Le Loteling (The Conscript) (1974)

 

 

 

 

Director:     Roland Verharvet.

Starring:     Jan Decleir (Jan Braems),  Anasje Beentjes (Katrien),  Gaston Vandermeulen (Grootvader),  Gella Allaert (Katriens moeder),  Bernard Verheyden (Karel),  Idwig Stephane (Korporaal),  Eddy Asselbergs (Boef (I)),  Leo Madder (Boef (II)),  Denise Zimmerman (Vrouw van kommandant),  Rudi Van Vlaenderen (Dokter),  Johan Vanderbracht (Kommandant),  Gilbert Charles Werner Kopers (Maris),  Marieke van Leeuwen (Hoertje),   Roger Bolders.

Belgium film that illustrates the appalling condition under which soldiers were forced to serve

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"1833, a village square in the Kempen.  Conscription into the army occurred by drawing lots.  This system of recruitment was commonly known as the Blood Law."  If your number is called, you have to go up up and find out if you are exempted or going into the army. 

Jan Barems goes up on stage.  He draws a container from the big wheel drum.  He gets number 434 and is exempted from the army.  As soon as he gets off the stage, a man offers to buy him a beer and they can talk.  The man offers Jan a lot of money if he would join the army.  He would get the number of a conscripted man and go into the army.  The other man would get Jan's number that then exempts him from the army.  Jan replies:  "I don't dare tell Kartrien that."

The deal maker says that Jan doesn't have to tell his wife what happened.  He can go into the army and then when he gets out he can get married, buy a farm and three cows. 

At home Katrien is very worried that Jan may have been conscripted.  Jan's grandfather tells her they won't know until tomorrow sometime. 

The men return from the town.  Jan is the last man coming down the hill.  He tells his family that he's been conscripted.  Katrien is very upset about this.  Jan hides his money in the barn among the rafters.  He shows Katrien how to plow a field.  She finds it very difficult to hold the plow straight.  She gets worn out and loses her grip on the plow.  Jan yells about it.  Katrien says she thought he loved her, but now he is forcing her to plow the field.  He says she has to learn how to plow, because he will be in the army.  Katrien is so upset that he stops plowing to hug her.  They kiss. 

Jan sticks his money in his back pack.  He marches off to be a soldier.  The family walks with him for a short distance.  The older woman tells Jan to stay away from bad company and remain devout.  And write them and let them know what is happening with him.  Grandfather tells him to watch his bad temper and don't get into any trouble in the army.  Grandfather adds that Jan must obey his officers. 

Katrien now walks alone hand in hand with Jan.  He asks her not to forget him.  She tells him she will look after his grandfather and his brother.  Katrien tells him that he must not drink and chase women.  They hug and kiss.  And back up the hill he walks with a buddy. 

At a military fort, the new recruits have to listen to a long list of don'ts, many of which carry the death penalty if violated.  Jan can't understand the French language being spoken and asks his friend Karel what is the man saying?  Karel speaks both French and Flemish and he tells Jan that the officer is saying that they could be shot as a punishment.  Now the doctor talks to the men.  He says he wants the soldiers to keep themselves as clean as possible so that illnesses are kept to a minimum. 

Early the next morning, the men in the barracks are awakened.  Jan gets up and puts his money in his shirt.  This is seen by one of the other recruits.  The guys throw their uniforms on. 

The question today is who can speak French?  Only a few can speak it.  Some other scan't understand Flemish. So the sergeant grabs one of the men who can speak French and a bit of Flemish and uses him as his translator.  So French and Flemish will both be spoken.  Hay is put in the clogs or in the boots of the new recruits.  The men are taught how to march.  A pretty woman on horseback passes by the new recruits. 

At home Katrien is really overworking herself just to keep up with all the farm work. 

One could see this coming.  One day Jan finds his money missing from the sock he kept it in.  He goes crazy and starts tearing up the place looking for his money.  His fellow soldiers have to grab him to control him.  The sergeant punishes him by making him do squats out in the courtyard while a guard watches.  When Jan collapses, the guard grabs him and helps him up and down to continue the squats. 

Back home the goods of Theofiel and Jan Braems are being seized.  Almost all their possessions are to be sold at auction in Bosbeke on June 10, 1834.  The man officiating at the seizure of property tells Katrien that it's strange, because Jan had enough money. 

Jan is feeling so low that Karel wants to take his friend to a bordello.  They over to the window and see the girls whose services are for sale.  Jan is worried about the cost but Karel tells him not to worry because Karel is paying and his friend can have the pretty one.  They march in and Jan is taken upstairs by the pretty one.  She starts undressing and urges Jan to do the same.  She keeps her long stockings on.  She then asks Jan how would he like it?  She sets him on the bed and sits on his lap and away they go. 

Jan has been in the army now for almost 9 months.   He pays a visit to the doctor with a complaint about pain in his eyes.  The doctor figures out that Jan was given a home remedy of putting piss into his own eye sockets.  He tells Jan that his eyes are in bad shape. 

Katrien goes to the church.  She tells the verger that they have had no word from Jan for six months now.  He is a long ways away, north of Maastricht.  The verger gives her a quill pen with which to write a letter to Jan.  She goes home, sits down at the table and starts composing a letter.  She asks the family what should she write?  Grandfather says tell Jan that he has had problems with his tonsils and got kicked by the heifer.  Moreover, tell Jan that they have lost the farm.   Katrien says she will not write the part about the farm. 

A traveling knife sharpener tells Katrien that he saw Karel the other day in Venlo and Karel told him that Jan is not well.  He's having trouble with his eyes.  Katrien is afraid that Jan might be blind.  She tells her mother that she is going to Venlo.  She can only afford a one-way trip to Venlo. 

Katrien goes to the fort to ask where is Jan Braems?  The guard asks:  the blind one?  No one is allowed to see the blind soldiers.  Katrien begs him to let her in.  He walks away from her so she can slip into the hospital.  She doesn't know which way to go so she walks around the huge place.  She finally finds a door marked:  "Blind Soldiers".   She walks past the men asking for Jan.  She finds him in a corner of the room.  He recognizes Katrien's voice and yells for her.  They hug each other. 

The sergeant comes into the room and asks Katrien who let her in?  He also says that she must leave immediately.  The sergeant tries to force her out but the blind men now surround the sergeant, so he warns them that he will see to it that they are not fed.  Jan tells the sergeant that his girlfriend is going.  She kisses the palm of Jan's hand and starts walking out. 

The sergeant and Katrien come out into the courtyard and he yells at the guard that he will be court-martialed for this.  The guard goes over and tells Katrien that the woman on the horse who just came in is the commander's wife and she speaks Flemish.  The woman is also curious about Katrien.  Katrien walks over to her.  She pleads her sad case and the woman asks her to wait a moment.  She speaks to her husband.  He tells his wife that he always sticks to the rules. 

He asks his aide to find the rules on the blind soldiers and read them out loud.  "With the commander's permission blind soldiers may go on leave for an indefinite period pending the final . . ."  The commander stops the reading there.  He tells his aide to go get this Jan.  The wife knocks on the window pane and motions for Katrien to come up to the commander's office.  She comes up and tells her story.  Then Jan is brought in.  The wife tells Katrien that she may take her Jan home.   The loving couple can barely believe their ears.  Katrien tells her benefactor:  "If you don't go to heaven, who will?"

Katrien leads Jan out of the fort.  As she goes, she thanks the guard who helped her.  He says we have to help each other. 

Katrien grabs one end of a long stick and Jan grabs the other end.  They start walking with Katrien leading the way.  She tells him that they will be home in about four days. 

Katrien helps a woman pull a barge along a canal on which lays the sleeping Jan.  The woman gives Katrien a couple of bread loaves for her journey. 

The couple continue their journey.  They come to a stream and have to cross it by wading over to the other side.  She gets in the water first and then he gets in.  In the middle of the stream she falls into the water.  Luckily, a local man is there and he pulls Katrien out of the water and then Jan.  And now he gives them a ride on the back of his wagon.  That night the couple eat at the home of the fellow who helped them out. 

Overnight they sleep in the barn.  Jan asks her:  "What will you do with a blind man?"  She says the same thing that she would do with a seeing man.  They hear screams nearby.  The man who helped them is having the bottom of his feet burned with a torch.  Katrien goes to see what's happening and sees that robbers are after some money from the farm family and are torturing the father and mother. 

One of the men sees Katrien and he heads upstairs to grab her.  When he gets near the top of the ladder, Katrien yells for Jan to strike him with a tool, while she spears the man with a pitchfork.  The man falls off the ladder and down to the floor below.  His buddy now comes after the woman.  Katrien yells for Jan to strike and he does, hitting the fellow right on his head.  The guy staggers outside and tells his buddies that they have to leave because there are too many of them here.  He falls unconscious. 

One of the guys holding the baby upside down tosses it into a tub full of water and he and his partner run away. 

The home-bound couple walk into the local town.  There they are seen by the two surviving robbers.  The boss tells his sidekick that he is going to get that woman.  There are a lot of very poor people in the town who wait for food from the church.  Jan and Katrien get in the line.  A nun who has the face of a beautiful model leads her group of sisters downstairs to see the poor people.  Katrien describes what has happened to Jan.  She also describes the beauty of the cathedral and the beauty of the sisters.  Katrien is given some bread to eat. 

Katrien brings him some water the next morning, puts it around his eyes and massage the eyes by massaging the eyelids.  Jan says that feels wonderful.  She walks a ways away from him and he comes to her.  He tells her that he can see a little bit out of his right eye and he saw her.  Katrien is hopeful now that he will regain some more of his sight. 

Walking through a large open field, Jan collapses from exhaustion.  He tells her that he keeps falling over now and doesn't think he can walk any farther.  She helps him up and over to a shelter.  She takes his boots and socks off.  His feet are bleeding in multiple places.  A farmer walks over to the couple and tells them that this is private property.  He takes pity on them and he takes them into town.  A doctor examines Jan's eyes.  He then cleans Jan's feet and lets him soak his feet in a concoction of alcohol and water. 

Katrien asks the doctor's assistant if Jan's eyes will get better?  He tells her to apply regular elder leaf compresses and his eyes will get better.  The doctor hears this and runs the old man out of his office.  Then the doctor tells the couple to leave because he can't do anything more for them. 

The couple start walking across a large stretch of sand.  At the other end are the two robbers from the farm.  She stops and Jan yells out what's wrong?   She says it's the foot-burners.  The boss is planning to rape Katrien while the other fellow beats up on Jan.  The boss starts ripping off her clothes.  Now she is nude.  Katrien keeps telling Jan that it's not true.  The boss starts raping Katrien.  He finishes and gets up.  They leave the couple behind. 

Jan calls out for Katrien but there is no answer.  He starts following the rope until it ends.  He searches around some more and finds Katrien.  She says they must get up and keep going.  They get up and she gets dressed.  They continue their journey. 

 

The story is based on a novel by a man named Conscience.  It is set in the early years of Belgian independence when Conscience himself was in the army

In 1850, Conscience writes "The Conscript" about Jan a poor farmer, who goes blind because of his poverty living conditions and the lack of hygiene in the barracks. The story deals with Jan and his girlfriend Katrien who are committed to going back home.  Nothing will stop them and plenty of bad things happen to them on their four day journey back home. 

One of the speakers in the Extra Features section of the DVD says:  The theme of the film dealt with "the lot of the little people in a social order that gave them no chance to live a decent and dignified life."  The actor who played Jan didn't care for his character.  "He never takes any action.  There is no resistance by the man."  Thing always happen to the man and he makes no active protest or resistance.. (Particularly dissatisfying was the lack of resistance by Jan to the men who raped his girlfriend.  He certainly could have overpowered the one man holding him, but he never did anything but be passive.  It was pretty disgusting.)  

The book had a happy ending for the couple.  The film does not. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

 


Historical Background:

 

1579-1713  --  the Southern Netherlands were part of the Low Countries controlled by Spain (Spanish Netherlands, Dutch: Spaanse Nederlanden).

1713-1794  --  the Southern Netherlands were controlled by Austria (Austrian Netherlands, Dutch: Oostenrijkse Nederlanden, German: Österreichische Niederlande).

1794-1815  --  Austrian Netherlands annexed by France.

1815-1830  --  after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 the region was given to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.

1830  --  after the Belgian Revolution of 1830 the Southern Netherlands separated to become the independent state of Belgium.

1831-1865  --  Leopold I tenure as "King of the Belgians".  Dutch King William tried to reconquer Belgium, but he was stopped by the French. 

1831-1834  --  32 incidents of violence against Orangists (those wanting the reunification of Belgium and the Netherlands) were mentioned in the press.

1834  --  Minister of Justice Lebeau banned expressions of Orangism in the public sphere, enforced with heavy penalties.

There was friction between French-speaking (Walloons) and Dutch (Flemish) speaking Flemings in the Kingdom of Belgium. French became the official language of government after the separation from the Netherlands in 1830. The Flemings agitated for the equality of their Flemish language with French.

1835 (May 5)  --  opening of the railway line between Brussels and Mechelen.

Life in Belgium after gaining the independence of the country.  Life was tough for the Flemish people of Belgium.  "The French-speaking bourgeoisie showed very little respect for the Flemish part of the population. French became the only official language in Belgium and all secondary and higher education in the Flemish language was abolished."  (Wikipedia article, "Flanders".)  The Flemish were an abused minority in their own country of Belgium.  These people suffered prejudice and discrimination. 

For example:  Belgium's co-founder, Charles Rogier, wrote in 1832 "the first principles of a good administration are based upon the exclusive use of one language, and it is evident that the only language of the Belgians should be French. In order to achieve this result, it is necessary that all civil and military functions are entrusted to Walloons and Luxemburgers; this way, the Flemish, temporarily deprived of the advantages of these offices, will be constrained to learn French, and we will hence destroy bit by bit the Germanic element in Belgium."  (Wikipedia article, "Flanders".)

1838  --  co-founder, senator Alexandre Gendebien, declared that the Flemish were "one of the more inferior races on the Earth, just like the negroes".  (Wikipedia article, "Flanders".)

Withe these kinds of beliefs  it is not surprising that in the first 88 years of its existence, 80% of the Belgian GNP was invested in Wallonia.  (Wikipedia article, "Flanders".)

1920s and 1930s  --  through a series of laws Flemish became the language of government, education, and the courts in the northern provinces of East Flanders and West Flanders, Antwerp, Limburg, and eastern Brabant, with Brussels as a bilingual national capital.

 

In the film the couple walk from Venlo to Zoersel.

Venlo  --  a municipality and a city in the southeastern Netherlands, next to the German border, and in the province of Limburg.  It is a southeast of Eindhoven. 

Zoersel --  a municipality located in the northeastern Belgian province of Antwerp.  East of city of Antwerp.

 

It's 48 miles from Eindoven, Netherlands to Antwerp, Belgium.

It's 36 miles from Eindhoven, Netherlands to Venlo, Netherlands. 

So it's around 84 miles from Antwerp to Venlo.
 

 

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