The East: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Turk, by Chase Beck
War is hell, and sometimes war is hell and prostitutes. The East is a Dutch-language film by writer/director Jim Taihuttu. Along with fellow writer Mustafa Guygulu, Taihuttu created a film that follows the life of Dutch soldier, Johan De Vries (Martijn Lakemeier), as he and his fellow soldiers work to bring Indonesia back under the control of the Netherlands during the Post-WWII power vacuum. The film jumps between Johan reintegrating in society after returning home and his experiences in Indonesia. While my knowledge of world history is not extensive, there are a lot of similarities between the soldiers depicted here and US soldiers during the Vietnam War. The comparison is apt and likely one that Taihuttu takes advantage of to weave his tale. De Vries’ experiences in Dutch ruled Indonesia mirrors many popular war films. There are elements here of Full Metal Jacket, Jarhead, and Platoon. These references are intentional and Taihuttu uses them as a sort of shorthand to get to the core of his message.
You might be more familiar with Taihuttu from his contributions to such US films as Ride Along 2, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, HBO’s The Affair, and Good Boys. To this day those have been the largest films in which Taihuttu has been involved. However, in those films, his participation is found in the “Soundtrack” sections. Taihuttu is the Bali-based member of the Dutch DJ and record production duo Yellow Claw. While Taihuttu is most well-known for his contributions to the realm of club music involving elements of dubstep and trap, he has been directing films, starting with documentaries and shorts, almost as long as Yellow Claw has been around.
Perhaps due to Taihuttu’s diligence in honing his filmmaking skills, The East, while clearly a pastiche of earlier and better known war films, still has its own voice and identity. While muddled by a rambling, overstuffed script and a long runtime (over two hours) The East does have a clear purpose. It is an attempt to reconcile The Netherlands’ participation in Colonialism and recognize the toll that such policies have on the subjugated population as well as the young men who are tasked with carrying out such practices. Although depicting events that are long passed, it remains a message that resonates with us today. Taihuttu does not hesitate to draw correlations between these practices and the Nazi regime. The proximity of these two historical events seems baffling to modern viewers but one cannot deny historical fact: The Netherlands, only recently having been liberated from rule by a violent dictatorship, turned right around and sought to impose dominance over another nation under the excuse of introducing civility to a people who, in the minds of the Dutch, were not advanced enough to be trusted to make their own choices.
Our main character, Johan De Vries, harbors a personal secret that threatens to surface multiple times during his enlistment. For Johan, the life of a soldier is composed solely of boredom and tedium that is relieved by the occasional chances he gets to leave the base and visit the nearby city and relax among the bars and brothels. In time he bonds with a local prostitute and develops a personal relationship. In a way, De Vries’ personal indiscretions become his only avenue of protest to the uselessness he feels as a soldier who must follow orders that make no sense. Johan’s shrouded past and the secret he protects separates him from the other soldiers, drawing him a mysterious figure known as “The Turk” (Marwan Kenzari).
Raymond “The Turk” Westerling is a real and controversial figure. Taihuttu and Guygulu use The East and the fictional Johan De Vries as a way to get to the essence of this complicated man. To Johan, The Turk provides a way to effect the kind of meaningful change that Johan was promised when he signed up to fight. However, as their relationship grows it also changes and becomes tested.
The East is not a fully accurate depiction of historical events but provides just enough of a backbone to present its message and allow us to begin to acknowledge the atrocities and mistakes that we so often like to ignore in our own countries’ pasts. While The East is quite long and at times dips into blood and violence, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone looking for an exploration of what life must be like for those saddled with implementing the brutality inherent in a colonialist agenda and the obstacles they face upon returning home.