Pentiment isn’t just a Christmas game, it’s medieval Die Hard

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Pentiment's Andreas Maler alongside Die Hard's John McClane.
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It’s the run-up to Christmas in the village of Tassing. All of the residents of this medieval alpine hamlet are gathered in the town commons, shivering away as a procession dressed in perchten masks circle them. Around 450 years and thousands of miles away, the workers at Los Angeles’ Nakatomi Plaza are engaged in their own pre-yuletide celebrations. Once the villagers have rerouted out of the snow into the local tavern, both sets of festivities start to look quite similar, with a steady supply of alcohol fuelling the revelry that follows a speech made by the spiritual leaders of each contingent.

But, neither in Pentiment, nor in Die Hard, is all well. Lurking in the background of both are clandestine conspiracies that threaten to severely alter the lives of those merrily partying away. While the architect of Pentiment’s plot remains a mystery at this point, having just quietly slipped away from the shindig, the man with plans for those on the Nakatomi Plaza’s 30th floor is on his way to crash the party, upset the status quo and make sure that everyone knows just who he is. With a few bursts of machine gun fire, Hans Gruber sets the events of the movie in motion, as John McClane, barefoot and probably still suffering from jet lag, covertly rushes off into the Plaza’s labyrinth of crawl spaces.

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Warning: main story spoilers for Pentiment lie ahead

His opposite number, Andreas Maler, has already been forced to flee into solace, hiding out in the maze of Roman ruins Tassing and Kiersau are built on as he tries to solve a mystery and free the townsfolk from the threat that lurks among them. Both have ended up in the position of would-be hero as a result of their status as outsiders to the communities they’re trying to save. For McClane, the fact he’s just arrived from New York to visit his estranged wife is what’s allowed him to evade Gruber’s gaze. For Maler, his status as an artist staying in the village while completing his masterpiece in the abbey’s Scriptorium grants him the ability to serve as a trustworthy go-between when things start to go wrong.

A corpse has been left under the tree

The murder of Baron Rothvogel in Pentiment.

Both quickly receive a baptism of fire as they arrive on the scene of a murder. Maler joins a crowd of terrified monks and nuns gathered around the bloodied corpse of Lorenz Rothvogel and is taken aback to see his timid mentor, Brother Piero, holding what seems to be the murder weapon. McClane watches helplessly as Gruber isolates the Nakatomi workers’ boss, Joseph Takagi, away from the crowd and, after unsuccessfully asking for the code to the building’s vault, shoots him in the head.

Shocked by what they’ve seen, both characters immediately realise they’re in a race against the clock to acquire some answers and try to resolve the situation. McClane’s quest to do so is rather immediately disrupted by Gruber sending one of his goons, Tony, after him, whom McClane quickly kills. Maler is given a little bit more time to chase leads before being forced to play a key role in deciding who among those with known motives to murder the Baron will be the one to die for it. Both killings have consequences for each character, with Maler earning the ire of those close to the deceased and McClane suffering the same fate by making Tony’s brother Karl develop the hatred that’ll later serve as his undoing.

Another similarity shared by the two here lies in the discovery of notes. Maler’s unearthing of various jottings sent to those accused of Rothvogel’s slaying serves as the only evidence that a wider conspiracy is at play, while McClane’s iconic scrawling of ‘Now I have a machine gun’ serves both to inform his opponents that he isn’t to be trifled with and is part of a plan that allows him to do some detective work by learning the names of Gruber’s crew.

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The rowdy relatives turn up to crash the party

Otto giving a speech in Pentiment.

The next stage of both plots sees outside forces suddenly become a factor in what had up until then been an isolated struggle between two sides to deal with the events taking place. McClane’s attempt to radio for police help eventually catches the attention of the LAPD when the irate detective flings a corpse down onto Sergeant Al Powell’s car just before the patrolman can conclude that all is well at Nakatomi. Meanwhile, Maler’s return to Tassing several years after his first visit sees a tense standoff between the Kiersau’s Abbot and the town’s peasants unfolding against the backdrop of fears that the local Prince-Bishop will send troops to solve the discontent by force.

The attitudes exhibited by these external influences are both heavily influenced by events going on the wider world, with the FBI agents that come to lead Die Hard’s cops basing their approach to the situation on how they typically deal with terrorist threats and being open to sacrificing around a quarter of the hostages in their airborne assault. Meanwhile, Tassing’s residents are more likely to face an armed intrusion by Landsknecht mercenaries, who’ll take no prisoners because of other peasant rebellions happening elsewhere.

