BERT HAANSTRA: FILMMAKER, MAGICIAN, WIZARD
When glancing over Bert Haanstra's photo albums and flipping through files of clippings, his career resembles a victory parade through rows of applauding admirers, delighted audiences, proud present and confused critics both at home and abroad. The reputation this Dutch filmmaker established over more than 40 years of film making, escaped many of us because of his plain and bovish behaviour.
All the obvious clichés apply to Bert Haanstra. The most striking were his enthusiasm and drive, his unparalleled skill, artistic integrity and humorous creativity. His work, which covers a broad spectrum, is an effortless blending of drama and comedy, imagination and reality, feature film and documentary. Haanstra built up his fascinating film career through his own efforts, like a self made man. Nearly all his movies, whether short or long, enjoyed tremendous success in numerous countries. His brilliant camerawork and editing produced unforgettable filrns and several of the highlights in Dutch film history. Some of the greatest names in Hollywood paid tribute to his work.
BOYHOOD BOOK OR AMERICAN DREAM.
A boyhood book or the realization of the classis American dream... it depends on where one grows up. lf Bert Haanstra had been born in a tough neighbourhood of Brooklyn or on a remote farm on the plains of Texas, the Hollywood press would have given him that kind of image. But in fact he came from a tiny village in Holland. His dream was to make films, and this seemed unlikely to come true. In the poverty of the 1920s, the cinema and glamour of Hollywood seemed out of reach. Making the best of life meant living modesty and working hard. Haanstra's father, the head of the village school, had a passion for art and, after early retirement, he became a full time painter. He held several exhibitions and received a prestigious award. The family shared his passion, which meant that views on imagination, portrayal, observation and design were frequently discussed in the Haanstra home.
Bert too was a painter with a special love of drawing - which enabled him to tell stories through pictures. And he was captivated by moving images. The new medium of film intrigued him even more because it gained increasing popularity. Charmed by Bert's enthusiasm, the owner of the local cinema invited him into his projection room, allowing him to watch the films for free through a small glass window. The young Haanstra collected every bit of hardware that landed in the wastebasket and eventually, with the help of a teacher, used it to build his own projector. Films were sold at the local drugstore. Bert bought them with the money he earned collecting acorns and chestnuts, which he sold to farmers nearby. He would then run home, trembling with excitement and wondering what the films were about. He was completely enthralled with this newest of mediums.
THE STAGED PICTURE: CATFISH
Bert enrolled at the Fine Arts Academy in Amsterdam but the years of study seemed too long for Haanstra, who simply wanted to immerse himself in film. He became a press photographer, hoping this would bring him into contact with the makers of the cinema newsreels. Haanstra's pictures were occasionally published in the local newspaper. He was not a hardcore reporter but relied on unusual ideas and staged pictures. His view was mild and ironic and infused with his love of people and nature. Haanstra made his first staged picture in Amsterdam. He had noticed a cat sitting beside a painting of a fish in a gallery window. He bought some scraps of seafood, placed them next to the painting and sat down across the street. When the cat eventually started to sniff the seafood, he snapped the picture. Haanstra took a large print of the photograph to a leading press agency. It was published the following day with the title 'catfish'. This was a personal triumph for Haanstra but... he was still not a filmmaker. There was not yet a film academy in the Netherlands, nor role models for serious filmmakers. Joris Ivens was the one exception, but he always worked abroad.
The Second World War almost shattered Haanstra's dreams. Thanks to a friend, however, he acquired a job as a photographer at the regional electricity company. The same friend also introduced him to members of the Resistance during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Haanstra's modest studio became a meeting place where important and often dangerous missions were planned. At the Academy Haanstra met the German refugee Paul Bruno Schreiber, who was also a film buff and who wanted to make a film in the Netherlands. After viewing some of Haanstra's amateurs films, Schreiber asked him to be his camera man. The film they made together, an odd fairytale entitled, Myrte and the Demons, was a fiasco but Haanstra received praise for his effort. Critics who saw the premiere in 1948 found the movie vague, tedious and confusing, but remarked on Haanstra's beautiful and unusual camerawork. The film was shot without sound and had to be completed by J. Arthur Rank in London, where Haanstra spent six months on Schreiber's feature film. Haanstra knew the movie was bad and he dreaded attending the premiere. He blamed himself for being reckless. But his confidence was restored when Roger Manvell, a film critic for the magazine Sight & Sound, described Haanstra's contribution to the film as 'unique photography'. While working in the London studio, Haanstra learned the techniques of montage and sound recording. He returned to Holland as a man with much better understanding of filmmaking.
