An insoluble moral dilemma seized by demagogues (spoiler notice)
Every culturally diverse society bumps into certain problems. Problems that politicians and demagogues are keen to use as currency for attention. In recent years, one of those big topics was the way ambulance personnel are increasingly mistreated as they attempt to provide aid, with an emphasis on the role of ill-adjusted immigrants.
Doodslag uses this pressing concern as inspiration and plays a trick on us. It opens with the words of Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, who said that we must take a stance against the ‘hufterigheid’ (scum attitude) growing in our society. In the first act of four, Max is introduced as a kindhearted ambulance driver who is increasingly troubled by racist remarks at his co-worker, leeway given to hooligans and the lack of respect everywhere. When a gang blocks his way to a child birth going wrong, Max pops and clears the road by hitting one of them. Reaching the hospital he learns two things: because of his actions the child and mother were saved, but the kid he assaulted died.
This could have been the full breadth of the film, leaving the audience lingering with a moral lesson on how we treat the people trying to help us. But here it’s only the beginning. The other acts each build upon the last to develop Max in catastrophic ways. Doodslag reveals itself as an uncompromising character movie. After his fateful punch, Max is sentenced to a year of prison and when he comes out the demagogues have taken over. One of them, standup comedian Felix, has riled up the public to think of him as a hero for taking a stand against hufterigheid. But in his daily dealings, Max is more often shunned than applauded. His old work doesn’t want him back and the gang is plotting revenge.
Felix and the rest may want to paint Max in terms of ‘hero’ or ‘murderer’, but for him things aren’t so simple. He’s racked with guilt for his crime, and desperate to make things right. Uh-oh. From the outside it’s so obvious: there is no way to fix this. The decomposition begins when Max attempts to reconcile with the victim’s parents. This isn’t taken in stride; Max’s house is burned down. Felix offers him a part in his theater show, but Max gets increasingly agitated by the fomenter and his opportunistic lies. He gets a gun. He leaves us behind to go to a place where we can no longer sympathize with him. This won’t end well.
In our daily lives we are all too conditioned to listen to demagogues like Felix. We are encouraged to take a stance on complex matters. People like Max are either wrong or right. Doodslag shows the shallowness of this behavior. Demagogues cheapen life, make things deliberately disgusting. Ambiguity and reasonable doubt are their first victims. That is not a common lesson. Doodslag isn’t afraid to turn ugly to get this point through. The soundtrack twists into a satanic warble of emergency sirens. Max forces Felix into his stolen ambulance and murders him with life-saving tools. Demagoguery symbolically strangled.
Dutch comedian Theo Maassen is the right person for this role. He plays to perfection an unhinged, sensitive soul whose meekness hides aggressive turmoil. Maassen often uses this roughness, contrasted with sudden vulnerability, in his own shows. You can’t resist sympathizing with him, yet he’s capable of visiting dark, dark places.
As a painful character portrait, Doodslag has much to say about us, our media and our culture. It is an entirely relevant film with a spectacular lead role.