‘The East’ (2021), starring Martijn Lakemeier and Marwan Kenzari

September 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front row: Martijn Lakemeier and Jonas Smulders in “The East” (Photo by Milan Van Dril/Magnet Releasing)

The East” (2021)

Directed by Jim Taihuttu

Dutch and Indonesian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1945 to 1950, in Indonesia and the Netherlands, the dramatic film “The East” features a cast of white and Asian characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young Dutch man is haunted by a dark family secret and his past experiences as a soldier in the Indonesian War of Independence. 

Culture Audience: “The East” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching movies about harsh realities that soldiers experience during and after war, with frank observations of colonialism.

Marwan Kenzari and Martijn Lakemeier in “The East” (Photo by Milan Van Dril/Magnet Releasing)

“The East” could have been just another war film about a young man who starts off as a naïve soldier and ends up emotionally damaged. However, this sprawling epic about a Dutch soldier in the Indonesian War of Independence has some intriguing and unpredictable twists. It’s a movie that’s entirely believable (it’s being advertised as “based on true events”), but it treads on familiar territory in frequently repetitive ways.

“The East” can be considered a better-than-average war movie and should be commended for telling an Indonesian War of Independence story, which has rarely been made into a movie. However, “The East” won’t be considered a war movie classic, such as “Apocalypse Now” or “Saving Private Ryan.” The problem isn’t the 140-minute total running time for “The East,” but it’s how the movie has the occasional tendency to plod into scenes that don’t really go anywhere.

“The East” director Jim Taihuttu co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Mustafa Duygulu. It’s a story that is told from the perspective of people from a colonial nation (the Netherlands) fighting against a territory (Indonesia) that wants independence. The filmmakers made sure to note the irony that many of the same Dutch soldiers who fought aganst Nazi oppression in World War II were fighting to keep the Indonesian people oppressed by the Dutch in the Indonesian War of Independence, which lasted from 1945 to 1949.

The movie opens in 1945, not long after the Allies (including the Netherlands) have declared victory in World War II. The Dutch military doesn’t have time to rest on its laurels, because Dutch soldiers are being recruited to go to Indonesia to fight against the increasing rebellion of Indonesian people who want their freedom from the Dutch government. “The East,” which takes place from 1945 to 1950, has scenes that take place during and after this war.

Among the new Dutch soldier recruits is Johan Leonard Maria de Vries (played by Martijn Lakemeier), a fresh-faced 19-year-old from Arcen, a village in the northern part of the Dutch province Limburg. Johan, who volunteered to join the Dutch Army, is quiet and keeps mostly to himself. However, on his first day of boot camp, he meets Mattias Cohen (played by Jonas Smulders), who is as hot-headed as Johan is even-tempered. Over time, the brutalities of war change Johan’s sensitive personality, and he becomes cold-hearted and aggressive in combat.

The soldiers in this group of recruits are all in the same age range (late teens to early 20s), and many of them realistically talk about something that preoccupies their thoughts: sex. Expect to hear a lot of macho bragging about sexual exploits; homophobic comments; insulting teasing of anyone who’s not as sexually experienced as the “alpha males”; and constant discussions of looking for casual sex with willing women and prostitutes.

The biggest blowhard in the soldier group is Werner de Val (played by Jim Deddes), who is first seen in the movie boasting about how his father paid for a hooker to service Werner as a gift before Werner went off to war. Werner is a bully who tests other recruits to see if they have the courage to stand up to him. Those who show they’re not intimidated by Werner usually end up earning his respect.

“The East” thankfully doesn’t make a mistake that a lot of war movies make in trying to tell the stories of too many military people at the same time. “The East” keeps things simple by only focusing on the lives of only a handful of military people. Johan is the protagonist, but Mattias and Werner also get enough screen time as supporting characters with distinct personalities.

The recruits are stationed at barracks called Camp Matjan Liar, where they have two main authority figures, who are both no-nonsense leaders: Major Penders (played by Peter Paul Muller), who reports to the camp’s Commander Mulder (played by Mike Reus). But outside of the camp, there’s a military leader who ends up being the most important to Johan and this story: a mysterious free agent nicknamed The Turk (played by Marwan Kenzari), whose real name is Raymond Westerling.

Johan first encounters The Turk when he helps Johan defend an Indonesian man who is being beaten by Japanese soldiers on the street, because the man had accused the soldiers of stealing from him. Because the Japanese military was the enemy to the Dutch in World War II, the Dutch consider any Japanese soldiers in Indonesia to be the enemy too. The Turk is passing by when he sees this civilian attack, and he is able to get the Japanese soldiers to back off from their assault victim and leave.