GOLDEN PALM IN CANNES
Almost a year later he made his first film. Working alone he took responsibility for the direction, camerawork, scenario and editing. His debut, The Muyden Circle, was a 10 minute dramatised, black and white documentary about Muyden Castle. In the 17th century, the castle had been a venue for artists and writers, presided over by a celebrated Dutch Poet. Haanstra's film was a reconstruction of these cultural gatherings. His choice of subject matter was daring for a first attempt. Haanstra worked with fairly basic equipment and a shoestring budget. His wife Nita designed and made the costumes, which were an important feature. The film received a number of favourable reviews and apparently passed the test with flying colours. "The critic's response to The Muyden Circle and to my work on the unsuccessful English production encouraged me to make Mirror of Holland. The sheer amount of work it would require frightened me. I was on my own and had no one to advise me."
In 1950 Haanstra made Mirror of Holland, combining his talent of a filmmaker with his eye as a painter. Holding the camera upside down, he filmed images of Holland reflected in water. The effect is strange and delightful. The scenes Haanstra captured with such skill astonished critics and the public alike. Mirror of Holland was Haanstra's first success abroad. It was shown at the prestigious film festival in Cannes and won a Golden Palm (Grand Prix). The country boy from Holland travelled to Cannes to take a bow and receive the award. He returned the following year as a member of the jury chaired by Jean Cocteau. He became friends with Jacques Tati, whom he considered the very best in his field. During that time he made a drawing of Cocteau and Tati together.
The film was a huge success in the Netherlands as well. The film provided first class entertainment, but was admired above all for the lyrical play of light, shadow and colour. Haanstra had established himself as a filmmaker and his reputation drew many people to his films. His work appealed to the Dutch, who loved seeing their country through his eyes. The images he presented on film gave new meaning and colour to daily life in Holland. The feature films he made years later inspired a similar affinity, as millions enjoyed Haanstra's vision and outlook, his gentle humour and his affectionate view of his country and its citizens.
In 1952, Bert Haanstra made Panta Rhei, another view of Holland through the eyes of a painter and filmmaker. Poetic images of water, skies and clouds. Haanstra's portrayal of nature in Panta Rhei is a refection of his own moods. People are conspicuously absent from Haanstra's earliest films. The famous Russian director Vsevolod Pudovkin remarked on this at the festival in Cannes. "In my own mind Mirror of Holland has people". To which Haanstra replied: "I am still a beginner. I have mastered the camera, 1 can handle nature, but l've not yet learned to handle people and their problems. That's still too complicated. But I'll get there…” Pudovkin, unfortunately, was no longer alive to sec Haanstra's film, The Human Dutch.
JOURNEYS AND ADVENTURES
After Panta Rhei Haanstra devoted himself to an entirely different aspect of his profession documentaries made on commission. Though he worked harder than ever, he was no longer in the public eye. He travelled widely and spent long periods of time in Caracas, Venezuela, as chief of the Royal Dutch Shell Film Unit. During these adventurous years Haanstra explored remote and unknown regions and spent a month in the jungle of Sumatra. Indonesia had just gained independence from the Netherlands, and in 1952 and 1953 relations between the two countries were strained. In spite of this, the Dutch filmmaker and his Indonesian crew managed to get along well together. The films Haanstra made during his Shell years were highly successful examples of their genre. Some were educational, some provided technical instruction and some showed the process of obtaining petroleum, tracing the steps through exploration, drilling and transportation. Haanstra presented these processes as short but powerful epics of man's struggle against nature and his efforts to tame it. A good example is The Rival World which includes some sensational close ups of swarms of locusts descending on crops which they swiftly devour before moving on. This breathtaking film about man's attempts to control insects demonstrates that creative input can make even the commissioned documentary exciting. This film received critical acclaim at many film festivals and won a national award in the Netherlands. In 1955, the Dutch Department of Education, Arts and Science commissioned Haanstra to make a documentary about the vanishing folklore around the Zuiderzee, a former sea inlet. The outstanding result was And There Was No More Sea.
Rembrandt, Painter Of Man was released in 1957. This impressive cinematic painting was commissioned by the Dutch Arts Ministry to mark the 35Oth anniversary of Rembrandt's birth. Haanstra, himself a painter, succeeded in uniting cinematography and painting. The film represented a personal high point in his career. Haanstra ralated Rembrandt’s work to the events in Rembrandt's life, using only stills of paintings, often portraits, to do so. He then applied moving images to these motionless elements showing the rise and fall of a painter. The beauty of this film lies in Haanstra's refined lighting, his emphasis on vital details in the paintings, and his gradual dramatisation of Rembrandt's characters in relation both to the master and to one another.
