Sexual abuse or sentimental romance? ‘For a Lost Soldier’

This reminiscence of a 12-year-old Dutch boy’s affair with a Canadian soldier in the waning days of WWII has its fans, but frankly it made my stomach turn. A framing device that opens the film takes place in the 1980s, showing the boy as his middle-aged self, a choreographer (Jeroen Krabbe) in search of artistic rejuvenation. As a boy, he was evacuated from Amsterdam in 1944 to live in a coastal town, where he would be safer and better fed. Halfway through the film, the Allied troops arrive, and the boy Jeroen (Maarten Smit) strikes up a friendship with Canadian soldier Walt Cook (Andrew Kelley).

Jeroen’s emotional neediness is well established; cut off from his parents, he responds to Walt as a friendly, generous big brother figure. But the movie offers little characterization of Walt — there’s nothing that might tell us why a guy in his 20s forms a romantic, sexual attachment to a 12-year-old boy. (A boy who looks like a child, it should be noted. Actor Maarten Smit hardly looks mature for his age.)

Instead, the movie presents their relationship in romantic terms. The film treats the affair in a gauzy, sentimental fashion — tasteful to a fault, as if to avoid raising any hard questions, and completely ducking any inquiry as to whether Walt’s relationship with Jeroen constitutes abuse, exploitation or pedophilia. Their trysts take place on sleepy afternoons, the blinds in Walt’s room drawn against the sun. The boy lies on top of Walt when they’re both shirtless, and Walt takes Jeroen’s head in his hands and — grotesquely — kisses him full on the lips.

In a later scene, Jeroen lies face down, again shirtless, on the bed, while Walt lies on top of him and does… what, exactly? The scene is tightly framed to prevent us from seeing if Walt is sodomizing the boy. I assume director Roeland Kerbosch shot it this way to avoid running into trouble with censors, but it’s also typical of the movie’s evasiveness. Walt offers Jeroen a finger to bite down on, which he does; presumably it’s to keep the boy from crying out.

Customer reviews of For a Lost Soldier on Amazon.com fall overwhelmingly into the five-star ranking; on the film’s Netflix page, people rhapsodize that the movie is hauntingly beautiful, and praise it for being bold, unapologetic. Admirers of the film claim that only a prude could find anything to complain about here. One member defends the movie by posting that “12-year-olds are sexual creatures. Deal with it.”

But would anyone argue that a 12-year-old who enters into (or more accurately, is led into) a sexual relationship with an adult has any idea what he is doing? If a movie presented a sexual relationship between a 12-year-old girl and an adult male, how many viewers would find that lyrical and nostalgic?

Everything about For a Lost Soldier tries to argue that this relationship is special, privileged, because it was a long time ago, it was life during wartime, all the rules were suspended, and neither Jeroen nor Walt had anyone else. A sentimental denouement that returns to the 1980s shows that by revisiting the locations where his affair with Walt took place, the middle-aged Jeroen is reinvigorated, inspired anew.

Unfortunately the film makes the disastrous mistake of showing the dance piece that results from his creative rebirth, and it’s ludicrous. The whole sequence is so awkward you’d think director Kerbosch had all of one day and zero money to film the framing story.

5 thoughts on “Sexual abuse or sentimental romance? ‘For a Lost Soldier’

  1. Jesus H Crist in a chariot-driven sidecar. Could Tompkins have made it any clearer that he is heterosexual?

    Frankly I find myself wondering about that. As Shakespeare wrote, “the Lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

    The reviewer claims that Walt is a man “in his twenties;” in fact he could very well be as young as nineteen, or even eighteen; this was often true of soldiers in WWII. And Jeroen was thirteen; a gap of five or six years between these two boys is much less disconcerting than it might otherwise have been.

    Another aspect of this relationship that Tompkins refuses to accept is that as things progress, Jeroen is clearly falling in love with Walt and as such he becomes the pursuer. Unlike a lot of these situations, I saw no sign of grooming behavior or anything else we often see in abuse of children.

    And I have something else for Tompkins. When I was fourteen, I had a brief but intense affair with a boy of twenty. I loved him as much as it was possible to love someone at that point in life, and I was the one who pursued him, not the other way round.

    At any rate, it is not correct to review this excellent film as if it depicts something it does not.

  2. This review made my stomach turn to paraphrase its reviewer, Mark Tompkins. The old saying – “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” – certainly applies here. But Tompkins’ negativity is so strong and runs so deep that he even found the lip kiss between the soldier and Jeroen while shirtless in bed to be “grotesque” and the dance at the end to be “ludicrous”. Obviously Tompkins has no understanding of symbolism among other things.. (Note to Tompkins: look up the name Ravel and the word “pavane”.) He also complains about the appearance of Jeroen played by Maartin Smit as not looking “mature for his age”. Ironically, prior to reading this review, I saw a scene where the actor was shown being given a bath in a portable tub by his “adopted mother”. When he emerged, we are given a prolonged view of the actor from behind drying himself. This is quite deliberate. The overall build of Maartin Smit immediately struck me as being that of a young adult far more than that of a “child”. The proportion and definition took me aback, and for a moment I thought it was his “adopted brother” Henk that we were seeing. Had the age of Jeroen been closer to 16, would that have satisfied Tompkins? After all, the other soldiers were making it with girls who looked as though they were barely 16. The mutual attraction and affection between Jeroen and Walt was never in question. It began in an instant when they first glanced each other from afar. Who can say what the limitations are between age difference and gender when it comes to love and sex. (Note to Tompkins: Look at what goes on in the Playboy Mansion.) When Jeroen very carefully reaches over to touch Henk earlier in the film while the two are sleeping together in bed, along with other clues, we have no doubt what his orientation is (or will be). Even his “adopted father” is aware of his latent feelings and does not disapprove (the Dutch have always been far more open minded than puritanical Americans when it comes to such matters). Other than the bed scene, nothing else sexual happened between Walt and Jeroen, unless you believe that there was more to the previous shower scene. In any event, Jeroen was not harmed by his experience other than the fact that it could not be continued. The ending of the film, with the delivery of a large envelope, shows that it was indeed mutual and enduring on both sides. We are never informed what exactly happened to Walt when he and Jeroen had to part when only a few days together. One can appreciate this film, or not, but it is not always necessary to be judgemental or to over analyze something. It is what it is pure and simple.

    • Unfortunately, as of Feb. 2016, the film is apparently no longer available to rent from Netflix. But you can stream it on Amazon.com (the U.S. site), or purchase a copy of the DVD from them.
      In the U.K., it looks like you can rent the disc by mail from a service called LOVEFiLM. (Look up “For a Lost Soldier” on Amazon.uk for more info.) Or, if you have a region-free DVD player, you can purchase a copy of the Region 1 U.S. DVD from Amazon.uk, or try looking for copies on eBay.
      I’m surprised not to find any mention of a Region 2 disc, because there’s a lot of interest in this movie (this page has been one of the most-visited pages on this website for several years now). Maybe there’s another streaming or VOD service in the U.K. that might offer it online?

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