Johan is immediately impressed by The Turk’s fearless and commanding presence. Back at the barracks, Johan asks who The Turk is and finds out that he is a half-Greek, half-Dutch independent military operative for hire who trained in the British Navy program. He’s nicknamed The Turk because he grew up in Istanbul. Because of The Turk’s successful missions and because he has the added benefit of speaking several languages, The Turk has become somewhat of a legend in the world of military combat.

Johan eventually has other encounters with The Turk, who ends up recruiting Johan and Mattias into an elite special ops unit that The Turk is heading for the Dutch military. The Turk thinks that Johan has a lot of potential to become The Turk’s top protégé. However, it should come as no surprise that Johan sees and is forced to do things under The Turk’s command that eat away at Johan’s conscience. Johan then must decide how far he’s willing to go to please his mentor and rise through the ranks in the Dutch military.

“The East” doesn’t dismiss the perspectives of the Indonesian people during this war, but this is very much a Dutch film. Most of the Indonesian people are portrayed as innocent residents who try to stay out of the military’s way, but it’s often impossible when military raids are common during the war. The Turk has an Indonesian soldier as a right-hand man named Samuel Manuhio (played by Joenoes Polnaija), who obviously believes that Indonesia should remain under Dutch control.

At first, Johan is proud to be part of this special ops team led by The Turk. One of the first things that they do is help a local man in Semarang who says that his two daughters have been kidnapped by a rebel gang called Gaga Hitam. The gang’s leader is named Bakar (played by Lukman Sardi), who is one of the people involved in the rebellion to overthrow the Dutch government in Indonesia. It’s all the Turk needs to know to go after Bakar and his gang.

As gung-ho as Johan and the other Dutch soldiers are about protecting the Dutch government’s reign over Indonesia, there are literally signs that people in Indonesia don’t want to be ruled by the Netherlands anymore. When the recruits arrive by boat in an early scene in the movie, they see another boat with signs greeting them that say “Murderers” and “Free the Indies.” And the racism that’s ingrained in most colonialism is on full display with some of the Dutch soldiers, such as Mattias, who calls the native Indonesians “brown monkeys” in a scene that ends violently.

On a personal level, Johan finds himself getting emotionally attached to a brothel prostitute named Gita Tamim (played by Denise Aznam), who’s about five or six years older than he is. Johan met Gita on a drunken night out with some of his fellow soldiers who went to the brothel. Gita and Johan eventually go out on dates together outside of their sex worker/client encounters. It takes a little while for Gita to let down her guard to trust Johan, but not enough to invite him into her home. Johan eventually finds out if Gita wants a more serious and committed relationship than the one they’ve been having.

“The East” takes place mostly during Johan’s war experiences, but the movie also has flash-forward scenes to show what life was like for him in the Netherlands after the war, circa 1950. It’s here that viewers see that Johan experiences more disillusionment when he finds out the hard way that the Dutch government didn’t keep its promise to have jobs for war veterans who came home from Indonesia.

Johan has difficulty getting a job after the war, because the Dutch lost the war, so many people in the Netherlands treat these war veterans as “failures.” It’s similar to how Vietnam War veterans from the U.S. were treated when they got back home to America. Johan, who is a loner, doesn’t have much family support either. His mother has died, and his father Johan de Vries Sr. (played by Reinout Bussemaker) is in prison.

Some secrets are revealed in this story that explain why Johan reacts in the way that he does to the two people he became emotionally close to during the war: Gita and The Turk. These extra layers to the story make “The East” more compelling than the usual “combat veteran comes home” war movie. Johan isn’t much of a talker, but Lakemeier is an expressive actor with his face and body language so that he makes a memorable impression as this conflicted soldier.

Kenzari’s portrayal of The Turk is also riveting to watch. On the surface, this military leader is self-assured and charismatic. But he’s also devious and ruthless. His charm is a tool that he uses to manipulate people into doing things that go against their morality, just so his subordinates can get the praise and emotional rewards that they crave from him. And although his fearlnessess is certainly an asset in combat, it’s also a sign of someone who could be a dangerous sociopath.

“The East” director Taihuttu has a very good eye for staging scenes in cinematic and authentic ways. There isn’t one scene that looks like a fake movie set. However, the movie has a tendency to meander with scenes that linger too long on people walking or traveling through areas and not doing much. These prolonged shots tend to drag the pace of the film down a little bit, but these are minor flaws that don’t take away from the overall impact of the film. Viewers who have the patience to watch the film until the very end will see how “The East” is not a typical war movie and that not all damage from war is in a combat zone.

Magnet Releasing released “The East” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on August 13, 2021. The movie was released in the Netherlands on May 13, 2021, and in Indonesia on August 7, 2021.