Daens (1993)





Director:     Stijn Coninx.

Starring:     Jan Decleir (Adolf Daens),  Grard Desarthe (Charles Woeste),  Antje de Boeck (Nette Scholliers),  Michael Pas (Jan De Meeter),  Karel Baetens (Jefke),  Julien Schoenaerts (Bishop Stillemans), Wim Meuwissen (Pieter Daens,  Brit Alen (Louise Daens ), Johan Leysen (Schmitt), Idwig Stephane (Eugene Borremans), Linda van Dyck (Elizabeth Borremans),  Jappe Claes (Ponnet),  Brenda Bertin (Marie),  Alex Wilequet (Monsignor Goossens),  Rik Hanck  (Nuncio).

Father Adolf Daens works in Belgium of the 1890s champions the workers' cause


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

Child labor goes on in a textile mill.  A surly supervisor gets angry at a young girl and tells her he does not need her. 

Professor Daens wants to leave the College of Dendermonde.  The professor has been  here for nine years and he has had enough.  Now he wants to go to Aalst.  The Monsignor says he has a spot for a junior priest in Drongen.  "You're expected there tomorrow."  Daens says the priest knows well that he has had some bad problems in Drongen.  The Monsignor says that Daens is no not happy anywhere and Daens agrees with him.  He adds that's why tomorrow he's going to Aalst. 

The little girl leaves the factory.  She slowly walks home.  She sits down on a bucket. 

A train pulls into the station.  Father Adolf Daens gets off the train.  He asks a porter to send his suitcase to his brother's place, printer Daens.  The police grab a socialist selling a socialist newspaper and will send him to Ghent. 

Daens sees three boys stealing potatoes from an old woman.  He tries to stop them but slips and falls down.  Then he sees a farmer trying to leave the corpse of of a girl by the street.  The girl turns out to be the girl fired from her job just recently.  The girl froze to death and the farmer found her body.  Daens finds out that her name was Nini.  He asks the potato stealers where are her parents.  Jefke tells him to go to the nearby bar.  The bar turns out to be a pretty wild place.  Two women are dancing on a table.  Daens comes in and is razed about being a priest.  He asks where are Nini's parents and he is directed over to a table where a poor man and woman sit.  The father tells the priest he doesn't want any lectures.  Father Daens, however, just wants to know what happened to her? 

Apparently, Nini was the victim of child prostitution.  Several of the men at the bar had sex with her.  Daens slaps the face of one of the men, supervisor Schmitt, who is laughing about his misdeed.  Daens gives the parents some money, saying:  "Don't let them bury her like a dog.  Buy her a coffin."    He leaves the bar. 

He goes to his brothers house, where he is greeted by his two nieces.  He next hugs his sister-in-law and asks if he can stay here.  He says he could become a private tutor and pay her back.  The priest now goes into the printing shop to say hello to his brother Pieter.  Adolf immediately starts setting type.  The first type he sets says:  "Enough Dead Children in Aalst". 

The wealthy citizens of Aalst complain that a Catholic paper against socialism is agitating the workers against them.  Their president Mr. Woeste comes in and he says he will get that little paper in line.  Some of the bosses say that they are in danger of going bankrupt.  They want the state to intervene on their behalf, but there is no political support for state intervention.   The president says that if they all get together and set the prices of labor, the workers will take even less money than they are getting now.  Now the rich bastards start thinking of all kinds of ways to lessen the now terrible position of the workers.  Mr. Carlos Cumont seems to be the only boss who isn't out for the blood of the laborers.  One of the bosses says nonchalantly:  "Every war has its victims."  Cumont comments:  "You are monsters, all of you!"  He leaves.  There is a liberal among them and he says that the laborers live in total misery.

Father Daens becomes the private tutor of a son of a wealthy businessman, Jr. Eugene Borremans.. 

Some of the businesses are now taking only women and children as workers.  The men start getting very angry as the supervisors say their labor costs too much.  The gate is closed on the men.

Woeste goes to see printer Daens to complain that they are saying that every day children freeze to death outside the factories.  Daens says that it is the truth.  Father Daens comes in and Woeste tells him to work on his brother to get him to stop writing such inflammatory articles.  Father tells the man that this would be difficult, since it is he who actually wrote the article in question.  Woeste threatens the priest and then walks out. 

Supervisor Schmitt starts sexually harassing one of the young women, Nette.  She tells him to leave her alone and to stop touching her, but he ignores her protests.  Then a woman worker makes eyes at the supervisor and he goes over to her to have sex.  Jefke comes over to Nette to say that if the supervisor touches her again, he will deal with the man.  And he says he will also stand up to the big boss Borremans. 

