The Netherlands has always been more a country of film exhibition and distribution than of film production. French cinema, and subsequently other, mostly European, films dominated Dutch screens in the early years. After a modest start, the number of cinemas and the demand for film exploded in the Netherlands after 1910. F.A. Nöggerath Jr. made several dramas, among which was the first feature fiction film, Ontrouw ( Infidelity , Louis Chrispijn Jr., 1911), and Alfred Machin (1877–1929) made fiction films full of clumps, mills, and fishermen for Pathé. A first heyday occurred during World War I, when the country's neutral status created possibilities for producers. The most prolific was Maurits Binger's Hollandia Studio, whose stars, Annie Bos (1886–1975) and Adelqui Migliar (1891–1956), were beloved, yet it ran into trouble after the war. Of the silent Dutch films only a mere fraction are extant.

In 1921, exhibitors and distributors united in the Dutch Cinema Union (NBB), bastion of the Dutch film world for half a century; in the same year Abraham Tuschinski opened his Amsterdam movie palace. In the 1920s–1930s, American and German cinema dominated the Dutch screens. From 1927, the Dutch Filmliga started to show avant-garde films, including the marvels of modernist editing, Ivens's De Brug ( The Bridge , 1928), about a Rotterdam railway bridge turned into a constructivist work of art, and Regen ( Rain , 1929), a city-symphony-like cine-poem about a shower in Amsterdam. During the Depression, Ivens made such sociopolitical documentaries as Borinage (1933), about miners in South-Belgium, followed by antifascist documentaries in Spain and China. In 1934, Ivens added Nieuwe gronden ( New Earth ), an anti-capitalist comment on his former rather apolitical—if visually dynamic—documentary Zuiderzeewerken ( Zuiderzee , 1930). After the closing of the inner sea and the winning of the land, the grain harvested there was dumped into the sea to keep prices artificially high during the Depression. In order to make his statement, Ivens interspliced his own images with newsreel footage, a strategy that he often used subsequently. In 1946, Indonesia Calling , Ivens's plea for the independence of Indonesia, caused a split with the Netherlands. For ten years, he worked on union films in Eastern Europe, and he won the Golden Palme at the Cannes Film Festival with the lyric The Seine Meets Paris (1957). He described the effects of the Cultural Revolution in China in Comment Yukong déplaça les montagnes ( How Yukong Moved the Mountains , 1976), and he also made his last film, Une Histoire de vent ( A Tale of the Wind , 1988), in China.

The sound film arrived relatively late in the Netherlands. Distributors opted for subtitling instead of dubbing, but audiences wanted to hear Dutch. The period piece Willem van Oranje ( William of Orange , 1934) was the first Dutch sound feature, but audiences preferred De Jantjes ( The Tars , 1934), based on a popular musical. Until 1940, thirty-seven Dutch features were made, of which twenty-one were directed by German immigrants, including Ludwig Berger, Max Ophüls, and Douglas Sirk. When in 1934 Dutch technicians protested against the many foreigners, the immigrants were required to have Dutch assistants. Film was private investment; the government had implemented censorship in 1928, but it did not stimulate production. The influence of the stage was stronger in Dutch cinema than elsewhere; most actors were stage players and scripts were based on plays. The German occupation ended this productive period. However, during the Occupation eighteen German fiction films were produced in the Netherlands, and though thirty-two Dutch cinemas were bombed, spectators flocked to see films. Attendance grew massively during the war years, 1942–1943. The immediate postwar years were a golden era for exhibitors, as attendance increased drastically, reaching in 1946 an all time high of 88.7 million admissions. It then remained stable around 63 million from 1950 on, apart from a peak in 1956, partly due to the Dutch box-office hit Ciske de Rat (1955). It then gradually went down each year from the late 1950s on, suffering from the rise of television, introduced in 1951. In the postwar era, American cinema absolutely ruled Dutch screens, with Dutch cinema second in line in the 1970s and in the most recent years.

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