Excellent acting, beautiful cinematography, but a disappointing plot.
It has almost been a year since the release of The East (Dutch: De Oost). A 6.6 million euro, history inspired war movie. But is it really worth watching? The East is set in the Dutch East Indies. To give you a brief history of what happened. What is nowadays considered Indonesia, was an area occupied by the Dutch for centuries.
The Dutch first established contact with the Indonesians in 1595. Cornelius de Houtman led expeditionary forces to the isles, creating the Dutch spice trade.
To protect the trade, the Dutch formed the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (The VOC). As a result of economic changes in Europe and the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War in 1780–1784, the limited liability company declined and was disestablish in 1799.
The nationalised colonies, the VOC established came under Dutch governmental control in 1800. The territories under Dutch control were now collectively called the Dutch East Indies.
The occupied area was never threatened by foreign forces until March 1942. As a result of the GEACPS (Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere) the Empire of Japan invaded the Dutch East Indies and occupied the area.
When Hirohito, Emperor of Japan, announced the Empire’s surrender, Sukarno declared the independence of Indonesia. This resulted in the Indonesian War of Independence (1945–1949).
The war cost the lives of many, not only the rebels who fought against the Dutch, but also innocent civilians. A good example of the innocent killing, is for example the Rawagede massacre.
The Dutch attacked Rawagede, and gathered the villagers. Executing everyone who was suspected of resisting. Without any evidence, 431 people, amongst whom, innocent people were killed.
And many similar stories could be heard like in Rawagede. The second attack on Prambon Wetan for example. 56 houses were set on fire and 64 innocent civilians were killed, just like in Rawagede, executed without proof.
This is where the film takes places. It tries to portray the execution of innocent people by letting you look through the eyes of a young Dutch war volunteer Johan de Vries.
He arrived in the Dutch East Indies in 1946, taking part in the Depot Speciale Troepen. An elitary group of soldiers whose task was to restore their power in Celebes.
The group was led by Captain Raymond Westerling. An experienced soldier, who they call, “de Turk”. Raymond Westerling was born in Istanbul, Turkey in 1919.
He is responsible for attacking innocent people of Celebes by fire and sword. In the movie, Johan de Vries takes part in these executions but questioned the war continuously.
Throughout the movie, he asks more and more questions, wondering whether the treatment of the natives is righteous or not.
The movie’s flaws
The movie is a very captivating experience. As can be read in the subtitle of this article. I think the film has great cinematography and the actors did a fantastic job.
But it is the plot that I find eccentric. It started well, very focused on historical accuracy. The volunteers were sent to the Dutch East Indies in post-WW2. All elite soldiers, were in the territory with the sole purpose of liberating Celebes and restoring the power in the territory.
There is a deep dive into military training, but also the free life of the soldiers. Regularly you get a view of privates going to the nearby village to seek pleasure. So the plot started well.
Many Dutch volunteers have indeed done nothing more than enjoying the good life in the colony. This is where Johan de Vries would have met a woman he was in love with.
But it turned out that she eventually already had a proprietor. And the film goes very deep into this drama. But when the viewer gets acquainted with “de Turk”, the figure gets represented as a Dutch officer that many soldiers looked up to.
He had a high position in the group. I mean he led the soldiers through the territory. But is it really necessary to describe him as some kind of Rambo figure?
Then what bothered me is that the emphasis of the film shifted more to the relationship between the protagonist Johan de Vries and the antagonist Captain Raymond Westerling.
No longer is importance given to historical accuracy nor the correct portrayal of both the Indonesians and the Dutch. You see how this relationship progresses, it started as a friendship and the officer really treats him like a son of his.
But then when finally the misdeeds of the Dutch are shown, you see the friendship changing. De Vries who began to wonder why the civilians are getting executed, began to see the officer as the enemy.
Although I think it’s good that the executions are eventually getting criticised in the film, it is not presented in a nuanced way. The Depot Speciale Troepen were illustrated as murders without remorse.
It feels very unbalanced and it is clear that the astrocities are simply included to make the plot more logical. The point is not that the executions of innocent civilians happened, it is rather that that is the reason why the friendship could not continue.
Ultimately, De Vries refuses to participate in the executions, where he was knocked out and tied up. He was getting shamed for his father who collaborated with the Germans in WW2.
But very oddly then, they release him and let him run away for entertainment. He had the chance to reach a stranded boat, and if he did, he could leave the island. So that the soldiers can follow him afterwards and shoot.
In the end he was expelled from the unit and sent back to the Netherlands. In the Netherlands there was no warm welcome and no attention to his story. No idea why the film eventually shows a scene of De Vries making the decision to kill the officer. All in all, it’s just strange.
A good movie, but I’m not sure if the intention is for the movie to be historically accurate or not. The plot made a huge shift halfway too. It feels like the film was made by several screenwriters who barely came into contact.
I still would love to recommend this movie to people interested in watching a decent historical drama. As I said, it is very captivating. But it is a missed opportunity. You should not watch it, if you want to get a nuanced and accurate view on the Indonesian War of Independence. The executions are just included just to take it into account as well. Because like I said before, otherwise the story wouldn’t make sense. The film is not a documentary that tries to cover the truth completely. But a movie for entertainment. Unfortunately, I find it too focused on entertainment. Such films try to reach a wider audience. More people prefer to watch entertainment than documentaries. Therefore, such entertainment movies should be as balanced as possible.