The Godfather of Auvers
I first met Fons Rademakers on a gorgeous spring afternoon in 1979, as I was entering the lobby of Seattle’s Moore-Egyptian Theater. My first impression of this most-honored of Dutch filmmakers was that he was of my parents’ generation, and about as remote to my life as Salvador Dali or Aristotle Onassis.
At the time, I couldn’t have dreamed the impact he would have on me, or that I would be part of the highest and lowest moments of his brilliant career.
He was in Seattle that day because three years earlier two young film exhibitors named Dan Ireland and Darryl Macdonald had come down from Vancouver B.C., leased the 1907-era Moore Theatre and grandly announced that this oldest of the city’s surviving theaters would soon reopen as both an art cinema and the venue for the first Seattle International Film Festival. The Seattle press thought they were delusional.
But they were not delusional. They were visionary and smart and driven, and they had their pulse on the changing times. They were also lucky and, almost immediately, they chanced upon Paul Verhoeven’s historical drama, Cathy Tippel, which became a big hit of that first SIFF, and established the Moore as the chief U.S. entrée-point for an extraordinary outbreak of filmmaking in the mid-1970s: the New Dutch Cinema.
Fons had only played a cameo in Cathy Tippel, but the second edition of SIFF in 1977 featured his lavish film version of the classic Dutch novel, Max Havelaar, which became such a hit for the festival that Dan-and-Darryl decided not only to give it a roadshow run at the Moore but to buy up its U.S. distribution rights and book it around the country.
My link to this Dutch film phenomenon that was brewing in my hometown was via a bizarre coincidence. Noel Marshall, the producer of The Exorcist, had bought the film rights of a book I had recently published; and in my meetings with him in L.A. I had become friends with Jan de Bont, the cinematographer of Max Havelaar who was in the U.S. working on another Marshall film, and with Jan’s wife, Monique van de Ven, the luminous star of Cathy Tippel, who was trying to break into Hollywood.
Through Jan and Monique, I knew that Fons had been an assistant director to such European masters as Vittorio De Sica and Jean Renoir, and that his first film, The Village on the River (1960), had won the Netherlands’ first and only Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar nomination. They were mad about him, as a movie director and as a human being, and were full of admiring stories.
But when I finally met him it was in a professional capacity. I had just become the film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the city’s morning daily, and he was in town to promote the opening of Max Havelaar’s theatrical run at the Moore. I had already reviewed the film, which chronicled the downfall of a well-intended colonial administrator in the nineteenth century Dutch East Indies, and raved about it. In fact, I thought it was the movies’ best historical epic since Lawrence of Arabia.
So the interview turned into a love fest. Fons had started out as an actor and there was something slightly theatrical and larger-than-life about him that I enjoyed, as well as a moral idealism that seemed strangely innocent and refreshing in a man in his late fifties. Even though I tried to maintain a certain professional
THE AUTHOR, BETWEEN LILY AND FONS RADEMAKERS, AMSTERDAM, 1987
distance, we instantly became friends. I couldn’t help myself.
The next time we met that same year, however, it went less well. Fons was promoting My Friend, a contemporary thriller based on a true story about municipal corruption in Belgium that was his follow-up to Max. In the meantime he had read my book, Shadowland, thought it had similar themes to his new film, and was confident I would love it.
Unfortunately, I didn’t love it. I thought it was confusing and didn’t have the impact he was after and was so specifically European that I didn’t think American audiences would know what to make of it. He was disappointed, but took my criticism in stride and it didn’t kill our friendship.
Seven years passed. In that time, we spoke on the phone or ran into each other occasionally, and I was able to keep up with him through Dan Ireland, who had become a closer friend to him and something of his filmmaking protégé. The U.S. distribution of Max had not gone well and his prospects of working in Hollywood, which had seemed so bright in 1979, faded. While the careers of his cameraman Jan de Bont, and of Cathy Tippel-director Paul Verhoeven and its star Rutger Hauer (both managed by Dan Ireland), all took off like lightning in Hollywood, Fons’ did not.
During those years, Fons had been trying-and-failing to get his dream project off the ground in L.A.: an adaptation of An Instant in the Wind, Andre Brink’s novel of interracial love in the outback of eighteenth century South Africa. It sounded like just the kind of sweeping historical epic he had done so well in Max, but the poor box-office showing of that film everywhere in America but Seattle was making the financing difficult, and (Dan Ireland told me), though he’d worked with a string of writers, he was also having trouble getting the script right.
Having heard all those stories over the years about An Instant in the Wind, I was surprised when he returned to Seattle for the 1986 edition of SIFF with a film he’d just produced and directed called The Assault. Also based on a novel, it was the story of a Dutch boy who witnesses the murder of his parents by the Nazis, and the aftereffects of this crime on his adult life. Frankly, I didn’t expect much from the film, and I was uncomfortable when he arranged a private screening so that I might be the first American critic to see it.
But, happy ending to the anecdote, I was blown away by The Assault. I thought it was incredibly moving, absorbing as a detective story and simply one of the very best WWII-themed films I had ever seen: a total success, maybe a masterpiece. I said so too, in the longest and most thoughtful review I’d ever written for a festival film. Later, Fons told me it was this first review that got the ball rolling for The Assault, and its phrases were echoed in all the reviews that followed as the film
The Assault (1987)
snowballed into a major success on the festival circuit and then became an art-house hit around the world.
Also during those years, I wrote an epic novel about Americans in the Asian underworld called China Gate, which became a bestseller in 1983. Fons had wanted to make a film of the novel and was disappointed to learn I had already sold the film rights, pre-publication, to the producer Charles Roven. So I was not entirely surprised some months later when, back in town for The Assault’s theatrical opening, Fons took me to dinner and offered me the job of writing a new draft of his script for An Instant in the Wind.
I was flattered but wary. I had just finished writing a China Gate script for Roven and it had been six months of hell. I didn’t enjoy it at all and I didn’t think I was particularly good at the craft. Also, I didn’t know a thing about South Africa or its history. Still, I told Fons I would think about it. I read the novel and I read the latest version of the script and I also read up on South Africa. Then I spent a weekend thinking about it.
The story of a black slave and Afrikaner woman who fall passionately in love when they’re stranded together in the wilderness was certainly groundbreaking (for 1986) and there were a handful of good scenes. But both the novel and the script were impressionistic and never accumulated much storytelling drive. However, I had a radical idea of how it might be made to work as a Hollywood film. I called Fons in Amsterdam and told him I would take the job if I could ignore the current draft and start over with a whole new approach that I wouldn’t have to explain to him in advance.
He agreed and I set to work on the new script. In the months I was holed up with it in Seattle, Fons was content to give me free reign because The Assault had continued to gain momentum and then scored a foreign-film Oscar nomination -- Fons’ (and Holland’s) second. Suddenly, in the wake of this nomination, Instant was a go-project in Hollywood: the Cannon Film Group came on board as financier and a bankable American star of that era, Sissy Spacek, committed herself to play the lead, and do all the explicit nude sex scenes with her black costar that the story demanded. And all of these people were clamoring to see this script I was writing.
I finished shortly after the holidays and sent it to Fons. He telephoned a few days later, said he found my new take “interesting” and asked me to come to Amsterdam as soon as I could manage so we could talk about it. I could tell from his tone that he didn’t like it. But when I arrived in Holland with my wife and daughter, he showed us the town and entertained us in style and didn’t even get around to a discussion of the script for several days.
One of the places he pointedly took us to was the Van Gogh Museum. Indeed, we spent most of a day there, with Fons as our tour guide. He felt a strong connection to Van Gogh: he was born in North Brabant less than ten miles from Vincent’s birthplace of Zundert, and the Max Havelaar novel had been a huge influence on the artist’s sensibility. Fons also knew a great deal about Van Gogh and his art, and clearly loved to express it. It was on this tour that he suggested we might, as a follow-up to Instant, collaborate on a new Vincent biopic for the upcoming centenary of his death in 1990. I don’t think he was very serious about this when he first brought it up, but, over the course of the day, he seemed to talk himself into it; and by the time I left Amsterdam we were partners in the idea.
