BERT HAANSTRA: FILMMAKER, MAGICIAN, WIZARD
by Henk ten Berge
Looking through Bert Haanstra's photo albums and files of clippings, his career resembles a victory parade through rows of applauding admirers, delighted audiences and stunned critics, both at home and abroad. Nonetheless the Dutch filmmaker's modesty and boyishness seem to belie the reputation he established over 40 years.
All the obvious clichés can be applied to Bert Haanstra. The most striking are his enthusiasm and drive, his unparalleled skill, artistic integrity and humorous creativity. His work is an effortless blend of drama and comedy, imagination and reality, feature film and documentary. Haanstra was a self-made man, and built up his fascinating film career through his own efforts. Nearly all his movies, whether short or long, enjoyed tremendous success in numerous countries. His brilliant camerawork and editing produced unforgettable films including several highlights of Dutch film history. Some of the greatest names in Hollywood have paid tribute to his work.
'Boys Own' Adventure or American dream
If Haanstra had grown up in a tough neighbourhood of Brooklyn, or on a remote farm on the plains of Texas, the Hollywood press would have presented his childhood as a 'boys own' adventure, or a realisation of the American Dream. However, he grew up in a tiny village in Holland during the poverty of the 1920s, when making the best of life meant working hard and living modestly, and his dream of making films seemed far from reach. Haanstra's father had a passion for art, and he became a full time painter after early retirement from his job as head of the village school. He held several exhibitions and received a prestigious award. The family shared his passion, and views on imagination, portrayal, observation and design were frequently discussed in their home.
Bert too was a painter, and he particularly loved drawing - which enabled him to tell stories through pictures. He was captivated by moving images, and intrigued by the new medium of film, which was gaining increasing popularity. Charmed by Bert's enthusiasm, the owner of the local cinema invited him into the projection room, and allowed him to watch films for free from the projection room. The young Haanstra collected every bit of equipment that was thrown away, and eventually, with the help of a teacher, built his own projector. Bert bought films from the local drugstore with the money he earned by collecting acorns and chestnuts to sell to local farmers. 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: he 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 published in several newspapers. He sometimes 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 waited across the street, until the cat eventually started to sniff the seafood. Haanstra took a print to the press agency he worked for and 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 were there Dutch role models for serious filmmakers. Joris Ivens was the one exception, but he always worked abroad.
The Second World War and the German occupation of the Netherlands almost shattered Haanstra's dreams. However, a friend helped him get a job as a photographer at the regional electricity company, and also introduced him to members of the Resistance. Haanstra's modest studio became a meeting place where important and often dangerous missions were planned. Haanstra met the German refugee Paul Bruno Schreiber, who was also a film buff and wanted to make a film in the Netherlands. After seeing some of Haanstra's amateur films, Schreiber asked him to be his cameraman. Their film, an odd fairytale called Myrte and the Demons, was a fiasco, but Haanstra's work on it was praised. It was shot without sound, and Haanstra spent six months completing it at J. Arthur Rank studios in London, where he learnt the techniques of montage and sound recording. Haanstra knew the movie was bad and felt that he had been reckless. He dreaded attending the premiere, but although critics found the movie vague, tedious and confusing, they remarked on Haanstra's beautiful and unusual camerawork. Roger Manvell, a film critic for the magazine Sight & Sound, described Haanstra's contribution to the film as 'unique photography'. He returned to Holland with a much greater understanding of filmmaking.
Golden Palm in Cannes
Almost a year later he made his debut film, The Muyden Circle, a 10 minute dramatised, black and white documentary about Muyden Castle. It reconstructed cultural gatherings that had taken place in the 17th century, when the castle was a centre for artists and writers, presided over by a celebrated Dutch Poet. He worked alone, taking responsibility for the direction, camerawork, scenario and editing, with a shoestring budget and fairly basic equipment. The costumes, designed and made by his wife Nita, were an important addition. His choice of subject matter was daring for a first attempt. 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 as 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. It astonished critics and the public alike. Mirror of Holland was Haanstra's first success abroad. It was shown at the Cannes film festival, and won a Golden Palm: 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, who he considered the 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. He particularly appealed to the Dutch, who loved seeing their country through his eyes: his films gave new meaning and colour to their daily life. The feature films he made years later inspired a similar affinity, and millions enjoyed Haanstra's vision and outlook, his gentle humour and his affectionate view of his country and its citizens.
In 1952, Haanstra made Panta Rhei , another view of Holland through the eyes of a painter and filmmaker. Its poetic images of water, skies and clouds reflect Haanstra's 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, saying: "In my own mind Mirror of Holland has people". To which Haanstra replied: "I am still a beginner. I have mastered the camera, I 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 not alive to see 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. Although 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, including spending a month in the jungles 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 got along well. 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. They are 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 And There Was No More Sea , an outstanding documentary about the vanishing folklore around the Zuiderzee, a former sea inlet.
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, united cinematography and painting to relate Rembrandt's work to the events in his life. The film represented a personal high point in his career. He showed stills of paintings, then applied moving images showing the rise and fall of the 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.
