Surrender to the arts

Director and screenwriter Rudolf van den Berg about his film "A Real Vermeer"

By Charlotte van der Heiden

On a warm late summer afternoon, I meet Rudolf in café Ramses in Amsterdam. We take a seat at two large Chesterfields. It seems to fit well in this decor.
After seeing his movie “A Real Vermeer” I am curious about his own authorship and how this influences his movie “A Real Vermeer.”
On a warm late summer afternoon, I meet Rudolf in café Ramses in Amsterdam. We take a seat at two large Chesterfields. It seems to fit well in this decor.
After seeing his movie “A Real Vermeer” I am curious about his own authorship and how this influences his movie “A Real Vermeer.”

When do you know you have a good story for a movie?   

How long it takes differs per project, but it is always the same feeling, the same experience. That images force themselves when I suddenly feel some sort of excitement and start writing down or drawing ideas. Then I can still be mistaken and think for a while “it is good, but it is not good enough for a film” or “it is not a film” but that is a kind of starting point. I think it’s a nice question.

For example, I don’t read books with the idea that there can be a movie made out of it. I just read for pleasure because I am interested in a writer or in the subject. And when that sensation of “wow” comes, I see an image in one go or I feel the excitement of drama. At that moment I think he will read again. Drama is the core of this.

Drama is of course a very broad concept. Comedy can also be drama. So I do not mean drama as in tears with spouts, but drama in the way that you as a viewer are touched and experience that something is being touched here that touches something essential in your own life. ”

When does a story challenge you to be filmed?

‘’I would not like to make the same kind of films one after the other. I’m always making something else. And this partly comes from myself, but the subject also chooses me. ”

Just like in the movie ‘A Real Vermeer’ the subject also chooses Han van Meegeren?

‘’Yes, you are chosen by your subject. Not always. When I look at my own films, the good films, it all has to do with themes that I find really essential. That I started it and thought “well fun subject.” And then slowly but surely there comes the notion that it has to do with myself. Like with this film A real Vermeer, it took quite a while. ”

Does the choice of story relate to your sense of justice?

‘The sense of justice can be incredibly exciting and emotional. In certain American films, for example court films, they are very much based on that emotion to undo the injustice. But that is not a preconceived plan that I have. That is not an emphatic theme of mine. “ 

In what way did Han van Meegeren ’s story challenge you to make a film?

At a number of levels of course. It starts with getting an anecdote that gets thrown into your lap. That is fun and also appealed to me. I was asked for it. And if you are asked for that, of course that is nice, but then you also know that you will be doing this for three years. You must know for sure that you can do something with that. That it is more than just an income because then you will not last three years. 

I was trying to find out quick what the story is about, because I thought the story an in itself not sufficient. From that man Han van Meegeren who spite the critics, imitates a Vermeer and then puts all those critics in front of him. That’s nice, but I don’t think it’s enough for a movie. 

I thought it was too inadequate, so I started looking for what it is all about. This took quite a long time. I noticed that it is about the price of artistry. The fears of being an artist. 

At one point you think that you are the greatest and that you are just as good as the very best. As Han says “I am as good as Vermeer” and at the other moment you think: it really means nothing at all; I am a charlatan; I’m kidding about things. Those experiences are just as strong. That is what I noticed that was going on in this film. I could do something with that and lead actor Jeroen Spitzenberger could also do something with this.’’ 


The story of Han van Meegeren beckons to an international stage. Are there therefore apparently un-Dutch scenes in it?

‘Especially with the bakelite scenes, the intention was to lift the scenes completely out of naturalism. Making it bigger and more exuberant, and yes, almost over the top. I hate naturalism. He thinks back about how he worked on it all these years. The question is whether it is reality. I blow up the story to almost opera-like proportions and that of course has a purpose.” 

For example, no pubic hair can be seen in the bed scene.

‘I don’t really think it is the lack of pubic hair that makes it different, but that that scene is about something. With most of those sex scenes in movies, yes, then you have a run-up to a climax of two people in love. Will it happen, won’t it happen? Yes, and then they are working on something that I think, why am I looking at this? Because it really doesn’t tell anything. And this sex scene does tell something.” 

