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Theo Frenkel, the first Dutch director abroad

On the eve of the First World War, the director Theo Frenkel Sr. returned from Berlin to settle in the Netherlands, after having built a reputation as a film director in Britain, France and Germany. During the war, he grew into one of the Netherlands’ most active filmmakers, with a production of eight full-length feature films in three years.

Theo Frenkel Sr.
Theo Frenkel Sr.

A Dutch period of bloom

Theo Frenkel Senior was already fully formed upon his return to the Netherlands in 1914. He made a flying start as a director for Johan Gildemeijer’s Rembrandt Film Co. and for his own company, Amsterdam Film Cie.

Het wrak in de Noordzee in particular shows Frenkel’s skills as a director. The mise en scène is far better than most other films produced in the Netherlands. Showing multiple actions in the same shot created an unprecedented dynamic in the field of Dutch silent film. His stage experience certainly served him well. In addition, the ‘underwater scenes’ were spectacular for the time. In his other films, Frenkel mainly shows himself to be an adept but little-inspired director, with the exception of the playful and surprising De dood van Pierrot. Het wrak in de Noordzee towers far above his other work.

Het wrak in de Noordzee (1915), Theo Frenkel sr.

An underexposed period

Not much has been written about the years that preceded this bloom period. Yet Frenkel’s record of foreign service is impressive: not only was he the first Dutch film director abroad, he was also a very prolific one. Almost even more interesting are his remarkable stories about that period.


Theo Frenkel came from a famous Dutch stage family. His father was the Rotterdam bandmaster Maurits Frenkel, and his mother was Theo Bouwmeester. She would later be remembered, under the name Theo Mann-Bouwmeester, as one of the Netherlands’ most famous actresses. She was also the sister of the much-praised actor Louis Bouwmeester. The ‘Louis d'Or’ and ‘Theo d'Or’ theatre awards are named after them.

Frenkel made his acting debut in 1897 under the name Theo Bouwmeester, a reference to his famous mother and uncle. In 1904 he caused a furore in the play 'In de Jonge Jan', written by Herman Heijermans, which was a so-called transformation play in which Frenkel performed different roles. He also performed this piece abroad, in London, Paris, Brussels, and Madrid. During this tour, he came into contact with Charles Pathé, who hired him for a film role in his spare time.

Theo Frenkel Sr. as a centurion.
Theo Frenkel Sr. as a centurion.

Great Britain

Frenkel had acquired a taste of success, and after the tour, he had the opportunity to start working for the British producer Cecil Hepworth. Beginning in 1908, he worked as a director and actor for Hepworth in his studio in Walton-on-Thames. Over the course of eighteen months, Frenkel directed more than 50 short one-act films.
In the summer of 1910, Frenkel moved from Hepworth to Urban. Frenkel worked for Urban in its Hove studios (near Brighton), and also at the studios that Urban owned in Nice, in the south of France. In two years, he made more than 120 films for Urban. Two short one-act films from Frenkel's British period are An Attempt to Smash a Bank and A Woman´s Treachery.

An Attempt to Smash a Bank (1909), Theo Frenkel sr.
A Woman's treachery (1910), Theo Frenkel sr.


Frenkel then left for Paris, where he had the chance to work as a manager and director at Britannia Films, the British branch of the French company Pathé Frères, which at that time was the largest film producer in the world. He would not be there for long, and only wound up staying for half a year, from November 1912 to May 1913. And in that period, he directed only four films for Pathé: Light after Darkness, The Orphan, A Whiff of Onions and A Boatswain’s Daughter.


In the spring of 1913, Frenkel left for Berlin, where he worked for Oskar Messter and later for Eiko Film. He shot eleven films, including Der Fürst von Cervelat, which was also popular in the Netherlands.

Film memories

In June 1917, a series of articles appeared in the newspaper De Telegraaf under the title ‘Film-Herinneringen’ (‘Film Memories’) over the course of eleven consecutive days. They consisted of reflections by Frenkel about his experiences in the film industry. Although he seems to have taken some liberties with the truth, these pieces still provide interesting insights into the film business of the 1910s.

Different countries, different preferences

For example, Frenkel mentions that when writing screenplays, one always has to take into account the different countries where the eventual films will be shown: Germans want realism, the British want idealism, and Americans want thrills.
But this goes even further: the German censors forbid violence, while the Brits enjoy a good murder. On the other hand, the British are more sensitive when it comes to protecting morality, whereas the German audience is very much interested in seeing moral and social decay. In short, it is difficult to meet everyone's needs.

Still from Alexandra (1922), Theo Frenkel sr.
Theo Frenkel Sr. (third from the left in front) in Alexandra (1922), Theo Frenkel sr.

Spectacle or exaggeration

But the anecdotes are sometimes a bit dubious. A highlight is Frenkel's description of a scene for one of his German films. He writes about how he had two ‘express trains’ collide on the rails in Königs Wusterhausen, just south of Berlin. He added that this footage wound up on the cutting-room floor, and that he had ordered the train engineers to jump off the locomotive at the last moment, but it remains quite unclear which film this shot was supposedly made for. None of the sources from that period make any mention of the incident.


Shots of trains colliding head-on were not unique for that time. In 1913, during the California State Fair, footage was shot of two locomotives colliding, and the Eye collection also includes unidentified footage of two colliding locomotives. Stunts like these attracted large groups of people, and it seems unlikely that a similar shot made in Germany would have remained unnoticed.
The series of articles by Frenkel reads like an adventure novel, but his anecdotes’ lack of verifiability suggests that Frenkel had a tendency for wild exaggeration or fabulism. Almost proudly, he writes how these types of shots put the lives of actors and cameramen at risk, and created a great deal of havoc. Nonetheless, he certainly did shoot spectacular footage in Germany.

Dutch stunts

In another anecdote from his 'Film Memories', Frenkel describes how he directed an actress in a scene where she lies between two railway tracks as a train runs over her. At the last moment, she gets up and manages to grab hold of the buffer of the last train car, and then pulls herself up onto the moving train.

Reality check

This is another questionable story, but a similar scene has been preserved in another of Frenkel’s films: in Genie tegen geweld, actor Adelqui Migliar throws himself under a train, grabs the last buffer, pulls himself into the train, and then climbs from coupé to coupé on the outside of the train to ultimately arrest the two fugitives.

Genie tegen geweld (1916), Theo Frenkel sr.
Theo Frenkel in Het wrak in de Noordzee (1915), Theo Frenkel sr.