In retrospect, I realize that what he was trying to do, at least initially, with my crash-course on Vincent van Gogh was to impress upon me Vincent’s steely constancy to his vision and unwillingness, under any inducement, to sell out to commercial considerations. The museum, the world’s largest devoted to a single artist, was a testament to that integrity. If I had taken the time to learn something about Fons’ earlier career, I would know that his best films had all been based on novels, that he prided himself on being true to the authors’ vision and that he had never before vandalized the structure of a celebrated novel in his care. He communicated this to me between the lines of his commentary in the Vincent tour.
So that when we finally sat down to talk about the script he didn't even have
WITH FONS AND MY DAUGHTER
JANIE, AMSTERDAM, 1987
to say he didn't like my draft. He addressed all his comments to the previous draft, as if my mine didn’t exist. We talked for a few days and I returned to the States to write the new draft he wanted. I basically lost interest at this point, and the conversations that followed were more on the Vincent project than Instant in the Wind. Still, I wrote a new draft to his specifications, very consistent with Brink’s novel, that he, Cannon and Sissy Spacek all professed to be happy with; and when The Assault defied the handicappers to win its Oscar in March, 1987, Instant seemed a done deal.
But until its light flickers on a screen, any movie is just a castle in the sky. Even with a bankable star, an acclaimed director touched by recent Oscar gold, a script that all its principals agreed upon and financing in place from pre-sales around the world, An Instant in the Wind managed, over the next twenty months, to unravel. For years afterward, I blamed Sissy Spacek’s long vacillation over whether or not she would do the required nude scenes; but the real culprit was probably Fons’ insistence on defying the movie world’s ban on filming in apartheid South Africa. He saw the film as a poignant attack on the roots of apartheid, and it was essential to his (and the novel’s) vision to photograph that story in its authentic setting, political correctness be damned. Fons simply would not compromise on this and neither would Cannon, and the impasse finally killed the picture.
Or maybe it was the changing times. By now, the daring filmmaking era of the ’70s had just about run its course and enthusiasm for a gritty, slow-moving South African love story was dying with it. I think my version of the script -- which saw the story in flashback from contemporary South Africa, framed (like The Assault) as a detective story -- would have made it more commercially viable, but I could be wrong. In any event, I stayed the course with Fons and did another pass at the script I was not contractually obligated to do. But I knew it was a dead horse and was hardly surprised when he finally called and said, with tears in his voice, that it was over.
Even so, it was heartbreaking. He had dedicated, I think, close to a decade of his life to this project and had nothing to show for it. The last time I saw him was in 1990, when he returned to Seattle with a new film, The Rose Garden, another European drama about the aftereffects of the Holocaust, this time in English with stars Liv Ullmann (who received a Golden Globe nomination), Maximilian Schell and Peter Fonda. It was well-done in every department but I thought it paled in comparison to The Assault.
We had lunch together and it was a painfully awkward meeting. It was as if we’d had a child together who’d died and neither one of us could bear to bring it up. We talked about his new film and politics and the weather. He didn’t mention An Instant in the Wind and I didn’t mention Van Gogh, though this was that centenary year of his death we’d been aiming at before. The Rose Garden was his last movie and this was our last conversation. He died of emphysema in 2007 at the age of eighty-six, taken off life support at his own request.
For most of the seventeen years that passed between the last time I saw him and his death, I thought of Fons with sadness. I could only see him as a man who desperately wanted to make a Hollywood film with global impact, who spent years trying, who came so agonizingly close to it, yet tragically failed. This failure seemed especially bitter in light of the Hollywood success of those three younger (and, to my mind, lesser) Dutch filmmakers he’d mentored in the ’70s: Verhoeven, Hauer and De Bont. But in the decade since his death, as I've
FONS AND LILY
gained a bit more perspective and a lot more gray hair, I’ve come to view his life as the very opposite of a tragedy.