‘Especially because at some point he starts to act strangely, looks and hears voices in his head. The fact that he comes so close to critic Bredius‘ wife also means that he comes close to his enemy. Van Meegeren hears that enemy in his head again. That was a fairly daring approach. I use that sex scene to tell what that man is obsessed with.” 

I suspect that many people will come to the movies to discover how it is possible that the counterfeits were purchased and how the buyers were scammed. The role of the zeitgeist in which the forgeries were made and purchased plays a major role in this, but does not get the attention I expected in this film.

‘That is an art-historical aspect that I mention briefly, but found too complicated. I indicate a few things: It is a gap in art history, Vermeer’s religious period. Han van Meegeren paints exactly what the critic Bredius is waiting for.” 

Of course, he also adapts it to the spirit of the time in that similarity between his work and all kinds of fascist movements in Germany. I have thought about that. I have read about it in my research phase. You can also see it in those paintings. 

There is a very good book‘The Man Who Made Vermeers‘ written about it by the American Jonathan Lopez. He shows that an Meegeren actually fell into place with his style in that Nazi period. And that that style was his individuality. That fact is in the film. Han van Meegeren says at a given moment: “The Fuehrer only knows what art is.” Sometimes you don’t want to explain everything. So I make choices. It is just a bit more for a documentary than for drama.” 

The surrender to art where you lose all your money, your family, your status, your self-esteem and where you risk your whole life. As a filmmaker, you have also had difficult periods. Is this surrender an important aspect why you wanted to portray the story of Han van Meegeren?

‘Well, not so much to use the story about Han van Meegeren for that aspect of our existence. I discovered that. It was not that I started the project and thought “well then I can unpack a bit about the pain of dealing with the audience and the critics’’, but that slowly but surely began to manifest itself to me. I thought, hey, these are all things that I recognize. The film is of course not an autobiographical fillm, I could only use it. Filling in the story with the anger, sadness and loneliness I have known. To just put me away pathetically. Only that was not the reason to start.” 

‘The reason to start was because I thought: this is a fascinating story with a quirky protagonist. Let me investigate that. Because of course it goes step by step. It was not my own idea, this film. It was the producers’ idea. They asked me if I wanted to tackle this. Let’s just investigate.” 

Read books, do research, make schedules and start working with a coscenarist. I could have said at any of those moments: well I don’t see anything in it, too bad this is not going to be a movie, or this is not for me. But on the contrary. I became increasingly sucked in.

Will the story become a muse for you at that moment?

‘With only a few films, I have had so much experience that the process took me into meaning. I could not have foreseen that this would be the film. In that sense the sentence comes from Jólanka Lakatos ( LizeFeryn ) when she says “walk in the dark along the abyss of the canyon without knowing what you are looking for with the chance that you will thunder in the canyon. You should try that.” That is actually a core? And that also applies to this film. 

You will look for something without knowing what you will find. Let go of control and dare to feed by the muse. Because of what you see happening between actors. What options you hear in those texts. I still think it’s a nice piece if she tells him the truth in that Nazi period. Yes, what you do has nothing to do with artistry. While of course she is just as opportunistic as he is. For very understandable reasons, money is important to her, but she also wants that artist.” 

Het Hertje and Hertje met jong “is one of the few works he published under his own name. The model was the play deer of Princess Juliana, who was brought from Huis ten Bosch to Van Meegerens atelier every day. Before the Second World War they hung in tens of thousands of living rooms. The drawing is such a familiar face that there is a good chance that you have seen it yourself.

Both in ‘Süskind’ and in the movie ‘A real Vermeer’ we are dealing with almost unacceptable good guys. Is that also on the edge of the abyss?

‘In Süskind it is interesting that he starts as an opportunist. He takes the job at the Jewish Council to bring himself and his family to safety and then he discovers what the job entails. He then goes into resistance and has to walk on the sloping surface. In fact, that movie should have been called that. The sloping surface, I think. He will play with those Nazis and how far can you go? That film is of course about that. I find that an exciting kind of moral dilemma. But at Süskind, of course, I have really been looking for what kind of film you make. What kind of main character do you create? Again, the real Süskind, however impressive, cannot be literally reproduced in a film. That is too complicated and it doesn’t provide a story. So you have to choose and come up with fiction. But then I still look for ambiguity.” 

Is the issues of the day often ruthless for art?

‘Great art reflects aspects of time, but also transcends them. If you see Rembrandt, which is very much rooted in the 17th century. At the same time, if you stand in for it, you will still be caught by your throat. And the spirit of the times did not allow it to be packed.”  

When you returned from Hollywood, when did you find another reason to make a film?

I have never been able to make a movie in Hollywood because I have only been there for a year. I was very busy with many “possible” projects there, but I came back because I could make a film in the Netherlands. And I also felt a great need for it. I didn’t really like it there without my daughters. 

I went there hoping to realize projects there and because it was almost impossible to do in the Netherlands. I have been there for 1.5 years when a turning point began to come in the Netherlands. I was able to use that by producing another film. 

I felt like staying there. There was also a shot in it. I had an agent and I was working on a few projects. Yes, it all takes so long and it is really hard there. I don’t know if they would have succeeded. I didn’t sit out that ride.” 


Just making that film, was that enough to appreciate your work?

It’s about the joy of making, the process. I really mean that. But of course you will always be chased after your rags. Also because it is about a lot of money, there is a marketing it has to find an audience. Nothing is more fun than being cheered on. Of course that’s nice. But I cannot take that as a starting point, because then I will get lost. Then I have lost my orientation. Then I don’t know what to do anymore. When I think: I want to see this, that is how I see it, that is how it should smell and this is what I want. Only then does it become a unit. 

While if I think: they probably like that scene at De Telegraaf or VARA. When I think I am completely lost. I would lie if I said that I didn’t care about the audience reaction. I like it when it is appreciated, but I don’t have that in mind when I’m making it. And once again the joy of making is so endless that it more than compensates for all the misery that surrounds it. 

There are a few beautiful dialogues and scenes in which I dare to call the scene with the blue dress, where Jólanka Lakatos ( Lize Feryn ) poses for the first time, iconic. For the art connoisseur, these are beautiful final pieces in the film. To what extent have these scenes come all the way round and complete from the writer’s table?

A scenario is very important because it gives structure and that gives cohesion to the story. The pillars and your beams. But you cannot put the essence of your film on paper. And that’s how they look at each other. How she moves. The one gesture she makes. How he pretends to sit up. That happens anyway at that time or during the rehearsal. 

I am very impatient so I get bored very quickly. My red light is always ‘boring’. When I think that, I try to discover what happens. And can we try something else? Get up, sit down. That is real. You can hardly describe that.

You can describe the situation. You indicate in your scenario what you need and what is there. You still have to fill in the rest with your light and with your mise-en-scène and your photography.’’ 


Is it the total surrender or the total control that makes a movie better for you?

‘You must also be open to things that you do not understand and look carefully at why it works or does not work. You have to come very well prepared for such a set because there are 30 people around you waiting for them to take action. You have to be able to say “guys we’re going to stand there with the camera and this is the action”, but then you still have to be able to say at the last minute “yes, but guys this run that doesn’t work. I want you to stay put. “Yes, but it feels so strange.’’ ‘’But use that feeling.’’ “You have to be in the process.” 

And at what moments can you feel that the story is going to transcend the game?

“Sometimes you overlook it. Sometimes you only see it when you see it in the assembly. Sometimes the pressure on the set is so high that you only think okay this was good. And then you sometimes have that when you see it later that you think “ hmm it disappoints me a bit. Or you think “wow, I didn’t know it was that good. Make no mistake. Everything I say now in sublime terms about that mysterious process on the set that is completely overshadowed by the enormous time pressure.