AN OSCAR: THE GRAND PRIX
By this time Bert Haanstra had become one of the world's leading filmmakers, enhancing the international reputation of Dutch cinema. Through his work, as well as that of Herman van der Horst for example, shorts of all kinds had evolved into a typically Dutch genre.
In 1957, the Royal Leerdam Glass Works commissioned Haanstra to make an informative promotional film in black and white. This resulted in the accomplished 25 minute Speaking of Glass. On entering the factory, however, Haanstra noticed that a mechanical stacking machine was malfunctioned because of one broken bottle. Amused by its robot like but futile movements, Haanstra agreed to make the film, but only on condition that he could make a separate short on glass. The film gives an intriguing view of the process of glass blowing and the mechanical way in wich glass objects are made. Glass, his greatest success to date, even won an Oscar, the grand prix of Hollywood and Holland's first Academy Award. While completing Glass, Haanstra took his first steps towards making a feature film. He was very motivated but had to defend the move because he had become typecast as a maker of short films.
FANFARE (THE BRASS BAND)
In this most difficult venture in his film career, Bert Haanstra was supported by Rudolf Meyer, the only film producer of any stature in the Netherlands after the war. With his flawless eye for visual humour, Haanstra inevitably opted for comedy. The first day on the set he explained that he was aiming at "a light comedy, not a farce. The story is told by an amused onlooker. We asked the British director Alexander Mackendrick, who made Whisky Galore, to take a look at the script. He also helped me out with the film's storyline, as I had never tried characterizing or portraying people experiencing a series of events".
DUTCH RECORDS ESTABLISHED
The Brass Band (1958) follows the fortunes of two rival brass bands in the picturesque Dutch village of Giethoorn. There are no streets in Giethoorn, only canals. Haanstra used this rustic setting to comic effect. The movie was a huge commercial success in Holland. In less than two weeks, Haanstra won the hearts of more than a million viewers.
In 196o, Haanstra released his second feature film, The M.P. Case, a comedy centring on the little statue of Manneken Pis, a national icon in Belgium. A student makes off with the statue after the annual soccer match between Holland and Belgium, triggering a wave of chauvinism. Though the movie was executed more professionally than The Brass Band, its construction was contrived and it lacked a good script. It was an artistic and commercial failure. Haanstra was disappointed, but he himself saw the film's weaknesses.
Haanstra spent the following two years working on two wonderful shorts. One was Zoo, a touching and humorous look at the way people and animals behave. Haanstra used, for the first time ever, with the "candid camera" technique. "Observing people and animals when they don't know you're there is fascinating. I bonded with them". Making a film of this kind takes tact and integrity. Haanstra and his team were aware of their responsibilities throughout and respected the privacy of their subjects.
In the same period Haanstra made a documentary, commissioned by the Ministry of Public Works, about the Delta Project. After a devastating flood in the 1950s the Dutch built a series of dams to protect the south western part of the country from the sea. Haanstra's Delta Phase I is about one of the more spectacular of these projects. Once again Haanstra's legendary touch transformed an unattractive enterprise into a tale of bold adventure. This gripping documentary is a tribute to the courage of men battling with the elements and a study of the sheer magnitude of the project. As always, Haanstra highlighted the human dimension. Although Delta Phase I won a great number of awards, it failed to receive the public attention it deserved. As for Zoo, which was an instant success. Haanstra said: "it was the key to making The Human Dutch, I ended up making these type of films for lack of a good comedy scenario and out of fear of missing the target. in the documentaries approach I avoided impossible storylines. In a way I played it safe. I had already developed a routine and felt comfortable with that genre. But it was much more difficult to attract large audiences. Making a blockbuster documentary was unheard of but it worked!"
HOLLANDS LEADING FILMMAKER
Bert Haanstra became Holland's leading filmmaker. His next feature, The Human Dutch, broke all previous records, even those set by The Brass Band. The Dutch flocked to the cinema that Christmas holiday in 1962 The Human Dutch paints a picture of the Dutch and pokes gentle fun at their peculiarities. As in Zoo, Haanstra and cameraman Anton van Munster filmed people as they unwittingly went about their business The basic idea was to show how people behave in specific situation or environment. But as people tend to be self-conscious in the presence of a camera, they concealed the camera in a huge shopping bag and hid their equipment in the shrubs. They built sheds with one way reflecting glass. In this film Haanstra observed the Dutch with compassion and wit and they emerged as people with a sense of sorrow and joy, religion and individualism and, above all, freedom.
