At the turn of the last century, the growing city of Lawrence, Kansas, was still a relatively rural area located in the very center of The United States. Lawrence was suffering a bit of an identity crisis grappling with modern technology in 1909 when a new streetcar system made life a little easier for the town’s residents. These included the staff and students of The University of Kanas, located in the heart of Lawrence. A melting pot of beliefs and ideals, Lawrence was a quintessential American city. Still, in the early Spring of 1909, the town was abuzz with news of visiting who had traveled nearly 5,000 miles from his European home to visit the town’s University.
The news that Dutch novelist Frederik van Eeden was planning on visiting Lawrence made headlines throughout the state. The Jeffersonian Gazette noted the event in their pages:
“Frederik van Eeden, a poet, dramatist, physician, sociologist, and lecturer, will be in Lawrence early in April to deliver a course of afternoon lectures at the University of Kansas. He will he here from April 1 to 7, and will speak on each school day at 4:30 0’clock in the afternoon in the college chapel, will give a chapel talk Friday morning of his visit here at 10 0’clock, and will give the Sunday afternoon vesper address at 4:30 0’clock on April 4. His subjects are such as “Treating Diseases by Mental Suggestion- “Happy Humanity,” The “Religion and Business Mission of the Poet.”
Born in The Netherlands city of Haarlem in 1860, Frederik Willem van Eeden was by 1909 known as much for his work in psychiatry as his literary strides. Van Eeden was also a political livewire as he was a founding member of the world’s first Communist political party, the Dutch Social-Democratic Party, in 1909. Van Eeden’s unique American visit occurred less than a decade after one of his great novels had been granted an English translation as The Deeps of Deliverance.
Initially rumored to be inspired by one of van Eeden’s real-life patients, the dreamy and provocative Van de koele meren des doods originally appeared in 1900 in The Netherlands. Concerning the sad tale of death-obsessed and a sexually frustrated young woman coming of age in a brutally oppressive era for women named Hedwig Marga de Fontayne, Van de koele meren des doods dramatically positioned itself as one of the most progressive 20th century female-driven novels.
Van Eeden’s startling novel was hailed by both the literary community as well as the psychological one. The blossoming women’s movement embraced and hailed the novel as a significant work, and it remains one of the great Feminist literary works written by a man. The New York Tribune summed up the book’s importance upon its American 1903 release:
“Here is another volume dealing with the eternal feminine, the minutest portrayal of a woman’s inner consciousness, a dissecting knife laying bare a conflict between body and soul; a condition fostered by environment and augmented by a union contrary to natural law. The character of Hedwig de Fontayne, as shown by Van Eeden, is complex from its inception.
‘The history of a woman’s life,’ writes Van Eeden of his book. ‘ ‘how she sought the cool deeps wherein is deliverance, and how deliverance came to her.’ But to what depths did she sink before bodily release brought her spiritual relief? Abased, exhausted, wrecked, there is that still left in her that craved salvation, emancipation from a weakness that held her in a thrall seemingly impossible to overthrow.”
Van Eeden’s novel was greeted with similarly heady reviews everywhere it appeared. The Baltimore Sun called it one of the most “noteworthy” works of the period, while The New York Times praised van Eeden’s ability to thrive in whatever field he chooses to write about. With his unforgettable character Hedwig, van Eeden managed to capture the often dark frustrations and the stark reality of being a woman at the turn of the 20th century. It was a remarkable work of literature steeped in realism that flirted with naturalistic elements.
Van Eeden passed away in 1932. Van de koele meren des doods continued to reappear in various translations in the decade after his death. Such an important work might have seemed an ideal vehicle for a filmed adaptation, but several barriers made it an exceedingly tricky prospect. The novel’s decidedly adult themes ranging from sexual desire, repression, addiction, religious hypocrisy, and madness made any early film adaptation all but impossible. The novel’s nocturnal digressions and how it dealt with time-related to a character’s memories were incredibly cinematic. Still, it would take the perfect filmmaker to bring them to fruition. Perhaps the biggest obstacle for a possible filmed version of van Eeden’s book was how relatable its themes of desire and repression would be. Van Eeden had written a period piece, but the beating Feminist heart at the center of Van de Koele Meren des Doods made it a dangerously timeless work that a male-dominated film industry had no interest in touching.
