Part from an essay over
The Netherlands at its most beautiful was especially popular across the border. Several
tourist films called THE NETHERLANDS were produced in the 1930s. The sound
version by Max de Haas from 1934 combines the national anthem with images of clouds,
horizons, cows, ditches and sailing boats. The same Dutch landscape is rediscovered
from the air. The moment of magic in this film is the transition from a horizontal view
from a boat to a vertical view from an airplane. The version by Willy Mullens from 1937
contains a complete iconography, the entire catalogue of clichés and tempting images of
the Netherlands at its most beautiful. This makes the film a sampling of twenty years of
cinematography. And yet it also includes a new element that was missing before: we see
highways and cars speeding by. Foreign tourists were not to be given the wrong
impression that they would be transported here by horse and cart. A new kind of
panorama and a different kind of horizon was appearing, not created by nature but by
technology. In this film, they look nightmarish; the accompanying music certainly is.
These films about the beautiful Netherlands still presented modernisation as a
nightmare. A few films had by that time already been made glorifying technology, also in
rural life and in the polder. But only in Joris Ivens’ films about the Zuiderzee does one
see our paradise as a true high-tech environment. This is New Photography repackaged
as film. In ZUIDERZEE (‘Zuiderzee’, 1930) and NIEUWE GRONDEN (‘New Earth’,
1934), Ivens didn’t film the lost landscapes of the past, but the creation of new land. He
illustrated that the old and the new landscape exist side by side in the Netherlands:
modern land reclamation and nostalgic imagery sometimes intermingle. Unlike D.J. van
der Ven, who wished to capture disappearing folklore on film, Ivens created an ode to
this new land and to the machines that were crucial to this great endeavour. The rhythm
of the mechanical instruments, the battle between nature and machine, the composition
of the new landscape without a shred of nostalgia, an ounce of sentimentality, or a whiff
of romanticism. A new landscape is created in Ivens’ films, not only as new land, but
also as a new image, a new art that registers what the old art refused to see. This is
lyricism, but with a vocabulary and a grammar completely different than before. Ivens
glorifies the makability of the landscape; he creates an anti-Arcadia.
It is only a small step from this anti-Arcadia to a dangerous Arcadia. That step is
made in the feature film JONGE HARTEN (‘Young Hearts’, Charles Huguenot van der
Linden, Hein Josephson, 1936). Now I must stress that there was precious little
footage of actual landscapes in pre-war Dutch feature films. Inventive and
interesting use of open land or the sea, as was so common in American and French
films, was very rare in Dutch feature films. JONGE HARTEN (‘Young Hearts’) and
DOOD WATER (‘Dead Water’, Gerard Rutten, 1934) are exceptions, although these
films were more about the sea than they were about the land. JONGE HARTEN does
something that isn’t part of that particular idyll: the delightful landscape changes
into a treacherous assassin. The lovely water turns out to play a life-threatening
role: a woman is trapped on the Wadden Sea by the rising flood. Nature turns
against man. This dark side of the pastoral Netherlands finds a form for the first time
in JONGE HARTEN. Death is lurking outside the walls of the city: strange things are
The day of reckoning for our Arcadia would occur some time later. In ONTLUISTERD
LAND (‘Tarnished Land’, 1947), Herman van der Horst shows how the most beautiful
landscapes were covered with minefields and full of bunkers after the war. Hans Heijnen
went one step further: in the late-twentieth century he made several controversial
documentaries about the last remains of traditional rural life. Jos van den Burg wrote the
following about Heijnen’s films – which include LEKKER WEERTJE, MENEER
PRADHAN! (‘Nice Weather, Mr Pradhan!’, 1989), HET GEHEIM VAN OSSENISSE (‘The
Secret of Ossenisse’, 1994), and BOKKEN EN GEITEN (‘Billy-goats and nanny-goats’,
1998): ‘His lyrical images of landscapes bring to mind the work of Bert Haanstra and
Herman van der Horst. There is however an important difference: rural culture is harsh
and often ruthlessly intolerant in Heijnen’s films. Whereas the documentary filmmakers
of the Dutch school had an idealised, lyrical vision of the countryside (…), Heijnen
looked behind the façade of the idyll of rural life. (…) Landscapes that would suggest
idyllic living communities, turn out to be hotbeds of backbiting, banishment and narrow-
mindedness.’ In HET GEHEIM VAN OSSENISSE, one of the villagers characterises the
hamlet in Zeeland portrayed by Heijnen: ‘It’s like a miniature version of Yugoslavia here.
Except we don’t have any guns.’ Heijnen’s arcadian horror films were made of course for
a city audience that had long suspected that strange things were happening in the
countryside, in spite of the age-old propaganda and indoctrination by the art of painting.
But these horror films were the work of an insider, someone who knew village life from
close by, but had run away, and who has since reported on this paradise as if he had
escaped the Gulag archipelago.
Paul Adams Sitney, ‘Landscape in the cinema: the rythms of the world and the camera’,
in : S. Kemal and I. Gaskell (eds.), Landscape, natural beauty and the arts
(Cambridge 1993), p. 102-126.
Ivo Blom, ‘Of artists and tourists: locating Holland in two early German films’, in: Thomas
Elsaesser (ed.), A second life: German cinema’s first decades (Amsterdam
1996), p. 246-255.
Jos van der Burg, ‘Achter de plattelandsidylle’, in: Blik op het land (Utrecht 2000), p.67-
Karel Dibbets and Ed Kerkman, ‘Een zee van ruimte: het beeld van de zee in de
Nederlandse speelfilm tot 1940’ (‘A sea of space: images of the sea in Dutch
feature films until 1940’), in: Volkskundig Bulletin: tijdschrift voor Nederlandse
cultuurwetenschap, vol. 16 nr. 2 (1990), p. 157-175.
Langs velden en wegen: de verbeelding van het landschap in de 18e en 19e eeuw.
(Along fields and roads: representation of landscape in the 18th and 19th
centuries) Exhibition catalogue in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (Blaricum 1997)
Jean Monnet (ed.), Les paysages du cinéma (Seyssel 1999)
Maurizia Natali, L’Image-paysage: iconologie et cinéma (Saint-Denis 1996)
J.H. Weissenbruch, 1824-1903. Exhibition catalogue in the Gemeentemuseum, The
Hague (Zwolle 1999).