Nouchka van Brakel’s
Published initially in 1975 by Dutch publisher Peter Loeb, Het debuut served as the startling introduction to Amsterdam-born authoroess Hester Albach. Told from the point of view of a teenage girl who is having an affair with a middle-aged man, Het debuut proved a controversial literary sensation upon its release. Barely out of her teens herself in 1975, Albach was just as sensational as her first novel and was profiled in numerous pieces by the Dutch press. NRC Handelsblad praised Albach’s prose as “often witty, rarely dramatic” and championed her “bold” use of language.
Interviewed around Het debuut’s release by Leeuwarder Courant, Peter Loeb described himself as the youngest independent publisher in The Netherlands. At only twenty years old, the statement was probably an extremely accurate one. Loeb already had several books in his publication house arsenal when he agreed to publish Albach’s first novel, but none had garnered as much attention as Het debuut.
Stories of illicit romances are as old as art itself, but Albach’s decidedly feminist perspective made Het debuut quite unlike any other similar literary work. Not surprisingly, comparisons to Nabokov’s Lolita were rampant. The NRC Handelsblad piece even titled their profile piece on Albach, “Lolita Tells.” The talented young Arbach couldn’t get away from the comparison, but it didn’t affect Het debuut’s success. Het Parool praised Albach as a significant new literary talent with a knack for heartfelt “honest reporting” about subject matter most authors wouldn’t dare touch. Their only real complaint about the book was its brevity of less than a hundred pages.
Het Parool would also feature an interview with Albach in which she discussed some of her fears writing such a daring book. Stating that she didn’t want Het debuut to be known just as a “female book,” Albach recalled she wrote the book in a deliberately “fast and hard” style. She also humorously noted with wild teenage confidence that her main goal was to write “the novel of the century.” The most notable news that came out of the interview was Albach’s hope that a young feminist aspiring Dutch filmmaker would adapt the book into her first feature-length movie.
Nieuwsblad van het Noorden would also report the news of the film during a lengthy interview with Albach, where she discussed the creation of the book further:
“Hester, introduced at the age of sixteen in the Amsterdam “De Kring” and no stranger to the capital artist world, came into contact with the young publisher Peter Loeb through Hans Sleutelaar, who had read some of her work and saw something in it. This encouraged her to write the novella. The Debut, supplemented with more childhood memories, is to be made into a film next spring under the direction of Nouchka van Brakel.
Before writing The Debut, she’d done all sorts of things. “After three years of lyceum and two years at the academy, I restored antiques and studied electronics. After that, I had all kinds of jobs because I had to take care of myself early on. I was at a secondary school, a computer assistant, at a theatre company, a packer at Patria, in cafes behind the bar, and that makes you so miserable. But I don’t want to be dependent on others. I still want to have a tenner in my pocket to come home on my own.
Meanwhile, Hester’s faith in humanity has taken some dents since the publication of her novella. The reactions weren’t always that pleasant. Some think she’s cynical; some think she’s an ego tripper. “It’s like you’re a threat by writing a book and doing something on your own rather than together. Someone said, “You know what I thought was right?” If you’d written a book about the kids of Vietnam. Why do we always have to talk to each other about guilt? Is that progressive? I agree that a lot needs to change. We should move mountains to help ravaged areas to a better climate. But why can’t you feel good, be sure of yourself, try to get the best out of yourself? I am very ambitious. I want to go to the moon or at least to America. And live in the most expensive hotel in the world, but I still eat a bag of fries every day if I feel like it. I would also like to have a car. And tour Amsterdam without guilt with an environmentally polluting exhaust.”
As Het debuut was quickly selling out its first run, Albach continued to be profiled by the Dutch press, who couldn’t get enough of her youthful punk rock spirit. New of the film version began to pick up steam in November of 1976 when De Telegraph ran a full-page article on the film’s casting. Noting Van Brakel’s history (which I covered in my look at A Woman Like Eve), the article closed with the following call that echoed throughout The Netherlands:
“Candidates for the starring role can report by letter, with a photo embedded, to the FILM EDITOR of De Telegraaf/ Courant Nieuws van de Dag, P.O. Box *** in Amsterdam. The registrations must be sent as soon as possible.”
