PÖFF 2023: Jos Stelling discussing Natasha’s Dance
Interview by Geoffrey Macnab
Jos Stelling is back with his lyrical and offbeat new drama, Natasha’s Dance, an international premiere in Competition at Tallinn Black Nights. He talks to SEE NL.
Still: Natasha's Dance (photography Mark de Blok)
Jos Stelling is one of the Netherlands’ most respected filmmakers. His earlier movies, ranging from Mariken van Nieumeghen (1974) to Duska (2007) have screened at major festivals abroad (including Cannes) and won Golden Calves at home. He is founder of Dutch Film Days, now known as the Netherlands Film Festival. He is a cinema owner as well as a director. Now, he is back with his lyrical and offbeat new drama, Natasha’s Dance**, an international premiere in Competition at Tallinn Black Nights.
“It’s a long story, more than eight years building on this film,” the director says of the project’s circuitous route to the screen. His initial desire was to tell a story touching on autism. At the same time, he had in the back of his mind the image of a Russian ballet dancer.
In the movie, shot in black and white, Daantje (Willem Voogd) is the young Dutch misfit thrown together with Natasha (Anastasia Weinar), the worldly-wise woman from the east who used to dance. They are opposites. He has no experience whatsoever with women while she knows everything about men.
Why black and white? The 78-year-old director says that, late in his career, he wants to make his movies in as simple a way as possible. “Colour is…distracting!” He adds: “black and white is a kind of colour.”
The early scenes evoking Daantje’s childhood with his bullying shop owner father and doting mum are shot in magical realist style. The autistic little boy experiences every emotion in very heightened fashion. The director cites Italian commedia dell’arte as an influence on his stylised and playful approach to narrative.
Stelling cast the Berlin-based Anastasia Weinmar (born in St Petersburg but who has spent much of her life in Germany) partly because she reminded him of Anna Magnani, the great Italian Neo-realist star.
The veteran cineaste believes in auteur-style filmmaking in which the director’s vision is paramount.
“I think personally that the film d’auteur is the ideal kind of filmmaking in small countries like Holland, Denmark or Belgium. There is no sense to make their films like they do in Hollywood,” Stelling pronounces. It is better by far, he believes, for directors to take an “original, personal” approach.
The director isn’t sure, though, that cinema artistry come naturally in the Netherlands. “Dutch people are referees; they are teachers; they are policemen; they are businessmen…” he lists the practical professions in which the Dutch excel.
What’s more, filmmakers in the Netherlands are heavily reliant on subsidy. When they want to make ‘auteur’ films like Natasha’s Dance, it isn’t always easy to get the backing. That is why the film took so long to bring to fruition.
Natasha’s Dance was partly shot in the Weimar region in Germany. “That amazing space…Goethe, Schiller, Bach, all those people were coming from that little area,” the director enthuses of the locations in eastern Germany.
Several scenes in the movie are set aboard a beautiful old train. These were filmed in the railway museum in Leipzig. “There is no train moving. We faked that!” he confides.
As for the autism theme, this is a subject that has long fascinated Stelling. “If you know someone is autistic, then you can work with him. Otherwise, you are walking into a sort of wall. When I started to realise how it [autism] works, it was fascinating. Everything was very concrete and also very intelligent but in a very strange way…I like also to have a main character who is observing things, not going in. He is watching, watching, watching, like the audience. The audience is also a little bit autistic.”
Stelling confides that the new movie’s Russian themes have caused him problems internationally although he is fervently opposed to Putin and behind Ukraine in the current war. “A lot of festivals are cancelling the film for the reason they want nothing to do with Russia. The smell of Russia is enough [to put them off].” Nonetheless, the film should still be seen widely. The Dutch release is set for January 11 through Paradiso, and some German screenings are also planned.
Natasha’s Dance may well be the veteran’s final film as a director. He is currently writing an autobiography but isn’t planning any features. “The romantic feeling of filmmaking and film watching is past,” he observes of how the art house cinema he champions so fervently is becoming increasingly marginalised.
Natasha’s Dance is produced by FATT Productions (NL) and Jos Stelling Films (NL) in co-production with ma.ja.de (DE).
Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival takes place from November 3 to 19. For more information, click here. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
*Film is supported by the Netherlands Film Fund
**Film is supported by the Netherlands Film Fund and Production Incentive