Alex van Warmerdam’s acceptance speech
on the occasion of receiving the Johannes Vermeer Award, state prize for the arts
Delft, 15 november 2010
Dear jury, secretary of state, family and friends,
If you receive a phone call on a weekday and a voice tells you that you’ve been awarded a state prize, it is no small matter. You realize it’s a great honour, but what is a great honour in fact? What facial expression is called for? ‘My God,’ you think, ‘I’ve been noticed, they’re watching me.’
The feeling creeps up on you that you’re pulled into an institute, a dark building at an unknown location. You’re spoiled for a few days, then you start to look ashen and get nothing done.
During those first days, your wife still inquires about you, wondering where you’ve gone. On the third day of imprisonment, from a small window on the third floor, you see her standing by the gate, but the gatekeeper, trained by the state and therefore smart, glib and ruthless, brushes her off. While you watch her walk away, you feel a comforting hand on your shoulder. You turn around, it’s Pierre Audi, last year’s laureate. He looks bad and the smile he produces with great difficulty offers no hope whatsoever.
Now, many months after that phone call, the dark building where I saw myself being confined, has dissolved. Now I am standing here, sincerely honoured with this prize, delivered from all demons. Almost everything that I am honoured for today, was realized also thanks to government funds. This needs to be said; because of late a small-minded wind has blown over our country, with ever louder and spiteful voices rising up against the arts.
My father was stagehand at the City Theatre of Haarlem, but was offered to reside in the administrator’s residence above the Haarlem Concert Hall. That is where I was born. To the left of the Concert Hall was the Enschedé building, where the money was printed. Opposite our home was the courthouse. You could look right into the courtroom from our living room and see the judge sitting there. The view from our kitchen window was on an inner court, where a married couple practiced walking a tightrope.
The prostitutes were a bit further down the street. Of course I had no idea they were prostitutes- I was four, five years old- I thought they were women without husband and children who were bored and looking out of the window for some diversion. The bedroom wall next to my bed had a small hole in it, and if there was a concert in the evening, I could see the conductor through that little hole.
We moved to the Hannie Schaftstraat in East Haarlem. The view from our home was the slaughterhouse. For my birthday, I got a wigwam and an Indian’s outfit.
One summer’s day, I ended up in the bedroom of Harry Opdam, a boy from our street who I sometimes played with. He closed the curtains, took a nondescript small vase from the windowsill, took his willie out from his pants, stuffed his willie into the vase with his little finger and looked at me triumphantly. That was it. He put his willie back in his pants, placed the vase back on the windowsill and opened the curtains again.
Around my ninth, my father was promoted and became stage manager in Den Bosch. We moved to West II, a sand flat on the edge of the city. We lived in the flat’s first street. Here lived Catholic families, with many children.
Our neighbour was arrested on suspicion of sexual abuse of some of his daughters.
Halfway on the route between our house and our primary school lay a dumping ground of wood chips. A forest had sprung from that big layer, which everyone called ‘the black forest’. It was a risky place: the ground was a heaving mass of wood pulp. If you would stand still you would sink, but there was another reason for walking through it as fast as possible: you could be caught by the big boys. Then you would be tied to a tree and tortured.
I met John Koert when I was thirteen years old. He lived in the centre of Den Bosch, in a large house where I never saw anyone else but John. He was a few months older than I was, very good at drawing and he dared to do anything. He would provide the materials for making a bomb, so we could blow up dustbins. We found a dead body in the Dieze, the river that mainly flows under the city. And behind the altar in St. John’s Cathedral, we discovered a door that wasn’t locked. The door led to a never-ending spiral staircase, which led to the highest galleries of the cathedral. We saw the monsters and devils on the arches from up close. There were literally asphalt paths up there. You could ride your bike there. For that reason, John had brought a large children’s bike one day, which unfortunately got completely stuck after only a few steps.
My father became stage manager in IJmuiden. This time, we lived above the city theatre. I was fourteen years old.
My brothers and I saw a lot of theatre, but also films, because the theatre became a cinema on weekends. Sometimes we helped our father in painting and building the sets. It was everyday and normal.
But IJmuiden itself wasn’t normal. IJmuiden was ugly. The sea was flat and empty, the blast furnaces emitted grey and toxic fumes, which would end up on the drying laundry when the north wind blew. The fish auction stank. It was best not to go to the other side of the canal, because you’d be beaten up there. In bed at night, you could hear the foghorns. To me they seemed like ghosts that tried to pull you into the hereafter.
On days off I would wander through the dunes, walk to the pier head and back again, searching the beach in vain for washed ashore objects. I had no adventures, I met no one on the pier and I’ve never seen a rabbit in the dunes of IJmuiden. In Haarlem and especially in Den Bosch, the adventures would find my way spontaneously, but in IJmuiden there was only grey emptiness, and I had to seek refuge in my imagination.
