When, some thirty years ago, I attended a preview of the Dutch documentary Tabee Toean (Thom Verheul, 1995) at a conference held in Amsterdam, the non-Dutch viewers were surprised that the documentary had been announced as controversial. In the documentary, five veterans of the Dutch army recalled how they had been caught up in a spiral of violence in the late 1940s in what used to be called the Netherlands East Indies. Freedom fighters had launched a War of Independence against the Dutch and had renamed the country Indonesia in August 1945. In that period, there was a popular rhyming catchphrase in the Netherlands: “Indië verloren, rampspoed geboren” (“If we lose the East Indies, disaster will strike us”). Hence, Dutch soldiers were sent to the region, and they naïvely believed themselves to be on an idealistic mission to keep the territory under Dutch colonial rule. They were surprised by the tenacious and hostile attitudes of the local population, having not realized that the desire for independence had been so widespread. The bloody conflict that ensued would last, with a few interruptions, until late 1949: the Dutch had to make an inglorious withdrawal from Indonesia.

At the Amsterdam conference in 1995, the American viewers of Tabee Toean pointed to similarities between the stories of these traumatized soldiers and the experiences of American troops in the Vietnam War, which ended in 1973. What US soldiers had endured had been critically documented quite soon afterwards, and within a few years’ time disparaging fiction films such as Coming Home (Hal Ashby, 1978), The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), and Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), were released. How, in comparison, could the documentary Tabee Toean, which seemed, with its many talking heads, relatively tame, be so controversial for a Dutch audience, some fifty years after the conflict? The Americans were flabbergasted to learn that Tabee Toean could be regarded as groundbreaking. The fact was, the Dutch had simply been very reluctant to address the negative aspects of their colonial past in Indonesia. Moreover, the documentary was screened in the immediate aftermath of the so-called Poncke Princen affair. Princen, a deserter from the Dutch army who joined the Indonesian resistance in 1948, was granted a visa for a family visit to his native country in the mid-1990s. This gesture by the Dutch government had angered many Dutch veterans. Their continuing protests, which had dominated the news for several weeks, made everyone realize how sensitive a topic the violent relinquishing of the East Indies had been.

Indonesia Calling and Max Havelaar

This overall sensitivity has always made the history of the Dutch Empire in the East  seem too hot to handle for Dutch filmmakers. The delicacy of the matter had already been felt upon the release of the 22-minute short Indonesia Calling (Joris Ivens, 1946). The Dutchman Ivens had been appointed Film Commissioner for the Netherlands East Indies in 1944, and while preparing for this posting he was living in Australia with his then partner, Marion Michelle. He found himself intrigued by a boycott on Sydney’s waterfront by maritime workers in October 1945. The seamen refused to work on Dutch-chartered ships that were sending personnel and material, including ammunitions, to the archipelago to resist the Indonesian fight for independence.1 Australian trade unions supported the strikers by imposing bans to ensure that the ships would not be loaded and manned. During this “brief honeymoon period” in Australian-Indonesian relations,2 Ivens decided to record the protests of the workers and resigned his official position as Film Commissioner. Because equipment was scarce and Kodak, apparently under pressure from the Dutch government, refused to supply him with material, Ivens had to rely on borrowed film stock and on donations to shoot the short. Apart from some documentary footage, shot by Michelle, most scenes were re-enactments of events by people who had participated in the boycott. Ivens himself described Indonesia Calling as “Australia’s first labour film”.3 The black-and-white picture, with a voiceover by Peter Finch, so angered the Dutch that Ivens became a “political pariah” in his native country.4 In the Netherlands he was considered a traitor, and his passport was revoked. Only some forty years later, at the age of 86, was Ivens officially rehabilitated. He was awarded a Golden Calf, a Dutch film prize, but he insisted that he would accept it only if Eelco Brinkman, then Dutch minister of culture, personally presented him the Calf.

