Feb 12, 2015

The Ditvoorst Domains

Due to the fact that I am unrepentant cinephile who has watched so many films that I rarely come across cinematic works that I haven't seen that ultimately end up leaving a deep impression on me, it is not often that I discover a film that immediately becomes one of my favorite flicks, so naturally when I do I make sure to hunt down ever single film, no matter how obscure or marginal, associated with the director of such a shockingly good work. Indeed, such is certainly the case with tragic Dutch auteur Adriaan Ditvoorst whose cinematic swansong and magnum opus De Witte waan (1984) aka White Madness I now regard as, at the very least, one of my top ten favorite films of all time even though I only first saw it about a month ago. About three years after the release of his final masterwork, Ditvoorst committed suicide by swallowing some pills and drowning himself in the Scheldt River near his hometown in Bergen op Zoom after decades of struggling with drug addiction, unemployment, cultural pessimism, and the inability to get any of his projected film projects off the ground as a man who originally intended to make 3,000 films during his life but ultimately only managed to realize nine. Despite the fact that his directorial debut Ik kom wat later naar Madra (1965) aka That Way to Madra was one of the sixteen films added to the prestigious Canon of Dutch Cinema (aka ‘Canon van de Nederlandse Film’) and his work was revered by some of the most important and influential European arthouse filmmakers of his time, including Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean-Luc Godard, Ditvoorst is still a marginal and mostly unknown figure in his small homeland of the Netherlands, which is demonstrated by the fact that The Cinema of the Low Countries (2004) edited by Ernest Mathijs—one of the very few serious English-language academic books on Dutch cinema—does not even feature one single reference to the filmmaker or his work. Luckily, Dutch actor Thom Hoffman, who was a personal friend of Ditvoorst and played the lead role in White Madness, decided to pay distinguished respect and uncompromising tribute to the criminally neglected filmmaker by making an unusually candid, strikingly poetic, and provocatively insightful, if not somewhat dejecting, arthouse documentary about his life and work. Indeed, part experimental documentary, part neo-Gothic docudrama, and part filmic funeral, Hoffman’s De Domeinen Ditvoorst (1992) aka The Ditvoorst Domains is not only a beauteous tribute from one artist to another and an endearing yet ‘no bullshit’ look at Ditvoorst’s lebensmüde existence and totally singular oeuvre, but also a rare film that takes a serious look at post-WWII Dutch cinema history that features highly memorable and refreshingly less than sentimental interviews with various filmmakers and cinematographers, including Jan de Bont, Robby Müller, Wim Verstappen, Pim de la Parra, Rene Daalder, and token Guido Bernardo Bertolucci (who was an early proponent of Ditvoorst’s work), among various others. The sometimes pathetic portrait of a man who, in terms of under-recognition during his lifetime, poverty, internal suffering, and self-destructive tendencies, was most certainly the Vincent van Gogh of his era and artistic medium, The Ditvoorst Domains presents Ditvoorst as a somewhat enigmatic and impenetrable phantom-like figure who struggled with his existence until he finally gave up and walked into the sea for eternity. 

 A child of war that was born in January 23, 1940 to a lower-middleclass Catholic from Bergen op Zoom in the southern part of the Netherlands were people tend to be darker and slightly shorter than people from the northern part of the country, Adriaan Ditvoorst first met tragedy in 1950 when he was still just a relatively young lad after his father was killed in a car accident, with the event affecting him in such a catastrophic way that he felt as if “the world stood still.” For whatever reason, Ditvoorst theorized that his father’s death was really a suicide which he commited to “hurt his mother and to hurt him,” yet as the director's friend and collaborator Jan de Bont theorizes in The Ditvoorst Domains, “It was a bit weird. I never believed it. Why would a father do that? He had a family, children…All seemed normal when I visited them. I felt his imagination played him parts. He seemed to need pain. Sometimes he invented pain. I didn’t always believe him.” Unquestionably, unrelenting internal pain is the name of the game when it comes to Ditvoorst’s oeuvre as demonstrated by the fact that most of the (anti)hero’s of his films choose death over living a life of indomitable Weltschmerz and perpetual existential crisis. Redheaded dame Pamela Koevoets, who played the leading lady in the director’s debut feature Paranoia (1967) and appeared in most of his other films, lovingly describes Ditvoorst as a handsome “black romanticist” with “green wolf eyes” as if she is in love with him. Of course, any great artist, not matter how poor and pathetic is, at least to some extent, a lady’s man. While Ditvoorst's filmmaking career would progressively deteriorate as the years slowly passed by, his debut work Ik kom wat later naar Madra aka That Way to Madra temporarily made him a superstar auteur of sorts who was regarded as the best filmmaker in the Netherlands and who was admired by Godard, Bertolucci, Pasolini, and Ivens, among countless others in and outside his country (notably, forgotten American avant-garde auteur Peter Emmanuel Goldman would pay tribute to Ditvoorst by including scenes from Paranoia in his 1969 work Wheel of Ashes). 

 At the beginning of The Ditvoorst Domains, director Thom Hoffman narrates, “This is a story about my dearest friend: Adriaan Ditvoorst. In October 1987 he committed suicide. I was stupefied. Aristotle said that a solitary man was either a savage or a god. Adriaan lived in seclusion in an attic with the freedom he always sought. While looking for an explanation, I talked to his intimates” and then asks, “Could his suicide have been prevented? How lonely was he when he walked into the waves? What drove him to it? Who was my good friend…Adriaan Ditvoorst?,” thus setting up a poetic objective for his doc. Somehow, I doubt Hoffman received any new insights about his comrade after directing the film, but of course that is part of Ditvoorst’s appeal as a mysterious and idiosyncratic fellow whose very being is the thing that artistic legends are made of. Rather strangely considering he was so innately anti-authority, Ditvoorst served in the Dutch army from 1963 to 1965 and during that time he got bored and ultimately found himself wandering into the Amsterdam Film Academy where his life was changed forever. Heavily inspired by Alain Resnais' masterpiece Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Ditvoorst felt that he had found the greatest and fullest art form for expressing himself, as he looked at the cinematic medium as a cross between poetry and painting and he did not care if people were able to identify with what he expressed, as a sort of metaphysically anarchistic Über-auteur with a lot of pent up Catholic guilt. Indeed, highly influenced by the then-trendy auteur theory as promoted by the French New Wave, Ditvoorst once wrote regarding his ambitions as a filmmaker, “Filming is settling accounts…Riding yourself out of obstacles…Obsessions begging for solutions…Screaming for a climax. I want to make 3000, three thousand films!,” yet he ultimately only made nine films because he absolutely loathed producers and virtually all his films were flops, thus naturally nobody wanted to give him any money.  If it were not for certain highly sympathetic film critics and film societies, as well as friends that worked in the film industry, it is highly dubious as to whether or not Ditvoorst would have been able to direct half as many works as he did.  Somewhat ironically, Ditvoorst was friends with monetary-motivated Suriname-born Sephardic Jewish writer, director, producer, and quasi-Marcusian crusader Pim de la Parra who collaborated with Wim Verstappen on a series of successful and pseudo-artsy counterculture-tinged sexploitation flicks like Blue Movie (1971) and Frank en Eva (1973). Somehow, it is refreshing to hear someone like De la Parra say regarding Ditvoorst, “He had great talent, that cat,” as it demonstrates that despite having a much more monetarily successful career than his compatriot, he recognized his failed friend's artistic genius.  Also to De la Parra’s credit, he was responsible for starting a film journal in the spirit of Cahiers du Cinéma called ‘Skoop’ that totally revolutionized the way people, especially filmmakers and cinephiles, looked at cinema as it started “a revolt against cinema de papa” that brought Dutch cinema into the modern age.  Of course, where De la Parra and Verstappen merely broke sexual taboos with their works, Ditvoorst took things a number of steps further and created audaciously avant-garde works that the masses thought were too dark, disturbing, and shamelessly personal. 

 As Hoffman narrates regarding Ditvoorst's life in 1970, “Adriaan at the peak of his career. He received a scholarship from Ingmar Bergman. He met the love of his life: Jacqueline. He filmed Camus’ THE FALL for TV. A lawyer ends up in the gutter, after failing to stop a suicide.” At this point in his career, Ditvoorst had only directed one feature, the 1967 Willem Frederik Hermans adaptation Paranoia, and three shorts. After directing the sleekly assembled and somberly colored Camus adaptation De Val (1970) aka The Fall, the auteur directed the more or less immaculate dark yet humorous phantasmagoric medium-length neo-Gothic absurdist flick De blinde fotograaf (1973) aka The Blind Photographer which, despite being another Hermans adaptation, looks like something that might have inspired David Lynch when he was assembling Eraserhead (1977). As Ditvoorst once wrote, “I despise everything superficial” and in The Blind Photographer he transformed the banal and everyday into the brazenly bizarre and murderously eccentric. After failing in 1973 to realize an ambitious project penned by Polanski’s longtime screenwriter Gérard Brach entitled De Idioten aka The Idiots that was about “two poor devils living since the dawn of time” who argue about whether or not the world is about to end, Ditvoorst twiddled his thumbs for a couple years and eventually decided to make the one artistic compromise of his career by directing the relatively conventional Tim Krabbé adaptation Flanagan (1976)—a revenge-themed gangster flick with the structure of a Greek tragedy—but it was also a major flop that caused the director to fall into a deep depression that his friends say he never fully recovered from.  Not unlike the characters featured in Flanagan, Ditvoorst began living a sort off-the-grid outlaw lifestyle that pushed him even further away from mainstream society.

 After moving to a secluded attic near Vondelpark in Amsterdam, Ditvoorst began living the loser lifestyle of a perennially unemployed nocturnal hermit libertine by the second half of the 1970s. With the love of his life abandoning him for good and his latest film a major flop, the filmmaker became a self-destructive drug addict and bar-dwelling alcoholic and even served some stints in jail, or as Jan de Bont remarks in the doc, “He was ashamed a creative man like himself had ever been in prison. Adriaan was a conventional person. It was clear to me that it involved a homosexual relationship. He refused to talk about it. Unable to utter a word about this…he left it for others to discover.” While I somehow doubt that the director was ever a “conventional person,” he certainly was not a ordinary fellow by the late-1970s as demonstrated by the fact that he befriended a drug dealer/porn producer named Luc Bijkerk who produced his next feature De mantel der Liefde (1978) aka The Mantle of Love, which is an (anti)religious epic set in contemporary Holland that takes a somewhat Pasolini-ian/Citti-ian approach to ‘adapting’ the Ten Commandments, albeit in an all the more sardonic and sexually depraved fashion (notably, Guido porn maestro Lasse Braun co-produced the film) and with added bonus of a soothing synthesizer-driven original soundtrack by Vangelis of Blade Runner (1982) fame. Probably the most savagely satirical, sacrilegious, and merrily grotesque Dutch film ever made, The Mantle of Love is described by Hoffman as a work where Ditvoorst, “revenged himself with a cheerful comedy” due to his crumbling personal life and commercial failure. Of course, that film was also a flop, but those lucky few that are familiar with the work consider it an unmitigated unhinged masterpiece. 

 Although directing the aesthetically decadent and somewhat high-camp work Lucifer (1981)—a seemingly impossible-to-find adaptation of Dutch Golden Age playwright Joost van den Vondel’s 1654 play of the same name that centers around “the unbridled ambition of Lucifer, adept in human failure”—Ditvoorst was spending most of his time lurking at his favorite bar and picking up “common broads” (apparently, his favorite type of women at this point in his life). During the last 30 minutes or so of The Ditvoorst Domains, a series of candid interviews with a couple of the less than savory friends that the filmmaker made during his final years paint a fairly bleak portrait of his worldview at the time, with one notably stating, “Adriaan’s prophesies were not optimistic. He saw all beauty destroyed. He feared decay, saw it everywhere. Saw himself living in a nightmare. He could not be part of it. It meant making compromises. The first compromise was participating in life. This he refused.” For his final masterpiece White Madness, Ditvoorst went so far as to depict heroin (ab)use as, to quote Hoffman, “...a symbol of freedom. A symbol of flying, release from reality. Release from the world, the fuss, people.” Indeed, when the film’s painter junky protagonist Lazlo shoots junk into his arm, he fantasies about himself as an eagle sorrowing through the sky.  Like the character of his film, Ditvoorst dreamed of a personal utopia of solacing self-imposed solitude and otherworldly aesthetics that drown out all the ugliness and decay of the modern world.  Notably, White Madness was Ditvoorst’s final desperate attempt at starting both a personal and artistic new beginning and while the film would eventually develop a loyal cult following, it was a complete failure upon its initial release, thus sealing the filmmaker’s already rather forlorn fate as a fellow that always dreamed and talked about suicide and finally found the perfect time to carryout his morbid lifelong fantasy. Ditvoorst rightfully recognized White Madness was his best work, so for such a uniquely ambitious and truly soulful film to receive such an underwhelming response was a fatal blow to his very being and thus he spent the final years of life rotting away in complete solitude, hanging out with heroin-addled hobos and antisocial skinheads, and preparing to meet his date with the almighty Scheldt. Before killing himself, Ditvoorst visited his mother who had he not seen in about two decades and mailed a suicide letter to various friends reading, “When you read this, I will have entrusted my body to the waves. All is silence. There is nothing else.”  As The Ditvoorst Domains reveals, although the filmmaker oftentimes discussed his fantasies of self-slaughter and even confided to Jan de Bont about two decades before he committed the irreparable act that he would like to commit suicide by drowning himself in the Scheldt, everyone was still quite shocked when he decided to make himself fish food.

 Unlike most modern Occidental artists and filmmakers working today who seem to go out their way to prove that they are groveling xenophiles, philo-Semites, spiritually castrated cultural cuckolds, and/or ethno-masochists, Adriaan Ditvoorst apparently had a strong and unwavering deepseated connection to European kultur, or as the director’s friend Arend Holm states in The Ditvoorst Domains regarding the auteur's undying love for his people's culture, “Letting go, means letting yourself go…Believing in anything but the importance of European culture and film was impossible for him.” A man who adapted works ranging from a Luciferian play by 17-century Dutch playwright Joost van den Vondel to short stories by popular post-WWII novelist Willem Frederik Hermans, Ditvoorst ultimately paid tribute to the greater part of Dutch art history and one could probably argue that it is quite fitting as he was quite possibly last of his kind as a born anarchist that understood the importance of cultural heritage and artistic tradition. In that sense, the title of Ditvoorst’s final film could be looked at as having a secondary meaning, for the work certainly bleeds the decadence, senility, and metaphysical rot of the post-WWII Dutch as a truly ‘Fin de siècle’ work of ‘White Madness’ that manage to encapsulate and communicate the fatally forlorn feeling of it's seemingly apocalyptic zeitgeist.  Incidentally, The Ditvoorst Domains director Thom Hoffman’s ex-comrade, filmmaker Theo van Gogh (who apparently ended his friendship with Hoffman after he began starring in crappy mainstream films, or as the actor-turned-documentarian explained, “He called me an S.S. officer with Vaseline up my ass”), appears in Ditvoorst’s film as a fiending junky who literally murders for dope. The fact that a respected filmmaker and public figure like van Gogh could be brutally assassinated in his own country by a Dhimmitude-inciting racial alien from a third world shithole who should not be even be in the Netherlands in the first place just goes to show the rapid cultural degeneration of the country in such a short time, for only an ethno-masochistic, defeated, apathetic, and spiritually comatose people would tolerate such culturally suicidal tendencies.  As someone who had a lifelong aversion to authority, especially of the spiritually based sort, one can only guess how Ditvoorst would have responded to the Muhammadization of his nihilistically liberal welfare state of a nation had he lived long enough to see it. While various filmmakers in The Ditvoorst Domains theorize that Ditvoorst might have had a more successful life and career had he moved to a more filmmaker-friendly country like France, I cannot fathom the idea of him working anywhere but the Netherlands as even his Camus adaptation is hopelessly Dutch in persuasion. Indeed, Ditvoorst working outside of Holland is as unthinkable as Pasolini working outside of Italy or Fassbinder working outside of Germany. Of course, the irony is that, despite the innate Dutchness of Ditvoorst’s work, it also guaranteed he would have a dead-end career in his own homeland, or as Wim Verstappen noted in Hoffman's doc, “If you do something well in Holland, you don’t get any credit. Making films in small countries is a lifelong struggle. I have the deepest respect for people who try it. Adriaan feel victim to it.” If there ever was a filmmaker that was a kindred spirit of Ian Curtis, it was Ditvoorst and like the Joy Division frontman, he probably would have reacted negatively to achieving commercial success.  Of course, the real tragedy is not that Ditvoorst was neglected in his own homeland or even that he killed himself, but the fact that he did not get the opportunity to make more films and fully realize his artistic potential.

-Ty E

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