If you are about to make a painting, yes, if it doesn’t work on Tuesday afternoon, you will continue Wednesday morning. And for me apart Wednesday evening. Then you leave it for a week and then you continue. But on such a set it has to happen within that time frame. Then you can’t say: guys it doesn’t work; I’m going for a walk for an hour and I’ll be back when I know. It must all be tic– tok – tic That is the struggle that gives you stress. And you have to keep feeling and thinking in that stress. 

That is not a complaint. That is the description of reality. You really want to get the most out of it. And that is the battle that you want to play on that set. That you want to keep everything open. That on the one hand you want to try things and then the crazy logistical pressure of “boys another 5 minutes and then we have to start the next shot.” 

In the film Han van Meegeren first goes in search of technical perfection and then he still needs the passion to put the soul in the painting. To complete the work. He finally sealed the canvas with a kiss.

“Well, what kind of kiss is it?”

The explanation could be a Judas kiss, in which he denies the art. Another explanation could be that he acknowledged the love for this artwork.

“I’m not going to give you the answer. I can say something about it. It is a pretty fierce scene that goes beyond naturalism. You think he’s going to rub that painting on shit. That is what you think as a viewer. Because you have that story about that father in your head. His father pushed his hands in the poo on the toilet as a toddler. You suspect he is following his father’s voice there. 

“What a worthless painting,” he says. And that was also in the script. That he would rub it on. I stood there with Jeroen (main character) and I thought “yes, if I let Jesus rub in here with poo, I tell something very different from what I want to tell. Because that’s not the point at all.

I found the construction very exciting. If you hear that father’s voice so to speak and that he never gets rid of it “I am nothing, I can do nothing, I know nothing.” But I thought: how do I finish it? Instinctively I came up with the idea of ​​that kiss. 

You can interpret it in so many ways. I’m not going to tell it either. Maybe I don’t even know if someone surprises me with an interpretation. At least I thought it was right. And he also plays very well. He picked it up immediately. “ 

What contribution does the film make in the current discussion about ‘what makes art in essence art?’

“That has not been my drive to make this film. But you inevitably touch on that issue. And that is cut by the drunken quarrel between him and Jólanka, after that Nazi party. If she posed in the Nazi jacket. 

She has already said before: I want to see Han van Meegeren and not all that fake Vermeers. That discussion is actually about “what is art”. And she already said “in the dark on the edge of the abyss…” Well, so there the essence of art is touched on without being elevated to the subject. That is a crucial moment. I thought that should be said in the film: what is art. 

What makes art art? Criticist Bredius says that much earlier when he breaks down his exhibition in the artists’ society Han van Meegeren. “The craftsman becomes an artist when he is touched by the gods. And is that what Han van Meegeren does now art or a c

Craftsmanship seems to me a condition for art. But when does craft become an art? The film does address this subject but does not answer the question whether “my” Han van Meegeren has made art in the film or whether this is a craft. I have never set myself the goal of making that judgment.” 

Do you see anyone else influenced by the new generation of filmmakers? .

‘If it is a good film, you will be influenced by it without being aware of it often. It can be through the use of the camera, color or way of acting. It can be anything. Occasionally I have that I think: wow, I think that’s really good. That is rare, but it is very pleasant if it happens. “

Paolo Sorrentino’s La grande bellezza, for example?

‘That is of course masterful, but that is not the kind of film that I would like or could make. That is hyper aesthetics. That is not my style. I’m really the aesthetics, but not the aesthetics ansich. That is not my thing. But I think it’s a really good filmmaker. I have also seen his older films. And last but not least his latest film Youth’. He is a very good director. He is one of the people who fits that list. 

But for example Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexican filmmaker, you should see that. I think he has had so much class right from the start. But also the Coen brothers. In the Netherlands I find Jim Taihuttu from the movie Wolf (2013) very interesting. 

So, there are some, but I am never busy recreating a scene. I sometimes quote a film from fifty years ago. I like to give that wink, but every next film is different again.” 

Overgave aan de kunst

Overgave aan de kunst

Over het auteurschap van regisseur Rudolf van der Berg en op welke manier deze invloed heeft op zijn film ‘Een echte Vermeer’.