Indonesia Calling has been labeled “the 20th century equivalent of Max Havelaar in Dutch politics”,5 a reference to Multatuli’s eponymous novel from 1860, the Dutch classical book par excellence.6 The celebrated novel was not especially critical of the colonial system as such, but Multatuli received accolades for pointing out the flaws and excesses of colonial practices. According to him, it was regretful that the system required the exploitation of local people, and therefore the system should be reorganized. Set in the 19th century, the 1976 film adaptation by Fons Rademakers was a bold enterprise in terms of its execution: Rademakers attempted to shoot Max Havelaar in the vein of a David Lean epic in Panavision, which was pretty daring given the standards of Dutch cinema at the time. The film garnered a few international awards, such as the special Jury prize at the Teheran Film Festival and a Bodil Award for best European film.7

Max Havelaar

As regards its narrative structure, the film is less complex than the polyphonic novel but has kept the novel’s framing stories: a poor man, unable to get his manuscript published about the deplorable situation in the East Indies, contacts the naïve coffee broker Droogstoppel (Leo Beyers). Since the manuscript has some pages about the coffee trade, the broker agrees to get the text into print, not realizing that the manuscript is chiefly an indictment of colonial practices. In the film we then see, for more than two hours, a dramatization of the manuscript’s contents. The writer, Max Havelaar (Peter Faber), had been working as an Assistant Resident in poverty-stricken Lebak, where there is hardly any trade or agriculture. The Dutch Governor-General (Frans Vorstman), the highest-ranking person in the territory, selects Havelaar to be the successor to Slotering (Joop Admiraal), who had suddenly died of an acute liver abscess after a visit to the Regent (Adendu Soesilaningrat). Slotering’s widow (Rima Melati) later confirms that her husband had been poisoned.

Havelaar thinks his mission is important, and he promises to improve things for Lebak’s impoverished inhabitants. Gradually, Havelaar realizes that there is a vicious circle that encourages and sustains corruption. The Regent is a tough old bird who has to support a large family and staff. Since the Dutch rulers do not pay the Regent properly, he can fulfill his familial duty only by selling the harvest produced by his starving subjects and by appropriating the paupers’ buffaloes. Havelaar wants the population to protest this practice; he wants to teach the poor people to change their attitude and be less submissive.

Havelaar plans to file an official complaint about the Regent’s behavior, but to do so means that peasants must testify. Since he had been living relatively modestly, Havelaar had hoped that his humble attitude had convinced them that he was serious about improving their existence. But the peasants remain aloof, and Havelaar is dismissed with ignominy. He thinks it was all a mistake and assumes that the Governor-General will listen to his grievances. But the official has no time to see him. Enraged, Havelaar shouts at a painted portrait of the Dutch king that severe crimes are being perpetrated “in Uw naam” (“in thy name”). His desperate cry directed at the portrait leads to an image of a happy choir singing at church in the Netherlands, and this ending marks a return to an early scene in the film, when the Dutch pastor Wawelaar (Peter Oosthoek) mentions in his sermon that God, in His infinite wisdom, has granted to a country small in size the power over the lost sheep living in the faraway islands of the Indian Ocean. It is highly significant that Droogstoppel – whose reading of the manuscript started the flashback to the period in Lebak – is among the crowd and, at the very end, sings along very loudly as well.

The ending of the adaptation is quite pessimistic: Havelaar can yell at the portrait, but his accusation will be drowned out by the pious church songs of religious backstabbers. In highlighting the idea of a successful cover-up of the injustice in the Netherlands East Indies, Rademakers’s Max Havelaar implies that corruption will persist. By assuming that hypocrisy will continue to carry the day, the adaptation downplays the political effects of the novel. Though the Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer would later praise Multatuli’s book in an oft-quoted essay as key to the killing of colonialism,8 Rademakers’s film adaptation chooses to take a different angle: any calls for responsibility for the crimes and misdemeanours committed in the former colony and during the process of decolonization have always fallen on deaf Dutch ears.

The Scorpion, Oeroeg, The Tropic of Emerald, and The East

Since Max Havelaar there have been few Dutch films set in either the East Indies or Indonesia. One key film exemplary of the silence surrounding this past is De schorpioen (The Scorpion, Ben Verbong, 1984). After a number of stills – enigmatic pictures of violence – are shown during the opening credits, the first hour of this 98-minute film is dedicated to the truck driver Lou Wolff (Peter Tuinman), a man burdened with gambling debts in the Netherlands in 1956. After he steals money from his boss (Adrian Brine), the latter promises he will not press charges on the condition that Lou surrenders his passport. His boss will then provide him with another identity so that he can build a new life elsewhere under his new name “William Kemp.” Ultimately, Lou discovers the background of the man whose identity he has taken. From there onwards, he gets caught up in a whirlwind of developments, leading back to the questionable behaviour of the Dutch army during Indonesia’s War of Independence. Lou comes to the knowledge of a dirty conspiracy that has unfolded, but The Scorpion also illustrates how any revelation of what happened could be used against him. There is no way for him to properly narrate the violent crimes – what the photographs in the prologue have shown – because everyone involved will surely contradict his (truthful) account. Hence, Verbong’s film indicates how such a dark page of history can continue to be repressed.