Later on I heard from my twin sisters nine years younger than me that when they were twelve, they would arbitrarily pull boys from their bikes, and beat them up. Of course that is a good way to stand up to IJmuiden, but they were a pair, whereas I was on my own during that first period in IJmuiden.
After that lonely beginning, IJmuiden showed itself from a different side: my father founded the theatre company the Witte Tejater, from which Hauser Orkater came into being, which six years later became a smash hit in London, Rome and especially Paris.
The other day, my mother told me she had written a note to the newspaper Haarlems Dagblad, because in an article it said that I was born in IJmuiden. I said this was true in a way.
‘But son, what are you saying?’ my mother said, ‘You were born in Haarlem.’
‘Yes, I was born in Haarlem, also a bit in Den Bosch, but I was mostly born in IJmuiden.’
Except to IJmuiden, I owe thanks to many people. I’d like to mention some of them.
I thank my parents for the freedom they have always given me and that, when I was being unmanageable again, they never sent me away to boarding school, despite their threats.
Marc Felperlaan, cinematographer on my first four films and Tom Erisman on my last three films, I thank for their unremitting enthusiasm, the countless improvements and their innumerable ideas.
I thank Vincent, my younger brother, for the always subtle music he has composed for many of my theatre performances and films.
I thank all the actors and all the musicians I have worked with.
And of course Orkater. I have made all my performances with the Mexicaanse Hond under its umbrella. Orkater is a relaxed, but well-functioning organisation where no one groans and moans. My brother Marc, the director, I will mention later. I’d like to mention business manager Nicolien Luttels, always in a good mood, fast, alert, with everything under control.
I thank everyone at the City Museum of Schiedam who made last spring’s exhibition possible, but mostly Wilma Sütö, the curator who put together the exhibition.
I thank my sons Mees and Houk because they are there, because they have their own opinion and sense of humour and because they didn’t want me to read to them in bed when they were little. The story had to be made up. And that’s how Jan Willem van Henegouwen came into existence, the medieval monarch who at full moon rose from his grave, the mad sexton and Little Man Pim and the dog Puk who were wandering through a dismal mountain landscape, starving, only to find a fish and chips stand in the middle of nowhere.
Last spring, the Prague film festival showed a retrospective of my films. One evening, I ended up in the hotel bar with an English, a Japanese and a Flemish director. Almost immediately, the conversation was about the difficulties of getting a film financed. I didn’t say much, which was noticed, because eventually they asked me: ‘And you, how do you get your money?’
‘I have a brother,’ I said. I explained all the things my brother does in order to make not only my films possible, but also my theatrical work. That we trust each other completely, no hidden agenda, no profiteering.
‘We also want a brother like that!’ they called out.
I don’t need more than this anecdote to illustrate how much I’d lack without Marc.
And of course my wife Annet Malherbe. If it wasn’t for her, my life would be joyless. Annet thinks big: ‘You only live once and when there’s cause to celebrate, you should celebrate.’ However, not with two friends and a piece of toast with liver paste, but with all your friends, with oysters and a roast and drinks and silly games until daybreak. Except for giving me this joy and many other joys, she is also responsible for the casting of my films, and she acts in my films and much of my theatrical work as well. And she is my compass when I am in danger of taking a path to nowhere.
Finally, I’d like to thank the jury and to show that I haven’t been resting on my laurels, I will finish with reading to you the, not to worry, short opening monologue of my new performance, named ‘Turn Left at the Canal’.
Imagine this: the lights in the theatre go out. Mr Meyerbeer comes on stage and addresses the audience.
It is truly fantastic what is happening out there in the streets and the squares. Everyone is excited and ready for battle, not only in the cities, but also in the towns and villages. It is touching to see what people have embroidered and how it flutters on the masts.
In Karpershoef, the mayor has slaughtered a pig. With the sledgehammer. It was done in two blows.
In Tilburg, they laughed. Marouschka sang, in a heavy accent, the people couldn’t understand what she was singing. The alderman was the first to throw a stone, the audience followed. Yes, for God’s sake, Marouschka, sing understandably and we will praise you. Marouschka is in hospital and on the mend.
We are no monsters.
Johannes van Reijn has written a musical about us, about what we think and feel. It premiered last Friday in Brussels. The reports mention a frenzied crowd. Later that evening, in expression of pure joy, the Museum of Fine Arts was sent up in flames.
Mrs Moreel from Antwerp has won the front garden competition and the blond girl twins from Ostend are going to marry the De Weert brothers from North Santpoort, both clever lawyers, honest lads with a vegetable garden. See, in this way we are moving on. We are on the threshold of a free world. Furthermore, the weather is lovely, with a soft breeze and a warm sun. For a reason. God is with us, people. This has not always been the case.
I see a full theatre. Out there is where it’s happening, but you’ve all come here. I don’t know if that was the right decision. I advise you to keep expectations low.’
Mr Meyerbeer leaves the stage.
I thank you all.