When the Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary

Simone (Cox Habbema) and Freek (Hugo Metsers) are pulled into a labyrinth of mysterious happenings in THE ARRIVAL OF JOACHIM STILLER (De Komst van Joachim Stiller), a 1976 Belgium film by Harry Kumel.

Most people have a daily routine from the time they get up in the morning to the time they go to bed at night. For many of us that would involve a considerable amount of time spent at work, whether at an office or at home, and this would also include the daily repetition of uneventful tasks like taking the trash out, opening the mail or brushing your teeth. But when the daily routine gets disrupted or something odd or peculiar occurs, it usually results in a more memorable day. It could also be just the beginning of a series of occurrences that change your life and the way you look at the world. This is what happens to Freek Groenevelt (yes, it’s a weird name), the protagonist of De Komst van Joachim Stiller (English title: The Arrival of Joachim Stiller), a magical realism fantasy based on a novel by Belgium writer Hupert Lampo and adapted to film by Harry Kumel. 

The book jacket for the 1960 magical realist novel by Belgium writer Hubert Lampo.

Freek (Hugo Metsers) is a journalist who works for a newspaper in Antwerp, Belgium and is the sort of bibliophile who reads Kafka while riding the bus to work. On this particular day, the conductor gets angry because someone on the bus keeps pulling the stop chord but doesn’t get off. Sure, it seems a little odd but not that unusual. Things get a bit stranger when Freek stops for breakfast at his usual café and notices a construction crew show up to do some road work. First of all, the workers look like male models or “extras from some streamlined American film” and they maintain an immaculate appearance while doing the dirty work. Secondly, their task seems meaningless, since they are digging up the original cobblestones and putting them back in the same position with no obvious repair. It not only creates a massive traffic jam but generates hostility among the locals toward the city works department. Freek notices all of this and decides to write a news story about it. The result launches the reporter into an unfamiliar world which, in his words, causes “my belief in the logical relationship between things to be shaken forever.”

The Belgium film poster for THE ARRIVAL OF JOACHIM STILLER (1976), directed by Harry Kumel.

Freek’s decision to write a story about the unnecessary road work and the calamity it caused irritates his editor who yells, “No one was killed so it wasn’t news!” Still, Freek persists and the story quickly receives negative feedback from Keldermans (Gaston Vandermeulen), the City Hall alderman, who insists the construction never happened and was a made-up story. Freek gets some more bad news when he visits his friend Andreas (Joan Remmelts), a rare book seller, who shows him a scathing attack on the journalist’s review of an art exhibition at the Broken Fist Gallery. Adding to the Freek’s anxiety is his cleaning lady who tells him she saw a flyer announcing the end of the world in 40 days due to an approaching comet.

Freek (Hugo Metsers) and Lily (Willeke van Ammelrooy), his seductive upstairs neighbor, meet in the street in THE ARRIVAL OF JOACHIM STILLER (1976).

The incident that really challenges Freek’s self-confidence and ordinary existence is a mysterious letter he receives from a complete stranger identified as Joachim Stiller. The man praises his article on the street construction incident but goes on to tell him, “This event heralds other phenomena that I won’t mention yet. If other events in the near future don’t fit in with generally accepted logic, never doubt the reality of what you see or hear. Whatever happens, I won’t lose sight of you.” If anything, Stiller’s letter convinces Freek he is being followed and may be the target of a larger conspiracy. What he doesn’t understand is why the letter is postmarked September 1919, twenty years before Freek was born.

An ominous looking customer shows up at Andreas’s antiquarian bookstore in THE ARRIVAL OF JOACHIM STILLER, a 1976 Belgium fantasy film.

To reveal much more would ruin the pleasure of experiencing this engrossing mystery puzzle where everyone seems suspect of being devious except for Freek. For instance, is Lily (Willeke van Ammelrooy, a Joan Collins lookalike), the oversexed upstairs neighbor, to be trusted and what is the story with Simone (Cox Habbema), the enigmatic gallery manager who may be in cahoots with Freek? The reality proves to be far more complex and, while Joachim Stiller is the title character, he never makes an appearance until the end of the film but his presence has been the driving force behind the narrative.

Freek (Hugo Metsers) and Simone (Cox Habbema) attend a street carnival in Antwerp in the magical realism fantasy of THE ARRIVAL OF JOACHIM STILLER (1976).

At times, the film feels like an existential variation on Samuel Beckett’s 1953 play Waiting for Godot with Freek caught in a limbo state awaiting Stiller’s appearance. There are also comparisons to Jacques Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us (1961) with its rising paranoia and conspiracy theorists who uncover an underground terrorist group. The time travel elements of the storyline could also be a homage to Chris Marker’s sci-fi classic La Jetee (1962). Kumel’s film is also an end-of-the-world thriller where all the signs point to annihilation even if there is no apocalypse in the end.

