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.