For a lost soldier

This autobiographical report by Rudi van Dantzig was first published as a book (For a Lost Soldier, 1986). In 1992 the film version by Roeland Kerbosch was released in Dutch cinemas.

Since the report is a foreign language book respectively a movie, we only present a review here that appeared in the New York Times on May 7, 1993 (Section C, Page 14).


Treating a Delicate Story of a Soldier and a Boy Tenderly

(By STEPHEN HOLDEN Published: May 7, 1993, Friday)

Roeland Kerbosch’s film “For a Lost Soldier” takes up the most delicate of subjects, a romantic relationship between a grown-up and a child, and invests it with an aching tenderness that stays just this side of nostalgic mush.

Set in the Netherlands near the end of the World War II, the film is an extended flashback in which Jeroen Boman (Jeroen Krabbe), a middle-aged choreographer at work on a piece about the Allied liberation, recalls his adolescent relationship with a Canadian soldier more than 40 years ago. More than a love story, the film, which opens today at the Quad Cinema, offers a rose-colored portrait of a more austere and innocent era when the love that dare not speak its name remained mute. Most of the story is remembered through the eyes of the young Jeroen (Maarten Smit), an introspective blond youth of 13 [sic!] who, because of food shortages, is sent by his mother from Amsterdam to live in the country. Jeroen’s foster parents are a stern but kindly fisherman and his wife, who have three children of their own and lead a spare, hardy existence that seems scarcely touched by the war.

Life in the country for Jeroen is exhilarating but lonely. Sitting at the seaside, he and his best friend and fellow exile, Jan (Derk-Jan Kroon), fantasize about rowing their way home to Amsterdam. Because Jeroen’s foster parents are deeply religious, the boy spends more time than he would like in church and in Sunday school.

At the same time, Jeroen also begins to feel the first twinges of puberty. But his feelings, unlike those of his playmates, are homoerotic. Attracted to Jan, who is rapidly becoming girl crazy, Jeroen longs for a deeper, more soulful friendship. And when liberating Allied soldiers arrive, he catches the eye of Walt Cook (Andrew Kelley), a handsome Canadian soldier who recognizes a kindred spirit and becomes a mentor and older brother figure. Although the language barrier precludes much verbal communication between them, Jeroen and Walt form a brief but intense attachment that ends abruptly with the troops’ departure.

Except for an inexplicable streak of bitterness, Walt seems almost as innocent as Jeroen. He lavishes him with candy, teaches him to jitterbug and to drive a jeep and tells him he’s special. In the film’s one love scene, an affectionate game of roughhouse turns stumblingly amorous, with Walt calling the boy his little prince.

One of the strengths of the film is its refusal to load the story with contemporary psychological and social baggage. There is no mention of homosexuality. Nor is there any implied accusation of child abuse. Although Jeroen is shattered by Walt’s departure, the film assigns no blame and assesses no damages.

As the central couple, Mr. Smit and Mr. Kelley give appealing, low-key performances that remain in smooth emotional sync. The affection that flows between them is all the more touching for its being almost entirely unspoken.

Where “For a Lost Soldier” fails is in finding a coherent dramatic frame for the story. The scenes of the grown-up Jeroen struggling to create a dance piece based on his wartime experiences are rushed and confusing. Nothing is shown that would connect the young Jeroen to the cranky middle-aged choreographer trying to resurrect his adolescence.

The film also includes at least one glaring anachronism. The song “Sh-Boom,” a version of which is sung by a group of Canadian soldiers, was a hit nearly a decade after the events being portrayed.

Excerpt from the book

[…]

‘Jerome wait. Okay?’

He had placed a finger to his lips and given me a conspira- torial look.

‘Good boy.’ It had sounded like praise and approval and had banished my feelings of disappointment. Even when he had been gone for a long time I hadn’t dared move, had touched nothing and waited.

When he throws the tent flap back it is almost completely dark outside. For a moment it is as if he is surprised to find someone there. Had he forgotten me or had he expected me to have gone? Then he puts down an apple for me and tears the wrapping from a bar of chocolate, rolls the sleeping bag out and sits me down on it.

The smell, the odour of metal filling the tent!

He crawls in behind me and speaks in a lowered voice while he looks for something in the dark. Stopping what he was doing he puts his mouth to my neck. But I don’t move, just sit there motionless, waiting.

He lies down beside me, breaks off a piece of the chocolate and carries it to my mouth. ‘Eat. Come on, eat!’ He is whisper- ing and yet his voice sounds loud. I grow giddy with the sweet taste that floods through my body, with the smell of his clothes and with his caressing hand on my knee. I feel as if I am softening and melting like the chocolate between my fingers: this is the way I want to live, of course, so long as he is there to fill the tent with warmth and smells and food.

He looks in the side pocket of the tent, rustling envelopes and paper, switches his torch on and shines it on something he is holding in front of me.

It is a photograph of him standing with his arms folded across a blue check shirt, leaning against a wall. I recognise his watch. He pushes the photograph into my shirt pocket and pats it.

‘For you. Jerome, Walt: friends.’

He pulls me towards him and I disappear into his arms.

[…]