As I returned to Holland many times over those years, as I learned (from my research into the roots of Van Gogh) something about the Dutch character, and as I was able to see Fons’ earlier films on DVD that had never been available during our time together, I was finally able to appreciate his artistic accomplishment. In many ways, he was a significant figure in the history of European Cinema and he left a body of work that is highly original, thematically unified and more than the sum of its excellent parts.
He was the most Dutch of movie directors, and he was the embodiment of that country’s World War II generation: one that was proud of the resistance it had showed the Germans yet felt a gnawing guilt that this resistance had not been greater, that it had allowed the Nazis to perpetrate so many atrocities on its soil unopposed. To a large extent, this shame fueled Holland’s great liberal experiment of the postwar years and Fons was that revolution’s cinematic Voltaire.
Some of my most vivid memories of him are from the tour of Amsterdam he gave me, my wife and our nine-year old daughter on a cold January day in 1987. A very conservative man in his dress and manner, it was with a beaming pride that he took us through the city’s vast and perfectly legal red-light district and drug cafés; and it was with tears rolling down his cheeks that he guided us through the Anne Frank House. He’d been to the house so many times the staff knew him on sight (and let us buck the line) but the experience, he said, never failed to destroy him. He later told me he had probably walked by this house a hundred times when the Frank family was hiding there during the war, and he couldn’t stop feeling at least partly responsible for what had happened to them.
I never learned much about Fons’ own role in the war that shaped him. He was twenty when the Germans invaded and he was abruptly drafted into the army. After the quick Dutch surrender, he was interred for a time but somehow got out (“The Germans thought it was a waste of time to lock up actors,” he once laughed it off) and fled to Switzerland in 1943. I always had the feeling he’d had a Rosebud experience during that time but, when I pushed the conversation in this direction, he obviously didn’t want to talk about it. Whatever this Rosebud was, I’m sure it found expression somewhere in his trio of films that probe the Dutch experience of WWII: The Dark Room of Damocles (1963), The Assault (1986) and The Rose Garden (1989), the last of which now strikes me as a much more profound vision of the Holocaust than it did when I first viewed it in 1990.
Max Havelaar (1976)
It’s a shame he wasn’t able to further probe his nation’s Afrikaner mutation in An Instant in the Wind, but it’s unlikely this realized-dream would have been a grander historical epic or more perceptive vision of European colonialism than his masterpiece, Max Havelaar.
In those three films, and within the tapestry of the other eight films he directed, he also managed to capture the Dutch character in all its aspects as surely as Dickens nailed the British character in his novels. That’s quite an accomplishment for a filmmaker and it puts Fons in the same elite club as Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa.
And the personal life of Fons Rademakers was as much a success as his professional life. His wife, Lili Rademakers, is an elegant, beautiful woman who was Fellini’s assistant director on La Dolce Vida and is herself the director of two successful films in the 1980s. She was Fons’ true life-partner who co-produced and acted as assistant director on most of his films. Together, they raised two sons who, the one time I met them, seemed to adore both their parents. How many other pantheon filmmakers had that kind of success? You can probably count them on one hand.
Fons’ career also meets the test that must be applied to any filmmaker that history posthumously calls a “master” -- he left a protégé who carried on his work. Ironically, this was not Holland’s Verhoeven or De Bont, who both skyrocketed and flashed out as Hollywood directors. It was in the Canadian Dan Ireland, the renegade exhibitor who first brought Fons and his work to America all those years ago, then developed under his guidance into a world-class independent filmmaker himself. Ireland’s body of work wonderfully echoes Fons’ generous spirit and liberal tradition, and his 2008 film Jolene (which introduced Jessica Chastain to movie audiences) is dedicated to Fons, “with loving memory.”
I’ve often wondered what Fons would have thought about the revisionary Van Gogh project he unknowingly instilled in me. It’s more than possible he would hate it, because it shoots a hole in the foot of a legend he clearly cherished and considered vital to the Dutch self-image. Or maybe not. He was all about the shedding of false illusions and dogged perseverance in pursuit of a personal vision, without compromise, no matter who it might offend. In this sense, he was very much like Van Gogh himself, and he stands right there beside him in my mind as one of his nation’s two greatest modern artists.