Father Daens is teaching the Borremans child.  Our young defender of women throws a rock through a window and it hits Daens causing him to bleed..  The boy wanted to hit Borremans, but he got the priest instead.  He shouts for Borremans to come out and he will hit the boss.  The butler sets the Doberman Pincher on the boy, but Daens runs over to cover his body, so the butler tells the dog to heel.  The boy tells Daens that priests are for the rich and runs off.  Daens chases him through the town to his apartment building.  There he see the sexually harassed young woman.  Nette wants to tend to his wound.  He asks her what is her name and she says Nette Scholliers.  The priest goes with her to her family's apartment.  There he meets the mother and father and the many children.  The wife tells Daens that her husband just recently got fired from his factory job.

Nette tells her brawling brother that if wants to beat up anybody, he should beat up Schmitt, who can't seem to keep his hands off her.  Her nasty brother Louis says that Schmitt isn't the only one putting his hands on her.

Woeste goes to complain to the Monsignor about Father Daens and his articles.  He is really upset because the government is thinking about sending an investigating committee to Aalst to check on the working conditions for the laborers.  In short, Woeste wants the Monsignor to silence Father Daens.  He wants Daens to be stripped of his priesthood, but the Monsignor says that only the ecclesiastical authorities have the power to do this.  So Woeste subtly says that they may have to go to higher authorities than the Monsignor.

The news in the street is:  "An investigation committee in the factories of Aalst!"  Jan the socialist is trying to sell a paper to Nette.  She prefers her catholic newspaper.  She and some friends start walking away.  The newspaper fellow gives his papers to another person to sell them and chases after Nette.  Jan walks and talks with Nette for awhile until a gang called the Bucks appear (of which her brother Louis is a member) comes along and chases the "red" away.   Nette tries to stop her brother, but he blows right past her.  Luckily for the red, he gets away from the gang. 

Mrs. Borremans begs her husband to reconsider the dismissal of Daens as the tutor for their son.  But her husband says Daens has just gone too far.  He adds:  "My son will not be educated by a socialist." 

The supervisor at the Borremans factory locks all the children in a huge closet.  He has the women who have really bad clothes on to go home.  And he doesn't want Nette talking to the members of the investigation committee.  When the committeemen arrive they are given a dog and pony show about how wonderful things are for the workers here at the factory.  One of the committee men ask Netter where is the toilet?  She takes him by the hand to go off the work floor.  Schmitt sees her going and chases after her.  The problem is that Nette only speaks Flemish and the committee man doesn't speak Flemish.  (How they ever expect to do an accurate report on the Flemish workers, if they don't speak Flemish, makes one question the minds of those in charge.  The man should at least been able to tell by Nette's upset demeanor that she has something important to say to him.  Instead he just patronizes her by plucking her on her chin and then leaving.)  Nette speaks out, but it does no good. 

The supervisor fines her two francs.  Nette is furious with her co-workers who didn't even try to say something.  She balls them all out and says they will all die here like rats. 

A little boy who got momentarily distracted is killed by one of the looms that runs over him.  The machines are shut down and the supervisor told that the boy is dead.  Nette grabs the child to take to the committeemen, saying that this is something that the committeemen can understand without a knowledge of Flemish.  Schmitt tries to stop her but the huge woman who has had sex with the supervisor intervenes to keep him away from Nette.  All the women go with Nette.  Schmitt runs to get on his bicycle to go warn Booremans. 

Schmitt goes into the theater where a play is being performed.  He looks in the dark for Booremans.  He finds him and tells him to come outside.  Borremans goes with Schmitt. 

The Daens brothers are informed of the trouble at the Borremans factory.  They get up to go see what's happening. 

Troops are awaiting the arrival of the workers.  They come forward as the crowd draws nearer.  Nette grabs the dead boy.  One of the officers comes out to talk to Nette.  He goes back and tells the commandant about the dead boy.  The commandant wants them to charge the crowd and for the officer to get the dead body from the woman. There is a lot of screaming and crying as the women and men are knocked down by the men on horses.  The horsemen keep slashing at the workers without mercy.  Father Daens arrives and he starts telling the horsemen to look at what they have done.  He tells them all to get out and they obey the priest. Nette got a head gash, but it is not life threatening. 

The people file into the church, including management.  The church tries to stifle Father Daens by having another priest, Ponnet, do the talking.  The substitute asks Daens what he thinks of his proposed sermon?  Daens says it is very bad.  Daens gets up in the high pulpit and gives his sermon.  Father Daens denounces the selfishness of the bosses toward their workers.  Management leaves the church, but the workers stay to hear more from Father Daens.  He refers to the terrible system that keeps the workers poor and degraded as an "organized, established injustice". 

