Borgman begins with a curious scene where a team of men (including a priest) try to flush a wild haired madman from the underground bunker where he lives. The wild man manages to get away from them, but he needs a place to lay low for awhile, so he knocks on the front door of a nearby house. A well dressed man opens the door and is immediately disgusted by what he sees on his doorstep. The businessman denies the madman entry to his home, and when the madman pushes his luck, the businessman begins kicking him on the front lawn. Later that afternoon the man's wife later takes pity on the poor abused drifter and smuggles him into their gardener's shed. It won't take long for the husband's gut reaction to be proven right, because once "Camiel Borgman" has access to their house he immediately begins to undermine every facet of their seemingly comfortable life.
The film never explicitly calls Borgman the Devil, but he is obviously a sinister figure with an extraordinary ability to manipulate people. At first Borgman uses his powers of persuasion just for his own self preservation, but eventually he uses them to turn the wife against her husband, and ultimately he uses them to draft their children to his side. The movie never gives him any explicit motives for his actions, nor does it explain what powers he does and does not have. It presents his attempts to widen the cracks in this family using every tool he has at his disposal in a very matter of fact manner - it just assumes that it is normal for a forest dweller to have telepathic control over some wild dogs and a small army of murderous henchmen at his beck and call.
It took me a while to realize that Borgman was a fairy tale, because it's a lot more subtle in it's approach than American fairy tales tend to be. (The film was made in the Netherlands.) I'm so used to stories which explicitly announce themselves as fairy tales by including fairies (or at least a magic creature of some sort), and which follow a fairly rigid plot pattern where misfortune is overcome by bravery and then there's a tidy little moral at the end, that I forget that fairy tales can take a lot of different forms. Camiel Borgman never demonstrates any undeniably demonic powers, and he enacts his plan slowly and in ways that are not always obviously malevolent, so at first I was taking the film far too literally. Once the film became more obviously dreamlike, and once I started to tap into the complicated moral it was trying to illustrate, I realized that it wouldn't be out of place in Grimms' Fairy Tales, where for every one Cinderella there are four or five more ambiguous and disturbing tales.
I find it hard to get invested in most American fairy tales, because I've outgrown the need for tidy bedtime stories, but Borgman is neither tidy nor a bedtime story. In fact, the movie has such a strong undercurrent of tension that you probably shouldn't watch it immediately before lying down, because I could see this nightmarish figure jumping out of the silver screen and into your real life dreams. This film illustrates the banality of evil not with gruesome violence, but through engaging metaphors, and it's plausibility and it's domesticity make it the most affecting moral fable I've seen in a long time. Trust me, I've learned a solid lesson from Borgman: I am never going to let a wild haired forest dweller take refuge in my spare house. Never, like not even once.