It would take Van de Koele Meren des Doods (or The Cool Lakes Of Death as it is now most commonly known) more than eight decades before it finally became a film. With so many international translations, an adaptation could have appeared anywhere, so it was particularly pleasing to see a Dutch company finally option the property. The man who ultimately determined it was time to bring an ‘unfilmable’ novel to the big screen was famed Dutch producer Matthijs van Heijningen.
By the end of the seventies, van Heijningen had become known for his big-screen adaptations of popular novels. It was a successful pattern that had begun near the beginning of van Heijningen’s career with his successful Tim Krabbe adaptation of Flanagan (1975). Three films, in particular, would be essential to The Cool Lakes of Death’s ultimate release. The remarkable 1978 Knut Hamsun adaptation he had produced for director Paul de Lussanet, Mysteries, had failed to light up the Dutch box office. Still, it had shown that van Heijningen could successfully bring an ‘unfilmable novel’ to the theaters. Even more important were the two masterful films (The Debut and A Woman Like Eve) he had produced for the remarkable Feminist filmmaker Nouchka van Brakel.
It is impossible to imagine a more perfect director for The Cool Lakes of Death than Nouchka van Brakel, but she was hesitant about how cumbersome the book would be to film. She finally agreed and drafted a breathtakingly great screenplay with Ton Vorstenbosch that managed to distill the novel’s many themes down perfectly. Along with the adaptation itself, the trickiest part of bringing The Cool Lakes of Death to the big screen was finding the ideal actress to play the doomed Hedwig.
The Dutch press was ablaze with the news of a big-screen adaptation of The Cool Lakes Of Death throughout 1981. Rumors swirled as to just who would end playing the plum role of Hedwig. Het Parool noted at the very end of 1981 that a certain Dutch actress was in the possible running for the part:
“Sylvia Kristel has expressed her willingness to play the lead film in the film adaptation of “Van De Koele Meren Des Doods” by Frederik van Eeden, directed by Nouchka of Brakel The financing of this film is 40 percent by The First National Film Participation Company and there is money from the Netherlands Production Fund. Sylvia has proposed to participate financially in the project as well.”
The Het Parool notice about Sylvia’s possible involvement in the film was a solitary one. It was just one of many promising roles that didn’t come to fruition in this period. The Cool Lakes of Death appeared a year after Sylvia’s final quality film of her most significant period, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In the wake of The Cool Lakes of Death’s release, Sylvia was stuck in the English language film market, making the worst films of her career. Sylvia’s struggles at the time mirrored Hedwig’s in specific ways, so it is easy to see what attracted her to the role, but whether she could have pulled it off in her own increasingly fractured state remains a question lost to time. Sylvia and van Brakel had been friends since the dawn of her film career, and they would finally properly work together on van Brakel’s De vriendschap (2001). The time wasn’t right in 1982, and another actress emerged as the only real option for Hedwig.
Renette Pauline Soutendijk had yet to turn twenty-five when she secured the role of Hedwig in The Cool Lakes of Death. A former gymnast and, unlike Sylvia, a professionally trained actress, Soutendijk had only been making films for a few years, but she had already clearly established herself as The Netherlands greatest young actress of the period. Wim Verstappen had ‘discovered’ her a few years previously for his masterpiece Pastorale 1943 (which featured Sylvia as well in one of her most significant roles). Soutendijk was crazy talented, and her rise was justifiably fast. After appearing in a small role in van Brakel’s A Woman Like Eve, Soutendijk’s career exploded with the double shot of Paul Verhoeven’s Spetters (1980) and Ben Verbong’s The Girl With The Red Hair (1981).
Soutendijk is amongst the great screen actors and is a phenomenally gifted chameleon with a startling and even unnerving ability to disappear into whatever role she is playing. Like Sylvia, Soutendijk was later grossly misused in some English language productions. Still, her career in The Netherlands has been astonishing, and she earned a much deserved lifetime achievement Golden Calf in 2011, while just in her early fifties. Her Oscar-worthy performance as Hedwig remains perhaps the most remarkable performance of her career.
The Cool Lakes of Death’s expansive cast included popular actors Derek de Lint and Peter Faber, but the film belongs to Soutendijk, who dominates every frame. Behind the scenes, van Brakel assembled another reliable crew that included her partner Theo van de Sande working on the film’s gorgeous cinematography. Mysteries Production Designer Benedict Schillemans and multiple Golden Calf nominee Set Designer Harry Ammerlaan ensured the film’s period setting was rendered perfectly.
Considering the material’s dreamlike nature and epic scale, van Brakel’s choice of an editor was vital. Edgar Burcksen would eventually find much success in American film and television, but his early editorial work in The Netherlands is superb, especially on The Cool Lakes Of Death. His cutting, along with van Brakel’s wonderfully fluid directorial style, perfectly compliments The Cool Lakes of Death at every turn. It is a genuinely marvelous cinematic achievement.
The making of The Cool Lakes Of Death was covered extensively in the Dutch press. One of the longest articles appeared in a mid-February 1982 edition of Het vrĳe volk. The article called van Brakel the “most successful film director in the Netherlands” and guessed correctly that the film would indeed be a “masterpiece.” The paper marveled at how Soutendijk managed to “effortless” nail every scene perfectly no matter how many times it was filmed. Van Brakel praised her remarkable young star in the article:
“The dialogue comes directly from Van Eeden’s book. At first, I doubted whether it was possible to use that old Dutch. But Renée pronounces those sentences like she’s never spoken any other language. It’s beautiful.”
Van Brakel noted that Hedwig was punished by her surroundings, and sadly, not much had changed for women by the early eighties. Stating that she was “primarily interested in the psychology of women,” van Brakel was the absolute ideal artist to bring The Cool Lakes of Death to the big screen. The wait had been worth it.
Van Brakel wanted her filmed adaptation of The Cool Lakes of Death to follow its source material as closely as possible. She admitted in the Het vrĳe volk that ideally, a ‘mini-series would probably be the best way to adapt the epic book fully. The Cool Lakes of Death needed to be seen on the big screen though, and van Brakel’s screenplay was a masterpiece in its own right. Ultimately she admitted that “I make films about women, and I help women who want to do the same.”
The Cool Lakes of Death was a massive undertaking. Het vrĳe volk detailed just how complex the project was:
“The recordings take an unprecedented amount of time by Dutch standards, eight weeks. The number of locations used in this is enormous. Filming is also taking place in England, Belgium and France.”
Van Brakel was up for the challenge. She told that Algemeen Dagblad, “This film is the most laborious I have made, but it gives you enormous satisfaction, especially because of the theme of the film. In addition, it is a great luxury that you can work with so many good actors and actresses.” She noted to the paper just how topical the story still was, “there are still many women who are subject to demands that they feel they cannot meet.” Interviewed for the same article, Soutendijk mentioned, “It’s a very emotional role. I always work strongly on intuition, but with this woman, it is often very complicated. Psychotic behavior, childbirth, morphine addiction, you can’t get those things out of your own experience.”
Interviewed about Soutendijk’s remarkable abilities as an actress in De Telegraph, Paul Verhoeven noted how amazing it was that she shot his legendary The 4th Man (1983) just three weeks after wrapping The Cool Lakes of Death:
“The audience will be baffled by Renee Soutendijk, who has not yet been seen in such a creation and who will now come across as a completely different woman. She has every opportunity to make a great foreign career. And the way she’s doing this role right now, and you look at those eyelids from underneath, she looks like Marine Dietrich.”
Another lengthy piece appeared in NRC Handelsblad. Van Brakel noted:
“I see a victim of the circumstances in Hedwig. At the end of her life, she finds a way to shape her existence a little and not go into complete destruction. After a film about a young woman choosing a man who is a lot older (The Debut) and one about a woman who chooses lesbian love, I wanted to make a film about a woman who, and that is also taboo, is deeply concerned with death.”
Soutendijk discussed the role and her career further with Algemeen Dagblad:
“There are a few people in America who are very enthusiastic about me. Although, enthusiasm is still weakly expressed. I’ve had 40 meetings and spoken to about 70 people. A strange country, by the way, that America. They are very cordial and common, and at the same time, you feel that they are only interested in you when you can possibly raise money. In the Netherlands, being commercial is a very dirty swear word. For me, Van de koele meren de dood has been a project with a lot of risks because of all the unknown things. I think some things worked out very well, some things didn’t, but then I’ll be the only one who feels that way. In short, I jumped all the way in, I always do, and at least I tried to do my job as well as I could. It’s been hard, but I have loved being a part of it, and I don’t regret anything.”
A Woman Like Eve and The Debut had been out of the gate masterpieces from van Brakel, but The Cool Lakes of Death is on another level altogether. It is an elegant, refined, and beautifully realized motion picture on par with the great films of the post-war era. Watching The Cool Lakes of Death, now restored nearly forty years after its release, the film towers above almost any other period film from the period. Compare it to say the Merchant-Ivory productions of the period to see just how deeply daring, distinctive and intelligent The Cool Lakes of Death is.
With The Cool Lakes Of Death, van Brakel and her talented cast and crew managed to make a unique work in the realm of modern cinema, a rarer and rare occurrence with each passing year. There are certain connections. Van Brakel’s film at times recalls Truffaut’s astonishing The Story of Adele H. (1975), another film centering on cruelty and madness that Sylvia Kristel was coincidentally also in consideration for. Then, of course, Polanski’s remarkable adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess (1979) also shares several stylistic and thematic themes with van Brakel’s film. Commonalities aside, The Cool Lakes of Death stands as one of the most idiosyncratic films of the eighties and one of the final great European art films of cinema’s last golden age.
The Cool Lakes of Death received much acclaim upon its release and was submitted for Best Foreign Film at The Oscars, but it did not get the worldwide release it deserved. The film would have been an ideal candidate for The Criterion Collection, which has routinely ignored Dutch cinema in a profoundly disturbing way since its inception in the late eighties. Instead, it has gone nearly wholly unseen outside of The Netherlands for decades. After all, Criterion has had Wes Anderson and Michael Bay films to add to their collection.
The Cool Lakes of Death was a challenging shoot. Budgetary problems between van Brakel and van Heijningen caused issues, and the lengthy filming schedule was unbelievably stressful. The hard work was more than worth it in the end. Algemeen Dagblad summed up the film calling it a ‘Beautiful triumph” while De Volkskrant hailed the acting and again noted how jaw-droppingly lovely the movie was. Limburgsch dagblad hailed Soutendijk’s performance and again praised the film’s remarkable visual appeal.
Cult Epics’ new Blu-ray and DVD release of The Cool Lakes of Death indeed serves that great visual appeal exceedingly well. The new 4K transfer is marvelous, and the film is presented completely uncut and restored. Extras include a vintage Polygood newsreel featuring the film’s reception at The Netherlands Film Festival. A terrific photo gallery is also included, and the trailer. A bit of Erik Van Der Wurff’s haunting score can be heard as well. The entire soundtrack from The Netherlands Harlekijn label badly deserves a re-release.
Van Brakel would reunite with both Soutendijk and her Woman Like Eve star Monique van de Ven on her next feature-length film, Een maand later (1987), and she remains amongst the most incredible living filmmakers on the planet. These new Cult Epics discs, along with the upcoming Van Brakel box-set, are landmark home video releases restoring the great works from one of cinema’s most distinctive voices. I cannot recommend them higher.
Jeremy Richey, Originally Posted -4/02/2021 at Moon in the Gutter-