30.9.2016

The White Slave—Interview with Rem Koolhaas

On January 31, 2016, Fiktion’s cofounder Ingo Niermann talked to Rem Koolhaas in Amsterdam about The White Slave in the run-up to the screenplay’s publication.

How did you get involved with film?

My interest in film started in 1952, when I was eight and our family moved to Indonesia where my father ran the Dutch cultural institute. Because my parents’ house was too small and also as part of my independence, I had a room that was separate from the house and from there I could see the screen of the auditorium. By the time I turned eleven, I had seen the whole European film history, but in a distorted format. It was all completely compressed.

Later, me and my high-school friend Rene Daalder became film freaks, as the Dutch phrase went at the time. We would go to all the film festivals. We drove to them on small bicycles with tiny engines, and we got to know Polanski and Fassbinder. Everyone was accessible. Interest was all that counted. Then Rene wanted to do his first movie. I had just decided to become an architect and resigned as a journalist. So I had a year available and we spent every day of that year writing the script.

I don’t agree with Rene’s description of the plot of The White Slave as surreal. Sometimes something that should be apparent to a character isn’t, but this kind of thing happens often—and every comedy is based on this principle.

I think it’s more that the characters are so unaware of what they are doing that they are constantly surprised. The effect is maybe surreal, but it’s definitely not surreal intentionally.

There’s an impressive accumulation of clichés like the virile, immoral Arab or the Dutch with their sinister pragmatism –

Executionism.

… and then the inversion of clichés like the good German, who adores young women and Africans, treating them both as innocent creatures.

It was a film of ideas, but presented as a banal melodrama. Our most important influence was Fassbinder. We admired his ability to raise serious issues in melodramatic form and to play with the notion of evil and Germanness. We were thinking that we were making a Fassbinder-like movie.

[When editing the interview, Fiktion checked when Fassbinder started making movies. His first feature-length film was released in 1969, the same year as The White Slave and two years after Daalder and Koolhaas started writing the script. Niermann wrote to Koolhaas and suggested:

Maybe it’s the other way round: You influenced Fassbinder…

Koolhaas answered: That’s so weird. I guess you’re right…]

The White Slave also has something of a B-movie, with lots of half-nudity.

We wanted to make a B-movie, that was our ambition. And that was super daring in Holland as it was super Calvinistic and judgmental. We had the most judgmental hippies, the most judgmental counterculture.

I always perceived Holland as relatively open in every sense: the way it deals with sexuality, with death, with everything.

It’s too easy to say it’s undeserved but I think that the Dutch started to believe in that myth and then became completely uncritical about themselves. And that has really led to a very awkward situation where there is simply no self-criticism. Self-criticism has been absent for maybe more than thirty years.

It was just revealed that Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, the legendary Soldier of Orange, might have been involved in a failed coup d’etat to keep Indonesia as a colony.

Yes, that was serious. The Dutch have always been blinded by their own image of themselves as being deeply pragmatic and rational but also honest with themselves. I think they have been extremely dishonest with themselves and that there are two kind of traumas. The trauma of not all being heroic in World War II and having basically collaborated with the Germans in removing the Jews. And the second one is after World War II in Indonesia, where they were on the pathetically wrong side, where the Americans wanted them to leave and where they launched military actions. And there were war crimes, of course, a lot of war crimes, and it is only now—after three or four waves of people trying to get to the bottom of the whole thing—it is only now, when the evidence has long been overwhelming, that they are beginning to discuss investigating it. That is probably the longest it took for an awakening of bad conscience in the whole of Europe. And that in combination with our moralism toward other nations and our having lessons ready about how other people should behave.
Günther Unrat, the good German, isn’t charmingly portrayed either, with his smug ambition of becoming the new Albert Schweitzer.
What was fascinating was that you could even make a film with such polemical and exaggerated content. It was probably only possible because there was no movie industry in the Netherlands.

Back then, your father, Anton Koolhaas, was the director of the Amsterdam film school. Did he play a role in making the movie happen?

