Gimme a Hand

in 52nd International Filmfestival Mannheim-Heidelberg

by Claus Wecker

Dutch director André van der Hout takes a risk. In his feature film debut “The Arm of Jesus” (De arm van Jezus) he brings together a melancholic story and musical scenes, a story in present time – filmed in color – with documentary material in black and white. These are contrast elements indeed, and anybody who has not seen the film would doubt that these elements go together. Yet it works.

The film tells the story of Jacob Yzermans, a man in his thirties, returning from the USA to his hometown Rotterdam. He is looking for his father Hendrik, a former coal miner. Hendrik has always dreamed about America with “new office buildings in New York so high that they touch the clouds”, he told young Jacob. “And the people in them are light as clouds.” This poetic quality characterizes the movie.

Did the father succeed in leaving the Netherlands and making his dream come true? Did he emigrate to the USA? Did the black faced coal miner from the underground really become a creature light as clouds? In a metaphoric way Jacob’s search for his father is a search for God in a disturbed world – an interpretation that van der Hout does not stress.

Jesus’ arm is part of a broken statue. It was used as a paddle in the big flood of 1952 in the Netherlands, but it is still present at Jacob’s journey through today’s Rotterdam. This religious object gives the movie its title. For German audiences the title seemed to be too religious. The festival secularized it to “Der Traum von Amerika” (The Dream of America).

At the International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg, a festival for beginners with their first or second movies, you often watch objects of the real world being transferred to the world of the movies. Many movies follow the Dogma movement with its special problems in visual style. Yet “The Arm of Jesus” creates a unique world: Kafkaesque and dark but also jokingly optimistic not only in the musical scenes.

The FIPRESCI jury awarded its prize to this movie “for its visually and intellectually multilayered representation of an existential search”.