Freek (Hugo Metsers, far right) and his friends await the arrival of someone who may be some kind of messiah in THE ARRIVAL OF JOACHIM STILLER (1976).

Certainly The Arrival of Joachim Stiller dabbles in the occult, mysticism, the book of Revelations, and astrology but it also uses Freek’s journey to self-discovery to poke fun at inept bureaucracies, the art world, street carnivals, the media and antiquarian booksellers. The canvas might seem too broad but Kumel weaves it all into a consistently intriguing brain teaser of a movie that is surprisingly accessible despite its art-house pedigee.

A mentally challenged homeless man (Charles Janssens) becomes an a cutting edge artist for his pornographic bathroom graffiti in THE ARRIVAL OF JOACHIM STILLER (1976).

It’s not a perfect film, of course, and it has an unnecessary subplot about Zijlstra (Ward de Ravet), a greedy, exploitive art dealer and his attempts to turn Siegfried (Charles Janssens), a homeless mental case, into an important artist based on his crude, obscene bathroom drawings in public toilets. “It’s the missing link between the Lascaux Cave paintings and modern art,” the dealer proclaims. But much more offensive is Zijlstra’s form of payment to the gibbering wacko – procuring prostitutes for him which result in rape and is treated as madcap comedy.

Zijlstra (Ward de Ravet, right) is a self-promoting art dealer who plies his insane art discovery with prostitutes for payment in the 1976 Belgium film THE ARRIVAL OF JOACHIM STILLER, directed by Harry Kumel.

For some, the ending of The Arrival of Joachim Stiller may also be a slight disappointment since Kumel provides a magical realism solution to all of the mystery. Since so many unexplained and thought-provoking situations occur during Freek’s journey to discover the truth, a more open-ended finale would have let viewers come up with their own interpretations. I always thought that Freek’s suppressed memories of a childhood tragedy might have manifested itself into an alter ego of the protagonist who appears as Joachim Stiller, a theory that is suggested at one point. At any rate, Kumel’s film is still an offbeat and imaginative fantasy for adults that is alternately fun, sexy, ominous and satiric.

A hospital patient is one of the chosen few who hears a symphony performed by the bells in Antwerp’s Golden Clock tower in THE ARRIVAL OF JOACHIM STILLER (1976).

The cinematography by Eduard van der Enden (of Jacques Tati’s Trafic, 1971) also deserves credit for blurring the line between reality and fantasy by using unusual color filters to denote transitions into a twilight zone – orange-red shading turns Antwerp’s Grote Markt square into a forbidding cityscape while a deep blue palette envelops the city as the bells in the Golden Clock cathedral play a symphony only a chosen few can hear. In a way, you could say the famous seaport of Antwerp becomes a supporting character in the film with its unusual mixture of old world charm and modern industrialism.

The city and architecture of Antwerp, Belgium take on a surreal ambiance in the magical realism fantasy of Harry Kumel’s THE ARRIVAL OF JOACHIM STILLER (1976).

Harry Kumel, the underrated Belgium director behind the cult vampire drama Daughters of Darkness (1971) and the art-house fantasy Malpertuis aka The Legend of Doom House (1971), got his start making short films and added screenwriter and cinematographer to his skill set over the years. Since 1969, he also teaches film and cinema studies at The Dutch Film and Television Academy, Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema and Sound in Brussels and other institutions.

The Belgium film poster for the erotic vampire drama DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971).

Some sources have also listed Kumel as the Director of Demonology and Occultism at the College of Paraphysics, which would account for his interest in those topics in many of his films such as Repelsteeltje (1973), Kumel’s take on the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin with Rutger Hauer, and Malpertuis (1971) featuring Orson Welles, Susan Hampshire and Mathieu Carriere (it was nominated for the Palme de’Or award at Cannes). Kumel’s last film to date is Eline Vere (1991), an adaptation of Louis Couperus’s epic poem about a woman who tried to break free of her expected role in society through passionate but disastrous relationships.

Kumel originally filmed The Arrival of Joachim Stiller as a three-part TV movie running 50 minutes per episode. Kumel later released an edited theatrical version of it at 110 minutes but the DVD release compiles the three TV episodes into one complete feature running 153 minutes. Although The Arrival of Joachim Stiller is not currently available in the U.S. on any format you can still purchase the import PAL DVD version from online sellers if you own an all-region DVD player.

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