The Night Watch has been on public view since its completion in 1642. But according to experimental filmmaker Peter Greenaway, Rembrandt’s masterwork is studded with unexplained mysteries. If the painting was meant to be a portrait of a militia company, Greenaway asks, why aren’t the soldiers in uniform? Who is the out-of-place girl in gold? And is she a child, a dwarf, or an angel? Even more troubling is the soldier standing behind the central officers: why does he appear to be shooting a musket into the middle of a crowd?
Greenaway is convinced that the painting contains satirical—and sinister—hidden messages. In his latest documentary, Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, which will be shown this month at the San Francisco International Film Festival, as well as at Hot Docs in Toronto, he speculates that The Night Watchis “a pointed finger” that attacks the militia company depicted here for corruption, child prostitution, and murder.
The Night Watch is most often described as a lively group portrait that glorifies an Amsterdam militia company. But Greenaway has reached a wildly different conclusion: the image exposes a real-world criminal plot. According to Greenaway, Amsterdam in the 17th century was violent and inadequately policed. Rembrandt’s J’Accuse proposes that the captain in The Night Watch, Frans Banning Cocq, could have murdered his way to the top. Furthermore, Rembrandt may have known about the crime.
Instead of conducting formal research, Greenaway bases his analysis on visual clues—a method that concerns some art historians since the film is presented as a documentary. Ernst van de Wetering, head of the Rembrandt Research Project in Amsterdam, worries that the movie will be “so misleading to the general ill-informed public” that it could undermine serious scholarly work. Bas Dudok van Heel, a historian at the Amsterdam Municipal Archive, dismisses the whole film outright, objecting, “The pretended research of Mr. Greenaway has never been done. All his figures are invented.”
Greenaway admits that his film has a mischievous, slightly ironic tone: “I’m a great conspiracy theorist,” he told ARTnews. But he encourages people to look closely at The Night Watch, and with a critical eye. Greenaway’s crew photographed the painting inch by inch to assemble extraordinarily detailed digital reproductions. The film also includes x-rays of The Night Watch, revealing the layers of Rembrandt’s working process. Rather than interview Rembrandt scholars about the work, Greenaway serves as his own talking head: he narrates from a framed box showing only his face and shoulders. Rembrandt’s J’Accuse also weaves in historical dramatizations as well as clips from Greenaway’s 2007 film Nightwatching, a fictional account of Rembrandt’s life.
Greenaway doesn’t openly accuse the company. Rather, he asserts that the artist embedded into The Night Watch symbolic insinuations that would have been legible to 17th-century audiences. The musket shots, he contends, would immediately signal that something was amiss. The girl in gold would be interpreted as a prostitute from an orphanage-brothel that militiamen were said to frequent. And Banning Cocq, positioned at the painting’s center, plainly resembles Satan. Dressed in black and crimson, Banning Cocq stands majestically next to a Christlike sergeant clad in white. The shadow of Banning Cocq’s outstretched hand falls toward his sergeant’s spear. With that provocative gesture, Greenaway argues, the captain takes his company with him into hell.