259: Dutch Films in the 1930s

Archival Spaces 259  

Cinefest: 33rd Film Historical Congress

Uploaded 30 December 2020

The 17th International Festival of German Film Patrimony, sponsored by the Hamburg Cinegraph, was accompanied by a film historical conference from 20 – 22 November under the heading, “Cinema, War and Tulips. German-Dutch Film Relations.” As in the case of the film festival (see Archival Spaces 257), the Congress took place online, but during regular business hours in Hamburg (9:30 AM GMT), which meant this reviewer in California pulled three all-nighters, something I haven’t done since college.

The keynote, titled “Panorama, Academy and Archive, German-Dutch Film Relations,” was given by Ivo Blom, a professor in Amsterdam and former curator at the Eye Institute. Blom noted that Dutch images of Germany and German images of the Netherlands have always been based on stereotypes, even if many Dutch people worked in Germany over the years (Truus van Alten, Ernst Winar, Jaap Speyer), while many German-Jewish refugees fled to Amsterdam in the 1930s. However, the rich history of German-Dutch production, distribution and exhibition, has yet to be written, e.g. by analyzing the Eye’s pre-WWI Jean Desmet Collection or the Filmliga Collection of avant-garde film.

Independent scholar Thomas Tode followed up with a discussion specifically of the Dutch and German film avant-garde, beginning with the thesis that the Dutch masters (Rembrandt) in art were fascinated by light, an obsession shared with filmmakers, like Joris Ivens, who has started his career studying optics and working on the design of the Kinamo, a lightweight 35mm camera that became the workhorse of avant-garde filmmakers, like Ivens, Moholy-Nagy, Luis Trenker, Hans Richter, and Alexander Hackenschmied. Next, Rommy Albers, Head of the Dutch Film Collection at EYE, discussed the career of Haro von Peski, a little known film director and producer, who after directing two films in Holland, set up a production company in Berlin in 1931, Majestic-Film, which produced 13 films under van Peski (the company continued to produce films until 1939). Peski returned to Amsterdam in 1935 but was not able to produce any more films under the Majestic label.

Kinamo 35 mm movie camera
Rain (1929, Joris Ivens)

The afternoon sessions began with EYE researcher Annette Schulz’s talk on Rudi Meyer, the German Jewish film producer who was responsible for numerous exile films in the 1930s and became a prominent film distributor in the Netherlands after surviving Auschwitz, also producing films in the 1950s by Gerard Rutten and Bert Haanstra. André Van Der Velden, a professor at the University of Utrecht, discussed the rivalry between the Dutch Tuschinski owned cinemas in Rotterdam and Amsterdam and the German UFA-owned Rembrandt (Amsterdam), Luxor (Rotterdam) and Asta (Den Haag) cinemas.    

Saturday morning began with Bundesarchiv archivist Evelyn Hampicke discussing the ambiguous career of Fritz van Dongen, the Dutch actor who was featured in at least two Nazi propaganda films, which communicated racist ideology, before emigrating to Hollywood, where he changed his name to Philip Dorn and became an upstanding anti-Fascist in numerous anti-Nazi films.  After the break, Timur Sijaric, a doctoral candidate in music at the University of Vienna, lectured on the film music of Alois Melichar for the Hans Steinhoff Nazi bio-pic, Rembrandt (1942), which was wholly shot in the occupied NetherlandsInterestingly, Sijaric notes that the composer utilized verboten 12-Tone techniques in his composition for Rembrandt, but Goebbels hated the film anyway, and it failed with audiences, despite being one of the most expensive German films of the war years.

Komedie om Gekd (1936, Max Ophuls)

Next, Kathinka Dittrich van Wehring, who received this year’s Reinhold Schünzel Prize, spoke about her efforts to research German refugee filmmakers in Holland, when she directed the Goethe Institute Amsterdam in the 1980s, and in her 1987 dissertation. Van Wehring noted that the home office of the Dutch government banned any anti-fascist topics in films, so the features made by German émigrés were apolitical and mostly harmless entertainment. In the afternoon session, Tobias Temming spoke about the image of Germans in post-1945 Dutch feature films, while Katja S. Baumgärtner, a doctoral candidate at the Berlin Humbolt University, discussed an East German documentary, Women in Ravensbrück (1958), co-directed by the Dutch-German team of Joop Huisken and Renate Drescher.

Alleman (1963, Bert Haanstra)

Sunday morning began with Anke Steinborn, an academic at the Viadrina University of Frankfurt/Oder, discussing Bert Haanstra’s use of Rembrandt lighting. Next, Karl Griep, former director of the Bundesarchiv’s film department, presented a classic content analysis of the image of Holland and the Dutch in German post-war newsreels, noting that stories about sports far outstripped any other topic. Finally, Anna Schober de Graaf discussed the use of identification figures  (taxi drivers, pedestrians) in Dutch post-war documentaries to create empathy, while independent researcher Michael Töteberg reviewed the film careers of two Dutch producers who helped jumpstart New German Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, namely Rob Houwer and Laurens Straub.    

Michael Kohlhaas (1969, Volker Schloendorf, produced by Rob Houwer)

Despite a few very minor technical glitches, Hamburg’s Cinegraph, the Eye Institute, and the Bundesarchiv should be congratulated on this conference on German-Dutch film relations, which despite a degree of heterogeneity certainly pointed the way towards further research in this under-exposed area of film history. A publication in German is forthcoming.

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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