Author : Holly Dicker
Made in Europe‘s timing is impeccable. Now more than ever do we need a TV series that brings us together. TV can do that – unite us. So can literature, art, fashion, music, design and critical thought. Culture and the arts define us. Culture makes us human, and our humanity extends beyond geographical, political and religious borders. This is essentially what Made in Europe is all about, a new eight-part documentary series from progressive Dutch broadcasters VPRO.
Hosted by the lauded Flemish author Dimitri Verhulst, each week Made in Europe zigzags its way across the continent delivering pithy vignettes on European cultural icons from Sweden’s redheaded rebel Pippi Longstocking to Thomas Mann‘s epic The Magic Mountain, via punk, pornography, IKEA, Lego and much more besides. It all adds up to an alternative view of Europe, a vibrant, diverse and historically rich Europe that has its regional quirks and national treasures, but despite the differences is bound by a single unifying factor: us.
Made in Europe then is crucially about being human. It’s about people who have made an impact on society with their work, their lives and their ideas – and who continue to do so today. We spoke with Maarten Slagboom, chief editor and researcher at VPRO, about his role in the series, and why Made in Europe is such a pertinent watch for culturephiles of all nationalities.
Tell us about the book, Made in Europe – The Cultural Icons that Unite Us, that inspired the series.
The book is made up of hundreds of very small essays on all kinds of cultural icons from Europe. It is like a kaleidoscope, an encyclopaedia in which to browse every now and then. Pieter Steinz wrote all those small essays for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. He suffered from the muscle disease ALS and died last Fall. We are very glad that we had the opportunity to show him some of our first rushes [uncut footage], and he seemed quite happy with them. He loved the idea that his work led to a TV series.
What part did you play in the making of the series?
I did most of the research for the series and together with the director Erik Lieshout I chose the themes [Rebellion, Religion, Free Women, Imagination, The Dark Side, Desire, Innovation and Ideals]. We didn’t want the series to refer to art historical lectures, we wanted to make something that is both very urgent today and something that appeals to any viewer on a very personal level.
How did you make this happen, can you give us some examples?
I wanted to make Religion one of the themes, as I don’t believe in making a series about European culture and identity without focussing on the tension in society that leads to something like the Charlie Hebdo terrorist killings. Both the political cartoon and blasphemy have a very strong tradition in Europe. We thought by the time Monty Python’s Life of Brian was labeled as a classic movie the storm had passed, but we know now that is not the case at all.
Same with a subject like the miniskirt. In Pieter Steinz‘s book the miniskirt is presented as a symbol of the swinging sixties, of the liberation of women, but I’m not interested in nostalgia, I’m interested in what women express today when they wear a miniskirt – especially if they feel free to do so in every part of their city. We spoke to several women on the streets of London about this and one of them had lived in Amsterdam before. She told us that, unlike in London, she would never walk through Amsterdam in a miniskirt again because she was harassed and scolded.
How do these themes reflect Europe in a wider sense?
Together they portray European identity, not just in a historical way but in a real way. I guess in a sense they all deal with freedom: Freedom to rebel against authorities; freedom to express yourself as an individual, no matter what other people think; freedom to mock God or Mohammed, as well as freedom to believe in them piously; freedom of thought, like in the German traditional song Die Gedanken sind Frei; sexual freedom; freedom to travel freely wherever you want, and freedom to try and do things differently. I think in that sense we’ve made an ode to the free spirit. I am aware the free spirit is not exclusively European, but I am convinced a lot of these earned liberties have their origin over here in Europe. Just think of feminism, or democracy, or the Enlightenment that made it possible for us to “kill God”, as Nietzsche put it.
What did you want to achieve with the series?
That people stop associating Europe only with bureaucracy in Brussels, or economic crisis, Brexit, the European Union, or whether Turkey should or should not be allowed to apply for EU membership. I hope somehow people become aware of the fact that Europe is far more than this. When we look at culture and arts, there is so much that we have in common, whether you’re from Poland or from Spain.
Should we be working harder at preserving individual cultures across Europe?
If you ask me personally, no. But this is becoming more and more of a political question. There’s a fine line between distinguishing yourself in a cultural way, and more Blut und Boden sentiments. That is why we hope the message of our series is not “Europe is great”, it’s about showing what we have in common despite of all the differences. Southern and Northern Europe are vastly different regions, as is the (former communist) East compared to the West. At the same time there are rebels from both Ireland and Russia, feminists from France and Ukraine, idealists from UK and Hungary, and so on.
What stage were you at with the series when the British referendum took place?
Actually we were filming with Cecil Woolf [nephew of Virginia Woolf] and his wife Jean Moorcroft-Wilson in East Sussex last Fall. Our crew recorded them during a break in the garden, just talking to each other. Jean explains to Cecil the concept of our series, ending with the comment: “Unfortunately they do this now, now that we don’t seem to be a part of Europe anymore.” Cecil Woolf gets a little indignant, replying: “Oh that’s rubbish, of course we’re part of Europe!”
Some people ask me, I thought you made a series about Europe, so why did you travel to Moscow and to Istanbul? As long as people ask this, there’s work to be done.
What do you want people watching the series to takeaway from it?
I’d like people to be able to relate to it. This is not a series about art, it is about you and me. While working on the Free Women episode, I came across this wonderful passage in one of Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical works. She writes:
“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”
Made in Europe first aired in Belgium and in the Netherlands in 2017. It was rerun in 2019. The episodes are no longer available online, but you will find extras from the show at this link.