President Woeste tells Borremans that he should go easier on his workers.  Knit them some scarves.  Borremans says the situation is much more serious that that.  The workers are demanding universal suffrage.  Woeste says that they never will get the vote.  Borremans wants something done about Daens.  Woeste says they must defrock the Father.  He says he will go to the Vatican and see the Pope.  The Monsignor would love to have Daens silenced, but he does not want to appear as Borremans's puppet.  Then he talks about sending Daens to the Congo. 

Daens speaks with the Monsignor, who tells him:  "If there is inequality on earth, it is because God wants it."  Daens tells him that he reasons like Woeste.  The Monsignor replies that once more Daens with his difficult personality has embarrassed him.  He says Daens should look at himself to see if his motivation is not just sheer vanity.  Then he goes so far as to forbid Daens from preaching a sermon in the church ever again. 

Management is offering free soup, but it only available to those who are working (and not unemployed or on strike).  The socialists come with their own free soup and say that everyone can have some of their soup. But what Nette really wants is for Priest Ponnet to tell her where is Father Daens?  The priest won't say.  This leads to a big demonstration of the workers demanding to see Father Daens.   Mrs. Borremans is mad at her husband for being so stingy with the "free" soup.  Her husband tries to ignore her. 

In the Belgium parliament universal suffrage is adopted. 

Daens follow his instructions and preaches in solitude.  As he goes through the ritual, he hears a woman's voice behind him.  It is Mrs. Borremans listening to him and substituting for his parishioners. 

Father Daens works at the printer during the night.  His brother comes out to check on him and he reads the headline:  "Christian Peoples' Party Program".  Adolf is going to establish, his own political party.  The next day he speaks out to the people in the streets while standing on a wagon.  The socialists approach him and Daens's supporters think there is going to be a fight.  But, no, they tell Father to keep on speaking.  The Liberals now decide to throw their support to Father Daens. 

A storms begins and Nette and Jan pull the wagon under an arch to get it out of the rain.  They smile at each other as they walk. 

Woeste goes to see the King of Belgium.  The King says that universal suffrage was a blow to Woeste and his people, so what does he plan to do to supply a remedy for the changed situation?  "Stronger Catholic unity . . . and more firmness from the priests."  He starts to tell the King that the red menace could eventually threaten his kingdom and that they need more support from the church. He is building up to saying get rid of Daens, but he is interrupted by the arrival of Cardinal Goossens. 

Cardinal Goossens knows what Woeste is doing.  He says Woeste is concerned about the possibility of Father Daens being elected to political office, but there is nothing in canon law that forbids a priest from running for political election. 

Today is election day for the Belgian parliament.  All citizens over the age of 25 must vote.  Nette overhears local priest Ponnet telling voters that it is a mortal sin to vote for Daens, so vote for Woeste.  So she follows him.  He goes to her family's apartment and gives the same message.  After he leaves, Nette tells her father not to pay attention to the priest.  He mustn't vote for the rich! Louis comes in and Nette has to be quiet.  His father asks him how many letters in Daens and Louis says there are six.  When Louis has passed by, Nette tells her father it is five letters, not six. 

The votes are being counted.  It appears Daens will be elected, so Woeste's representatives on the election board start calling all of Daens's ballots invalid.  So Woeste is trying to fix the election in his favor.  In addition to the invalid claim, there are illegal votes thrown in for Woeste.  There are many more ballots that there are people over 25 years of age.  Despite their efforts against it, however, a new election will have to be held. 

The news is that Daens has been elected.  There is a big outdoor demonstration in support of Daens. 

Daens is at the opening of parliament.  He speaks out against Woeste's nasty accusations against him and his party.  This really upsets Woeste and he starts shouting out against Daens.  But Daens is just warming up.  He makes a fool out of Woeste and his selfish acts in defense of the rich.  Daens uses the case of one poor woman whose husband is unemployed.  Their fourteen year old daughter has to work in a cotton factory from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.  in an unhealthy environment.  She has to work hungry.  And for her efforts she earns virtually nothing. 

The local clergy hold a meeting at which the head clergyman disapproves of Father Daens and supports Woeste.  He goes on to say that socialism is the enemy of the church and socialism must be resisted.  Goossens tells the head man that if the Pope cuts off Daens, the church will lose the Belgian working class and the not employed poor.  After the meeting the head man reports immediately to Woeste.  The point of this iskl to show that the church hierarchy is for the rich against the poor.    

Woeste now goes to see the Pope himself and very soon after that Father Daens receives a letter telling him to come to the Vatican. 