Widely acclaimed abroad, The Human Dutch won a Golden Bear at the film festival in Berlin. Although its success was clearly important to Haanstra personally, it also signified the growth of a steady team. Anton van Munster was Haanstra's cameraman. Anton Koolhaas worked on the scenarios and contributed advice and constructive criticism. The writer Simon Carmiggelt provided the text and additional commentary, which he wrote while Haanstra filmed. In this way a long and fruitful collaboration developed within the group.
"Another film about water... Can't we ever get away from that water?" the narrator wonders in the opening scenes of The Voice Of The Water (1966). Much of Holland is surrounded by water and much of the country is below sea level. In the documentary Haanstra examines some of the stereotype images of Holland. ironically, the film received a mixed response from the critics, precisely because of the subject matter. Audiences, however, were enthusiastic.
The usual clichés about Holland serve a dramatic purpose in The Voice Of The Water and Haanstra manages, once more, to entertain the viewer with both humour and emotion. The film opens with a boy terrified at the prospect of his first swimming lesson. This scene recurs throughout the film and we grip our seats in sympathy until he appears to have mastered his fear. Referring to that scene, Ingmar Bergman once remarked that he was astonished to discover that a documentary could capture such emotion. Haanstra produced several films in the following years. One of these was Not Enough, commissioned by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and directed by Wim van der Velde.
The friendship flourished between Haanstra and Jacques Tati, creator of the popular Monsieur Hulot. The brilliant French comic and film director was an admirer of Haanstra's work. The two men decided to work together to revive Hulot in the comedy Trafic. Haanstra directed the Amsterdam sequences. The partnership, however, was doomed. These two strong minded virtuosos were worse than two captains on one ship. They parted company as friends, and Jacques Tati finished Trafic on his own.
FROM THE POLE TO THE EQUATOR
In 1972, Haanstra released another feature length documentary, the outstanding Ape and Super Ape. The culmination of his interest in the behaviour of humans and animals, ultimately became Haanstra's personal favourite. Haanstra studied many different animals in their natural environment, recording their behaviour aggression, territorial instincts, hierarchies and mating habits in scenes that have seldom been equalled on film. Despite the obvious parallels with human behaviour and responses, Haanstra never laboured the point, nor did he ever settle for an easy laugh at the expense of either species.
It took three years of hard work to make this film. Haanstra's team travelled to the most far off corners of the world, covering more than 175,000 kilometres. Haanstra returned with 40,000 metres of film to be edited into a 2,825 metre film. While preparing the film Haanstra lived like a hermit, studying dozens of books on the subject. He also received invaluable advice from the distinguished ethologist Professor Gerard Baerends. "My biggest concern was to ensure that Ape and Super Ape would appeal to a wide audience and not just a few biologists. It took a lot of effort to find the right form and style. I decided to make my point at the very beginning of the film, which is essentially about the preservation of all species. I also pointed out the most obvious differences. The physical differences between the species aren't that big. Human beings might even be slightly inferior in some ways. But our advantage is our intellect and the fact that we can use our hands. We used to be quadrupeds until we learned to walk upright. And we can teach what we learn to future generations. Other species can't do that. It has been said that people become aggressive through circumstances, but I have now learned that both animals and human beings are aggressive by nature! Everything evolves around retreat and attack. I have seen this with my own eyes and recorded it. It's about the survival of the fittest in its ultimate and most ruthless form." Ape and Super Ape has various dimensions. It is beautiful, moving, humorous but, above all, remorseless. The film earned Haanstra superlatives.
COMEDY AS A VIA DOLOROSA
Haanstra faced some trying times after the success of Ape and Super Ape. He had hoped to make another pure comedy but had trouble finding a suitable script. Rather than settle for a bad comedy he opted for no comedy at all, and changed his course entirely. He abandoned his efforts to find a good script and, to everyone's astonishment, chose a drama. When The Poppies Bloom Again was based on a novel by Anton Koolhaas who also wrote the screenplay. The film tells the story of a village doctor who unexpectedly receives a visit from a former fellow student. When his friend dies of an overdose of morphine, the doctor finds himself embroiled in the man's bizarre past. He becomes involved in a suicide pact thought up by his friend's addicted and confused mistress. The movie premiered in 1975 at the International Film Week in Arnhem, the Netherlands. After a difficult start Dutch audiences were delighted with Haanstra's latest production.
Then the unimaginable happened. Bert Haanstra vanished without a trace. He was finally found, motionless and silent, in a tiny shelter on one of the Holland North Sea islands! Waiting patiently to film a bird. The passionate nature lover and bird enthusiast in him had once more got the better of the film director. It was a welcome break and a chance for Haanstra to get back to the essence of his craft and worked with a small team again. He was commissioned to make a film on Dutch parks. National Parks in Holland was an enlightening 30 minute film on the abundance of nature in the Netherlands.
