Northerners, The (1993): Alex Van Warmerdam’s Orginal, Witty Comedy

Palm Springs Film Festival 1993–Alex van Warmerdam, the Dutch writer-director-actor, makes a commendable splash with the witty and original comedy The Northerners, one of the unqualified hits of the fourth Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Peopled by vividly drawn oddball characters, The Northerners showcases the idiosyncratic talent of a young director whose vision and style are reminiscent of both French filmmaker Jacques Tati and Aki Kaurismaki, the Finnish cult figure. Specialized audiences will get a kick out of this droll offering, but with the right handling and marketing, picture may find popularity with the mainstream public.

Set in 1960, in a town situated on vast plains next to a forest, the film’s locale is the only completed street of a once planned huge housing project. The inhabitants lead quiet, isolated lives–the mail and the radio are their only means of communication with the outside world. But the news on the radio relates only one story: the civil war in Congo and the execution of its leader Lumumba.

The citizens seem to be dull and ordinary, but in actuality, each one is eccentric. Thomas (Leonard Lucieer), the adolescent hero who likes to dress like Lumumba, is neglected by his sexually insatiable father (Jack Wouterse) and his devout Catholic mother (Annet Malherbe). Thomas’ only friend is Simon, the mailman (played by the helmer). Obsessed with curiosity about the inhabitants’ private lives, Simon has no scruples about reading their mail before delivering it.

In one letter, Martha’s sister advises her to stop using makeup and start wearing shabby, longsleeve dresses so that her husband won’t be attracted to her. But it’s of no use: every sexual overture by Jacob invariably ends up in a physical fight–and severe injuries to Martha.

Thomas’ parents are contrasted with their neighbors, who are also burdened with marital problems, only in reverse. The sexually aggressive Elisabeth (Loes Wouterson) is desperate to become a mother, but her husband Anton (Rudolf Lucieer), a ranger always on alert with his gun, is sterile. And Thomas himself develops sexual yearnings for Agnes (Veerle Dobbelaere), a mysterious Felliniesque girl living in the forest.

The seemingly peaceful town is thrown into chaos, when all of a sudden two priests arrive for a Missionary Presentation whose central exhibit is a black man. From there on, the comedy’s ceaseless surprises are impossible to relate. Suffice it to say that the film climaxes with a pilgrimage to Thomas’s house–the entire community stands outside, observing Martha as she lays in bed and stares in adoration at her St. Francis statue.

Van Warmerdam, who won the 1992 Felix (European Film Award), imbues his story with offbeat characters and plenty of local color. For long stretches, the film is staged as a silent physical comedy; dialogue is used sparingly to supplement interactions that are mostly conducted with glances and body language. The whole narrative is structured as a series of tableaux, shot in long takes with stationery camera.

A shrewd observer, Van Warmerdam seems blessed with a natural knack for impish parody of human foibles. The comedy’s main joke is that every tiny act is observable. People live by their windows, and though the main street seems always deserted, no digression or sexual seduction ever goes unnoticed.

Like Kaurismaki’s deadpan minimalist style and laconic sense of humor, van Warmerdam makes the most out of the alleged Dutch drabness and their isolation from the international mainstream. Influenced by Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle), helmer creates complex comic structures and ingenious gag constructions that defy audiences expectations. Like Tati, he often uses creative sound as the chief source for igniting the machinery of his gags.

The Northerners is a spirited, rambunctious, and wacky comedy. Though inspired by Kaurismaki’s imagery and Tati’s sardonic humor, this Dutch presentation nonetheless suggests the presence of a very particular and distinctive cinematic sensibility.


A First Floor Features production.
Produced by Laurens Geels and Dick Maas.
Directed, written by Alex van Warmerdam.
Camera: Marc Felperlaan.
Editor: Rene Wiegmans.
Production design: Rikke Jelier.
Sound: Bert Flantua.

Running time: 105 minutes.


Thomas………………Leonard Lucieer
Jacob, the Butcher……..Jack Wouterse
Anton, the Ranger……..Rudolf Lucieer
Simon, the Mailman…Alex van Warmerdam
Martha……………….Annet Malherbe
Elisabeth…………….Loes Wouterson
Agnes……………..Veerle Dobbelaere
Black Man…………………Dary Some
Teacher…………..Jacques Commandeur