Watch and Learn

Left: Peter Greenaway, Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, 2008, color film in HD. Production still. Left: Saskia van Rijn (Eva Birthistle). Right: Peter Greenaway, Nightwatching, 2007, color film in HD. Production still. Geertje Dirks (Jodhi May).

THE ROCK BAND King Crimson once wrote a lovely, lilting song, inspired by and named after Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, that celebrated “the worthy captain and his squad of troopers standing fast,” “the burghers good and true,” and “Dutch respectability.” Viewers of the painting, which depicts an Amsterdam musketeer militia in motion, have shared in that nostalgia for more than three centuries, but in the eyes of Peter Greenaway they—we—are “visually illiterate.” In Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, a companion documentary to his 2006 audiovisual installation Nightwatching and the 2007 feature film of that name, Greenaway rails against our failure to interpret art correctly (one reason cinema is impoverished, he avers) in telling the story of why Rembrandt painted The Night Watch the way he did in 1642.

His forensic examination of the painting, which is housed in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, convincingly argues that Rembrandt turned his commission against the influential families who ordered it by accusing the captain and lieutenant at the center of the canvas, and most of the other soldiers depicted, of the murder of the former captain, who had been shot through the eye. The ultimate goal of this conspiracy was to share in the wealth that might follow should Charles I pawn the English crown jewels to the Dutch; the murdered captain had been considered too Frenchified to head the militia during the impending visit of Charles’s daughter, Princess Mary.

Greenaway methodically deconstructs the painting, probing thirty-one of the fifty mysteries he found within it, and for much of the film he’s a talking head—a lofty yet accessible lecturer/prosecutor—contained in a small panel center-screen. He not only examines the placement and dress of the figures and the significance of the symbolism (a phallic spear, a dead chicken, a dwarfish girl holding a coffee pot) but also analyzes Rembrandt’s use of artificial light, contrasts The Night Watch with other militia paintings, and reveals how Rembrandt satirized Italian art. The actors from Nightwatching, including Martin Freeman as Rembrandt, re-create moments from the story (but none of the big dramatic moments), while Saskia (Eva Birthistle), the artist’s wife, gives testimony. Greenaway often films the live-action scenes in shadowy settings to echo Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro.

Characteristically, Greenaway cuts the screen into moving panels. The effect is playfully ironic and undermines the film’s rendering of Rembrandt’s tragedy. According to Greenaway, Amsterdam’s power elite closed ranks against the painter after 1642, cutting off his commissions and leaving him impoverished. As usual, Greenaway admits no sentiment, merely asking that the case against the conspirators be reopened. Rembrandt’s J’Accuse—the first of nine documentaries Greenaway is making about classic paintings—is rigorous and enthralling, but fans of The Da Vinci Code (2006) may find it overly literate.

Peter Greenaway’s Rembrandt’s J’Accuse plays October 21–November 3 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.