Not surprisingly, applicants flooded the offices of De Telegraph as the long process of finding the perfect young-adult actress for The Debut was underway. The adult cast Van Brakel had already assembled was extremely impressive and included Peter Faber and Kittie Courbois. Van Brakel wanted an unknown for the lead, though. It was essential that the part not be played by a recognizable actress.
While the actress that would eventually play the lead role of Carolien in The Debut ultimately got the majority of press attention, van Brakel’s behind-the-scenes crew was just as impressive. Van Brakel would end up adapting the book along with fellow $corpio film veteran Carel Donck. Award-winning cinematographer Theo van de Sande was brought on board for the film’s photography, which would be a perfect fit for its crisp fall and winter setting. Daughters of Darkness editor August Verschueren was hired for the film’s cutting, as was another $corpio member Inger Kolff for the film’s unfussy art direction. Van Brakel and producer Matthijs van Heijningen did all they could to ensure that her long-awaited feature-length debut would be worth all of the anticipation that was building.
Van Brakel wanted something spare but unique for the film’s soundtrack and reached out to composer Ron Westerbeek and Dutch prog rock band Water for the film’s sublimely effective score. Water had just unleashed their terrific second album, Damburst (1976), when they came aboard The Debut. Their work on the film’s soundtrack occurred just before they broke up in 1977.
While the cast and crew on The Debut were extremely distinguished, the film’s success depended on the casting of Carolien. A week before Christmas, 1976, De Telegraph announced the actress who Van Brakel had cast. Her name was Marina de Graaf.
Originally from Sylvia Kristel’s hometown of Utrecht, lovely and talented Marina de Graaf was the ideal actress for The Debut. De Telegraph detailed the process that led to her discovery:
“No less than fourteen hundred letters with striking photographs were sent to our editors after the publication of the story in which girls were asked to compete for a major role in a new Dutch film. With director Nouchka van Brakel and producer Matthijs van Heijningen, all letters were carefully studied, after which test recordings were made for days with prospective actresses. The winner eventually emerged as MARINA DE GRAAF as the girl to whom Nouchka van Brakel dared to entrust the important role in her film Het Debuut.”
It was a terrific introduction story. Albach was particularly pleased with Van Brakel’s young discovery as this lengthy piece in Nieuwsblad van het Noorden pointed out:
“The Debut is produced for half a million guilders, a low-budget film, with a contribution from the Dutch Production Fund. The cast also includes Pleuni Touw, Kitty Courbois and Dolf de Vries. The crew features Nouchka’s husband, Theo van der Sande. Filming will be completed within six weeks. It is filmed at locations in Amsterdam-Zuid and in the Belgian seaside resort of Knokke. The film will be released by Tuchinski in 1977. Hester Albach’s novel was rewritten into a script by Karel Donck and Van Brakel. An attempt to find someone through a call in newspapers and television had done little. Marina de Graaf was eventually suggested by friends. Nouchka van Brakel and Hester Albach are very enthusiastic about this choice: Marina even seems to look like Hester. Marina never had plans to be an actress, she says and she just read the book last week. Playing the lead role in the film adaptation seems to her to be a lot of fun to do. And other than that, she’ll see.”
Marina perhaps never planned on a career as an actress, but her extraordinary performance in The Debut all but assured that undesired destiny. Van Brakel’s young protege kept the director and her crew busy as she was a bit of a wild child on the set. Het vrĳe volk called de Graaf wildly spontaneous while filming and reported that she was obsessed with getting a motorcycle license. Dealing with a delightfully bratty young woman in her late teens on the set of The Debut was a challenge for Van Brakel, but it was well worth it as de Graaf gives one of the great debut performances of the period. She is so perfectly cast that it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.
De Graaf’s powerful performance controls nearly every frame of The Debut, but the rest of the cast is uniformly fine. As her older lover, future award-winning actor Gerard Cox gives a complex and uneasy performance. The film contains numerous rich performances, including a scene-stealing turn by Van Brakel’s daughter, Sandrien.
While most of the press attention went to De Graaf, the most head-turning figure on The Debut’s set was none other than legendary scenester and artistic muse Mathilde Willink. Making her only big-screen appearance in a striking scene featuring her tenderly applying makeup to the young de Graaf, Willink is captured by Van Brakel during her most captivating period.
Watching Willink and de Graaf in their brief scene together is truly exciting. The fact that Willink died under mysterious circumstances just a few months after the film premiered makes her brief appearance all the most haunting.
The Debut is not only one of the best first films of the seventies, but it is also one of the best Dutch films period. You can feel Van Brakel’s years of experience in both film and the feminist movement bursting through every scene. The Debut never feels at all preachy or condescending. It is a beautifully directed and written work that manages to be poetic but not predictable. Most importantly, The Debut never feels exploitive, something that it would have struggled with had a man attempted to direct it.
With its confident direction and knockout performances, The Debut is an entirely unforgettable and distinctive experience. Critical reaction was mostly positive, with some mixed reactions mixed in. The Debut was a popular hit, though, and inevitable stardom was predicted for the quirky and mesmerizing de Graaf. The exciting young actress was struggling with the sudden onslaught of fame, though, as this piece in Algemeen Dagblad made all too clear:
“I don’t like the fame at all. They now recognize me as Marina de Graaf, the girl from the film, but they don’t know the real Marina – that’s very annoying. A lot of people I used to see now say, “Oh, how nice to see you again; I want to be your boyfriend.” When I hear something like that, I get really mad. They only like me because they think I’m a movie star. By the way, I don’t think I’m a star at all! When they ask me if I’m not proud now, I answer, “proud? Not at all.”
Admitting that she had “cried with emotion” when she finally saw the completed film, De Graaf was struggling with the unexpected stardom. Interviewed by Leeuwarder courant, De Graaf noted a terrifying incident that had occurred just before The Debut premiered:
“I got beat up last week, two days before the premiere. A girl attacked me; she probably had someone else’s orders. I didn’t even know them. It’s heavy! She pulled my hair out of my head, and I’ve got another bruise here. I didn’t do anything back because she was twice as strong as me. I just got down on the ground and got beat up. I don’t want people to be jealous of me. Incredibly childish! And then they say I hit her first! And that never actually happens there, but once it happened and then I was screwed. I cried, mainly because it had never happened to me before that someone hit me for no reason.”
Incidents like the one above certainly didn’t help the anxiety stricken de Graaf, who never did achieve the stardom that had seemed so inevitable. The majority of her performances in the years directly after The Debut were mostly blink-and-miss eye-grabbing supporting turns. She would continue acting in film and television, but The Debut remains her signature role. Major stardom might have never occurred, but even the most prominent stars would kill to have a performance as accomplished as The Debut on their resume.
The relative success of The Debut would lead Van Brakel to one of the most exciting careers of the period. It might not be Van Brakel’s greatest film, but moments like when she films de Graaf riding her bike through the streets of Amsterdam captures an authentic youthful freedom not seen in other movies. Add that on to the fact that Van Brakel managed to film what could have been a grossly offensive story so honestly and sensitively makes The Debut all the more remarkable.
The Debut is making its worldwide Blu-ray debut via a new release from Cult Epics. Featuring a stirring new HD transfer from a rare 35 mm print, The Debut looks fantastic. Extras include vintage behind-the-scenes footage, a packed photo gallery, and trailers.
It is available as a single disc release and will also be in the upcoming Nouchka van Brakel Trilogy box-set.
Even though it is both a decidedly feminist work and not exploitative, The Debut could not be made in today’s climate. Cult Epics’ fine new edition not only restores one of the finest debuts of the seventies, but it also harkens back to a time when filmmakers were eager to tackle controversial subject matter, and audiences weren’t afraid to view them.
-Jeremy R Richey, Originally Published 05/05/2021 at Moon in the Gutter-