As a film that displayed the mechanisms of repression and cover-up, The Scorpion can be considered a kind of prophetic picture. In rare cases when historical events in Indonesia were addressed in Dutch films, they were embedded within “personal” tales. Oeroeg (Hans Hylkema, 1993), based on Hella Haasse’s widely read eponymous novella (1948), is about two youths who call themselves blood brothers but end up in opposite camps, as the Dutch Johan (Joris Putman) later becomes a lieutenant in the Dutch army and the boy Oeroeg (Ramelan Bekkema), son of a native servant, develops into a rebel leader. At the end of the film, an adult Johan is taken captive by the Indonesians and the Dutch agree to exchange him for twelve freedom fighters. When Johan walks out to be released, he sees that Oeroeg (Martin Schwab) is one of the prisoners who are part of the deal. When they pass each other, they both halt, even with a Dutch voice repeatedly calling out to the two men to continue walking. Oeroeg points out a painful chasm: one Johan apparently equals twelve Indonesians. Johan walks away from Oeroeg but then runs back to him and gives him a watch. This object had cost Oeroeg’s father his life when Johan’s father had ordered the servant to retrieve the watch from a river. Upon Johan’s request to be careful with it, Oeroeg ultimately says that they will always be brothers. Hence, Oeroeg, potentially a scathing critique about the inherent injustice of colonial mechanisms, is couched in a (too) sentimental ending, suggesting that camaraderie can still exist, despite politically motivated enmity.

The main thrust of De gordel van smaragd (The Tropic of Emerald, Orlow Seunke, 1997) is its illustration of how a romantic relationship becomes impossible due to historical events. The film chronicles the love affair between a Dutch man (Pierre Bokma) and an Dutch East Indian singer (Esmée de la Bretonière) from the poor kampong over the period 1939-1949. Their relationship has some ups and many downs because of political developments, and history’s “bad influence” is articulated by the insertion of archival material, one minute for each year the film covers. The relationship is most seriously affected by the military campaign waged by the Dutch against the Indonesian Nationalists, and though the woman initially considers joining him in Holland, she remains in the country where she was born and becomes sympathetic to the cause of Indonesian independence, an allegiance that finalizes their separation. Here, the process of decolonization is presented as an insurmountable obstacle to a love story.

Whereas Oeroeg and The Tropic of Emerald were set against the backdrop of the freedom struggle in Indonesia, De Oost (The East, Jim Taihuttu, 2021) was the first Dutch picture – made some three decades later – to address the gruesome battles of the 1940s head on.9 Its protagonist is the idealistic soldier Johan de Vries (Martijn Lakemeier), a young man with a troubled family background who joins, wholly by happenstance, the unit led by Captain Raymond Westerling (Marwan Kenzari). This Westerling, a historical figure, is given free rein to restore order on the island of South Celebes (now Sulawesi); his methods are exceedingly ruthless, including instantly executing presumed rebels. Johan, shocked by the cruel killings, starts to resist the Captain. Back in the Netherlands, the two will meet again one evening in the dressing room of a theatre where Westerling had just given a performance as an opera singer. Johan shoots Westerling in the stomach – mirroring the gunshot wound the Captain had inflicted on him in an earlier scene –, then commits suicide. The debates about The East centred on the question of historical accuracy. Some of the film’s vehement opponents complained about the smallest of details: one of the laments was that Westerling’s moustache too closely resembled Hitler’s.

