Everything about Borgman feels muffled. Like glimpsing a striking image through a foggy haze. Or hearing a catchy song muffled by feedback and noise. The movie relies on this atmosphere. One can’t feasibly be divorced from the other.
That’s because the parts of the film we get to see are just the bits that stay clear through the fog. These are the bits that are closest to us. The iceberg’s tip. The actions the characters take. But none of the hidden mass. None of the motivations. Deliberately withholding the how and why casts the glimpses of the tale we do see with a surreal light. However Borgman isn’t actually a surreal movie. This movie doesn’t follow any kind of dream logic. There’s ample evidence that what we’re seeing can be explained, but just isn’t (eg the surgery). This comes with a creeping sense that what we aren’t privy too is probably anticlimactic and slightly lame (eg the surgery).
Here’s how the actual plot of Borgman goes (a lot of what follows could constitute spoilers, however I hardly think these fragments of knowledge will impact your reaction to the film at all): homeless Camiel Borgman, possibly the leader or division leader of some sort of shady group, gets rousted from his forest home. He goes off and tries to get a shower. He does this by picking a wealthy house at random and pretending to know the owner’s wife. This doesn’t get him inside but does sew some discord, and the owner’s wife secretly harbours him. How long he would have stayed and what he would have done is unclear, but when Camiel realizes the house is rife with malleable youths he sets out on a quest to destroy the owners’ lives and corrupt their children to his cause (Cult?).
That’s my take away anyway. None of Camiel’s motivations are ever clearly stated, but the events of the movie, and some of the obvious symbolism, make it clear that the children are his endgame. Whether or not he would have ritualistically led the children’s parents to their dooms if they hadn’t been, well, parents is unclear. However if the children really are the endgame, it seems likely that everything else is related. It makes Camiel’s designs for the parents seem equal parts ritual initiation, psychological conditioning, and fairy-tale logic all building towards turning these upper class tikes into disciples.
So let’s turn to guess work, interpretation, and interrogation.
Because a deliberately obfuscated movie like Borgman should be designed for interrogation. I’m not necessarily expecting this thing to have the depth of symbols that, say, a Kubrick movie would have, nor have I seen it enough times to give it a properly thorough interpretation, but there’s still some obvious symbols and scenes that lend themselves to analysis.
The character of Borgman seems to almost have been named ironically. His first name is Camiel. Camiel is also one translation of an apocryphal archangel. This archangel may have helped cast Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, however this seems unclear. So while that is one easy parallel that could be made, the less contested aspects of the angel Camiel begin to highlight the irony apparent in the name. Camiel is the Angel of Love and Relationships. Camiel Borgman is a pretty warped Angel of Love, using it to destroy a marriage rather than craft one. Camiel is also seen as a figure of comfort – he comforted Jesus a couple of times for instance. Every time Borgman comforts someone in the film it’s clearly a manipulative action. One time he even uses comforting the children as an opportunity to poison them against Jesus.
Borgman’s last name may be riddled with potential interpretations too. For one thing it’s the name of a Dutch philosopher Erik Borgman. Erik Borgman believed that societies’ attempts to control and maintain perfection were inevitably doomed, and that we should learn to accept the imperfect. Most of Borgman follows the destruction of a “perfect” life. Erik Borgman also believed the best way to deal with this inevitable imperfection was religion; perhaps that what Camiel Borgman offers the children in the film – entry into some new religion. The name Borgman also has roots in strict class systems, something the film ruminates on. It was the name of landowners who worked for kings, and basically means “the man who takes money.”
There’s also some clearly folklore driven imagery peppered throughout the movie. Camiel squats on Marina (the children’s mother), to give her nightmares. This is just like the folklore surrounding a goblin-like creature called an Alp. Alps exclusively target women, much like Borgman, but have little interest in them sexually. Sometimes it was said they could transform into a dog, which might explain another seemingly mystical aspect of Borgman’s character – his eerie control over dogs. These mystical aspects are tempered by the medical operations happening off screen. Drugging and surgery to be exact. It’s unclear exactly what the operation happening is – it seems to be part of the initiation – but, if that’s the case, why was anyone but the children marked for it. Borgman and his crew have undergone the operation, which implies Camiel isn’t the originator of whatever doctrine they follow.
Borgman also cries out for a socio-political interpretation. Not only is Borgman’s name itself tied to an old class system but the film is rife with class related imagery. Borgman seems to be homeless, and seems to be raging war against the upper class family he invades. Now this is clouded a bit by his murder of the gardener, who seems at best middle class, and by the two women who help Borgman, neither of whom are anywhere nearly as poor as Borgman and his other helpers. But there is some clear condemnation of the upper class family. At one point Marina shouts at her daughter, Isolde, about the effort poor children probably put into making her teddy bear, the distance it travelled, the money it cost, and how awful it is to deliberately destroy something so much effort was put into. The funny thing is at this point in the film Isolde, the first to fall for Borgman’s indoctrination, seems firmly under his control. There are so many surface details related to issues of class (like the blunt racism) that many writers are leaping on this interpretation. The details, however, muddy the waters a bit. It seems to me that if Camiel Borgman and his cult (if, indeed, that’s what it is) hate strict class divides then that is only one aspect of modern society they hope to overthrow. It doesn’t feel like the endgame for them.
All in all it doesn’t really matter what the films deeper meanings are, because the surface works. Sure the haziness robs it of any immediate impact, but it’s not really designed to have any immediate impact. Instead it works more like a Refn film. The imagery smoulders in the back of your mind and infects the rest of your brain. The entire movie is pretty plainly shot, so the imagery is only lent this power by the potential meaning. It’s enough that the scenes could have significance. It lends them depth. How deep the film actually is will only become clear after repeat viewings. For now it’s enough that the waters seem deep.