My father was a novelist, a theater critic and film critic. And he had a completely different taste in the different domains. In theater, he had a very good taste and really good judgment. And in film a terrible taste, a terrible judgment. My father was a new filmmakers’ person and helped Jacques Tati to plan a film that was meant to be financed by Holland. But he also made a film himself, in 1950, that was about a war disaster in the South-west part of Holland in 1943. He made a melodrama with the title De Dijk is Dicht (The Dike is Watertight) that could have been a film out of 1944. It was funny or strange, so much of the after-the-war culture was still deeply influenced by the German mentality or the German narrative. Or maybe heroism in itself leads to that kind of propaganda. One film he did was looking at animals as if they were humans. (Laughs.) The reason I didn’t go to film school was that my father was the director. His teaching was horrible. He would force every new student to make a small scenario about the same incident – about a guy with a bicycle and a windmill. My father was incredibly involved in the lives of many of his students and protected or pushed or helped them. With me, he never tried to do that.

And did he confront you about The White Slave not being a success?

Everyone confronted us. We had made the most expensive, but also the least popular film in the history of Holland.

What was the critique?

There were one or two people who captured the intellectual content but most critics said that is was a ruthless piece of shit. There were really strong personal reactions to the film. There were people crying in the audience during the premiere. At the time I already lived in London as a student of architecture so I was not that involved in the whole aftermath. But Rene was so unpopular that he had to follow me into exile.

I think there’s a continuation in how people are irritated about your intentions as an architect today.

Yah. But do you have a theory why that is?

Because it’s not that easy to decode. Even a completely nasty narrative can be understood as at the core human—because it’s a satire or because its author used to have such high moral standards that he or she became completely disappointed and cynical. It’s no problem to think of someone like Michel Houellebecq as basically being good. Or bad but in the cause of the good as he is showing the bad in such a telling way.

Exactly. But you know, there’s a very important Spanish architectural critic, Luis Fernández-Galiano, who has compared Houellebecq and me systematically as toxic talents. (Laughs.)

Your work has too many twists.

I think it’s more that the world is very complicated and therefore it’s not the right situation for single-minded or unambiguous statements. It’s a total awareness of the ambiguity of almost every situation. When we wrote The White Slave, it was the beginning of globalization and of a blur of different cultures, and therefore also of an uncertainty of who was good and who was bad, and we wanted to contribute to that uncertainty in a big way. So the Arab is a terrible character, but he is also the most vital and perhaps ultimately the most sympathetic character. We wanted to do on the level of a soap opera what Nietzsche tried to do with the “revaluing of all values”. You can make a very modern reading of this.
Yes, think of the reception of the incidents in Cologne at New year’s eve: predatory Arabs attacking dewy-eyed European women…
The main thing for us was a huge skepticism about doing good. I’m still totally allergic if I hear a TED talk about making the world a better place.

But then again, you are delivering very intriguing scenarios. As with The White Slave: If only it were just complex. But it is also something of a slick B-movie with music by Wagner.

There is a story in the story about a castle, the St. Hubertus Hunting Lodge, built in 1920. It was a kind of hidden treasure because it was always used by the government as a holiday or weekend house. So it was not open to the public. But my mother’s family was friends with the original owner, this amazing woman Helene Kröller-Müller. Therefore my mother had also slept there and knew it in a situation before the war.

Who was Helene Kröller-Müller?

Kröller-Müller was the wife of a shipping magnate, who was later quite fraudulent. She had an art advisor who convinced her to buy enormous amounts of Van Goghs and Mondrians. She was almost a caricature of good intentions. Very sober, very strict, and very idealistic. For St. Hubertus she was considering various interesting architects and in the end settled on Hendrik Petrus Berlage, who was the equivalent of Peter Behrens in Holland. That house is like a movie script. Every room has a completely different meaning. It is a kind of vignette about architecture and idealism inserted in that whole thing. The interest in what idealism results in is a very important part of the film—and, for me, it has become a continuous interrogation of every architecture. This is where that started.
You were already fascinated by this building when you were young?

Yeah. I knew it well because my mother could tell every story. How, for example, the alcove for the extremely small woman was built in such dimensions so that her husband would never be able to fit in.

Why?

The implication was that idealism was the end of sexuality. Or that if you would live on a really high spiritual level you would not have sex. Such stories were part of my indoctrination.

But at the same time the castle has an extremely phallic tower.

With a tea room at the top. It has an unbelievable view.

Rene thinks that your obsession with this building has oedipal implications.

(Laughs.)

translation: Andreas L. Hofbauer.