Sitting Down with Cinema Savant Hans Beerekamp

The Netherlands’ best-known film critic weighs in the responsibilities of the trade, the Dutch film mafia and the local film climate: ‘If you go to the Dutch film festival, you can really observe the behaviour of rats in a small, overcrowded cage with too little food…’

By Steve Korver, 24-01-2008, cover feature, Amsterdam Weekly

It would be safe to call Hans Beerekamp (born in 1952) the eminence grise of Dutch film criticism. For 26 years, he was the film editor of NRC Handelsblad, earning a reputation for his encyclopaedic film knowledge, before becoming the paper’s TV critic in 2003—‘I no longer have to choose between just five or six releases every week.’ In 2007 he toured Europe in search of a ‘European identity’. The future of cinema, he says, is in Romania.

How did you get interested in film?
When I was about 13-years-old I became a film addict and started spending most of my pocket money going to the cinema five to eight times a week. This was connected to a certain shyness, I think. You see that with a lot of film buffs: we want to get an idea of what the world looks like, but don’t actually want to participate. And it was more of a secret passion. I always preferred going alone, because then I didn’t have to discuss the film with anyone afterwards. I never thought it was going to be a profession. I started studying psychology in 1970. I was also involved in the student movement and political work and saw all that as being far more important than cinema. But somewhere deep inside I knew I really liked films more than anything else.

When did you start to think about becoming a film critic as a profession?
I had already started systematically reading about film. Not in a very usual way. I bought some film encyclopaedias and started to read them from A to Z [laughs] and I remembered most of the things I read, so I had this database in my head, not only about current cinema, but also its history. I still wasn’t very interested in film reviews. I mostly loathed them, because I hardly ever agreed with the film critic and hated them for the spoilers. But then in 1976, there was this television show, Voor een briefkaart op de eerste rang, that mostly consisted of a film quiz involving all these kinds of guys like me: shy and nerdy film buffs who would amaze the audience with their knowledge. And [after I appeared on the show], overnight I became this sort of phenomenon that people recognised as that strange guy with very long hair and a beard who knew everything about film. Around the same time, I had become a member of the Dutch Communist Party, who had their own daily newspaper, called De Waarheid—‘the truth’. They said, ‘Comrade, since you know so much about film, why don’t you become a volunteer film critic?’ Besides giving me a press card which got me into the cinema for free, they made one thing very clear: We may be communists, but we believe the worker is entitled to a good James Bond film every once in a while, so we don’t want all this arty-farty stuff. That was okay with me. So there I was: an overnight film critic. Unpaid but professional.

Was there anyone early on who had a big impact on your career?
I did like one film critic, Ellen Waller, who worked for NRC Handelsblad and was sort of the doyenne of film criticism. She was an older Jewish lady who had survived the concentration camps, and was very modern and open to the new. She also knew about history and had a wider education. You could describe her as the Dutch Pauline Kael—only a little less naughty. Anyway, she read everything, and she even read this small daily communist newspaper and started to notice what I wrote. So when an opening came up in the film section of the NRC, she invited me to come and talk to her. I was very flattered. I started reviewing for them, and a few years later, I became the editor. But it was a very difficult transition. It took a while before there was enough trust politically. After all, at the time NRC was really the big ‘business’ paper and hence the polar opposite of De Waarheid.

So what kind of films best represent your own personal taste?
Whenever I am asked about my all-time favourite films, I tend to refer to my balanced and reasoned list that’s online. But at gunpoint, I would mention Singin’ in the Rain [1952]. The reason is that the Hollywood musical is my favourite genre, the MGM musicals from the Arthur Freed Unit are the best film musicals ever made and this Gene Kelly movie is the best product from that unit. Moreover, it is a film about film and it was made in my year of birth. A more personal favourite would be La chambre verte [1978], because it is a film by my favourite director after Hitchcock, his admirer Francois Truffaut, and because it deals with the notion that the dead live on forever in cinema. My favourite Hitchcock film by the way is North by Northwest [1959]. And the most daring Dutch film ever made was De witte waan [1984], a rather obscure choice. It was directed by the genius Adriaan Ditvoorst, who committed suicide a few years later. Admittedly this selection is quite eclectic: a sing-along musical, an inquiry into death and a feasible form of eternal life, a very entertaining thriller about identity and a very very black comedy about a conceited junkie. But any canon should be eclectic.

With the rise of citizen journalism, everybody’s a film critic now. Also there’s the continued blurring between editorial and advertising. How have things changed for film critics today?
Since 1999, I’ve been giving a sort of master class on film criticism almost every year at the University of Groningen, training aspiring critics. There are a number of things I always stress. One of them is that you have to be convinced that your opinion matters because you have seen more films, have a better inside perspective and can discriminate. You also have to allow yourself to watch your emotions: if you never cry or laugh in a cinema, then you’re a bad critic, because a good review is always a reflection of what you experienced when you watched that film. The difference between a critic and non-professional reviewer or an internet reviewer, is that the critic enjoys a certain authority. Not only do you believe in yourself, the readers believe in you. You have to earn that authority with the readers. But you can also acquire negative authority. There have always been critics that I love to disagree with. I can almost trust that if this critic is positive about a film, I will be negative about it—or vice versa. Even if you love to disagree with them, they still have a form of authority. On the internet, what you see is that there are completely different reasons for being trusted, such as whether you are a likeable person, or whether you have an entertaining style of writing, which of course, always matters. The famous example is this American site, Ain’t It Cool from Harry Knowles, who is a very strange character, but he is so offbeat, so weird that that, in itself, is a reason to grant him authority.

Is there any give-and-take relationship between film journalists and film-makers?
None. In this master class I give, I get my students to watch four different films for which they write reviews. Then I tear apart what they wrote in the class. One of these films is always a Dutch-made documentary, and I always encourage the students to put themselves in the filmmaker’s shoes. Why is it made this way and not another way? They really start to identify with the film-maker, which is useful but also dangerous because you can completely misinterpret the film-maker’s intentions. Still, I think it’s important to try. Later, I ask them, ‘If you knew this film-maker personally would you have written it differently?’ And since some of them are quite cocky, they say, ‘Of course not!’ Then I say okay, so you don’t mind if this maker reads your review. And they say, ‘Why not?’ Then I say, ‘Okay, come on in.’ And then, the director comes in, carrying all these reviews he’s read, with lots of notes since I’d told him to be really quite frank and say what he thinks is bullshit. And of course all the students start to blush and shiver. I then tell them: you must remember this feeling for the rest of your life if you want to be a critic. Whatever you write, you must keep in mind that the person who made it may one day read it. So you have to be so sure of yourself and so honest that you can look him in the eyes and say, ‘This is what I stand for.’

What’s your position on the negative review?
You can be very harsh, but you should always do it in an honest and decent way. You shouldn’t be derogatory or negative for its own sake. Otherwise you can’t defend it. But I’ve done it. Every critic has done it—made fun of a film just because it is so easy to make fun of something you don’t approve of. But that always comes back to you. People remember that, and in the end you’ll be taken less seriously than if you do it in an open, decent way. What’s the function of a good review? A good review has two functions. One is consumer information. If I go to a cinema this weekend, which film should I pick? The other function is to look at a film from a broader perspective. Does this film matter? Will it still be watched fifty years from now? And you sometimes see a film that is completely consumer-unfriendly and not in the least entertaining. But somehow you sense that this film may change the world. So it’s your duty to note it.

Aside from bad reviews, how else have you pissed people off?
Oh, in many different ways [laughs]. The most famous times were probably with the Dutch films that won Oscars for best foreign film. That has happened three times, and two of the films, Antonia and Karakter, were really not good. I thought they were overwrought, bombastic and not very sincere. I wrote that when the films came out. I even wrote that Karakter is exactly the sort of film that wins best foreign film. And then when it did win, the director was interviewed by the New York Times and while talking about our film climate, he said the critics are so evil that one even wrote that it may win an Oscar, it’s so bad. Meanwhile, I wrote again that I still believed it wasn’t a good film. And that was perceived as really rubbing it in. [laughs]

What is your opinion on the Dutch film climate?
The Dutch have a very complicated relationship with film. They are the worst cinema-goers of all Europe. I think it’s now 1.4 visits per person a year, but traditionally it’s always been 1.0. I think only Portugal is lower. This may be because there has always been a tradition in the Netherlands of mistrust of the image. It can be related in a certain way to Calvinism. Iconoclasm. We don’t trust the carved image—these Catholics with their beautiful angels and Jesus on the cross. In the Calvinist church there’s only a cross, with no Jesus on it, because that’s too graphic. The word, the ‘Holy Word’, is what’s important. So that’s one reason, maybe. Another reason is that there’s a general suspicion of theatrics, of anything dramatic. When foreign colleagues ask about Dutch film, I always explain: when a couple breaks up here, they don’t start hitting each other, they go and visit each other and say, ‘Let’s talk about how this all came about.’ We have relatively few crimes of passion in the Netherlands. In fact, few radically dramatic events have happened here since World War II—and that’s why so many Dutch films have been made on that subject. But there are certain areas where Dutch film really stands out. Of course, the children’s films are very good, because we are a people of educators, just like the Scandinavians. Also animated films, because there, the whole realism debate has been solved. The Dutch always say film must be realistic. If it’s a fantasy or too far from reality, then it’s not to be trusted. But with animation, anything goes, so our animated films are quite good. And of course, the third area that really stands out is documentaries—the ‘real’. And then there are a number of filmmakers who have defied the ideas of education and realism. Paul Verhoeven is a very obvious example. He is so much against good taste and reality that he can only be a rebel Dutchman. [laughs] I believe that within Europe, the Netherlands, after the UK, is the closest country to America. You’ll very rarely find a Dutch person who admires the rest of Europe. This is in contrast with Belgium, where there’s a deep mistrust of anything Atlantic and a real openness towards the outer edges of this continent. I personally like a balance between the two: the combination of the soul searching of the Europeans with the entertainment value of the Americans.

Are there any film-makers here seeking this ideal combination?
I think Paul Verhoeven is a rare example of someone who has proven that he’s able to combine the two. A film like Starship Troopers is a masterpiece. Completely underrated. Because it is a very clever attempt to make a ‘shoot ’em up’ movie in the style of Leni Riefenstahl, the brilliant maker of Nazi propaganda films, and thereby implicitly equating the first Gulf War with white supremacy.

Anybody else?
Documentary-makers, of course. But in fiction film there was only a short wave in the 1980s, when there was a young strain, sort of almost burlesque film-making made by people outside the mainstream, who were, well, weird. Alex van Warmerdam has made some films in that vein. He’s really an outsider. Their sense of humour is related to certain 17th-century paintings, particularly Jan Steen. There was also Jos Stelling and Orlow Seunke. It was a very short list, and I believe they’ve all been influenced by Buster Keaton. The Dutch seem to have a special relationship with deadpan humour and taciturn, boyishly clumsy heroes. And most of the films of this ‘Dutch School’, as it was called, have very little dialogue.

So, who rates as the ‘Dutch film mafia’?
The Volkskrant comes up with an annual top 30 most influential people behind the scenes in Dutch cinema, and always in the top five there is the director of the Film Fund, and the government officials. The list also includes one or two producers; San Fu Maltha is an example. He’s half Chinese, half Jewish. A real Dutch producer! [laughs]. But you cannot pin down a real old boys’ network of people who divide subsidies among themselves. That isn’t the case. What is the case is there is a lot of envy, much more than in other art forms, or even in other cinema cultures in Europe, as far as I know, because there are too many film-makers, too many producers, and too few subsidies. So if you go to the Dutch film festival, you’ll observe the behaviour of rats in a small, overcrowded cage with too little food. They start biting each other, they start becoming very unpleasant to each other. And you can hardly blame them, because I know that for film-makers to make a living in the Netherlands is next to impossible. There are something like 500 professional directors who have each made one feature film and they all believe they are entitled to continue to do this for the rest of their lives with government support, and unfortunately that doesn’t happen.

You travelled in Europe a lot last year. What did you notice about European film culture on a larger scale? Can we speak about a ‘European film culture’?
Well, there was the ‘European art film’ but it’s out of fashion now. It did exist once. When I show my students an old Godard or nouvelle vague film, it’s too difficult for them. They just don’t understand that complicated grammar anymore, since film language is now all defined by Hollywood. If there’s talking now on film, the only way people understand it is if they take a close up of the person ‘over-my-shoulder’ and then cross-cut that. Only then is it believable, because that’s the Hollywood grammar. And nouvelle vague did something completely different. As Godard said, ‘A film has a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.’ But that just doesn’t work anymore. It’s similar to the grammar of painting in the seventeenth century. That had a very complicated, refined set of rules, and the people who looked at these paintings understood every symbol and what it stood for. But today, we haven’t got the faintest idea what these symbols mean. It’s lost. The same goes for cinema of the 1960s and the Euro art film; young people look at it and haven’t got the faintest idea what it’s talking about. So you could say that the most complicated grammar of cinema was produced in the beginning of the second half of the 20th century. From there it went down again to something more simple and palatable.

So the European art film has become a…

What’s taking its place, besides the Hollywood approach?
The most vibrant European film culture right now is in Romania. They are looking for a national identity after 50 years of Communism, but they don’t have something as ready-made as Catholicism is for the Polish. They don’t know what it means to be Romanian. So then you start making films about your own life and your own history to define what it means to be Romanian. This often happens when a country is in transition and looking for an identity. In Iran, after the fundamentalists took over, the cinema suddenly became very vibrant, and not specifically religious but more generally about the search for an identity. We saw it in Poland during the Solidarity period. Also, a mild repression, without very severe censorship, can help a film culture. Since you can’t say everything you’d like to say, film-makers are forced to use metaphors. And cinemagoers love their metaphors!

What’s your take on the Rotterdam Film Festival?
It started as a very intimate event with one cinema only and one bar. You watched the film and then had a beer with Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It was really sort of avant-garde in the literal sense. A few people who were interested in these sorts of film got together with the few people who made them. Over time it evolved into a mass event. Now, there are so many films and so many different audiences that if you have a beer at the festival, it’s very hard to talk about the film you just saw because everyone has seen a different one. On the one hand, this is an amazing evolution. I believe it’s now the largest cultural event in the Netherlands—and for that sort of avant-garde cinema, that’s quite a rare feat. Of course, those of us from the old guard feel a bit lost.

Here in Amsterdam there seem to be a million smaller film festivals popping up. Perhaps they fill that more avant-garde role?
If you start a new event, most of the time there is one charismatic leader, who has the ideas, takes care of the guests, and is the image of the event. Often this person then leaves, retires, dies or disappears. Then you get the second generation, but with the power separated between a commercial director and an artistic director. Almost always the commercial director, who is in charge, is chosen for having the fewest enemies on the staff. And that does not make for an environment where courageous, or inspired, decisions are made. So the person who starts it makes it interesting and then it’s downhill from there…


Hans Beerekamp holds a monthly reading/screening, Het Schimmenrijk, every last Sunday of the month (16.00-18.30) at the Filmmuseum where he eulogises directors, actors, choreographers, screenwriters and anyone else related to cinema who has recently died.

Cover Photograph by Denis Koval

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