BFI Flare: Stephen Fry presents astonishing documentary about the queer Dutch artists who defied the Nazis
It is likely that Willem Arondeus would have been surprised by his own acts of bravery, had he been told about them in 1940, the year that the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Three years later – after joining the Dutch anti-Nazi resistance movement, saving hundreds of Jewish lives by doctoring identity cards and blowing up Amsterdam’s Central Records Office – he would be killed by a firing squad.
He had been defiant during his trial, mocking the judges and taking full responsibility for the raid in an effort to save his co-conspirators from also receiving the death sentence. An openly gay man, who had been thrown out of home aged 17 for his sexuality, his final words were, “Tell the world that homosexuals are not cowards”.
Willem’s story, and the story of his friend and collaborator, conductor Frieda Belinfante, are now the subject of an astonishing new Channel 4 documentary presented by Stephen Fry, titled Stephen Fry: Willem and Frieda – Defying the Nazis, which is being shown at BFI Flare. As a gay man with Jewish roots, whose own family members were sent to Auschwitz and Stutthof, no one is better suited to present such a documentary than Fry – and his star power means that Frieda and Willems’ story might finally get the attention it deserves.
“I was fascinated by these two incredible people,” says Fry. “I knew nothing and I was slightly ashamed, but one of the things that so excited me was that a lot of Dutch people weren’t aware of them either.”
Hay (who also made the Emmy- and BAFTA-winning 2002 film Stig of the Dump) first heard Willem and Frieda’s story from a friend in the summer of 2020. “I was absolutely gobsmacked. I really was,” he says.
He took the tale to writer Rik Carmichael, and they discussed whether it should be made into a feature film. “He said, ‘Are you kidding? It’s going to be 10 years. We need to make this now’,” says Hay. So a documentary was decided on. Carmichael contacted Fry, an old schoolmate, and he was instantly on board. “It was a sort of joint passion for all of us to get this story across,” says Hay.
It’s a story worth telling. Willem met Frieda in Amsterdam during the Second World War. Frieda was a remarkable character: a lesbian cellist who became the artistic director and conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw in 1937 – the first woman in Europe to hold such a role.
“She was outraged by injustice and cruelty and unfairness,” explains Fry. “She was always a bit transgressive. She’d exhibited courage by living more or less openly as a lesbian with lovers, and she was infuriated by the Philistine hypocrisy of Nazis, who were anti-art but loved to go to concerts and pretend to enjoy them.
“In classical music, there has always been a large proportion of orchestras that have been Jewish, particularly in the string sections, so she knew a lot of Jews who were being bleached out of the orchestra. That enraged her.”
Willem was an artist from Naarden who had never reached his full potential, despite being commissioned to paint a mural for Rotterdam City Hall and illustrating poems by Dutch writers J. H. Leopold, Pieter Cornelis Boutens and Martinus Nijhoff. “Setting up as a painter in Amsterdam means working in the shadows of the giants,” says Fry. “His work is enchanting and, had he done them 15 or 20 years earlier, would have put him in the vanguard.”
The duo independently and immediately understood the implications of the Nazi invasion: Frieda disbanded the orchestra – she wouldn’t professionally conduct again until 1953 in America, six years after emigrating. Willem sent his partner Jan Tijssen, the love of his life, back to his hometown; they would never see each other again. Unbeknown to Willem, Jan (who would later marry a woman) would name his son Willem.
As the Nazis started to introduce oppressive policies, Willem started making pamphlets encouraging people to resist – he called one of them the Brandaris Briefing, after the oldest lighthouse in the Netherlands, both a warning and a beacon of hope. Frieda had already started forging identity cards for Jews, asking her non-Jewish friends to declare their papers lost and pass them to her instead so she could alter them. The duo finally met as part of a group of creatives who were all working to defend Jewish citizens, which initially gathered at café Kring.
“You could... go in the afternoon, and where you found each other and where you’d take a little drink, or find a newspaper and read. I really led a little bit of a different kind of life… something that was up my alley,” recounted Frieda. She recorded a four-and-a-half hour testimony of her life as she was dying in 1995, clips of which are used throughout the documentary, accompanying Fry’s own commentary.
At the time Jewish citizens were forced to wear a yellow Star of David and were easily tracked by the sophisticated identity cards which the Dutch had unfortunately developed before the war. The identity cards were double-sided, included an autograph of the city cleric who issued the card, two fingerprints – one on the document and one on the back of the portrait – and had a watermark, which was near impossible to replicate given the technology available to the artists.
To make matters worse, each identity card had a number that could easily be checked against the card’s duplicate at the Central Records Office. The authorities merely had to stamp the card with a J and the lives of Jewish citizens suddenly became, as Fry puts it, “a ticking time bomb.” At the time, restrictions on the lives of Jewish citizens were rapidly intensifying: Jewish shops were forced to shut, Jews were barred from restaurants and Jewish employees were fired. This was long before the country’s Jews would start to be transported to camps; in the end, only 40,000 of the Netherlands’ 140,000 Jewish population survived the war.
This is the point where the documentary gathers momentum, as Willem, Frieda and their friends (Carmichael says that there so many heroes that the documentary could have been hours and hours long) try to outmanoeuvre the near-impossible identity card obstacle. The incredible story involves a secret funding meeting with billionaire Henry Heineken (from the brewing family), acquiring explosives and drugs to tranquilise guards (the group decided to blow up the Central Records Office without killing anyone), using a printing press to create a believable watermark for the forged documents, and Frieda’s inspired escape.
“I was in a constant state of awe,” says Carmichael, about learning about the twists and turns of their exploits during his research.
The documentary is a mix of Fry’s interviews with various specialists, which include Dutch human rights activist Boris Dittrich and journalist Toni Boumans, archival footage (the team went through hundreds of hours of both private and public footage), photographs, and Frieda’s end-of-life interview.
Debbie Wiseman, who has been working with Hay since 2003, composed the documentary’s score. “She said, you know, it’s just deeply in my DNA, I feel I’ve been waiting to write this score for many years,” said Hay. Wiseman created an orchestral score for the film and gave Willem and Frieda’s theme, which gets louder and more triumphant as the documentary goes on, influences from traditional Jewish music.
It’s almost impossible to understand why Willem – who would be recognised by Yad Vashem decades later – and Frieda’s feats are not more widely known, a question which the documentary tackles head on. While there were millions of acts of bravery on hugely different scales that took place during the Second World War, theirs still stands out from the crowd.
They were perhaps initially forgotten because of their sexuality and their bohemian lifestyles, suggests the documentary. “You could say that Willem and Frieda weren’t celebrated until recently because they were gay,” says Fry.
“The Dutch weren’t that keen on diluting their stories of the resistance with these characters that, generally speaking, were not approved of. I mean, we think of the Netherlands as this very liberal country. But that is only relatively recently,” says Carmichael. Willem’s last statement before he died suggests he knew this all too well.
Now, 80 years later, Willem and Frieda’s story is finally being told. If he were able to meet Willem and Frieda, says Fry, he would “tell them a bit about the present day, that I’m a man who married another man, and that The Netherlands was the first country to allow that.
“I’d tell them that their little part in that journey towards a more accepting and a better world has now been noted.”
Stephen Fry: Willem and Frieda – Defying the Nazis, aired on Channel 4 on March 2. A feature-length version of the documentary is being shown at BFI Flare Film Festival on March 24