8th March 2018 (Netherlands Premiere), 11th September 2018 (Netflix Premiere)
In Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, banker brothers Walraven and Gijs van Hall face their greatest challenge yet when they decide to help fund the Dutch resistance.
Barry Atsma, Jacob Derwig, Pierre Bokma
When it comes to dramatic true stories for a screenplay, you won’t find a richer vein than Nazi-occupied Europe. Of course, this isn’t exactly a secret. These stories of brutality, heroism and resistance have been a cinema staple ever since they occurred, either sticking to the reality (2016’s Anthropoid for example), or, well, not (The Great Escape).
The Resistance Banker falls into the former category, but as a story about securing investments and financial subterfuge, you might be forgiven for thinking this is one story that could use little embellishment. Not so, or at least the members of the 2018 Netherlands Film Festival don’t seem to think so, as The Resistance Banker picked up nominations for 11 of the 13 Academy-selected Golden Calves, the festival’s ‘grand prizes’. Now, six months after its native release, Netflix has given the rest of us an opportunity to make our minds up.
The story in question, largely untold outside of the Netherlands, is of Walraven van Hall (Barry Atsma) and his brother Gijs (Jacob Derwing), two Amsterdam-based bankers who, having survived the upheaval of the 1940 Nazi invasion, set up an illegal underground bank to fund the Dutch resistance. The pair and their allies must hide in plain sight, maintaining their granted authority in the finance world, all the while using this power to sponsor sabotage and subversion of the Nazi regime.
Barry Atsma, who might be familiar to English-speaking audiences for his roles in 2017’s action comedy The Hitman’s Bodyguard and World War Two drama The Man with the Iron Heart, is superb as ‘Wally’ van Hall, the younger brother: outgoing, bold, and at times arrogant, playing perfectly against Jacob Derwing’s older, cautious, and more reserved character Gijs.
In pursuit are wily German agents, largely two-dimensional in motive and background, but just fine for the purpose of threat alone; that being capture, torture, and death for our heroes. Internal troubles and the risk of betrayal are also ever-present and looming for Wally and Gijs.
Driven by threat, suspense is where this film really comes into its own. The pacing is methodically and patiently raised, particularly in the first hour of the film, where dramatic and shocking imagery is used sparingly. It’s a necessarily steady ride to start with and one that admittedly risks losing the audience, if it were not for the expert direction, cinematography, and score.
The cinematography, bleak and desperate at times, warm and hopeful in others, juxtaposes the realities of a drawn-out conflict with what is at stake: a peaceful life, friends, and family (given a voice by the excellent Fockeline Ouwerkerk, playing Wally’s wife, Tilly). The score does a similarly great job of contrast, as well as keeping some of the pedestrian scenes on-pace.
Towards the end, however, the heat is really turned up on the resistance. As the years tick by on-screen towards the summer of 1945, the desperation of a doomed Third Reich comes to bear, elevating the game of cat-and-mouse to a gripping conclusion.
Whilst it can be said the overall plot itself is a fairly straightforward affair and lacking the twists and turns you might expect of a modern thriller, the carefully curated suspense keeps things interesting, particularly in central scenes. The bank heist, for one, is a fantastic example of character-driven apprehension and tension.
Director Joram Lürsen and his writing team are undoubtedly lucky to have such a unique and compelling true story to at their fingertips, but The Resistance Banker, while hardly revolutionary, is a near-faultless effort to bring it to life, as well as a fascinating look at European resistance during the continent’s darkest years.