By this time Bert Haanstra had become one of the world's leading filmmakers, enhancing the international reputation of Dutch cinema. His work, and that of other Dutch filmmakers such as Herman van der Horst, made shorts a typically Dutch genre.
In 1957, the Royal Leerdam Glass Works commissioned a black and white promotional film, called Speaking of Glass. On entering the factory Haanstra noticed that a mechanical stacking machine was malfunctioned because of a broken bottle. Amused by its futile, robot-like movements, Haanstra agreed to make the film, on condition that he could make a separate short. The film gives an intriguing view of the process of glass blowing and the mechanical way in which glass objects are made. Glass was his greatest success to date, and even won an Oscar and Holland's first Academy Award.
Fanfare (The Brass Band)
While completing Glass , Haanstra took his first steps towards making a feature film. It was a difficult venture because he had become typecast as a maker of short films, but he had the support of 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, which has no streets, 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 1960, Haanstra released his second feature film, The M.P. Case, a comedy in which a student steals the statue of Manneken Pis, a Belgian national icon, after the annual soccer match between Holland and Belgium, triggering a wave of national rivalry. 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. This was the first time that Haanstra used a hidden camera. He said: "observing people and animals when they don't know you're there is fascinating. I bonded with them". Making a film of this kind required tact and integrity, and 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 highlights the human dimension, and is a tribute to the courage of men battling with the elements, as well as a study of the sheer magnitude of the project. Although Delta Phase I won a number of awards, it did not receive the public attention it deserved. Zoo, however, was an instant success. Haanstra said that Zoo “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 being exaggerated. In the documentaries approach I avoided implausible 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!"
Holland's 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, as the Dutch flocked to the cinema in the Christmas holiday of 1962. The Human Dutch paints a picture of the Dutch and gently makes fun of their peculiarities. As in Zoo, Haanstra and cameraman Anton van Munster filmed people with a hidden camera to see how people behave in different situations and environments, without the self-consciousness created by the camera. They concealed the camera in a huge shopping bag, and hid their equipment in bushes, and built sheds with one-way glass. 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.
The Human Dutch was widely acclaimed abroad, and won a Golden Bear at the film festival in Berlin. Its success was clearly important to Haanstra personally, but it also signified the growth of a strong 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. The group developed a long and fruitful collaboration.
The Voice Of The Water
"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). In this documentary Haanstra again examined stereotypes about Holland, 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. Ironically, the film received a mixed response from the critics, due to its subject matter. Audiences, however, were enthusiastic.
Haanstra produced several films in the following years. One was Not Enough, commissioned by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and directed by Wim van der Velde.
Friendship flourished between Haanstra and Jacques Tati, the brilliant French comic and film director, and creator of the popular Monsieur Hulot. Tati admired Haanstra's work, and they decided to work together to revive Hulot in the comedy Traffic, for which 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 Traffic on his own.
From the pole to the equator
In 1972, Haanstra released another feature length documentary, the outstanding Ape and Super Ape. This was the culmination of his interest in the behaviour of humans and animals, and 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 farthest 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 revolves 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 superlative praise.
Comedy as a via dolorosa
Haanstra faced some trying times after the success of Ape and Super Ape. He had hoped to make another comedy but had trouble finding a suitable script. Rather than settle for a bad comedy he chose, to everyone's astonishment, to make a drama. The Poppies Bloom Again was based on a novel by Anton Koolhaas, who also wrote the screenplay. It tells the story of a village doctor who unexpectedly receives a visit from a former fellow student. When his friend dies of a morphine overdose, the doctor finds himself embroiled in the man's bizarre past, and 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 in a tiny shelter on one of the Dutch North Sea islands waiting patiently to film a bird! The passionate nature lover in him had once more got the better of the film director. It was a welcome break and a chance for Haanstra to return to the essence of his craft and work 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. " His contentment with the reception of this serene minor film gave way to stress after the release of his next. Mr Slotter's Silver Jubilee (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. The movie met Haanstra's usual high standards, but the public stayed away.
Accustomed to his well-earned success, Bert Haanstra was bitterly disappointed. During a screening at the film festival in Cork 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, 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 published an article on Haanstra's first cinematic foray into sex and violence. It turned out to be 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 complex social structures. 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.
His next film was Monument For A Gorilla, although it was not intended as a sequel to Family of Chimps. A group of activists saved 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. He made several short films with film students, among others in Beijing. 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. 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 made by other directors, including 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 yet do not seem outdated. The admiration of the younger generation 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, and Dutch television did a retrospective of his work, which received unprecedented ratings. He personally restored all his films so that there can be 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.
Written by Henk ten Berge for a booklet on the occasion of the Filmfestival of Valladolid, where a Bert Haanstra Retrospective was held in 1998. Haanstra posthumously won the Oeuvre Prize of the festival.
Written by Henk ten Berge for a booklet on the occasion of the Filmfestival of Valladolid, where a Bert Haanstra Retrospective was held in 1998. Haanstra posthumously won the Oeuvre Prize of the festival.