The East

A more substantial criticism was levelled by those reviewers who wondered why the latter part of the film so obviously deviated from actual events. Westerling did have a career in opera after the war, but there was never a violent confrontation in a dressing room. The release of The East was accompanied by an educational project aimed at teenagers, so why not, critics wondered, stick to the facts? Moreover, the fictional character of Johan, who begins to question and resist Westerling’s aims, is too obvious an attempt to offer the viewer a moral compass. The initially naïve young soldier comes under the spell of the charismatic Westerling, but Johan develops into a protagonist with a conscience, which some critics regarded as too obvious an attempt to displace the discomfort felt by viewers.

These critical remarks notwithstanding, the majority of reviewers greeted The East as a courageous achievement. The East was released in theatres in 2021, partly due to its forced postponement due to the covid-19 lockdowns. The film, however, was already in production long before March 2020, when Dutch king Willem-Alexander finally extended apologies on behalf of the Dutch government to the Indonesian people for the “excessive violence” of the late 1940s. Inadvertently, the king gave evidence that sorry is the hardest word to say, because he started to stutter when he came to the word “apologies”. Taihuttu’s film also received some degree of acclaim, because The East was clearly indebted to the visual language of prestigious Vietnam War pictures such as Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986), whereas its musings about life as a soldier were reminiscent of The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998), set in the South Pacific in 1942.10 Whereas The East was not that new or innovative for an international public already acquainted with American war movies of the last several decades, Dutch audiences regarded Taihuttu’s film as representing an important historical breakthrough.11 The film’s generous reception implies that, given the declining number of veterans from the Indonesian conflict, the sensitivities surrounding its excessive violence have become less contentious.

Sweet Dreams

If The East can be read as an indictment of the brutal behaviour of Dutch soldiers during the Indonesian War of Independence, Taihuttu’s film has helped pave the way for new attempts to rewrite colonial history in the East. This mediation explains, to some extent, the express approval for Ena Sendijarević’s Sweet Dreams (2023), which was not only selected as the Oscar foreign-film contender from the Netherlands but also had its premiere at the Locarno Film Festival graced with a Pardo for Renée Soutendijk for Best Performance. At the Netherlands Film Festival the film received no fewer than six Golden Calves, including Best Picture, equalling the all-time record of Brimstone (Martin Koolhoven, 2016).

Sweet Dreams is the second feature by Sendijarević, who in 1994, aged seven, moved from Bosnia to the Netherlands during the war in the former Yugoslavia. After three promising, award-winning short films, her debut feature Take Me Somewhere Nice (2019) was a most pleasant surprise. The film can be classified as a hyper-stylized version of Jim Jarmusch’s nomadic road movie Stranger than Paradise (1984). Though Sendijarević’s film is dominated by the colours of candy pink and mint green, it has the same cramped 4:3 aspect ratio as well as a similar sort of ensemble that one finds in Jarmusch’s breakthrough black-and-white picture: a girl visits her cousin’s place in another country and meets his friend. In both films, the protagonists have deadpan affects. The Dutch Alma (Sara Luna Zoric) in Take Me Somewhere Nice goes to Bosnia to see her father in hospital. Her cousin Emir (Ernad Prnjavorac) is supposed to bring her to the hospital, but despite not having a job, he is always too busy to do so, or so he says. After several detours, Alma finally arrives at the hospital in the company of both Emir and his friend Denis (Lazar Dragojević). She hears that her father had already died a few days before, however. When they are about to bury the deceased, two policemen seek to control the contents of the coffin in the back of the car. Finally, the three protagonists arrive at the sea, where Denis becomes the victim of senseless violence. He ends up half-conscious, his face heavily bruised; nevertheless, Alma makes love to him.

Take Me Somewhere Nice

Apart from its dreamy and bright colours, the quirky and dark dramedy Take Me Somewhere Nice stands out for its penchant for odd framing,12 especially its many high angles, which invite the viewer to discern geometric patterns. But by suggesting that it is possible to escape this “imprisoning geometry”13 – imposed on her via the mise-en-scène –, Alma’s road trip in Bosnia is allowed to gradually develop into the occasion of her sexual awakening. 

Sendijarević’s second feature, Sweet Dreams, lacks such a progressive development because it registers characters caught in a deadlock. The film is set around 1900 in the Netherlands East Indies, and the specific indication of this period is highly significant. In 1900, Louis Couperus’s famous novel De stille kracht (The Hidden Force) was published, and the idea encapsulated in the title became a key concept in the Netherlands. It refers to an unspeakable mystery attributable to the so-called oriental way of life. A Dutch administrative officer and his family become increasingly uncomfortable due to a series of inexplicable events: the crying of evil spirits, invisible hands throwing stones, invisible mouths spitting at the officer’s wife. Couperus’s novel evokes an atmosphere of impending doom. Because of what the family regards as “the hidden force,” they start to wonder whether they in fact belong in the East Indies. The characters in De stille kracht represent two options. First, one surrenders to the local customs or, as the administrative officer says, he has been engulfed by the country. Second, one clings to decadent European values in a desperate attempt to keep Asian influences at bay.

The characters in Sweet Dreams hover between these two options as well: one is either overwhelmed by the surroundings or one cherishes European customs.14 The central location is a sugar plantation owned by the patriarchal Dutchman Jan (Hans Dagelet). He dies early in the film, after a night spent with his indigenous mistress Siti (Hayati Azis). She is the mother of Jan’s illegitimate young son, who has the typical Dutch name of Karel (Rio Kaj Den Haas). All by herself after her husband’s death, Jan’s wife Agathe (Renée Soutendijk), who is used to being served, wants to hang on to her privileges, because she fears she cannot adjust to life in Europe. Her letter to her son Cornelis (Florian Myjer) in the Netherlands contains “goed nieuws en slecht nieuws” (“good news and bad news”): your father has died, but the bad news is that you have to travel here. Agathe wants her son and his wife, Josefien (Lisa Zweerman), pregnant with their first child, to continue operating the sugar factory. To Agathe’s chagrin, it turns out that Cornelis wants to sell the plantation on short notice and return to the Netherlands as soon as possible. The sale will be difficult, however, for the garden plots have decreased in value, even more so because the underpaid native workers are on strike. One of these workers, Reza (Muhammad Khan), wishes to persuade housemaid Siti to join their compatriots, but Siti is hesitant, because Karel may come to inherit the plantation.

And indeed, when Jan’s will is read aloud, Karel is named heir, while his older half-brother Cornelis is ignored, angering his mother, Agathe. They concoct a plan to shoot the young Karel, but Cornelis is too much of a clumsy drama queen to carry it out. He acts and speaks in a theatrical manner, which is pretty uncommon for characters in a Dutch movie, and his exuberance affirms that he truly is an outcast in this environment. Meanwhile, Josefien’s frustration increases, and, as a running joke, we see mosquito bites multiplying on her face and body and hear the buzzing of the insects on the soundtrack. Sweet Dreams excels in such slightly farcical scenes. To give one more example, when Jan comes to Siti’s sleeping room, she hides Karel under the bed. The boy counts down until he gets to zero, which coincides with his father’s orgasm and thus indicates that the sex between Jan and Siti has always the same brief pattern.

In an interview in Filmkrant about her debut feature, Sendijarević said that she does not want to document the world or add humour to it, for she believes the only way a filmmaker can hope to encourage viewers to change the world is by exposing it as an absurd construction.15 Sendijarević was much indebted to colonial photography and to the documentary Moeder Dao, de schildpadgelijkende (Mother Dao, the Turtlelike, Vincent Monnikendam, 1995), a compilation of found footage from the East Indies in the period 1912–1933. Her strategy was to recreate the spirit of the archival material but in such a way that the presence in the East seems like a “feverish nightmare.”16 She aimed to show how her main characters are stuck in awkward situations: Agathe’s family and friends are, inevitably, alienated. They try to act as if they are in control, but their overall discomfort is evident throughout the film, and this makes them liable to ridicule.

