The Critic as Guardian

After WWII, the Nederlandse Bioscoopbond (NBB) wanted to restore the old, pre-war order: a closed film industry in which distributors, showmen and producers who were affiliated with the NBB made the rules among themselves. There was opposition from abroad, however.

American studios, represented by the Motion Picture Export Association (MPEA), wanted to expand their influence in the Netherlands and establish a monopoly position via cartel agreements, just as they’d done in other European countries. The NBB interpreted this as a blatant declaration of war and forbade its members from doing business with any studio associated with the MPEA. This resulted in the banning of nearly all American films from Dutch cinemas. The boycott lasted close to a year; the MPEA was forced to back down and the NBB came out as the winner.

A Perfect Opportunity

Not everyone saw the absence of American films as detrimental. On the contrary, the influential journalist Janus van Domburg saw it as a perfect opportunity to ‘improve [audiences’] film taste’. Just as the Filmliga had done before WWII, Van Domburg was very critical of the light entertainment films made in Hollywood and plead for more artistic films. He gave the example of the German avant-garde filmmaker Walter Ruttman and, in particular, his film Berlin, die Sinfonie einer Großstadt (1927). This film can be seen as one of the highlights of the international avant-garde.

Van Domburg outlined his ideas in the Catholic film magazine, Filmforum. He had been one of the magazine’s co-founders and editors in 1952. In his opinion, a critic’s most important task was to help the viewer understand the ‘aesthetic pleasure’ of watching a film. It didn’t matter, then, what was being told, but how it was done. The critic shouldn’t focus a priori on the content of the film, but rather on the film’s form, showing how the filmmaker represented the contents. Van Domburg falls back on the Filmliga’s formal principles from before the war: the most important principle of all was that editing was the soul of the film. He expressed his ideas emphatically in the book Walter Ruttmann en het beginsel (1956), a collection of essays he’d published in Filmforum.

It’s no wonder, then, that Van Domburg became a champion for Dutch documentaries, especially those by his post-war contemporaries; Van der Horst was particularly in favour with the editorial board of Filmforum.

Formal Criticism vs. Content

Van Domburg’s ideas were supported by the editors at Filmforum, but it seemed to be impossible to to keep a strict separation between content and formal criticism. It also seemed that Van Domburg and his colleagues’ criticism was becoming more and more remote from the high-profile films of the time. The work of Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman and the nouvelle vague were appreciated more for their content or their dramatic value rather than for pure formal reasons.

This led to both internal as well as external discussions, including with, among others, Van Domburg’s major opponent, Jan Blokker. Blokker reproached Van Domburg, particularly after what was known as the ‘open letter affair’ in November 1957, for his rigid, old-fashioned way of criticising and the dogmatic way he defined good and bad.

A Fusion Results in Freedom

In 1959, Filmforum fused with the Protestant Critisch Filmbulletin, thereby becoming the Critisch Filmforum. Critisch Filmbulletin developed out of the Stichting Filmcentrum that was founded in 1947 in order to promote the interests of film. This magazine had a much more nuanced approach to film critique. In contrast with the more patronising Filmliga or Filmforum, they had no pedagogical aspirations to teach people about ‘good film’, instead trying to help the viewer to form his or her own opinion. Critique was about challenging discussions, an open forming of opinion. Furthermore, film was also seen as a reflection of what was going on in society, a medium where contemporary problems and subjects were addressed. This attitude led to Critisch Filmbulletin paying due attention to the psychology of film.

This practice was maintained in the new fused version of the magazine, alongside the more formal angle of the old Filmforum staff. There was more freedom for both staffs to follow their own paths.

Critical Illness

Janus van Domburg and J.A. Hes were the editors-in-chief of the new magazine. Van Domburg persisted, however, in his approach. He, along with Bert Haanstra, would end up taking quite a beating from the next generation of filmmakers (led by Pim de la Parra and Wim Verstappen) who declared war on the established order. De la Parra and Verstappen joined with Gied Jaspers and Nikolai van der Heyde to form a new magazine, Skoop. In their first issue, they wiped the floor with Van Domburg and his formal film analysis in an article titled ‘De kritiek is ziek’ (‘Criticism is sick’).

A new generation of critics was manifested with Skoop. The academically trained journalists no longer held sway, instead it was the filmmakers themselves who took the lead, in the tradition of their French example, Cahiers du Cinéma.


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