A month after Rudolf van den Berg read Arnon Grunberg’s novel TIRZA, he was still obsessed with it. It wasn’t just that the story told of a father’s search for his daughter, although van den Berg has two daughters the same age as those of the book’s main character, Jorgen Hofmeester. Nor was it the fact that the novel was a best-seller in The Netherlands. Rather, he was visited again and again by what he feels was the striking image of the book and consequently, that of his film.
“What I saw was the image of this sad, white man in the middle of the desert being led by this small black girl,” explains Van den Berg. “It was such a strong image, the expression of something unspeakable, or of something we do not really understand, nor describe analytically. It made me re-read the book, and then I realised that this image was really the summary of something essential and substantial and elementary within the story.”
Van den Berg’s film tells the tale of the divorced Hofmeester, played by Gijs Scholten van Aschat, whose youngest and favourite daughter, Tirza (Sylvia Hoeks), embarks on a journey with her boyfriend across Namibia. After all contact with the pair is lost Jorgen decides to travel to the African desert country to locate his daughter. When he arrives he meets the child prostitute Kaisa, who introduces him to her cruel world where he learns of the terrible fate that has befallen Tirza.
“It’s the first time in my whole career that I have the courage to say ‘yes, I’m happy and I’m proud, this is how I wanted my film to be',” Van den Berg explains. “TIRZA was hard work but never too heavy, and perfectly well organised. We could be very flexible, and it was inspiring in the way that everybody on the crew was very respectful and committed to the project. I had a great time.”
Van den Berg is naturally delighted that the film was selected to open the festival, but having been out of the box-seat for eight years – his last film was SNAPSHOTS (2002), starring Burt Reynolds and Julie Christie – his relief to be back is palpable. “The selection is something to be proud of and it’s a nice way to return after several years of not making films,” he points out. “And the selection will generate a lot of public interest in the film, which is also very necessary as more sophisticated films are not easy to market. But it is great to be back at the centre of the festival with this film and to witness the reactions.
“I have learnt over the years, and this is not just an old man speaking, some pretty serious lessons. Yes, of course I hope that the film is a success both artistically and commercially but, for me the process of writing it, developing it, directing it and editing it was such a fantastic experience. So I have experienced a lot of success with it already. And to be the opening film is a very special extra.”
Right now Van den Berg is finalising the screenplay for his next film, SÜSKIND, ahead of a Spring 2011 shoot. The film, to star Jeroen Spitzenberger (ALLES IS LIEFDE, 2007) in the title role, tells the true story of a German Jew who escaped to Amsterdam during the Second Word War and managed to rescue 1000 Jewish children from the Nazis. While it is as yet undecided where the film will finally shoot – that depends on the final structure of the film’s finance, according to Van den Berg - a number of key establishing scenes will be shot in Amsterdam. But central to Van den Berg’s concerns about the film is the moral dimension inherent within the tale. “I have made several films about the aftermath of the Holocaust, but SÜSKIND goes into the heart of it,” he explains. “It’s a necessity, I have to do it, but it also makes me nervous. The story has a very strong moral dimension, a historical morality and I feel a strong responsibility because of this.”
Bubbling away on the back burner are two more projects that Van den Berg is confident will go into production after SÜSKIND’s completion. He has received development finance from a selection of Dutch funds, as well as from the Dutch Humanistische broadcaster, for a biopic of the Dutch philosopher Spinoza. “Everybody in the world knows the name Spinoza but nobody knows what he was all about so why not go to the movies to find out?” Van den Berg reasons. “It will be a heroic story about the dangerous philosophical journey that he took against the backdrop of the Holland’s Golden Age in the 17th Century. I’m quite optimistic that it will happen because everybody agrees that the subject is of huge cultural interest, but it will also be a good suspenseful movie.”
In addition, ORESTES, which he has been developing for two decades, has piqued the interest of the South African production company (DO Productions) with whom he co-produced TIRZA. “My South African partners are very interested to co-produce because of the parallel landscapes in Africa,” he explains. “Their business infrastructure is good and they offer the opportunity to produce the film on a very reasonable budget. Also CG (computer graphics) is much better developed than 20 years ago. There is one sequence where the sea must be completely becalmed. Show me a place in the world where you can shoot that. But these days, with CG, that isn’t a real problem. You can go into the desert and create a sea in the background.”