The stylistic features in Sweet Dreams, quite similar to what ensues from Sendijarević’s approach in Take Me Somewhere Nice, underscore that the environment is constricting for the characters with Dutch roots: once again the 4:3 aspect ratio has a suffocating effect; the impeccable white suits worn by Jan and Cornelis as well as the fanciful dresses adorning Agathe and Josefien emphasize that they are out of place in the ravishingly green surroundings; the precisely framed shots contribute to the impression that the atmosphere is sterile, and the film’s overall slow pace suggests sleepwalking characters, who often stand by motionless. The mise-en-scène either opts for deliberate asymmetry or for symmetrical compositions, whereas the few 180-degree shot transitions – showing a character from the front, then from the back – contribute to a slightly weird brusqueness. There are also some strange perspectives, such as a shot from the jaw of a stuffed tiger, or from Josefien’s pregnant belly, or via a broken mirror. The camera makes a very slow full circle when Siti is requested to perform a dance, frontally staged. Sometimes wide-angle lenses give the viewer a distorted impression of spatial dimensions: the setting becomes surreal, or in the words of the Dutch priest (Peter Faber) who wants to reassure widow Agathe: “Het zijn vreemde tijden, maar die houden nooit lang aan. Voor je het weet, is alles weer gewoon, normaal” (“These are strange times, but they never persist for a long time. Next thing you know, everything is normal again”). Well, this is clearly wishful thinking, for things will not become normal again, and the abovementioned devices indicate that Sweet Dreams is a film of dramatic exaggeration that will end in tragedy.17 The prospect of going to Holland is so bleak for Agathe that she buries herself in tons of sugar; as Siti sets fire to the house in the night, she takes a sleeping Karel outside but does not wake up Cornelis and Josefien. She herself lies in bed amid the fire, but this dissolves into a dream in which she takes shelter under a giant sleeping body. 

Improper burial

In the Dutch press, Sweet Dreams was commonly described as a satire, or even a merciless satire, but at the heart of the film, I would claim, is a mild absurdism which is a consequence of Agathe’s decision to bury her husband’s corpse in the jungle. At this point the house already bears the smell of a decomposing body, and with the assistance of Siti, Agathe wraps the corpse in a cloth and drags it over the floor outside. The camera is on top of Jan’s head and we see how a blood trail is created. Later, they cannot find the body, for Agathe no longer knows which tree it was where they had dug a grave. In a scene that recalls the mise-en-scène of the open coffin scene from Ordet (The Word, Carl Theodore Dreyer, 1955), the priest fulfills his duty during the ceremony but feels ill at ease because he knows that the closed coffin is empty. Agathe takes the absence of the body quite light-heartedly, but the priest is fearful of Jan’s possible return. He is greatly annoyed by the dead not having been buried properly. The ceremony has been nothing more than a false incantation.

In film history, the trope of the missing corpse or an improper funeral results in either a suspense thriller or a comedy. The amazing plot twist of Les diaboliques (Diabolique, Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955), as an example of the first, however, reveals that there never was a dead body in the first place. By contrast, The Trouble with Harry (1955), Alfred Hitchcock’s clearest attempt at the humour of understatement, has an actual dead body at its centre. This corpse in the open air will be alternatingly buried and dug up three times. Then it is hidden in a bathtub to keep the discovery of a dead man a secret for the deputy sheriff. And finally, the corpse is returned to its original spot in the open air. Gallows humour rules from the opening scene, when Captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) thinks he has shot a rabbit but finds, to his shock, the body of a dead man – Harry Worp, according to the papers the dead man has on him. The Captain is trying to hide the corpse in the bushes when his neighbour Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick) catches him in the middle of the act. She does not report the Captain, but while the dead man’s body is between them, she takes the opportunity to invite him at her house for coffee with blueberry muffins and elderberry wine. According to Slavoj Žižek, such a scene illustrates the quintessence of humour: “a person maintains the distance where one would not expect it – [one] acts as if something which we know very well exists, does not exist.”18

In The Trouble with Harry, the characters take an indifferent attitude toward the corpse: they realize its severity, but they also act as if its problematic presence is only a minor nuisance. Similarly, the main characters in Sendijarević’s film act as if they were made to rule the East Indies and deliberately deny what could be called “the hidden force”: the collection of signs that should make the non-indigenous wonder whether they belong in the archipelago. Until Jan’s death, Agathe can keep up appearances. She does not question the legitimacy of colonial authority, but in the aftermath of Jan’s passing it has become impossible for her to actively repress that question. She considers suicide the only option left, which in Sweet Dreams is presented as the route to the acknowledgment of the bankruptcy of the colonial system.

Strictly speaking, Sweet Dreams is a serious colonial drama, but it is undeniably tinged with absurdity.19 Its wide appeal in the Netherlands is mediated by the belated realization that the nation’s colonial history in what is now called Indonesia was a very dark episode.20 This awareness has finally resulted, as mentioned, in quite recent apologies made by the Dutch King on behalf of the country. In addition, Taihuttu’s film The East has helped facilitate a more critical perspective on both the arrogance and the alienation that so often has accompanied colonial attitudes.


  1. Two excellent articles that describe this history are Ariel Heryanto, “Decolonising Indonesia, Past and Present”, Asian Studies Review, Volume 42, Issue 4 (2018), p. 607-625, and Drew Cottle and Angela Keys, “From Colonial Commissioner to Political Pariah: Joris Ivens and the Making of Indonesia Calling”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 41 (November 2006).
  2. Heryanto, p. 610.
  3. Ibid., p. 612.
  4. Cottle and Keys.
  5. Heryanto, p. 612.
  6. Multatuli’s real name was Eduard Douwes Dekker (1820-1887).
  7. The analysis of Max Havelaar is a shortened and revised version from Peter Verstraten, Dutch Post-war Fiction Film through a Lens of Psychoanalysis (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press), p. 301-305.
  8. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, “Best Story; The Book That Killed Colonialism”, The New York Times Magazine, 18 April 1999, section 6, p. 112.
  9. Taihuttu’s ancestors came from the Moluccas. People from this island had sided with the Dutch in the hopes that the Dutch would live up to the promise that the Moluccas would one day become independent. That promise has not yet materialized.
  10. Berend Jan Bockting, “De Oost verbeeldt op nietsontziende wijze een zwarte bladzijde in de Nederlandse geschiedenis,” de Volkskrant (11 May 2021).
  11. Arnoud Arps mentions that in total contrast to Dutch cinema, Indonesian cinema has a lengthy tradition of so-called film perjuangan or “struggle films”, dating back to the mid-1940s, with an emphasis on Indonesian heroism and nationalist fervor. In popular movies in the 1970s and 1980s about the War of Independence in particular, the Dutch were usually represented as “violent, rude and immoral” and the freedom fighters as pious and polite. A. Arps, “The East in a Transnational Context: The Indonesian War of Independence in Film,” New Mandala (17 August 2021).
  12. The film also has amplified sounds to emphasize the quirkiness: the noise of a neighbor’s electric hedge trimmer forces Alma and her mother to converse in abnormally louder voices when sitting in their garden.
  13. Simran Hans, “Take Me Somewhere Nice Review – A Sultry Bosnian Road Trip”, The Guardian (23 May 2020).
  14. In an interview with Dana Linssen, Sendijarević said she was inspired by the scenes with the French colonial family from Apocalypse Now Redux – the extended version, released in 2001, of the original 1979 Coppola film. She felt that family to be desperately clinging to customs in order to justify their presence. Dana Linssen, “Ena Sendijarević over Sweet Dreams: ‘Ik woon midden in het koloniale verleden,’” Filmkrant (4 August 2023).
  15. Ronald Rovers, “Ena Sendijarević over Take Me Somewhere Nice: ‘Echte eerlijkheid is het afbreken van een beeld,’” Filmkrant (31 January 2019).
  16. Sendijarević in Linssen.
  17. Ronald Rovers, “Met Sweet Dreams is er eindelijk een film over de waanzin van het late kolonialisme,’” Trouw (19 september 2023).
  18. Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies (London and New York: Verso, 1997), p. 171.
  19. Sweet Dreams has significant parallels to Rubber (Gerard Rutten, 1936), an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Madelon Székely-Lulofs from 1931, but Rubber lacks the absurd and critical elements of the later film. In Rubber a woman, neglected by her ambitious workaholic husband, is bored by life in the East Indies and thus involves herself in an adulterous affair.
  20. In January 2024, the documentary Indië verloren: Selling a Colonial War (In-Soo Radstake, 2023) premiered in Dutch theatres. The documentary addresses among others how the Dutch government used euphemistic language in the 1940s to avoid the impression that Holland was at war with the freedom fighters who had declared an independent Indonesia. In case the military aggression was qualified as no more than a “police action” to correct the uproar, the Dutch could not be accused of war crimes, legally speaking.

About The Author

Peter Verstraten is an Assistant Professor in Film and Literary Studies at Leiden University. He is an author of among others Film Narratology, Humour and Irony in Dutch Post-war Fiction Film and its “sequel” Dutch Post-war Fiction Film through a Lens of Psychoanalysis.

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