Closure of the Alma-Tadema project

•November 2, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Last weekend, the exhibition Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity closed at the London based Leighton House, former home to the artist and contemporary of Alma-Tadema: Sir Frederick Leighton. After the modern styled Fries Museum in Leeuwarden in 2016-17 and the spacious baroque Belvedere Museum in Vienna last Spring, the exhibition reached its third and final venue in London last June.

Each exhibition had its own definite character. The Dutch exhibit had a special narrative on Tadema’s houses and its interrelationships with the paintings, while a second important plotline was that of the connections with cinema, from early French and Italian cinema via the classical Hollywood of Cecil B. deMille to Ridley Scott’s post-classical Gladiator. I still think the design for the combination of film and art in the final room was a master stroke of designer Paul Toornend and Studio Louter, the company that made the slowed down film clips projected on top of the paintings (instead of on the side, as is common but often not working well). By consequence, you could decide for yourself whether you wanted to make the crossmedial connections or not. In the light of innovative ideas within museum and exhibition studies of offering the visitors multiple options to experience an exhibition, this perfectly fell in line. On the other hand, in earlier, smaller rooms, the amount of paintings was perhaps a bit large and some pictures may have been high up to see.

Instead, in Vienna all paintings were at eye level, which was convenient for people, especially the elderly. Some paintings by Tadema’s family was added. Indeed, the curators and all three venues made clear that the contributions of Tadema’s second wife Laura and his daughter Anna were well worth showing too. Vienna, though, drastically reduced both the relationship with the house and with cinema. Moreover, the giant walls of the former monumental stables building of the Belvedere seemed to dwarf even the few giant paintings by Tadema, such as The Finding of Moses. The film clips were shown separately from the paintings at the end of the exhibition, in a kind of double screen projection with digital versions of the paintings, and this at a kind of dead end where you were forced to return and walk back to the entrance. In addition, the originally tinted film clips were quite a-historically turned into black and white. One wonders what would have happened, had the museum given the paintings a colour make over. What was also a pity, is that both at the opening and in the accompanying book ties between Tadema and Gustav Klimt, the Belvedere’s hero, were accentuated, but this element lacked in the exhibition. One had to walk to the main palace where the Klimts were hanging, and make a virtual connection. Finally, while Leeuwarden had a clear narrative, even accentuated by the colour scheme on the walls, Vienna had a quite loose narrative, thus presenting a more classical exhibition in which the art works speak for themselves.

The London exhibition was very different from the other two, as it was presented in a former private villa in South-West Kensington, which was practically cleared from the permanent collection on display to make room for this exhibition, the biggest ever held at Leighton House, and the largest in London since his memorial exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1913. The art works perfectly matched the atmosphere of the late 19th century rich British artist home and studio. While the Arab Hall in the entrance with its little fountain made you lower your voice, the squeaking old staircase to the first floor confirmed your physical experience of walking around in somebody’s home. The At Home in the title therefore did not only relate to the art works but also to the venue. Film here was again separated from the paintings, but less so than in Vienna, as you still had to visit the grand finale room with The Finding of Moses and The Roses of Heliogabalus. The connection with cinema was well picked up in the press too, such as The TelegraphStudio International, and Apollo, I understood. I put in my five cents myself by an article on Tadema and film in Art Quarterly, the magazine of the British Art Fund. Finally, the film connection also worked out well in a promo film, in which Gladiator costume designer Janty Yates confirmed the ties with Tadema (see the film above).

Two weeks ago, I attended what was for me the symbolical closure of the project: a three day symposium at the Paul Mellon Foundation and the Birkbeck University, both in Bloomsbury, near the British Museum. Co-organized by my fellow co-curators Peter Trippi and Elizbeth Prettejohn, we first had a kind of speed dating at the Paul Mellon Foundation on Tadema & artists houses, with a series of five minute presentations, followed by ample space for discussion. The format worked surprisingly well. In the evening we all visited the Tadema exhibition at Leighton House once more (and for some speakers for the first time). The second day, again at the Paul Mellon Foundation, we had various lectures on artists houses in general. In between I had to skip a few talks, as I was finally able to meet Janty Yates in person, after I had interviewed her over the phone last year. Yates is constantly employed, often by Scott, and travels the whole world, but had a relatively quiet time last month and is based in London, so I was lucky. She once more confirmed the Tadema-Gladiator ties, but also for Exodus, and generously explained me her working methods. Of course I heard details about present and upcoming films by Scott, but those things are always ‘for your eyes/ears only’. The last day we shifted to Birkbeck University’s cinema auditorium, where Ian Christie (Birkbeck), Maria Wyke (UCL) and I had organised a programme going from Tadema and theatre, Tadema and tableau vivant, and Tadema and Pompeii films, to art direction with Enrico Guazzoni and Ridley Scott, the divine status of Hollywood stars, and Gabriel Pascal’s Caesar and Cleopatra as a kind of anti-Tadema film. In the end we showed four short Antiquity films (1908-1911) from the Desmet Collection of EYE, live accompanied on piano. All in all, we had three intense but very inspiring days, with lots of new and refreshing research coming up.

