A short history of film from the Low Countries
The Netherlands, a few exceptions aside, offers an atrocious cinema experience. Run-down cinema’s with sub-par sound, un-sharp or faded colours on the projection screen and that is usually interrupted in the middle for a marked-up consumption break. Under such conditions you can only watch very simple movies, which, appropriately, is almost the only thing on offer. If you aspire to see a film without Will Smith, you might get lucky, but you will have to be very alert and flexible because it will be out of the cinema in less than 2 weeks. These unfavourable conditions have become a chicken and egg question, as the audience avoids the cinema because it is not attractive and they have no incentive to improve themselves because nobody comes.
But it was not just the decline of the cinema’s themselves. The VCR of the eighties certainly contributed to the plummeting cinema attendance in The Netherlands. They had dropped down to the lowest in Europe! The average Dutchman today goes to the cinema 1.4 times a year. If that does not sound low to you, consider that next door, in Belgium, the attendance is already 50% higher, while in France it is an amazing 300% that figure! If you feel bad for the Dutch, and want to help then out, you can send your complaints across the ocean: film distribution in The Netherlands is under near complete control of American companies (75% in 2004), with UIP, Warner Bros, Disney, etc. And they’re not doing a very good job over there.
The Dutch government does not help either. Of the 300 million euro budget they have to help “cultural production”, a mere 20 will go to film. Film is not seen as an art, as in France, but rather as entertainment. This, traditionally, has been the reason not to take it all too seriously, and certainly no reason to promote or to help it.
So, does anyone in Holland actually make films? You could be excused if you scratch your head remembering the last Dutch film you saw, but might be surprised to find that there are quite a few noteworthy productions. And not only that, but there are sufficiently few of them that you can become an expert in Dutch Cinema in no time, and take in a few great films along the way.
Fifty years ago, Dutch cinema was focussed on documentaries, fiction was regarded suspiciously, as an annoyance or a religious distraction. Within the world of documentaries, the occasional work of fiction slipped through, like the hilarious Fanfare (1958) by Bert Haanstra about an escalating misunderstanding in a fishing village leading to a brother against brother internal rivalry. Fiction remains low-key till , together with the liberalising society, the 1970s come along with Jos Stelling and Paul Verhoeven. The former could take credit for filming the 16th century drama Mariken van Nieumeghen (1975), which earned him a Golden Palm in Cannes and kick-starting a long career. The latter filmed Turkish Delight (1973) which was to become the most famous film ever to made in the The Netherlands. The quality was rewarded with becoming a huge national box office hit with 3,3 million entries. The story follows a “modern” whirlwind romance with an honest but crude look on life. The raw side of the story, with all the nudity and sex which comes with it, was a defining style for this to come (even if the raw side gets toned down with time).
Turkish Delight turned the entire crew into celebrities. The title roles were played by Rutger Hauer and Monique van de Ven. The director of photography was Jan de Bont, who would later disappear into Hollywood’s machinery, directing blockbuster-type films like Speed (1994), Twister (1996) and Lara Croft (2003) and produce others like Minority Report (2002). But before all that happened, they managed to document the wild 70s with the explicit coming of age drama Spetters and the internationally celebrated WWII resistance film Soldier of Orange. Verhoeven himself left for Hollywood as well, making near run-on-the-mill blockbuster films like Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992) and Starship Troopers (1997). These are all clearly American films, having lost the edge of his earlier work. In 1996 Verhoeven came back to Europe to create the acclaimed Black Book, a war film set in The Netherlands, and is currently working on another.
While Verhoeven was gone in the 80s, one Dick Maas became active in the country, producing a long series of commercial successes with silly productions like the elevator thriller De Lift (1983), Amsterdamned (1988) and the awful Flodder (1986) about an asocial family which managed to top the charts and spawn a follow-up and a TV series. Ruud van Hemert managed to further lower the level with his commercially successful Army Brats (1984) and an even worse follow-up. To save Dutch film in the 80s, Fons Rademakers produced The Assault (1986) about the moral dilemmas of war, earning him an Oscar and the country some honour abroad.
But we have to wait till the 1990s for Dutch cinema to take a turn for the better. Alex van Warmerdam, who was impressing his audience with the creative musical theatre Orkater which he created, decided to launch himself into film. He created the curious The Northeners (1992), The Dress (1996) and the hilariously funny Little Tony (1998). His theatrical and in-habitual look on the world was a welcome breath of fresh air. The young Robert-Jan Westdijk followed suit with the funny and dramatic cam recorded Zusje (1995). Another newcomer Marleen Gorris filmed the generational Antonia’s Line (1995) becoming the first female director to win an Oscar for best foreign film. She was followed by Mike van Diem who filmed his only real feature length, the oscar-ed impressive but cold movie Character (1997), after which he disappeared again. The 1990s have been a great source for new talent, but keeping them going has proven to be still an issue.
With all this activity in recent years, Dutch film has certainly earned itself a place. Production conditions, however, are still far from optimal. The lack of state subsidy weighs heavily in a small domestic market, and the downward spiral of cinema attendance (and less and less cinema’s themselves) does not encourage private investors to take chances. If a film fails on the domestic market, there is usually not much to be expected from its export either. Remember, that in the European Union, US movies make up an enormous 70% of the market! French movies make up the next 11% and then there’s the rest… including the Dutch productions.
Despite the grim picture, films are still being made, and the last decade is looking considerably brighter than the one before, so there is reason to be optimistic. You might be forgiven to have been oblivious to a lot of the film production in The Netherlands, but make sure you do not miss out on the little gems. And of course it is also your chance to be different – you take pride in being amongst that little group of experts in Dutch cinema!
Read the latest Dutch films reviewed.