Apr 10, 2015

That Way to Madra




Although not exactly one of the director’s best films (in fact, I would argue that it is one of his worst and most primitive works), Ik kom wat later naar Madra (1965) aka That Way to Madra directed by criminally underrated auteur Adriaan Ditvoorst (De blinde Fotograaf aka The Blind Photographer, Flanagan) is considered such an important and revolutionary work of Dutch cinema history that it was selected as one of the sixteen films included in the ‘Canon of Dutch Cinema’ (aka Canon van de Nederlandse Film), which also includes Joris Ivens’ Rain (1929), Fons Rademakers’ Like Two Drops of Water (1963) aka Als twee druppels water, Frans Zwartjes’ Living (1971), Paul Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight (1973) aka Turks fruit, and Alex van Warmerdam’s The Northerners (1992) aka De Noorderlingen, among various other works spanning all of Netherlandish film history. Indeed, Ditvoorst’s film is important not only because it won tons of prizes and made a name for it's director, but also because it totally revolutionized Dutch cinema and introduced the auteur theory as inspired by La Nouvelle Vague to the Netherlands, which was completely behind much of Europe in terms of filmmaking. As a work that was praised by none other than Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Joris Ivens, Bernardo Bertolucci and other top European arthouse filmmakers of that time, That Way to Madra more or less single-handedly put Dutch cinema on the map, or as Suriname-born Sephardic Jewish auteur Pim de la Parra (Frank en Eva, Wan Pipel aka One People)—a man that helped revolutionize Dutch cinema in his own way by creating salacious sexploitation works with his oftentimes collaborator Wim Verstappen—stated in Thom Hoffman’s excellent documentary De Domeinen Ditvoorst (1992) aka Ditvoorst Domains regarding the director’s imperative influence, “He was one of the reasons that new Dutch films appeared in magazines. Cahiers du cinema, Sight & sound, and Italian and German magazines wrote about Adriaan’s work.” Like most of Ditvoorst’s work, the less than 30-minute-long short is unflatteringly, albeit somewhat cryptically, autobiographical and expresses that director’s innate anti-authority weltanschauung and iconoclastic approach to the cinematic language. Somewhat shockingly for a man that later lived completely off the grid and became a drug-addled dipsomaniac bum of sorts that hung out with punks and skinheads, Ditvoorst was a Dutch army officer before he ever became a filmmaker, so it should be no surprise that That Way to Madra takes place in a nightmarishly bureaucratic military setting where following protocol trumps the importance of life-and-death situations concerning loved ones. Beginning in a relatively straightforward, if not flagrantly cynical, fashion, Ditvoorst’s film abandons convention and logic at about the midway point and delightfully degenerates into a sort of Kafkaesque magical realist nightmare that not only attacks the Dutch military, but Dutch society in general, as well as the Roman Catholic Church that the southern Dutch director was reared in. 




 That Way to Madra begins banally enough with a dorky old fart military officer with a bald head and small frame giving a lecture to a classroom full of young cadets that involves stating cliche things like, “If you want to get such results you must realize…that it’s your duty to obey your superiors. Obedience means subordination. Herein lies the soul of our military affairs.” After his pathologically pedantic spiel, the old officer states, “I’ll show another recording. You’ll see how these soldiers who are ready for battle…were able to carry out their orders,” and then screens an absurd compilation of authentic stock  war footage that is not only of Dutch soldiers (who were easily defeated during the Second World War, as Germany took over the Netherlands and its provinces in less than a week), but also German Wehrmacht soldiers during WWII. During the screening someone yells out, “Telephone for private Oosterhuis” and the viewer is then introduced to the rather goofy and less-than-handsome protagonist Private Hans Oosterhuis (played by Hans Oosterhuis, who later became a ‘prop master’ that worked on films ranging from the campy thriller Mascara (1987) directed by Patrick Conrad to Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book (2006)). Hans has been summoned because he has received a telephone call and when he gets on the phone he discovers that his beautiful young wife Yvonne (Yvonne Grosfeld) has been in an accident and that he must travel to a hospital in Madra immediately, though the person who has called the protagonist refuses to give him any details regarding his spouse's condition. Before he can leave for Madra, Hans has to go through the bureaucratic process of being granted leave and after hearing an officer bitch to him, “Just imagine…Just on the eve of a full scale military exercise. You know how important that is,” the protagonist is finally given the go ahead by a captain.  Unfortunately for Hans, his day from hell has just begun as a series of absurd situations and circumstances are ultimately going to prevent him from getting to his beloved.




Whilst running like hell to get to the local railroad station before the train leaves, Hans passes a Catholic Church where a priest absurdly preaches, “The past keeps us busy. The present is a torment. And the future scares us. So don’t stop praying. Those who’ll pray, will be blessed.” When Hans gets to the train station, he discovers that the train has already left and the next one won’t be along for another hour, so the protagonist makes the mistake of  breaking army rules by attempting to hitchhike. Indeed, right before getting in a truck he has just waved down on the side of the road, an authoritarian MP of the super Aryan-looking sort pops out of nowhere and states, “You were hitchhiking. You know that’s forbidden. You’re committing an offense. You’re not allowed to stand here.” Determined to get to his injured wife no matter what, Hans decides to brutally beat the nosy asshole MP until he is unconscious and then is subsequently nearly hit by a car upon running right in front of it in a desperate attempt to flag it down for a ride. Luckily, the driver is not angered by Hans' dangerous behavior and gives him a ride, though he is a rather weird and annoyingly talkative fellow who forces the protagonist to take a temporary break from their trip at a diner even though he is in a hurry. When the driver remarks, “You know, I live in a combination of the present and the past. It’s a good way to idealize things. As a child I had a great time. I remember it with pleasure,” Hans begins remembering events from his own adolescent years, like when his father once went on an impassioned rant about how he is unable to communicate with him and how Dutch youth are spoiled rotten compared to his generation. Indeed, in a scene that is simultaneously a parody of the older generation and an assault on contemporary Dutch society, Hans’ father complains, “Today you curse your father and tomorrow you’re back for help. That’s the way it goes. I can say it once or five times, that’s what it comes down to. You can’t compare it with the old days. We had nothing, you have too much of everything. This economic climate isn’t good for young people. Neither for older people. People become insensitive because they get too much and can get too much. That’s the big difference with our time.”   Notably, as alluded to later in the film, auteur Ditvoorst's father died in a car wreck when he was only a boy, thus giving Hans' father's rant an extra eerie dynamic when viewed from that perspective.




 When Hans remarks, “The memories, the useless conversations. I don’t know if they understood me. I wanted to be free,” the faceless driver retorts, “You want to be free and have nothing to do with other people. Just think: that means you’re totally dependent. I don’t believe there is such thing as happiness. In that case you would feel free and dependent.” From there in a scene reflecting Ditvoorst’s troubled relationship with his own family (before killing himself, the director had not seen his family in about two decades) and suicidal tendencies, Hans recites the followings lines which were supposedly taken from some recently found unpublished work by Kafka: “I would give myself the deadly injection. My sister promised to stay silent. After my funeral she would commit suicide. She said she loved me. Maybe so, but I never knew what love was.” When Hans finally arrives at the hospital in Madra, the building seems all but completely empty and his wifey is nowhere to be found. While Hans runs through the hospital, the film abruptly cuts to the scene of a beachside car accident where Yvonne has assumedly died and then to a beach setting where a priest carries out a funeral for the protagonist’s supposedly dead wife. After the surreal beach funeral procession, the film cuts to Hans being brought back to the military base to be disciplined. Indeed, as it turns out, Hans never beat up the MP or hitchhiked to the hospital.  Additionally, Yvonne never died or had a funeral on the beach. Hans is brought to a Nordic sergeant with the curious Jewish surname ‘Cohen’ who calls a captain to inform him of the protagonist’s ungodly crime of ‘hitchhiking.’




 While waiting for the captain to come by and assess the severity of his supposed ‘crime’ and hand out appropriate punishment, Hans recalls a letter from his wife Yvonne where she bitched, “If you think I’m happy, you’re wrong. I’m not happy at all. You would be home this weekend, but now you write: Another useless exercise. Not even God knows how long it will take. I know I’m unreasonable. I’m not even able to write something cheerful. I’m afraid, Hans. I’m afraid.”  Notably, Yvonne’s narration of the letter is juxtaposed with footage of her dressing in drag with her husband’s army uniform in what is ultimately an absurd, albeit strangely lighthearted and even sentimental, scene that is not exactly typical of a Ditvoorst flick. When the captain finally arrives, he sternly states to Hans, “How stupid of you to go hitchhiking” and then yells at the busybody MP for giving the protagonist trouble in the first place. After Hans throws a cigarette at the MP, Ditvoorst totally deconstructs the film by having the camera move away to reveal that the characters are not at an actual military base but are in fact on a cheaply-made stage. After Hans walks off the stage and kicks his military knapsack like it is a soccer ball, a narrator states in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion, “Oosterhuis was told through the phone that his wife Yvonne was saved. Gift doctors at the hospital of Madra succeeded in operating on her. Science stops at nothing.” 




 Rather sadly and absurdly, especially considering the unrivaled artistic genius of many of his later cinematic efforts, That Way to Madra was the only commercially and critically successful film of Adriaan Ditvoorst’s less than prolific, if not totally singular, filmmaking career. As his friends described in the doc Ditvoorst Domains, Ditvoorst hoped throughout his entire career that he could at least once again capture the same amount of praise and prestige that his first film had acquired, but it never happened and it was only many years after he killed himself in October 1987 that he received some posthumous critical acclaim, though he is hardly a household name in his homeland of the Netherlands or elsewhere.  Not only was Ditvoorst's first feature Paranoia (1967) a flop, but even when he attempted to make an artistic compromise with the relatively accessible Tim Krabbé adaptation Flanagan (1975), he still failed to succeed commercially. In fact, the failure of Flanagan led to Ditvoorst becoming a complete social recluse who slept all day and only went outside late at night to go to his favorite bar. It should be noted that, during his early years, Ditvoorst was rather enthusiastic about being a filmmaker as demonstrated by the fact he once wrote, “Filming is settling accounts, ridding yourself of obstacles. Obsessions begging for solutions. Screaming for a climax. I want to make 3000, three thousand films!,” yet instead of making three thousand cinematic works, he only had the opportunity to make ten, which includes shorts. Of course, as That Way to Madra clearly reveals, Ditvoorst was innately anti-authority, including when it came to the rules of filmmaking, so he had an impossible time trying to find funding for his films (interestingly, his Pasolinian Biblical satire De mantel der Liefde (1978) The Mantle of Love was produced by a drug dealer that he was friends with) yet he somehow managed to make some of the greatest Dutch films of all-time.


 Indeed, although I only saw it for the first time just a couple months ago, I regard Ditvoorst’s swansong De witte waan (1984) aka White Madness—a work that is sort of like an exceedingly esoteric cinematic suicide letter that references everything from the director’s love of Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror and Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard to his loser lifestyle as a dope-addled quasi-bum who spent most of his free time hanging out with young punks and skinheads—is easily one of my favorite films of all time and it features many of the same themes explored in his first film, albeit taken to much further extremes. Notably, in That Way to Madra, Ditvoorst alludes to the fact that his father died in a car wreck, but for whatever reason, the filmmaker also thought that his dad's death was an act of self-slaughter, which was ultimately the way he would conclude his life. Undoubtedly, one of the most eerie scenes That Way to Madra is the surreal beach funeral, especially considering the fact that Ditvoorst would commit suicide by walking into the Scheldt River and drowning himself.  Quite notably, actor Thom Hoffman, who played the lead role in White Madness, would later recreate the beach scene from Ditvoorst's first film for his directorial debut Ditvoorst Domains during a segment in the doc where the filmmaker's friends discuss his suicide.  Of course, maybe if Ditvoorst had stayed in the Dutch army and lived the reasonably comfortable life of a commissioned officer instead of becoming a filmmaker he might not have walked into the sea, but then he would have deprived the world of some of the most ideally idiosyncratic films ever made.  It should be noted that That Way to Madra was the first film that Dutch arthouse cinematographer turned blockbuster director Jan de Bont (Speed, Twister) had ever worked on.  Of course, the fact that a hack like de Bont went on to become a rich and world famous Hollywood filmmaker while Ditvoorst died poor, destitute, and drug-addled is just one more of the many absurdities of life and surely something that the That Way to Madra director could have appreciated in his own weird way as a true starving artist and spiritual heir to Vincent van Gogh.



-Ty E

5 comments:

Tony Brubaker said...

In that picture of him wearing the cap with the number above his head he looks like a cross between Treat Williams and a woofter.

Tony Brubaker said...

In that first picture of the two geezers talking (repeated later in the reveiw) the geezer on the left looks like one of Terry Gilliams animations from that Monty Python horse-shit.

Debbie Rochon said...

In his defence it could of course be argued that Jan De Bont is the greatest ever Dutch film-maker simply because his films have made the most money world-wide ! ! !.

Tony Brubaker said...

Ty E, in that picture of the old geezer giving the lecture to the younger geezers wouldn`t it have been hilarious (and true of course) if the caption that you`d put on that image had instead read: "War has one basic premise, namely, finding and anally raping as high a number of Heather O`Rourke and JonBenet Ramsey look-a-likes as possible, anyone who tells you different is a fucking liar ! ! !". I LOVE THE ULTIMATE TRUTH, its always so much better than lies and hypocrisy.

Debbie Rochon said...

I like that picture of someone in what looks like a burning building, that actually looks like an image from one of Jan De Bonts Hollywood blockbusters.