August 2011: Koenig der Letzten Tage

by August 3, 2011

In 1530, the town of Munster, Germany, had fallen under the spell of the charlatan, showman and anabaptist Jan van Leyden. His religion, a mix of fire and brimstone, end of days prophecies, and his own unique spin on becoming the king of Munster and authorizing debauched orgies had the town in the palm of his hand, much to the ire of the local Catholic Bishop. The Bishop starved out the town then rode in, seizing back control of Munster and executing Jan, thus ending the reign of the anabaptists. Residents of Munster can still see evidence of the reign of Jan van Leyden in the city today.

In the historical mini-series, Koenig der Letzten Tage, Jan van Leyden was masterfully played by Christoph Waltz. van Leyden, aka Jan Bockelson, a former brothel owner in Leyden, experienced a “conversion attempt”, and then went preaching to Munster. Bockelson, in Christoph’s hands, is one part showman, one part preacher, and one part scheming opportunist. A multi-faceted character, one is never entirely sure if Bockelson believes his own rhetoric, or is in it purely to gain as much profit and power as possible.

Jan’s reign is at times questioned and bolstered by the arrival of his former friend, Sebastian. Sebastian had known Jan from many years ago while in a troupe of actors. When Sebastian dared question Jan, Bockelson had him imprisoned, while at the same time seducing and taking advantage of young acolyte Engele, the girl that Sebastian was hopelessly in love with. As Jan’s reign oscillated rapidly between imminent failure and spectacular success, he used Sebastian as his whipping boy and conversely, for advice on how to make the people love him.

In addition to the affections of Engele, the scheming Divara and her husband, the prophet Jan Matthyas, arrived into Munster. Bockelson had to take a role as acolyte to Matthyas, and through Divara’s affections and plotting, she oversaw the downfall of Matthyas and the declaration of Bockelson as King of Munster. Divara was at his side, as his “Queen”, the wife of the late prophet, and as Bockelson’s lover. Bockelson, however, forced her to share her place in his bed with Engele. The contrast between the two women neatly alluded to the contrast within Bockelson himself: on one hand, plotting, scheming and power hungry, but on the other, naive and quite possibly a believer in his own way.

As life in Munster spiraled out of his control, and with the Catholic bishop at the gates, Bockelson is finally turned in by Sebastian (receiving a sack of silver), a twist of which the filmmakers’ emphasis on the parallels between Jan’s demise and that of Jesus Christ, is obvious. Jan is tortured, debated with, humiliated, and finally executed in a public spectacle which saw him hanging from a pole in a loincloth. All that was missing was the cross-beam and spikes.

Without a shadow of a doubt, Koenig der Letzten Tage is a fabulous movie. The scenery is lush and realistic. There was no expense spared, nor compromises for modern sensibilities. You can feel the decay and despair and imagine the stench of unwashed and dying in every shot. The costumes were beautifully rendered, and the supporting actors were on top form. The production values of this film must have been on par with Hollywood productions of this time – and indeed, it could have been a Hollywood production (if Hollywood would dare to do something quite as realistic and unblinkingly honest as this.)

However, standing out on top of it all, Jan Bockelson (Jan van Leyden) is one of Christoph Waltz’s strongest performances ever. His turn as Bockelson is mesmerizing, powerful and entirely without mis-step. He is seductive, persuasive, powerful, terrifying, conflicted and luminous. Actually resembling Jesus Christ, with long hair, full brown beard and innocent face, Christoph disappears and becomes this character, the Koenig of Munster, and shepherds his flock to a place of rapture time and time again. For fans of Christoph Waltz, this performance absolutely can not be overlooked. It is a must-see.

Although some may be put off for the historical or religious content, I would urge viewers to put aside any preconceived notions and to watch this film – you will be hard pressed to find a better film portraying this time period. It is beautifully made, with top-notch performances, and is a visual treat as well as one of the best Christoph Waltz performances ever.

The film only suffers for its lack of subtitles, HOWEVER… someone very nice wrote up a “Cliff’s Note” version on IMDB, which fully enables non-German speakers to follow along with the plot.

It’s available through Amazon.de on DVD, and I promise, it will be a film you’ll want to see again.

– Sachertorte

Christoph Waltz Fans