A film that is both about a very specific place, and a universally understood theme, Remy van Heugten’s Gluckauf is as precise about the Dutch province of South Limburg as it is broadly sympathetic regarding family ties. Focusing on Lei (Bart Slegers), father to grown son Jeffrey (Vincent van der Valk), van Heugten and co-writer Gustaaf Peek establish early on that their central pair have long been dependent on each other, and that the roles of parent and child have become interchangeable between father and son. Living in the shadow of his own father’s legacy and feeling the effects of a region abandoned by industry, Lei makes a living day to day, hunting and selling rabbits, whilst Jeffrey prefers to peddle narcotics. When Jeffrey discovers Lei’s debt to landowner Vester (Johan Leysen), he quickly becomes embroiled in darker and darker ways to pay back what is owed.
Screening in the Hivos Tiger Awards Competition at IFFR, Gluckauf showcases van Heugten’s assured and subtle direction, which has extracted a powerful, nuanced performance from Slegers, and a hugely effective sense of place. Having grown up in Limburg, Gluckauf is something of a personal film for the director, who desired to show the contradictions of the region – that despite the ‘’lovely image of Limburg’’ commonly known, the area has suffered greatly from the economic downturn caused by mine closures in the 1960’s, now consistently appearing second only to Amsterdam for high crime rates.
For van Heugten, Lei and Jeffrey are emblematic of a generational dynamic where unemployed men lacked the direction needed to push their own children to find careers. Developed from Peek and van Heugten’s observations and anecdotes about paternal relationships, the director describes Lei as the ‘’immoral father’’ who lacks social skills, whilst Jeffrey, having become a quasi-parent to his own father, has become amoral, such that ‘’he doesn’t know what’s right or wrong.’’ In a pivotal scene in the film, we see just how far Jeffrey has strayed from any sense of a moral code, valuing the acquisition of wealth above all else.
Finding the right actor to convey Lei’s depth of feeling was essential to the success of the film, and for this van Heugten consulted a casting agent with the intention to ‘’find somebody who feels deeply, emotionally invested in the story.’’ Eventually discovering Slegers, the director describes how the actor was intensely connected to the character and could relate Lei to his own life experiences. Slegers commitment to the role is apparent in his raw, natural performance as Lei, showing with skill the way a seemingly child-like father eventually realises the necessity of protecting his son.
With Gluckauf, van Heugten has successfully realised a vision of Limburg that is at once beautiful and barren, where Vester’s country estate – seen gloriously illuminated at sunset – is symbolic of a pastoral life that is now more hell than heaven and the burden of paternal expectation inescapable.
Originally published in the Daily Tiger, 22 January 2015. Re-published here courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam.