book review Stufkens (2016)


Published in Journal of Film Preservation no. 96 (April 2017) p. 122-125.
 
 
 
The EYE Film Institute Netherlands in Amsterdam has become a dynamic ‘House of Film’, with a spectacular presentation building (since 2012) and a collection of building within walking distance (since 2016). The basis for the current success was established 70 years earlier, with the foundation of the Nederlands Filmmuseum in 1946. Such a round number is a good reason to look back. 

The EYE Film Institute Netherlands in Amsterdam has become a dynamic ‘House of Film’, with a spectacular presentation building (since 2012) and a collection of building within walking distance (since 2016). The basis for the current success was established 70 years earlier, with the foundation of the Nederlands Filmmuseum in 1946. Such a round number is a good reason to look back.
 
The most important motivation to examine the past is to determine what influence that past has had on the present. How did it start out? What happened in the years immediately following? How can we evaluate those events? These questions are all answered clearly in this book. While it tells the story of the development of a national institute, it is also interesting from an international perspective as it allows comparison with similar organisations in other countries.
 
Preliminaries
The chapter on the pre-war period includes an outline of the Dutch film culture and situates it in its international context.  At that time, there was a general lack of awareness of the value of film heritage in the Netherlands, on the part of both professionals and the general public. The few initiatives put forward to establish a national film archive in the Netherlands were dragged down by the weight of differing opinions. After the war, several ambitious – but still rival – proposals were advanced, but mutual jealousy and discord resulted in a chaotic situation, clearly explained in the book. The dust settled in 1952 with the foundation of the Nederlands Filmmuseum, with Jan de Vaal as its first director.
 
Forty years of performance
For four decades, Jan de Vaal and his team dedicated themselves to establishing and expanding the film archive’s core activities, but it was never easy. This well-researched book details the difficult conditions with which they were faced.
 
In the first year, 1946, there were absolutely no facilities: no screening rooms, no exhibition space, no film vault, no budget, no staff. Forty years on, the progress has been incredible: there is now an extensive and extraordinary collection, containing a wide range of movies, photos, posters, books, documents, and apparatus. As recently as the 1980s, however, they were still having to ring the alarm bells about safeguarding the film heritage.
 
For the first 20 years, Filmmuseum presentations were limited to two screenings a week, in the spartan auditorium of the Stedelijk Museum. It was not until 1975 that the organisation acquired the Vondelpark-paviljon, and it was able to present a full week’s programmes in its own professional cinema. For many years, the Filmmuseum’s activities remained inconveniently divided between five locations.
 
Jan de Vaal
The central focus of the book is the evaluation of the merits of the first director of the Filmmuseum. Jan de Vaal (1922-2001) demonstrated a remarkably broad and unbiased taste. He argued that the whole range of film history should be considered, both when adding to the collection and when programming the cinema. The book contains colourful anecdotes about his relations with a number of film collectors. Through these contacts, not only were many Dutch films saved from oblivion, but also unique copies of other classics (for example Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 Downhill) were rescued. In his artistic choices, de Vaal maintained a balance between classic and avant-garde, early cinema and premieres, both domestic and foreign. He encouraged young film talent and protected the heritage of Dutch masters.
 
Jan de Vaal ensured the early international recognition of the Nederlands Filmmuseum by joining the FIAF at the earliest opportunity. He played an important role in the professionalisation of FIAF, most evident at the 1952 annual congress, in Amsterdam, where conflict between Henri Langlois and others had to be resolved. De Vaal kept strictly to FIAF’s international archival guidelines: films were only made available to other organisations for non-commercial screenings, and unique archive copies were not loaned at all. In hindsight, this was a wise policy; it protected the collection, which now has an excellent international reputation as is proven each year through presentations at events such as Le Giornate del Cinema Muto and Il Cinema Ritrovato.
 
However, these strict archive policies meant that de Vaal was not popular at home. In the 1980s criticism was voiced to such an extent that it forced a change of management, a traumatic experience for him. Though de Vaal lived long enough to see the benefits of his actions on the preservation of Dutch film heritage properly acknowledged, the volume under review provides the first complete overview of the decisive role he played in the establishment and development of the Nederlands Filmmuseum.
 
A successful publication
A DVD is enclosed with each copy of the book. This includes 11 moving-image items in which Jan de Vaal appears, including an interview with Fritz Lang, interviews with some silent-era actresses, a visit to the NFM vaults near Castricum, and a fictional role as a tourist in Amsterdam. Also on the DVD is an exhaustive list – compiled over ten years – of all the films de Vaal ever programmed, a list of all the staff who worked at the NFM during his tenure, and a list of all exhibitions he mounted.
 
The book offers a carefully-documented history of the first 40 years of the Nederlands Filmmuseum and a biographical sketch of its first director, both set in an international context. An English translation is highly desirable, because it is a well-balanced portrait of both the institution and its founder, much enriched with beautiful illustrations. In addition, it seems to me essential that the story will be continued, and I look forward to a similar publication about the Dutch Film Museum in the years following 1987.