Naked over the Fence (1973)
Dutch Cinema from the ’50s to the early ’70s
By Jeremy Richey
On the golden age of Dutch filmmaking that paved the way for actress Sylvia Kristel—an excerpt from Cult Epics’ new volume Sylvia Kristel: From Emmanuelle to Chabrol, available from the Metrograph Bookstore.
The Films of Sylvia Kristel series plays at Metrograph in theatre from Friday, 23 September and At Home from Saturday, October 1.
Sylvia Krystel’s dreams of a film career coincided with a pivotal chapter in her home country’s cinematic history. Dutch film had been around since the earliest days of silent cinema, but many of the films made in the Netherlands before the war were documentaries, along with half a dozen or so narrative features a year. This pattern continued throughout the 1940s and 1950s until 1958 when two essential features appeared, just past Sylvia’s fifth birthday. Fanfare (1958) was the first feature-length film from Bert Haanstra, one of the period’s critical documentarians. Even more important was The Village on the River (1958), a film made by two artists who would play a considerable role in Sylvia’s career and life, its director Fons Rademakers and its screenwriter, Hugo Claus.
Rademakers became the first-ever Dutch director nominated for an Academy Award for Village by the River and would later deliver such groundbreaking works like Mira (1971). Rademakers’s acclaimed 1958 film served two significant roles. It would help establish a new film industry in the Netherlands, and, even more importantly, it was the kind of “respectable” work that could be rebelled against. Future feminist filmmaker Nouchka van Brakel described Rademakers and Haanstra as “distinguished men in suits” and the reaction against their more traditional films would form the basis of what would become known as the “Dutch Sex Wave” in the late ’60s.
Rebellion was the ’50s most vital ingredient. This was especially true in the art world, from the music crawling out of the swamps of the American South to the B-movie-loving film writers in France who decided they wanted to start making their own films their own way. Rebellion would also never be far from the young Sylvia’s mind. After all, she was coming of age during one of the most exciting periods of the past century. The period was also the first time teenagers, from Elvis Presley to Brigitte Bardot, positively shaped popular culture. The ’60s would prove an explosively creative time for youth in general, and the artists that eventually helped influence Sylvia’s career were barely a generation older than she was. The beating heart of the counterculture was a youthful one, and everything about it attracted the young Sylvia, including a movement that had formed in France in the mid-’50s.
The French New Wave profoundly impacted the independent Dutch film industry of the ’60s and ’70s. It would also often play a dramatic role in Sylvia’s career as many of her later key collaborators had been once connected to the group. Van Brakel described their importance:
The French movement known as Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) blew a new kind of filmmaking all over Europe. With a new lightweight 16mm camera (the Aaton), we could move easily outside the studio and follow in a more documentary way the lives and loves of our own generation. We didn’t want to work with big stars like they do in Hollywood. We preferred non-professional actors without any acting experience and who often were friends of the director.
The Aaton helped revolutionize filmmaking and made it generally more accessible. It would prove an invaluable tool for the young members, like van Brakel, of the Netherlands Film Academy. In this school, several essential figures to Dutch film and Sylvia’s career studied, including Pim de la Parra, Jan de Bont, Frans Weisz, and even briefly Paul Verhoeven.
By the end of the ’60s, theaters that Sylvia would have attended, like the magnificent Pathé Rembrandt, a restored 1913 theater, were packed with some of the greatest Dutch films of the period. Sylvia would soon find herself right in the middle of this new golden age.
The Nederlandse Filmacademie served several roles, but one of the most important was the idea that a film career was now possible in the Netherlands. A 1959 article about the school in Arnhemsche courant noted these possibilities:
On June 23rd, as part of the international film week, the Netherlands Film Institute has chosen as its general theme: a Dutch film training course. The Dutch Film Academy was founded in 1958. It aims to train young people who want to gain a position in film production and give a thorough orientation in the primary professions in the film world. In the near future, the aim is to complete the five main courses in film in a two-year course. These five subjects are direction, screenwriting, camerawork, editing, and soundtracks. Young people of at least 18 years of age can be admitted after an entrance exam and then trained for the professions.
The ’60s ushered in a new wave of popular Dutch filmmaking. By the end of the decade, theaters that Sylvia would have attended, like the magnificent Pathé Rembrandt, a restored 1913 theater, were packed with some of the greatest Dutch films of the period. Sylvia would soon find herself right in the middle of this new golden age.
Nouchka van Brakel called it “the film with the longest name ever.” Indeed the first feature-length film for the company that kickstarted Sylvia Kristel’s career in the early ’70s was the delightfully lengthy title of The Less Happy Return of Joszef Katus to Rembrandt’s Land (1966). Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, the black-and-white film was Wim Verstappen’s first feature as director. Produced and co-written by Pim de la Parra, The Less Happy Return of Joszef Katus to Rembrandt’s Land introduced audiences to the company that the team of ‘Pim & Wim’ formed together. It would become one of the most important of the postwar era and would give Sylvia her start in film. They called it $corpio.
The future feminist filmmaker behind such masterpieces as A Woman Like Eve (1979) and The Cool Lakes of Death (1982), van Brakel wasn’t the only important figure making her debut with The Less Happy Return of Joszef Katus to Rembrandt’s Land. Cinematographer Jan de Bont got his start with the film, as did editor Rob van Steensel. De la Parra noted that Jean-Luc Godard celebrated the film at Cannes and that ‘Pim & Wim’ became regarded as the Young Turks of the Dutch Nouvelle Vague. De la Parra also noted in our interview that he and Verstappen “personally knew filmmakers like Godard, François Truffaut, Bernardo Bertolucci, Jan Nemec, Dusan Makavejev, Bertrand Tavernier and others.” Nobody could have known at the time that the team of ‘Pim & Wim’ would, within just a few years, completely revolutionize Dutch and world cinema in general—least of all the young Sylvia Kristel, who was still just in her early teens when the film premiered.
The genesis for Sylvia Kristel’s film career was in the eye of this counterculture storm. As a teenager in the ’60s, Sylvia watched from a distance as the world was rapidly changing. The sexual revolution was bubbling under, ready to explode, and the peaceful hippie movement was gathering steam as the war in Vietnam raged. Even more importantly, early feminists questioned women’s assumed roles in every aspect of modern life. Sylvia, a consummate dreamer, was captivated by everything happening around her. She found the promise of an exciting possible future in the grooves of her Beatles albums that she would constantly spin. There was no reason to expect that this young Dutch girl would soon find herself at the center of this revolutionary period, but Sylvia understood something that no one around her could have grasped: She was going to stand out. She was going to be unique.
Woven into the fabric of the sexual revolution was the blossoming feminist movement. Several years before she became one of the ’70s most controversial feminist figureheads, a 17-year-old Sylvia heard about a Dutch group of women that became one of the most vital feminist organizations on the planet. They were called Dolle Mina, and one of Sylvia’s future key collaborators, Nouchka van Brakel, was one of their essential members and hosted the group at her home.
Formally established in 1969, Dolle Mina’s origins went back to pioneering Dutch feminist Wilhelmina Drucker, who argued for women’s equal rights throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A key group of feminism’s second wave, Dolle Mina was dedicated to equal pay, rights, and protections for women. Although Sylvia referred to herself as a feminist as early as the mid-Seventies and repeatedly called for women’s equal pay and rights, more conservative members of feminism’s second wave attacked her throughout her life. Few personalities from the period represent the idea of freedom and liberation more than Sylvia, though, and feminist figures like van Brakel and later Camille Paglia correctly celebrated her crucial role.
A teenage Sylvia watched the excitement of the ’60s unfold before her young eyes. She knew something exciting awaited her. Before her 18th birthday, a Dutch film would premiere that would help set in motion the destiny that Sylvia knew belonged to her.
If The Less Happy Return of Joszef Katus to Rembrandt’s Land had been a knock at the door, de la Parra’s Obsessions (1969) completely knocked it down. Co-written with Verstappen and a young American working in Amsterdam named Martin Scorsese, de la Parra’s Obsessions shocked and thrilled audiences hungry for new cinematic experiences. Starring Alexandra Stewart and Dieter Geissler, Obsessions established $corpio as one of the most exciting and vital independent companies on the planet. De la Parra’s debut feature was a success, but the next film he produced for Wim Verstappen would explode in a way that neither young artist expected.
Guido Peter noted the importance of this period in the realm of Dutch film history:
Postwar Dutch cinema had never been more successful than in the 1970s, the glory years of $corpio Films. Whereas in the first two decades after the war an average of one to three patriotic fiction films were delivered per year and the public interest was rarely noticeable, in the late 1960s the Dutch feature film world gradually grew towards professionalism. Under the influence of a new generation of filmmakers, they broke with the so-called ‘cinema du papa’—formed by makers such as Bert Haanstra and Fons Rademakers—and they took the French Nouvelle Vague as an example.
Blue Movie (1971) solidified $corpio as the most important independent film company of the sexual revolution. Written by Verstappen and Scottish screenwriter Charles Gormley, the de la Parra-produced Blue Movie set fire to the Dutch box office in 1971 as crowds gathered in the streets waiting to see one of the most brilliantly shocking films of the period. Starring Hugo Metsers, Blue Movie was one of the most explicit and profoundly adult films audiences had ever seen, and it made both ‘Pim & Wim’ successful beyond their wildest dreams. Released nearly simultaneously, Paul Verhoeven’s Any Special Way set in motion one of the most exciting careers in modern cinema. Verhoeven soon directed the film that overtook Blue Movie’s return: the Rob Houwer-produced Turks Fruit (1973). Houwer had been a student from another European school, the University of Film Munich. After producing several shorts throughout the ’60s, Houwer would become one of the Netherlands’ most essential producers throughout the next few decades.
Verhoeven became the Netherlands’ most famous filmmaker as the ’70s progressed, leading eventually to a landmark American film career. Sylvia would soon find herself right in the middle of this exciting storm.
This is an excerpt from Cult Epics' new volume Sylvia Kristel: From Emmanuelle to Chabrol, which is available to order from the Metrograph Bookstore.
Pastorale 1943 (1978)