In memoriam: Karel Dibbets (1947-2017)

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

~ by Ivo Blom on June 2, 2017.

One Response to “In memoriam: Karel Dibbets (1947-2017)”

  1. […] By Ivo Blom […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: