Revisit the Magical 50s Art Docs of Bert Haanstra

Let the late Dutch filmmaker take you into worlds of glass blowers and zoo animals.

by Charlie Schmidlin
Apr 6 2016, 12:15pm

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After his early-1950s films Mirror of Holland and Panta Rhei, both of which examined the Netherlands countryside and cities in studied detail, Bert Haanstra felt frustrated but optimistic. “I have mastered the camera, I can handle nature, but I've not yet learned to handle people and their problems,” he said. “That's still too complicated. But I'll get there…”

The Dutch filmmaker found his destination by keeping distance: from his native Holland, often utilizing aerial photography to capture the landscape, and from people, about whom he reached a larger truth through observing their rituals. It was Mirror of Holland that first put Haanstra’s name forward internationally, winning the Golden Palm at the 1950 Cannes Film Festival. The film also drew him to notable artists of the time: he sat on a Cannes jury led by Jean Cocteau in 1951, and later struck up a friendship and working relationship with French director Jacques Tati (Haanstra directed Trafic’s Amsterdam sequences).

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Starting in 1952, Haanstra turned to documentaries on commission, temporarily retreating from the public eye in order to travel to the jungles of Sumatra and Caracas, Venezuela. Films like And Then There Was No More Sea and The Rival World rose above their their educational purposes to deliver wry commentary and surreal imagery. His Oscar-winning 1958 documentary Glas best examples that approach: shot in crisp Technicolor, the film observes craftsmen blowing handmade crystal at the Royal Leerdam Glass Factory, featuring pure professionals who come to work in suits and light cigarettes off the hot glass.

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The film came about when Haanstra received a commission by the Royal Leerdam factory to direct a promotional film. On an early scout of the space, he noticed a bottle stuck on a mechanical stacking machine—a sharp change from the fluidity of the glass blowers themselves—and decided to pursue that contrast. In Glas, a jazz score by the Pim Jacobs Quintet follows suit, switching over to a cold industrial soundtrack whenever machinery takes the spotlight.  

Jazz is only one recurring motif throughout Haanstra’s short-form documentary work. Also returning from Glas are match cuts to draw similarities springing from human behavior. In Zoo, made in 1962 and shot in Amsterdam’s Artis Zoo using hidden cameras, we see the gawking attendees as the animals would. Haanstra cross-cuts between a tiger gnawing on a slab of meat and a woman with a wallet in her mouth; elsewhere, two goats butting heads cuts to two children fighting. The parallels paint a humbling view, sharply and humorously defined by Haanstra’s eye.

Bert Haanstra also made several documentary and narrative features, including The Human Dutch and Fanfare. The former built on the undercover visual approach from Zoo, while Fanfare is still the Netherlands’ second most popular film after Paul Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight. They both greatly expanded upon his chosen themes of human behavior, but for a proper and compact introduction to the films of Haanstra (who passed in 1997 at the age of 81), check out Glas, Zoo, and several of the Dutch filmmaker’s other short works below.

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Click here to learn more about Bert Haanstra. 

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