The Hell of '63

RNW archive

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Cold, misery and frozen limbs. The Eleven Cities Skating Race of 1963 is the subject of the latest Dutch disaster movie, The Hell of '63. This winter, skating fever has started early in the Netherlands.
The weather was extremely bad on that day back in January 1963. The day that thousands of marathon skaters took to the ice for the famous Eleven Cities Race. Two hundred kilometres of natural ice on canals, rivers and lakes in the northern province of Friesland is not an easy feat for anybody. Since 1963, the race has only been held three times: in 1985, 1986 and 1997. But 1963 is still etched in the collective memories of millions of Dutchmen.
Heros’ epic
"As a child I did a talk on the Eleven Cities Race of 1963. The subject enthralled me even back then," says film director Steven de Jong. "We have tried to tell the story of what happened on that day. Actually about 90 percent of the film is a true story. By all accounts, things could have got completely out of hand."
Steven de Jong, who was born in the summer of 1962, has recreated the race in The Hell of '63. The film shows the wind, the snow and the ice, as well as the blood, sweat and tears, that draw you into the story. It is an epic about four heroes, who struggle against the elements to make the finish; as well as a disaster movie, because the audience doesn’t know if they will.
The Dutch media have been making preparations for the film since a year and now it is getting maximum publicity. Where is all the excitement coming from? "This is a classic Dutch film, in which a number of things which symbolise our culture come together," explains Mr De Jong. "You can sense that from the people who have seen it. Even I get emotional about this story. It is in our Dutch genes."
Eleven Cities’ fever
The race can only be held in extremely cold winters. It has to freeze for some time before the Royal Dutch Eleven Cities Race Association can ask for the main provincial waterways to be closed to shipping.
And once they do Eleven Cities Race fever spreads fast, not just in Friesland, but all over the Netherlands. And every winter, people hope there will be another race, if only it would freeze for long enough.
The young Friesian actor Lourens van den Akker heard the stories from his grandfathers who both skated in the race. "I would love to do the race, together with Chava Voor in ‘t Holt and the other actors. If you skate 200 kilometres, outside in the cold, the whole day long and then you cross the finishing line... that must be euphoric. That must be the feeling you see in the film. That is why I want to experience what it is like to finish the race."
The film première was attended by Crown Prince Willem-Alexander. He was only 4 years old in 1963, but in 1986, he skated in the race under a false name.