Catch Me If You Can: Riphagen

The spectrum of “bad behavior” stretches all the way from kicking puppies to genocide. How despicable can the central character of a movie or TV show be before you can’t watch it anymore? Can they be a pimp? A murderer? Serial killer? (Previously on Dexter…) A cannibal? (Hannibal Lecter, come on down!) How about this: he scams Jews who are hiding from the Nazis and sends them to die in concentration camps. Rotten enough for you?

Meet Andries Riphagen, the driving force of the three-part Dutch TV series Riphagen, now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Riphagen was an actual person, and he was a bad, bad man. Born in 1909, he came to crime early, learning the trade during the two years he spent in America during the 1920s. He returned to the Netherlands, joined a fascist political party, and became quite the criminal entrepreneur, dabbling in prostitution, fencing, gambling, and other shady pursuits. He went by the nickname “Al Capone,” and not without some justification.

You’d think that military occupation and iron dictatorship would put a damper on this kind of thing, but no. When we meet Riphagen (Vin Diesel-lookalike Jeroen van Koningsbrugge, a veteran of Dutch TV) in the first episode, it’s May 1944 in Amsterdam, and he’s working for the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst (SD) or Security Service, which has taken over the Dutch police. His job: hunt down Jews who have escaped the multiple SD dragnets since 1940, then turn over their property to the Central Office for Jewish Emigration for confiscation and sale.

That’s bad enough, but Riphagen and his gangster buddies keep the loot. When Riphagen finds a Jewish widow hiding in a secret room, he tells her he’ll help her, then convinces her to bring other Jews to give him their valuables “for safekeeping.” Once they do, he bribes the local cops to go round up all these unfortunates and send them on their one-way trip to the gas chambers.

One of these local cops is young Jan van Liempo (Kay Greidanus, another Dutch TV regular), who also happens to work for the underground. This collision leads to the double- and triple-crosses, false identities, lies, and revenge-seeking that make up the rest of the series.

Okay, so Riphagen is a detestable monster. Why watch him?

As played by van Koningsbrugge, Riphagen is both the ultimate pragmatist and a charismatic conman, a master at faking sincerity and empathy. You’ll never be able to tell for sure when he’s lying, and neither can his victims, friends, or loved ones. The way he woos and wins pretty redhead Greetje (Lisa Zweerman), turning her into his fiercest defender, is romance-novel perfect even though you know about the rot behind the mask. He’s slick, he’s charming, he’s a romantic, the life of the party, and a snappy dresser (he has great suits)—he’s the sociopathic brother of White Collar’s Neal Caffrey.

The other performances are also fine. Greidanus’s Jan makes the journey from tortured idealist to wannabe avenging angel with rarely a false step. Underground courier Betje (Anna Raadsveld), trapped by Riphagen into turning informer, shows in her eyes and posture every ounce of the fear and loathing her character feels. Even Willy Lages (Richard Gonlag), the SD commander who tries and largely fails to keep Riphagen on the reservation, is relatable as every corporate manager who’s had to wrangle with a gifted but rebellious star employee.

Many of these wartime dramas go to their final fade-out when the Nazis get chased out of town. Not this time. Riphagen’s last episode shows the aftermath of liberation when the Dutch stopped fighting the Germans and started fighting each other. We don’t often get to see the orgy of backstabbing, suspicion, and retribution that occurred all across Europe in the wake of the Nazi collapse. It’s a good reminder that even “happy” endings can be messy and bitter.

The production values are generally quite good. The recreations of the Netherlands of the 1940s feel authentic, though some street scenes seem underpopulated, as if there wasn’t quite enough budget to get all the extras the producers needed. Costumes, hairstyles, vehicles, and furnishings also give the appropriate period atmosphere. The small rooms and smaller hiding places are used effectively to maintain the tension and sense of claustrophobia needed by this kind of story.

Based on the book Riphagen: de Amsterdamse onderwereld 1940-1945 by Bart Middelburg and René ter Steege, Riphagen (directed by Pieter Kuijpers) premiered as a 131-minute-long movie at the Netherlands Film Festival on September 22, 2016. The Dutch TV station VPRO showed it as a three-part series (padded with extra material) in January 2017. The theatrical version is on Netflix (as Riphagen – The Untouchable); the series, in Dutch and German with English subtitles, is available on Amazon Prime. If you’re looking for a European take on the World War Two experience, or just a period underworld thriller with a magnetic villain, check Riphagen out.

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