"These films are very time consuming", Haanstra explained. "You can direct actors, but not animals. We had to come up with ingenious strategies to get these timid animals in front of the camera. Anton van Munster, my regular cameraman, and I were holed up in a small tent for days at a time, but it was never dull for a moment. There's just so much to see. "
This serene impression produced by this little film was totally different from the stress Haanstra's new film would cause. Mr Slotter's Silver Jubilee of 1979, was again based on a novel by Anton Koolhaas. Mr Slotter is about a disillusioned executive in a multinational company who longs for the affection and approval of the company's aging founder. As one would expect of Haanstra, the movie was outstanding but the public stayed away. Accustomed to his well earned success, Bert Haanstra was bitterly disappointed. At the film festival in Cork, where the film was screened, he suffered a heart attack. He was forced to take it easy for several months, and made a miraculously swift recovery. What helped him most in this period was that he started to draw again, now as a form of therapy. He drew portraits of his friends and published them in a book accompanied by personal comments he wrote himself.
Though the illness left its mark on Haanstra's private life, he resumed his career without difficulty. He displayed great resilience after his recuperation by picking up where he had left off. He filmed several short stories by his close friend, the popular Simon Carmiggelt, entitled The World Of Simon Carmiggelt. in 1982, Haanstra teamed up with his small, familiar crew once again to make a colourful information film called The Netherlands, commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
SEX AND VIOLENCE
In 1984, a newspaper gave wide publicity to Haanstra's first cinematic foray into the world of sex and violence. What it turned out to be was Haanstra's latest film made for television, Family of Chimps. Haanstra had spent three months observing a group of chimpanzees in the spacious grounds of Burgers Zoo, near Arnhem. This was the largest group of chimpanzees ever to be kept in captivity. The animals had created a social structure of their own. The film is a chronicle of their power struggles, their affectionate relationships with one another, their love lives and their sex drives. The film also showed how they would resort to violence to solve problems or win respect. In time the chimpanzees and the film crew bonded. "Dance for me", Haanstra said to a female chimpanzee at one point. And she did. Family of Chimps delighted television viewers in the Netherlands and abroad. Haanstra carried on.
Quite by chance, his next film was Monument For A Gorilla. In any event it was not intended as a sequel to Family of' Chimps. A group of activists managed to save seven Lowland gorillas from being traded and Burgers Zoo gave them a large open air shelter. Haanstra wanted to film not only their behaviour at the zoo but also follow their track in the wild. Accompanied by a Pygmy hunter and his family, Haanstra and his crew trekked through the jungle of Cameroon, where gorillas and Pygmies live together as natural enemies. Though he was seventy years old at the time, Haanstra spent weeks on end travelling with youthful enthusiasm through the rain forests of Central Africa. Monument For A Gorilla calls for the protection of this endangered gentle giant, the man ape.
THE LAST YEARS
Haanstra's cinematic tour nonetheless ends with people. UNICEF invited him to make Children Of Ghana, the first in a series of thirteen films on the children of the Third World. Once again, it was to take him to far away continents. "I have always wanted to make a film about children", he said, as if a childhood dream was finally about to be fulfilled.
Haanstra devoted the last years of his life to several different projects. He compiled the work of 3 Dutch entertainers into a 12 part series for television. He also edited films that were made by others such as his friend Anton van Munster and his son Rimko.
Bert Haanstra was eighty-one years old when he died in October 1997. A few years earlier, the Dutch Film Festival in Utrecht paid tribute to his impressive oeuvre. His films were, once again, screened in several cinemas in Utrecht and attracted thousands of people. Most of Haanstra's films are a characteristic portrayal of the fifties, sixties and seventies and seem hardly outdated. The admiration of the younger generation for the master's work was remarkable.
Bert Haanstra received a double tribute to mark his eightieth birthday. The Dutch Film Foundation established an Oeuvre Award and proclaimed Haanstra the first winner. Dutch television did a retrospective of his complete oeuvre. This led to unprecedented ratings. He had personally restored all his titles so that the copies would become a lasting legacy.
After his death, the most prestigious Dutch prize for film, the one Haanstra himself had received first, was renamed the Bert Haanstra Oeuvre Award. With this award, and with an oeuvre that has become a source of inspiration to young film and television makers, the name Bert Haanstra lives on.
Text: Henk ten Berge
©Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Foreign Information Division, Audiovisual Section
P.O. Box 20061, 2500 EB The Hague - Netherlands