The Alma-Tadema project has been an immense learning project for me, in the research and preparation, in the team work, in the pluriformity of the three exhibitions, and in the contacts with the media. Of course, the cherry on the cake was that last month we heard that the Alma-Tadema exhibition at the Fries Museum/Belvedere/Leighton House has been nominated for the Global Fine Arts Awards, a kind of Oscars in the arts world. The finalists will be announced in January 2018.

In memoriam: Karel Dibbets (1947-2017)

•June 2, 2017 • 1 Comment

Bologna 2005 10 Karel.jpg

Firstly, I need to unmask a myth. Karel was not related to renowned General Dibbets, the man who kept Maastricht Dutch in the early nineteenth century but paid the price for it with a reputation as boogeyman. For a long while Maastricht mothers didn’t threaten their brethren with Black Pete but with Dibbets: “Behave, or Dibbets will get you!” “I didn’t know that anecdote when I wrote my thesis about Jean Desmet under the direct care of Karel in the nineties. Our Dibbets was not a bogeyman, he captivated you. Encouragingly, he challenged me when discussing my research. After me, Karel again and again inspired young researchers on theses, dissertations and early careers, such as Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, Head of the Silent Film Collection at EYE. Karel made curious. He challenged. He asked for historical explanations – the word explanation was high on his agenda. And he rubbed in that history was not simple or one-dimensional. One of his other favorite terms was historical complexity.

Karel Dibbets has contributed significantly to the scientific study of film history in and about the Netherlands. Karel graduated at the Dutch Film Academy in the section of Camera and Editing in 1971, and in 1982 also at the University of Amsterdam at Economic and Social History, at a time when departments of media studies in the Netherlands didn’t yet exist. His MA thesis from 1980, Bioscoopketens in Nederland: economische concentratie en geografische spreiding van een bedrijfstak, 1928 – 1977 (Cinema chains in the Netherlands: Economic concentration and geographical distribution of an industry, 1928-1977), was a systematic empirical research that, afterwards, paved the way for digital humanities at large, and more specific his now-known and widely used cinema history database, an exhibition and distribution database of Film in the Netherlands, which originated from a research project supported by the national research council NWO in the years 2003-2007. After his thesis, Karel continued to focus on film exhibition and distribution. He wrote about it in the film magazine Skrien in 1981-1983, where he also served as editor-in-chief in that period. With the late Frank van der Maden he set up an authoritative volume in 1986: De Nederlandse film en bioscoop tot 1940 (The Dutch film and cinema [theatre] until 1940). That “and cinema” in the title was very important to the editors: film was not just a story on the canvas, a medium, or “text” in semiotic sense, but it was also a place of exhibition and an object of trade. That recognition was in line with the so-called “Historical Turn” in film studies from the late 1970s onwards, even if in general mostly focused on exhibition and reception rather than on distribution.

Through his own research into the Dutch exhibition and distribution world of the interbellum, Karel became fascinated by the rise of the Dutch sound film and its context. Today, we know very well that there was something more internationally and certainly in Europe than the alleged first sound movie The Jazz Singer of 1927, but Karel knew that if you only delve into the Dutch side of that story you already trace an exciting young adult book. And this was Hans Blom’s characterisation of Karel’s dissertation Sprekende Films (Talking Pictures), debated at the University of Amsterdam in 1993. From the late 1980s several articles preceded it, including those in the Dutch Jaarboek voor Mediageschiedenis (Yearbook for Media History) which Karel edited together with others between 1989 and 1997 and which was the forerunner of the current Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis (Journal for Media History). Not only did Karel’s dissertation prove that the powerful German sound film company Tobis had originated largely because of Dutch financial input, but also for a few years, competing Dutch financiers and firms had been squandering money until they fell into oblivion – ‘a history of castles in Spain’, as Karel himself wrote. Karel also discussed the important role of Philips within this period of experiments and towering ambitions. While Karel’s Dutch-written dissertation has never been fully released in English, it did lead to English and German articles in edited volumes and magazines.

From 1983, Karel, as well as his colleague Ed Tan, and from 1985 also Jan Simons, were already active as lecturers on film and television at the Department of Theater Studies at Nieuwe Doelenstraat 16, right in the heart of Amsterdam.  On instigation of Prof. Hans Blom and Karel himself, a new Film and Television Studies department was founded in 1991, for which professor Thomas Elsaesser was appointed as chair. This also resulted in a manifesto-like publication Nieuwe Doelen, referring to new targets but also the premises of the new department, and containing articles by Karel, the new chair and the other staff members. The young department soon attracted masses of students, so the staff had to increase. Yet, partly because of a then unjustified fear of a possible students decline, expansion was slow. Permanent staff like Karel but also newly hired lecturers had to work beyond their forces. The organization did not really go smoothly; there was rumble and grumble at the Nieuwe Doelenstraat.

Positive was that film-historical research in the Netherlands grew and flourished. In 1986, a Dutch branch was established by IAMHIST, the International Association for Media History, which quickly would be called Vereniging Geschiedenis Beeld en Geluid  (Association for the History of Sound and Image) instead of mere ‘IAMHIST Netherlands’. The association organized a conference twice a year and published a modest magazine, GBG-News, but since 1989, the mentioned thick Yearbooks of Media History also featured in which Karel played such an important role. He would also be a cordial and humorous chairman at the GBG conferences. Karel never lacked a joke when in company, although he did not care to be the center of interest. In 1993, together with Bert Hogenkamp and many others, Karel organized the Amsterdam edition of the IAMHIST Congress, which focused on Film and the First World War, and also edited the homonymous volume (1994) with a selection of the papers. It was a memorable conference, in which the bridge between historians and media scholars was growing but still weak at times. Karel would henceforth accompany theses on film and the First World War and publish with his MA student Wouter Groot an article on the various films on The Battle of the Somme.

In 1994, I managed to obtain a PhD position at the programme Infrastructure of Cultural Life of the research school Huizinga Institute for Cultural History. My promoter was Thomas Elsaesser, but because of his membership of another research school, Evert van Uitert was appointed a second promoter. I went on well with both, but my true supervisor was Karel. Karel was very committed to the main source of my research, the Desmet Collection of the Film Museum (now EYE), so much that when in 1989 the Film Museum management exchanged unique films from the Desmet collection for famous films that were easily available on the market, Karel stepped down from the Board of Directors of the Film Museum and signed a joint protest released at the 1989 edition of the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone. The Desmet Affair was born. Gradually, the Film Museum realised that the Desmet collection should remain a collection and eventually the collection even became recognized as UNESCO World Heritage.

For my PhD, Karel generously let me read for a full year, so that I could appropriate all the film-historical and theoretical literature. Not until my second year, I left for the archives and started writing chapters. In addition, Karel coached me in teaching the so-called A-Workgroup, a second-year course where students in addition to literature studies (Film History: Theory and Practice by Allen & Gomery was regular fare) also learned to conduct archival research in the collected cinema reviews in the press archive from the Amsterdam City Archive. Until the release of the Dutch online newspaper database Delpher, this was a gold mine. Of course, after five years (1989-1994) of film archiving and film identification at the Film Museum, and first articles about silent Italian and Dutch film, I had already gotten familiar with the archive world, but the fascination for research into film exhibition and reception came to a good start at the above course.

Karel and I regularly had discussions about the progress of my dissertation and discussed my set-ups, first chapters, reports, and so on to the finish line. Afterwards, there was always room for relaxation, because Karel was an epicurean. He would gladly take you to one of his favorite restaurants. I never got a chance to pay even when I got a paid job, because Karel could be quite stubborn and persistent. He decided, he invited and he enjoyed the company so much. In that respect, he was really a sociable animal, not only in Amsterdam but also at foreign festivals like Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna and the Giornate in Pordenone. Karel was also a gourmand. I will never forget how in 2005 he urged my man Paul and me to help devouring a huge rhombus in Bologna in the fish restaurant opposite the film museum. “I cannot eat him on my own, so you have to help me, and it’s now or never.” So we helped eating the rhombus and it was delicious, of course. It was therefore bitter to Karel that when he heard a few years ago he was incurably ill, it was over with the copious repasts.

While living in ‘extra time’, I’m very happy that Karel still managed to finish quite a few things. First of all, this was the safeguarding of Cinema Context, Karel’s magnum opus, started in 2003. This extensive online encyclopedia of cinema culture in the years 1895-1940 had already been beneficial for several researches, e.g. the PhD research of Clara Pafort-Overduin. A large team of young master students such as Caroline van Leeuwen, Mike Peek, Rixt Jonkman and Kathleen Lotze were hired to help collect and enter data. The project was again part of a much larger NWO project in collaboration with the University of Utrecht, Cinema, modern life and cultural identity in the Netherlands, 1895-1940, which resulted in three PhD’s by Thunnis van Oort, Clara Pafort and Fransje de Jong. The Cinema Context site is divided into four sections: the featured movie (including its distributor and a link to IMDB (InternetMovieDatabase) for more information about the production), the building (with the architect), the people in the cinema (owners, staff) and the exhibition company behind it. “These elements form the DNA of film culture,” Karel boasted. “The website is a Hubble telescope that clarifies patterns in cinema exhibition,” he also said. He was still working on systematics in the development of the Dutch film world, as in his own master’s thesis. With computers and new software it had become much easier now.

Of course, the database was not perfect, the trust in IMDB was quite big, sections missed such as reception history and the whole post-war period lacked as well – which made comparison with other countries focusing on post-war film culture rather difficult. But as with other pioneers, there was an impressive beginning and the refinement could be done thereafter. I am therefore pleased that recently, the UvA and especially Julia Noordegraaf has adopted CinemaContext and will expand it. Over a decade ago I steered my bachelor students at the Vrije Universiteit to do cinema research on three leading Amsterdam cinemas during the interbellum: Rembrandt, Royal and Tuschinski. We worked with a simple related database in Access – those were the days. However, when Karel gave demonstrations with CinemaContext, it was quickly clear that the future was his. The database was launched with the impressive symposium Cinema in Context in 2006, organized by Karel in collaboration with the international network HOMER (History of Moviegoing, Exhibition and Reception). Wanda Strauven and I published the symposium keynotes by Robert Allen, Jean-Jacques Meusy, Richard Maltby and Ian Christie, along with an article by Karel, in the homonymous special issue “Cinema in Context” of Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis (2006). In this issue Karel’s focus on the Dutch pillarization as the explanatory factor for the look and content of Dutch sound cinema was contrary to his plea for historical complexity, and to contemporary critical views of Dutch pillarization at large, so it received comments from André van der Velden and Judith Thissen. Oh well: thesis, antithesis; that is how science works.

Karel has also been able to complete other projects. After his retirement in 2011, he translated his years of research into the Dutch cross-links between theatre and film around 1900 into the fascinating 2014 article ‘Paul Kruger als toneelheld en filmster: de verbeelding van de Boerenoorlog en de opleving van het nationalisme, 1899-1902’ (Paul Kruger as stage hero and film star: the imagination of the Boer War and the revival of nationalism, 1899-1902) in the journal De Negentiende Eeuw (The Nineteenth Century). A similar study of the representation of Queen Wilhelmina around 1900 unfortunately did not materialize. However, in his last years Karel did experience a few nice trips to Berlin and visited the HOMER conference in Glasgow in 2015. Karel Dibbets reached the age of 70. Many of his publications are available at  or on the UvA site. His own site lists a selection of his publications. Cinema Context: See also Luke McKernan’s obituary: His legacy won’t be forgotten.


Ivo Blom

Bert Stroo (1965-2017)

•March 29, 2017 • 2 Comments

bert stroo

This morning I heard the sad news that my friend Bert Stroo died. The news reached me quite late as Bert had died already one month ago. I must have been buried in my work, as today I noticed that a few people have mentioned his passing, such as his good friend Jan Rot, for whom he wrote songs too. In addition of his translations of balloon texts for Donald Duck – which he did for many years – Bert was subtitle writer for film and TV; recent titles were e.g. Despicable Me and Straight Outta Compton. He also translated some 40 books. In 2005 he was one of the first to graduate from the Scriptschool (Script Academy), resulting in his screenwriting and dialogue adaptation for TV (e.g. Grijpstra en de Gier, In therapie). For years he planned to write a script for a fiction film on Gert & Hermien, two famous Dutch folksingers, to be filmed by Pieter Verhoeff. He also co-wrote the script for Blue Mauritius (Charles Henri Belleville), which at present is in pre-production.

I met Bert decades ago. We shared a love of cinema and cinema history, in particular the books and films by Kevin Brownlow. Bert knew about my work at the EYE (then called Nederlands Filmmuseum or simply Filmmuseum) in the early 1990s and my research in early cinema. He was particularly interested in the phenomenon of the cinema lecturer, or ‘explicateur’, as he was called in the Netherlands, on which I published with Ine van Dooren, my former colleague at the Filmmuseum, the article “Ladies and gentlemen, hats off, please!” Dutch Film Lecturing and the Case of Cor Schuring (Iris 22, Autumn 1996). This inspired Bert to research the Dutch explicateurs himself and follow the thread with research into intertitling in the Netherlands, the introduction of sound cinema in the Netherlands, and the various experiments with subtitling, leading up to his own profession. The digging in the roots or prehistory of his profession if you like, stuck to him, and so like a fox terrier he threw himself onto the pre-war Dutch film magazines such as the Nieuw Weekblad voor de Cinematografie to deepen his knowledge. With a grant from the Thuiskopiefonds Bert managed to finish his extensive research, which resulted in some publications, for instance his article Filmvertaler of filmverteller from 1997 in Filter, journal on translation. In subsequent years he gave lively and anecdotal guest lectures – within my film history courses – on the developments from cinema lecturing, through intertitles and early subtitling, to post-war developments in subtitling for film and TV, and his own steps into the digital age. He also got enthusiastic about the research done by French film historian Claire Dupré la Tour on intertitling, so he joined me in visiting a special conference Intertitre et film, Histoire, théorie, restauration / Intertitle and Film. History, Theory, Restoration at the Cinémathèque française in Paris, organised by Dupré la Tour in 1999. It was then that I discovered that Bert couldn’t stand flying. As he was always cheerful and optimist – his regular greeting was: Alles kits? [Everything okay?] – he laughed away his flight sickness afterwards. We had a good time in Paris, that is: till the return flight came. I really felt sorry for him and was surprised as Bert was always tiptop in condition, went to the gym ever so much and only ate healthy food. When I met Bert for the last time in Berlin in November 2014, he was still in perfect shape, so I really envied him as I wasn’t anymore. We had a lengthy conversation on past, present and future. His work as subtitler had become easy because of package deals. But the Berlin cold was getting too much for him, so he planned to move back to the Netherlands. End of last year he returned, but last month a sudden disease took him away within 24 hours. Bert was only 51. He will be missed.

More myths and facts on Mata Hari on film

•March 11, 2017 • 3 Comments

Mata Hari, die rote Tänzerin. Poster by Joop van den Berg. Courtesy Reclamearsenaal.

In many analogue and digital sources a film entitled Mata Hari/ Die Spionin (Ludwig Wolf 1920/1921), starring Asta Nielsen, is listed as the oldest biopic of the life of Mata Hari aka Lady MacLeod aka Margaretha Zelle. You will find this on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), which in general for German silent cinema is quite unreliable. But one also traces it in the English and Dutch Wikipedia, James Monaco’s The Movie Guide, David Thompson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, James Robert Parish’s Prostitution in Hollywood films, Jerry Vermilye’s More films from the thirties, Georg Seeßlen’s Filmwissen: Thriller: Grundlagen des populären Films and several earlier publications by the same author, Léon Schirmann’s Mata-Hari: autopsie d’une machination, Michael R. Pitts’s The Great Spies Pictures, Valeria Palumbo’s Le figlie di Lilith: vipere, dive, dark ladies e femmes fatales : l’altra ribellione femminile, Rüdiger Dirk and Claudius Sowa’s Paris im Film: Filmografie einer Stadt, and many others. The English Wikipedia even indicates Mata Hari (1920) and Die Spionin (1921) as two separate films, both about Mata Hari.

Nevertheless, my suspicions arose when I could not find the film on the generally quite thorough German films site When I launched a call for more information on the Facebook site of Domitor, the network for researchers dealing with early cinema, my suspicions increased. Joseph Juenger, Artistic Director at Stummfilm-Festival Karlsruhe, asked if I was really sure about this film. He could‘t find a film with the title Die Spionin, neither on the FIAF-CD nor in the 2010 two-volume extensive monography on Asta Nielsen by Heide Schlüpmann and Karola Gramann, nor on Juenger remarked there was only a film with the title Die Rache der Spionin (1921), but the director was Richard Eicherg and Nielsen lacked. I therefore contacted Asta Nielsen expert Heide Schlüpmann, who kindly told me despite her thorough research she never found a film with Nielsen called either Mata Hari or Die Spionin. It just seemed that all the above mentioned authors had just copied each other without bothering to check any original sources. 

O.k. so a Mata Hari film with Asta Nielsen didn’t exist. But where did the rumour come from then? Again, Heide Schlüpmann was very helpful. But first: who was this enigmatic Ludwig Wolff? He was born in 1876 in the Silesian city of Bielitz, then part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, now the Polish city Bielsko, which merged in 1951 with the city of Biala. Bielitz was the centre of the wool industry within the Austrian Empire. Wolff came from a Jewish family. Between 1900 and 1933 he wrote dozens of popular genre fiction, of which many were filmed by the German film industry between the late 1910s and the early 1930s, such as the Lotte Neumann vehicle Das Schicksal der Carola von Geldern (1919). In the late 1910s and early 1920s Wolff directed some 8 films himself, among which three with Asta Nielsen: Steuermann Holk (1920), Die Tänzerin Navarro (1922) and Der Absturz (1922). After that followed the romantic drama Die Liebe einer Königin (1923), with Henny Porten and Harry Liedtke and based on the notorious affair of the Swedish queen and her physician Struensee. Wolff was also screenwriter and copoducer for this film. After Garragan (1924), a German production starring Hollywood actress Carmel Myers, Wolff quitted screen direction. He would only occasionally collaborate on film scripts in the early sound era.   

Pictures of Die Tänzerin Navarro. Courtesy Danish Film Archive.

From the three mentioned Asta Nielsen films by Wolff, Die Tänzerin Navarro (Ludwig Wolff 1922) proved to have parts of the plot that coincided with the biography of Mata Hari. The Danish written programme booklet of the film gives the most details: The Spanish dancer Carmencita Navarro (Nielsen) has lost one of her children because of the revenge of a Javanese man against her husband, the planter Marcellus Gondriaan (Hans Wassmann). Gondriaan dies by a gunshot as well. With her daughter Navarro flees to her fatherland, where she accepts an engagement in a big vaudeville business. When she enters into an affair with a business friend of her late husband, a certain Mortensen (Ivan Petrovich), she is suddenly suspected of espionage. It even goes that far that she is trialled and condemned to death. But as she is about to be shot, she is saved in the very last minute. That is: mostly she was, in some versions of the film’s print she wasn’t.


Mata Hari aka Margarete Zelle

This is clearly a variation on Mata Hari’s own life, even if with many differences. In 1895 Mata Hari alias Margarethe Zelle married the Dutch army captain Rudolph MacLeod, who, in 1897, took her to live with him in the Dutch East Indies, on Java and other islands. The couple lost their son Norman there, probably of poisoning. Various explanations exist how this happened and why. Some say he was poisoned as revenge for the captain’s brutal behaviour towards the child’s nanny or baboe. In her biography Femme Fatale, love, life and the unknown lies of Mata Hari (2007) Pat Shipman suggests it could have been revenge of a former local mistress of MacLeod or the effect of mercury poisoning when Zelle and her children were taking mercury cures against syphilis spread by MacLeod. In 1902 the couple returned to the Netherlands with their daughter and in 1907 they officially separated. Zelle went to Paris and as of 1905 she became the famous, scandalous Orientalist dancer Mata Hari and created her own exotic pedigree. She became first a Parisian and then a European sensation, performing even in the Scala of Milan and becoming extremely wealthy. During the First World War, her craving for wealth was not appreciated anymore, and she was first by the British, and later by the French, suspected of being a spy for the Germans. Finally, in the wave of the big French army’s mutinies against the war and the French military staff, a scapegoat was searched and found in the person of Mata Hari. Despite any hard proof, in 1917 she was arrested, trialled and executed at the fortress of Vincennes near Paris.

Mata Hari, die rote Tänzerin. Courtesy DIF.

After Die Tänzerin Navarro, others would go deeper in creating films on female spies during the First World War that ware based on Mata Hari’s biography, in the first place Rex Ingram, whose Mare nostrum (Rex Ingram 1926) was a touching drama with Alice Terry as the Mata Hari-like spy Freya Talberg, Antonio Moreno as the Spanish captain who falls for her, and Mme Paquerette as the sturdy Austrian spy Dokter Fedelmann who blackmails Freya into spying. According to Kevin Brownlow Ingram went to great lengths to get all kinds of Mata Hari details right. The execution was shot at the same fortress at Vincennes and with accompaniment of the same horn music played by the same band (24th Bataillon de Chasseurs Alpins – “Blue Devils”).  Mare nostrum was e.g. shown during the Rex Ingram retrospective at the Giornate del Cinema Muto, but was also broadcasted on ARTE television. The first full fling biopic of Mata Hari, as far as can be traced is Mata Hari (Friedrich Féher 1927) starring Magda Sonja. The French CNC just restored the film, so this may well be shown in festivals or at the upcoming Mata Hari exhibition. At the time a beautiful Dutch poster for this film was designed by Joop van den Berg.

Mare Nostrum

Mare nostrum

In addition to A Woman Redeemed (Sinclair Hill 1926) with Joan Lockton, a British film on a woman forced into spying, remarkable is The Mysterious Lady (Fred Niblo 1928) with Garbo, as this was based on a novel by Ludwig Wolff, Der Krieg im Dunkel (War in the Dark, 1915). In the film’s plot Russian spy Tania (Garbo) is successful in her job (the aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca is a Leitmotiv), but does so with disgust. She has an affair with an Austrian colonel  (Conrad Nagel) and helps him against all rules and nationalism. The film was shown in October 2016 as the opening film of the Giornate del cinema muto in Pordenone, with an orchestra led by Carl Davis. The opening scene with Garbo emotionally overflown by the opera scene on stage, while meeting her lover for the first time, closely follows the opening scene in the Italian silent film Tigre reale (Giovanni Pastrone 1916). Curiously enough, the German DVD version of the films carries the title of Wolff’s novel: Der Krieg im Dunkel. Possibly Wollf’s novel Der Krieg im Dunkel played a part in the historiographic confusion over Asta’s Mata as well.

Mysterious Lady

The Mysterious Lady

In conclusion: while prints of Wolff’s films Steuermann Holk, Die Liebe einer Königin, Garragan and Der Absturz have survived, Die Tänzerin Navarro seems a lost film now. However, the Danish Film Archive has published various stills of the film on its website, which at least give an idea. 

Facts and alternative facts on Mata Hari on film

•March 3, 2017 • 4 Comments

real-mata-hari-aurel  real-mata-hari-gaumont-luce-sapphire

Figure 1. 14-18 (Jean Aurel 1963). Courtesy LUCE/EFGG1914. Figure 2. Paris après 3 ans de guerre (Gaumont 1917). Courtesy Gaumont.

Mata Hari was famous for own fabulation of her oriental past and scandalous present. Myth and reality converged in ever changing combinations, which impressed many, but also caused her serious troubles during her notorious trial, leading to her execution by the French as spy for the enemy. However, the afterlife of Mata Hari also seems to have been afflicted by this mythologization. Some myths can be very persisting because we so dearly want to find them or hold on to them. I’d like to show this by two examples. I present the first example in this post.

Since late 2016 I have been involved in the search of filmic materials for the upcoming Mata Hari exhibition, which will open at the Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, on 14 October this year and will run until 2 April 2018. While still materials of Mata Hari are abundant: gorgeous coloured postcards, studio photos by prominents such as Emilio Sommariva, actuality photos etc., but what lacked were moving images. With a woman who was such a society figure between 1905 and the First World War, one asks himself why Pathé, Gaumont or any other prominent company did not film this woman, whose oriental dances had caused such a stir in Paris and beyond, and who was the mistress of many a prominent figure in politics, finance and culture?

Thus in films on her life or compilation films on the First World War  a clip persisted of a fashionable lady helped in her coat by a doorman. She afterwards steps into a luxurious car with chauffeur and is driven away. This clip, coined as being with Mata Hari, has been used over and again as real footage with Mata Hari. Even the respectable site EFG1914, supported and replenished by various European Film Archives, including the Dutch EYE, holds a compilation film that contains the same clip. It may be well have been the original culprit of the massive reuse and mythologization of ‘real’ film footage with Mata Hari. The compilation film uploaded by LUCE is the Italian version of 14-18 (1963) by French filmmaker Jean Aurel. The commentary states we notice Mata Hari here, helped into a taxi. The image quality was too poor to recognize any person. So where did Aurel did take it from? Could I get a better image quality?

Researching this clip was quite an adventure. I first contacted the CNC (Centre National pour la Cinématographie) near Paris, where Béatrice Paste kindly indicated me the compilation 14-18 by Aurel was a Gaumont production and CNC had recently digitized the film. Paste advised me to contact the Cinémathèque Gaumont. So I contacted curator Manuela Padoan who referred me to Nathalie Sitko, who proved to be an avid documentalist and helpful researcher. In the mean time I searched myself on the site of Pathé-Gaumont-Archives. There I found the compilation documentary Paris après 3 ans de guerre (1917) by Gaumont, which contained the same clip, but now without any indication of Mata Hari. The description on the Gaumont site just said:”Au pied d’un escalier, une femme élégante (bourgeoise) enfile son manteau aidé d’un maître d’hôtel, elle attend son véhicule et monte dans l’automobile.” The film had been uploaded in HD, so the image quality was really good. Still, I had my doubts whether this was really the famous Mata Hari. My doubts proved to be right.

Nathalie Sitko confirmed me that in Paris après 3 ans de guerre there is no indication of Mata Hari. Soon after she wrote me that the woman in the clip is not at all Mata Hari, but really Mademoiselle Luce Saphir of the Théâtre du Palais-Royal. The clip originally comes from a short fashion film by Gaumont dating from 1916:  La mode à Paris. Mademoiselle Luce Saphir, artiste au Theatre du Palais Royal. Title on the film is: “Mode: Mlle Luce Saphir du Palais Royal présente les modèles Paquin, dans un parc parisien.” The full fashion film is visible on the Pathé-Gaumont website (restricted vision). Presumably this actuality was part of a newsreel. Luce Saphir, a rather unknown artist of the French revue and operetta, demonstrates in this clip and additional ones the newest fashion by Paquin in a park in Paris. So instead of witnessing one of the most notorious women of the Parisian Belle Epoque, we are watching a precursor of the nowadays so popular phenomenon of the fashion film. A young and proud woman, standing on a terrace at the foot of outdoor stairs, shows off her clothes and waves to a roofless, upcoming taxi, which holds another woman, apparently a lady friend, whom she greets. A fancy doorman helps her in an elegant coat before she enters the car and drives away. The whole narrative is staged and just an alibi for showing off the woman’s wardrobe. The shot perfectly matches the other shots of this fashion film as visible on the Gaumont website, showing Saphir strolling in the park while displaying her fashionable outfits. It also reminds of other fashion actualities by Gaumont and Pathé in general in the 1910s in which fashionable ladies casually meet in the park and show off, as José Teunissen so well illustrated in her compilation film Mode in Beweging (1992).


Quo vadises in Rome

•November 28, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Statue of Henryk Sienkiewicz, Villa Borghese, Rome.


Opening of the exhibition.


Edition of the novel with pictures from the 1913 Cines adaptation.

On 13, 14 and 15 November I was in Rome to attend the screening of Enrico Guazzoni’s 1913 version of the film Quo vadis? (Cines 1913) and the conference Quo vadis?: Inspirations, contexts, and reception. On Sunday night, 13 November, we first had the opening of the exhibition “Quo vadis?” la prima opera transmediale. Da caso letterario a fenomeno della cultura di massa, hosted at the Polish Institute, situated in a monumental  Roman Palazzo in Via Vittoria Colonna. The exhibition contains all kinds of paratexts related to the various film adaptations (1901, 1913, 1951 etc.); but of course also highlights the different versions of the novel, each with different illustrations; plus hints to other media appropriating Sienkiewicz’s classic novel, such as theatre and opera. After the opening and various introductions Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis? was presented with modern live music by Michele Sganga.

The following two days were filled with many presentations, Mondays at the Casa del Cinema, situated at the Villa Borghese park, and Tuesdays back at the Polish Institute in Prati. We started on Monday with the 1901 Pathé Quo vadis? film, introduced by myself, and a comprehensive, attractive keynote by Maria Wyke, the expert in Antiquity films, but also well aware of all the transmedial ties between films, literature and the arts. While a first section of Polish speakers focused on the pluriform qualities of Sienkiewicz’s novel, related to archeology, ideology, costumes, and original draft and notes in the sidelines, Jon Solomon, Jonathan Stubbs, Monika Wozniak and Anja Bettenworth deepened our insights in the various cinematic adaptations, related to e.g. branding and merchandising, runaway productions, crossnational comparisons, and film versus television. In the night time Martin Winkler gave a challenging keynote, relating the 1951 Quo vadis to e.g. post-war Italy, Riefenstahl, and McCarthyism, before the film itself was screened, in an in Italian dubbed version.

On the second day, we first started with a section on visual arts and opera. I particularly liked Renata Suchowiejko’s speech on the opera by Jean Nouguès and Felix Nowowiejski’s oratorium, illustrated by sound clips. In addition, I presented my own paper on Alma-Tadema, Gérôme and Guazzoni’s Quo vadis?, which well matched the subsequent paper by Jerzy Miziolek on the painter Henryk Siemiradzki and Sienkiewicz.  Next followed a section on popular culture: Raffaele de Berti and Elisabetta Gagetti on book illustrations and postcards, Giuseppe Pucci on comics (including some quite nasty ones), and Katarzyna Biernacka-Licznar on children books. The last section was unfortunately the least interesting for me, on literary connections and reflections. As a film and arts man, I am probably too visually focused. But I also think that even when papers deal with topics related to literature, visuals are essential to keep us focused.

All in all, this was a very interesting conference, and when organizer Monika Wozniak announced she is planning  a publication, I was very interested the texts by others. I can imagine some texts will improve when read instead of being heard. Some were already available by the intriguing Italian publication Quo vadis? Da Caso letterario a fenomeno della cultura di massa (Ponte Sisto, 2016). The conference was well organised, with excellent catering, also after the closing words, and before the projection of the final film, Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Quo vadis from 2001. The exhibition will stay open till 5 January 2017. For an announcement in the Italian daily Repubblica, look here. See also the articles in,, For an interview by RAI with organizer Monika Wozniak, look here. Ponte Sisto also did a re-edition of the novel by Sienkiewicz.


Gathering at the Polish Institute


Casa del Cinema


The production of Quo vadis? (Mervyn LeRoy, MGM 1951)

Alma-Tadema: Classical Charm

•September 23, 2016 • Leave a Comment


In one week the exhibition Alma-Tadema. Klassieke verleiding (Classical Charm) will open at the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden. From the designs by architect Paul Toornend and the first glimpses of the exhibition architecture, I have full confidence this will become a major, much talked about exhibition, not only for the Netherlands, but also for countries nearby such as Germany. Works by Alma-Tadema from all over the world have been included, from little known treasures to world famous titles such as The Roses of Heliogabalus and Silver Favourites. From famous museums, renowned private collectors, and the Fries Museum itself, including its recent acquisition Entrance to a Theatre and its charming Amo te. ama me. The parabole of Tadema’s career, starting in the small Frisian village of Dronrijp, via Antwerp, to his breakthrough, fame and fortune in London, will be well visualised. Houses and interiors are a central theme, not only in the sense of Tadema’s imagined interiors from Roman and Egyptian Antiquity but also the interiors of his own houses, which he designed himself and decorated with works by himself, relatives and close friends. The exhibition highlights Tadema’s thorough research of Antiquity but also his contemporary involvement in design of furniture and of sets and costumes for the stage. Finally, by clips of various films from the 1910s, but also classics such as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, the Second Life of Tadema’s work in cinema will be revealed. A prologue to this film and painting section you’ll see in this compilation above: on the levels of citations, deep staging and use of props based on antique furniture there is much to discover in Antiquity films related to Tadema.

Apart from the exhibition, art house Slieker (hosted within the premises of the Fries Museum) will show a full programme of silent and sound films depicting Antiquity , such as the shorts Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (Luigi Maggi 1908), Agrippina (Enrico Guazzoni 1910), Le fils de Locuste (Louis Feuillade 1911) and L’ Orgie romaine (Louis Feuillade 1911). While Feuillade is known for his crime serials like Fantomas, around 1910 he made a whole range of interesting historical films, often beautifully hand-coloured. These short films will be shown with live music (harp, flute, violin) on Friday night 7 October, with an introduction by myself. Other screenings involve the silent Ben-Hur (1925) by Fred Niblo and with Ramon Novarro, the 1951 Quo vadis? by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Peter Ustinov as Nero, The Ten Commandments (DeMille 1956) with Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur (William Wyler 1959) with Heston and Stephen Boyd, The Fall of the Roman Empire (Anthony Mann 1964) with Boyd and Sophia Loren, Gladiator (Ridley Scott 2000) with Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix and Connie Nielsen, Pompeii (Paul W.S. Andersson 2014) with Kit Harington and Kiefer Sutherland, and Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott 2014) with Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton. All on the big screen. Moreover, within its Sunday Cinema Concert series the EYE Filmmuseum will show on Sunday 18 December the 1913 version of Quo vadis? by Enrico Guazzoni, with an ensemble led by Martin de Ruiter. He will use a selfmade score based on music written for the opera Quo vadis? (1909) by French composer Jean Nouguès. Again, the film will be introduced by myself.

Fries Museum organizes a series of Saturday lectures by the various curators of this exhibition, so Peter Trippi, Elizabeth Prettejohn, Marlies Stoter and myself, plus additional speakers. Topics are e.g. the studio house as laboratory (1/10), Tadema’s immersion of his viewers (8/10), Tadema’s as portrait painter (20/10 and 27/10), his fascination for the East (11/12), and my own topic: Tadema and cinema (26/11). Finally, Prestel will edit a lavish book in three language editions (Dutch, German, English), as the exhibition afterwards will travel to Belvedere Museum (Vienna ) and Leighton House (London). Editors of the book are Peter Trippi and Elizabeth Prettejohn.