‘Birds’ and ‘Borgman’ signal sea change in Dutch culture

Dutch artists won no top prizes this month at either the Cannes film festival or the Eurovision song contest – but you would hardly know that from the glowing press they won in their home country.

The Dutch entries in both competitions were hailed in the Netherlands as a cultural turning point: a shift towards high-minded cosmopolitanism after years of populist insularity.

At Eurovision, Dutch singer-songwriter Anouk placed ninth, but her austere, harmonically complex song “Birds” won international praise for challenging the festival’s usual camp aesthetics. At Cannes, Alex van Warmerdam’s Kafkaesque drama Borgman became the first Dutch feature in 38 years to contend for the Palme d’Or. No other western European country had seen such a long drought.

Many Dutch critics detect a shift in the wind.

“Recent years have been dominated by an assertive, neo-nationalist sentiment, in which everything had to be recognisably Dutch ‘in the name of the people’,” columnist Bas Heijne wrote in a widely discussed newspaper article. Anouk’s performance, he said, put a halt to “the terror of rampant tastelessness”.

For the past decade, while Dutch politics turned towards the rightwing nationalism of Geert Wilders, its culture industries focused on pleasing mass audiences at home, churning out kitschy, Dutch-language pop music and plodding thriller movies that never made it beyond the country’s borders.

Dutch artists found themselves gazing enviously at the international success of cutting-edge media from Scandinavia, with Denmark producing breakout TV hits like Borgen and The Killing, while Sweden continues its tradition of creating global indie-pop stars such as Lykke Li.

“We used to show up at Eurovision with mediocre Dutch schlager [beer hall] music that was only recognisable to the Dutch, and perhaps Germans,” says Cornald Maas, a music critic. “It symbolised the Netherlands’ inability to look further than our own noses.”

The decision to let the country be represented by Anouk, an established star with a conservatory background and a turbulent private life – she is sometimes called the Dutch Amy Winehouse – was seen as striking a blow for artistic independence. She largely avoided the media circus at Eurovision; while other countries’ shows featured fireworks, hydraulic lifts and in one case an actual giant, Anouk performed an almost dissonant song with no dancers or stage show.

Similarly, the fact that Cannes’ judges agreed to consider Borgman was seen as rewarding idiosyncrasy over mass tastes. Writer-director Mr van Warmerdam has been developing a peculiarly dour type of Calvinist surrealism in his movies since the mid-1980s.

The lack of attention abroad has rankled, particularly with the rampant success of Danish movies, and more recently TV shows, in the nearly 20 years since the launch of the Dogma 95 film movement. At the Netherlands’ feature film awards ceremony last year, the éminence grise of Dutch actors, Rutger Hauer, pleaded for his countrymen to “look across the borders more”.

“The Danes have been a sore point for a number of years now. How come they’re smaller than the Netherlands, but they are having so much success?” said Hans Maarten van den Brink, head of the Netherlands’ national media fund. The problem was precisely that too many Dutch directors had tried unsuccessfully to copy a Hollywood model, rather than developing their own local style, as the Danish had, Mr van den Brink said.

Some dispute the claim that the Netherlands’ international orientation has gone missing in recent years.

In certain fields, the Netherlands’ culture industries have seen global success. The Dutch played a key role in launching the reality TV era in 2000 when producer John de Mol created Big Brother, and Mr de Mol’s studio Talpa continues to invent new hit reality formats, such as The Voice, and syndicate them abroad. And while the Dutch have little international profile in melodic pop or hip-hop, they are a major presence in electronic dance music, with DJs such as Armin van Buuren and Tiësto sought after for festivals across the world.

But those celebrating the performances at Eurovision and Cannes tend to be unhappy with the idea of a Dutch identity defined by reality TV and big dance parties.

For them, the warm reception at Cannes is a sign of hope, while for Dutch music Anouk’s performance marks a sea change, Mr Maas says.

“She put the Netherlands back on the map.”

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