Tuesday 31 January, Eye is closed all day due to a private event. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.

Skip to content

In Memoriam: Herbert Curiël

The life of recently deceased director Herbert Curiël was said to be just as chaotic as the film for which he is best known: Cha Cha. Less well known is the filmmaker’s own colourful past: Curiël played a small part in Lawrence of Arabia, travelled the world, and even served in the German Kriegsmarine.

By Paul Kempers15 November 2021

Portrait picture of a young Herbert Curiël, looking at the camera with a cigar in his mouth.
Portrait picture of Herbert Curiël, from the collection of Eye.

You don’t need to turn out films in prodigious quantities, like say Raúl Ruíz, R. W. Fassbinder or Michael Winterbottom, to earn a special place in the film world.

Herbert Curiël (1927-2021) was one such maker: even though he had no more than four feature-length films to his name, it was a name everyone knew. Curiël – a striking figure with Spanish-Surinamese-Indonesian roots – was a regular at IFFR, dancing the night away, chain-smoking his special hand-rolled cigarettes, and never afraid to speak his mind on the subject of the film climate in the Netherlands in general, and the Dutch film press in particular.

Unique portrait of an era

The film that contributed most to Curiël’s reputation is the fiction film Cha Cha, in which he filmed Dutch rock ’n’ roll phenomenon Herman Brood during his forays through gritty 1979 Amsterdam. The narrative thread running through the film is the marriage of Brood to punk diva Nina Hagen and the competitive love triangle formed by her, Herman and his band, Wild Romance.

Cha Cha
was chaotic, wild, witty (Brood to the registrar when asked the big question: ‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting that’) and a unique portrayal of the alternative music scene in the pre-gentrification capital of the Netherlands.

Just how chaotic the making-of Cha Cha actually was, was revealed when film researcher Stefano Bertacchini took a good look at a surprising find in the Eye Collections: a treasure-trove of unused takes, rushes and sound recordings from Curiël’s personal archive, gifted to Eye in 2015. Bertacchini used this material to make the documentary Knockin’ on Herman’s Door, in honour of Brood’s 75th birthday in 2021.

Wandering the world

Curiël’s personal archive contains the record of an eventful life. Born in Krabbendijke in the Dutch province of Zeeland in 1927, the future filmmaker grew up in an environment of fanatical NSB (Dutch National Socialist Movement) supporters, and at the age of 15, he decided to join the SS. As a ‘Mischling’ (a pejorative term denoting those with mixed ancestry) he was deemed unsuitable for Hitler’s elite troops, and the teenage Curiël ended up in the German navy, the Kriegsmarine, where he experienced the downfall of the Third Reich.

This past marked him as an outsider: bullied at school for his NSB associations, after the war he went on the run before being sentenced to five years imprisonment for serving under a foreign power. He spoke about these experiences for the first time in the documentary Kindsoldaat van Hitler (2015) by Hans Polak and Marga van Praag.

In the 1950s, Curiël decided to travel the world; globe-trotting, he worked as a dishwasher, picking grapes and as a dock labourer, alongside some other activities he preferred ‘not to talk about in public’, as he told Dutch film paper de Filmkrant in 2013. During the ’60s, Curiël started appearing in minor roles in big adventure films such as Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961) and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Getting behind the camera

Some ten years later, Curiël directed his first (short) fiction film, De aktivist (1970), about a young Greek refugee rebelling against the Papadopoulos military dictatorship. This led to controversy – the Netherlands was worried about diplomatic repercussions – which of course boosted Curiël’s profile as a filmmaker.

In Het jaar van de kreeft (1975, with Rutger Hauer and Willeke van Ammelrooy) and – much later – Rituelen (1989, with Derek de Lint and Thom Hoffman), Curiël proved to be a director who was able to successfully adapt such books (by Hugo Claus, kreeft, and Cees Nooteboom, rituelen) for the big screen.

These films contain beautiful shots, film journalists opined, however these fail to mask the films’ shortcomings, i.e. wooden dialogue. Curiël responded furiously to the press (‘I hate you’), continued to dance at IFFR and other festivals, and in 1994 presented Krima-Kerime, a docudrama on the forbidden love between a Turkish girl and a Dutch boy, announced as a ‘contemporary Romeo and Juliet’.


In his later years Curiël toyed with the idea of making another film about Surinam, where he had roots, through his production company Black Tulip; he also found out that he had Jewish ancestors, making his service with the Kriegsmarine all the more painful.

Herbert Curiël died on 27 October this year at the age of 93 in his home on Amsterdam’s Dapperstraat. One of his children, Lodewijk Curiël, is also a filmmaker.