In the local working class bar, Nette's boyfriend the socialist gets teased about Nette running off with Daens.  Nette arrives and sits at the table across from him.  It comes as a complete surprise, but the young man asks Nette to marry him.  He also tells her that they can live in Ghent and she wouldn't have to work in a factory anymore.  They kiss.  After Nette leaves, the Schmitt stands up and says that all those who voted for Daens will no longer work for Borremans.  He adds that Daens won't be around anymore because he will be tied up in Rome in an asylum for crazy priests.

Daens reports to the Vatican, but is told that the Pope can't see him today.  On the second day, Daens is told again the Pope can't see him.  The supervisor rapes Nette.  She turns her head away from him.  She says "Jan" while he is raping her.  She goes home and Louis insults her once again.  She attacks her brother.  Father and mother have a hard time getting Nette off Louis.  Mother tells Louis to leave.  After Louis leaves, the mother gets out of her daughter that Schmitt raped her. 

Daens is called in by an underling of the Pope and is given a letter to him from the Pope with instructions to the wild priest.  The Pope writes that he is not to consort with those who want to overthrow the government and is to stop sowing dissension within the Catholic party.  Daens can't believe it and says this is wrong.  He says he wants to see the Pope because he is sure His Eminence doesn't understand the terrible situation in which the working class finds itself. His pleas fall on deaf ears. 

Daens returns to Belgium to a huge crowd, but Daens doesn't want to talk to them. He tells his brother that he didn't get to see the Pope.  Nette is there.  He has to say something, so he lies saying he accomplished a lot in Rome.  He keeps it very short and still gets a wild reception from the audience.  But Woeste makes it known in parliament that Daens was called to the Vatican to be reprimanded.  Daens tries to reply, but is shouted down. 

The local priest Ponnet says the words of the Daens's brothers are forbidden to Catholic parishioners.  Virtually all of the poor and working class leave the church. 

Adolf tells his brother that the Pope wants him to resign.  The brother says that's impossible.  So many people voted for Adolf. 

With his supporters Daens tries out the new message that the socialists are the enemies of the church.  It doesn't go over very well.  Nette stands up to the priest and wants to know why he says these ridiculous things.  The socialists are workers like they are.  Daens does not say anything in his own defense.  Nette leaves the building.  Jan runs after Nette to say that Daens is just trying to save his skin. Nette says that isn't true and walks away from him.  He can't reach her, so he shouts something more important:  "I love you!"

The rich have dinner with the King, who asks about this Daens fellow.  Woeste says that Daens insists that if he resigns, the seat must go to the Christian democrat, but this is unacceptable to Woeste.  He demands that Daens resign unconditionally.   The King approves. 

The thugs of the wealthy, the Bucks, attack the house of publisher Daens.  Louis is one of the attackers.  They break the windows and go into the printing shop.  They bring out the papers and burn them in the street.  Adolf is arriving by train in Aalst.  His supporters get on the train first and tell him that the Bucks are attacking his brother and his publishing shop.  And the thugs are waiting at the station to harm him.  They take his hat and robe and put them on another man as a decoy.  The decoy is Pier and he gets beat up by the toughs. 

Adolf arrives at his brother's house.  The family is in the street.  The brothers hug. Adolf tells Pieter that he is pulling out of politics. The priest and his nieces start cleaning up the street. 

Daens comes to a convent.  The abbot says he is only allowed in because Manager Bishop Stillemans asked for him. The place is being used as an asylum for elderly and sick priests.  Daens's only job is just to read the Bible to them.  The circus comes to town.  Daens will not take the job as he says these men are already with God.  The abbot warns him that this is his last chance to stay with the church. 

The little friend of Nette, Jefke, goes too close to the cage of a tiger and gets mauled. The local priest Ponnet says he can't bury this boy because he did not confess his sins before he died. Nette is furious with the priest.  Daens comes along and asks about the boy.  He tells Nette that he will bury him, but Ponnet says that he cannot for he is no longer a priest.  So Daens takes off his priestly uniform and goes with the people to bury Jefke.  A huge crowd has gathered around the burial site and more keep coming. 

After the funeral Nette stays at the burial site.  Jan comes along.  They hug.  He tells Nette they will name their first son Jefke.  They walk hand in hand away from the cemetery. 

"Adolf Daens died in 1907 after a second term in parliament.   He was buried on Monday at 9 a.m.  Only poor people were present, women with black scarves, workers, strikers and a silent crowd." 


This is historically a great film, because it shows the full perfidy of the system deliberately designed to keep the rich, rich and the poor, poor.  The bosses are cruel and are supported by the Catholic church.  The working class and the unemployed poor live a miserable state of existence.  The rich use every dirty trick and every political favor to make sure the unfortunates never prosper.   That is pretty typical of all labor struggles across the globe.  Jan Decleir (as Adolf Daens) and Antje de Boeck (as Nette Scholliers) were both very good in their roles. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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