While more murders serve to turn up the heat in both cases, it’s the eventual interventions of these violent forces that lead to an upping of the stakes in terms of destruction. At Nakatomi, the police’s misguided attempts to assault the building with SWAT teams and an armoured vehicle lead McClane to end the bloodshed via some stolen explosives before things escalate too much. In Tassing, the conflict between the peasants and monks comes to a head with the abbey being set ablaze, causing the Prince-Bishop’s men to ride in and kill the rebellion’s leaders.

Inevitable arguments at the dinner table

Andreas Maler's mind decaying in Pentiment.
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This section of Pentiment’s story also sees the broken relationship between Andreas and his wife, Sabine, emerge as a key theme, with the death of their child being suggested as the main reason why the artist can’t muster the courage to return to their shared home in Nuremberg. Though his domestic strife has been present from the film’s outset, is based on a disagreement over his wife, Holly, moving away from New York to take her job at Nakatomi and isn’t portrayed as well as Maler’s case in Pentiment, McClane also finds himself struggling to deal with it as he attempts to resolve the situation without alerting Gruber to the relationship.

While he may never get a taste of Maler’s grief, McClane does get an idea of the survivor’s guilt the artist has developed when he can’t save one of Holly’s co-workers, outrageously greasy salesman Harry Ellis, from being shot by Gruber following a foolish attempt at negotiation. Scything through all of the terrorists he has to this point may not have affected the gruff New York detective’s conscience, but this incident definitely scars him, leading him to try and justify not giving himself up to save Ellis, a choice which Powell’s LAPD bosses aren’t too happy with.

On the other hand, the pair do share the privilege of having an amicable face-to-face chat with their adversaries in the midst of the struggle. For McClane, this opportunity comes when he runs into Gruber on the roof, leading the savvy boss to realise that the detective hasn’t seen his face and adopt the persona of helpless banker Bill Clay. The ruse doesn’t last long before being sussed out, but it does make for an amusing couple of scenes. Meanwhile, Maler’s experience of this kind of thing is a little less funny and spans multiple chats over the span of several years, during which a handful of subtle bits of foreshadowing are sprinkled into being.

In the same vein, these antagonists share a similar approach to making their schemes difficult to unpick, by shielding their motivations in the natural assumptions of others. Sure, Gruber’s ruse of being an idealistic terrorist rather than a pragmatic thief doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, but it’s enough to convince the FBI and police outside of Nakatomi to inadvertently aid him in his true endeavour. Similarly, Pentiment’s baddie manages to hide their plans by executing them by murdering individuals who have a lot of plausible enemies via methods that don’t narrow things down much.

The long dark tea-time of the soul

Magdalene standing outside of the ruined abbey in Pentiment.

The final chapters of both works see the web-like schemes of these baddies gradually come fully unwoven, as Maler and McClane force these conspirators towards climactic showdowns. Maler has some help in his efforts to do so, with Magdalene Druckeryn teaming up with the bedraggled artist, who’s long been reduced to living a rough, McClane-esque lifestyle and skulking about on the fringes of society in order to finally solve Tassing’s mysterious conspiracy.

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Together, they travel to the Roman mithraeum which holds the secret to the town’s history, where they finally confront the perpetrator of the crimes that have shaped the game’s plot, before being forced to save a hostage this individual is putting in danger. Meanwhile, at the Nakatomi Plaza vault, McClane faces Gruber alone, but is also faced with freeing a captive in the form of his ex-wife Holly. As tends to happen in fiction, both scenarios see the wrongdoer get their comeuppance, while their prisoners are freed from bondage.

Thus, we arrive at the epilogues, which see Maler and McClane finally able to emerge from their unkempt isolation and rejoin their respective societies, where a much more satisfying life than they had at the beginning of their journey awaits. Sure, only one of their marriages is capable of being saved, but both protagonists find themselves re-invigorated by the sense of meaning that, no matter how fleeting it may be, can only be found in the company of others.

Finding meaning in the merriment

Pentiment's villagers celebrating Christmas.

I’ve no doubt that in the run-up to this festive period and those yet to come, people will continue to debate whether the likes of Die Hard and Pentiment can be classified as true Christmas entertainment. In truth, neither are defined by their invocation of the holiday in the same way that the likes of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and half of Mariah Carey’s discography are.

That said, you certainly shouldn’t feel ashamed about spending your yuletide feasting with Tassing’s peasants or partying with Hans Gruber, because both the game and the film offer an overriding moral that I think’s pretty relevant to those trying to celebrate this short blip of happiness in the midst of a long, dark winter, while also trying not to drive their heating bills through the roof.

Life may be pretty depressing and difficult right now, but no matter whether your celebrations resemble those in Die Hard, Pentiment or neither, they might just help you to weather the storm until spring.