon the works of Lewis Carroll, Aleister Crowley, or the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Or to drink a lot of whisky and smoke a lot of dope.
And it's a well-attested fact that hanging around people who are drunk or high can make you feel drunk or high too, even if you're abstinent.
So it follows that the boundaries between this world and the mysterious others underlying it must have been considerably thinner in the seventies, since so many people were so messed up on assorted chemicals and herbs, and so many of them were reading the right kind of material, and the rest of the populace had to hang out with those weirdos.
The Coming of Joachim Stiller (De komst van Joachim Stiller, 1976) was made by Harry Kümel as a series for Dutch and Belgian television, based on a 1961 novel by Hubert Lampo. I get the impression the show is pretty faithful, which suggests the book is well worth checking out. It's either a Freudian mystery in which strange symptoms are ultimately explained by a journey into the hero's suppressed past, or it's a paranoid, mystical thriller in which apparently unconnected events mount up uncannily to suggest an approaching apocalypse predicted in an ancient grimoire by the titular astrologer who haunts the hero and his friends for reasons unknown. Actually, it's definitely both of those things.
The show was shot in Kümel's native Antwerp, which looks wonderful, simultaneously old (both medieval and art nouveau influences) and new (everybody's a hippy, even the WWII American soldier character: evidently nobody with short hair could be found in Northern Europe in 1976). Hero Freek Groenevelt (crazy name, crazy guy) finds himself stalked by weird happenings and coincidences, starting with a tram which keeps stopping to let nobody off, and followed by a curiously rapid bit of roadworks performed by curiously clean and attractive young men. From such innocuous beginnings do insane persecution complexes arise. Soon Freek receives a letter from the mysterious Stiller posted before his birth but addressing him by name and referring to recent events. He discovers the sixteenth-century volume of forgotten lore which makes reference to planets which had not been discovered or named, and predicts the end of the world in a month's time. And he meets the woman of his dreams, so it's not all bad.
This kind of high weirdness in a realistic setting, trailed with a voice-over which keeps promising deeper, darker mysteries to come, is very much my cup of tea. Admittedly, the TV production values and gaudy psychedelic fashions appeal less, and Kümel, best known for the surreal and stylish delights of Daughters of Darkness and Malpertuis, has drilled his supporting cast in a mannered, twitchy comedy style that sometimes clashes violently with the material. In particular, a subplot about a gallery-owner who discovers a demented sex maniac and makes a show out of his obscene toilet-wall graffiti, strikes all the wrong notes at once: as a satire of the art world it falls flat, since the avant-garde by its very nature stays ahead even of parody; as a sort of bawdy horror it mistakenly aims for Benny Hill and ends up trivializing rape.
If you can overlook that howling error of taste, and I don't necessarily suggest you should, and if you can see past the hero's disturbing wardrobe, there's a lot to enjoy here. The bizarre plot is intriguing, and the peculiar multiple pay-offs should satisfy both those who like narrative closure and those who feel it's a crime to sacrifice an interesting mystery for a boring solution. Kümel decorates the proceedings with wacky wipes, fish-eye POVs and colorful optical effects, some of which please more than others. He seems to have moved beyond his obsession with Josef von Sternberg as evidenced in his early work, and asides from some playful references to Fritz Lang's M, he's working in a vein of surrealism distinctly his own.
***
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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