Paul Verhoeven Interview
Paul Verhoeven interview
The Dutch master speaks about 'Black Book' plus news of a Verhoeven retrospective at the ICA.
Ben Walters | Jan 10 2007
Paul Verhoeven'I've always had a pleasure in going the other way, isn't it? Going against the clichι, going against what people think is the right way, saying, "Well, your right way might not really be as right as you think."'
Back in his native Netherlands to discuss his first Dutch film in two decades the WWII drama 'Black Book', in which a Jewish girl goes blonde and romances a sympathetic SS officer, stalwarts of the Resistance hide dark, dirty secrets and the liberation of the Netherlands sends a chill down the spine Paul Verhoeven knows a thing or two about going the other way.
His has been a notably contrary career. An academic mathematician turned military documentarist, he scored his first big hit with the Robin Hood-like TV series 'Floris', made in 1969 when he was 31. Scandalising some with its teatime torture scenes, it also marked the start of a fruitful partnership with Rutger Hauer, who featured in most of the six Dutch features Verhoeven directed over the following 15 years. Showcased in a season starting this weekend at the ICA, they included the scabrous, wildly controversial portraits of contemporary youth 'Turkish Delight' and 'Spetters' and the Hitchcockian thriller 'The Fourth Man', as well as the distinctly ungenteel period pieces 'Soldier of Orange' and 'Katie Tippel' based on the memoirs of a WWII adventurer and a nineteenth-century prostitute respectively.
Establishing a taste for provocatively challenging audience expectations of character, narrative and genre, the contrariness of Verhoeven's films was mirrored in his relationships with the Dutch media and funding bodies, whose fractiousness grew alongside his box office returns. By the mid-'80s, a move to Hollywood looked tempting. The false start of 'Flesh+Blood' a chaotic medieval actioner was remedied by the smash sucess of 'Robocop' (1987). This surprising move into science fiction was, Verhoeven says, a canny strategy for surviving the US industry.
'Many European directors went there and failed, mostly I think because they tried to be personal. I thought, "Okay, if I try to be personal, then I'll be gone in a year. I'll do it their way, and science fiction is something that protects me the best: there's lots of movement and action, the dialogue is not normally the most important and the culture is a new culture that doesn't have to be identical to American culture",' of which he knew little. 'Robocop' nevertheless offered satirical swipes at US corporatism, Messianism and quasi-fascist urban anxiety, melding them to a staggeringly violent genre narrative, and cleaned up. So too did 'Total Recall', whose delusional plot defied audiences to revel in its madness or call its bluff.
'Then I tried to get away from that with 'Basic Instinct', which worked, he notes with understatement. As well as raking in the dough, the tricksy thriller demonstrated the director had lost none of his ability
to tease and rile audiences. 'Then I thought I'd push a bit further, and that forced me to go back [with 'Starship Troopers'] to science fiction' another low-key reference, to the train wreck that was 'Showgirls'. Undeniably crude, camp and OTT, the film is also far better than its reputation, an uningratiating anatomisation of self-preservation and the uses of glamour, based on extensive research. 'We spent months in Vegas and we interviewed about 150 people,' Verhoeven recalls. 'Of course, the storyline was from 'All About Eve', and '42nd Street', but all the events we have there are part of the research. Even parts of the dialogue.'
The movie's failure threatened to derail Verhoeven's American career, but he bounced back with the superb 'Starship Troopers' (1997), an aptly pre-emptive tongue-in-cheek strike against bull-headed neoconservatism. 'I think they still trusted me with science fiction, but they didn't trust me with something normal. If you can call 'Showgirls' normal... Maybe that's the problem I thought it was normal!' Another SF project, 'Hollow Man', followed in 2000, but proved less satisfying for audiences and director. 'I could not find my way in there very well,' Verhoeven acknowledges. 'I couldn't express the characters or the narrative in a personal way.'
Something of a wilderness period followed, with projects falling through. Verhoeven hoped to find a story with more personal resonance, but his provocative brand of liberal-minded sensationalism was a harder sell post-9/11. One period in particular had long fascinated Verhoeven, and his regular Dutch screenwriter Gerard Soeteman: the last months of Nazi rule in the Netherlands, and the reprisals that followed. It was a time with intense personal significance for Verhoeven: 'I lived in this age. I was about seven, so I remember a lot about the war: bodies, ruins all over the place. It made a strong impression.'
For over three decades, Verhoeven and Soeteman had been developing a story of that period but had struggled to make it coalesce. In 2001, however, 'we started to work on it in a more systematic way, using all the research we had been accumulating throughout the years on that period September '44 to May '45, especially in the city of the Hague [to which Verhoeven's family moved from Amsterdam in 1943] all these very strange events.' All the film's major characters are closely based on real people, though the lead is an amalgamation of three women. 'There's not much in the movie that didn't happen. We didn't want to do a documentary, but this was an attempt from an emotional point of view to break off this ultra-fiction, all the science fiction I've been doing in the United States, and to go as much towards the reality of life if you want to use that big word as possible. That's why I stayed away from English, though it would have made it much easier to raise money.'
Verhoeven was ready to work in the Netherlands again, but unsure whether the Dutch would take to a story about a Jewish girl Rachel, terrifically played by Carice Van Houten who finds more in common with an SS officer than the underground and is obscenely vilified after the war. One scene in particular, involving a cackling mob and a vat of shit, is hard to watch without retching.
'The scene had haunted me since I read about it in 1967,' says Verhoeven. 'I was making a documentary about the Dutch Nazi leader, Mussert, and when I was reading in the archives of the Institute of War Documentation I found a little hidden, I would say, because the Dutch didn't acknowledge it well what exactly had happened in these months after liberation in the camps or prisons where they had the National Socialist collaborators. And they were so disgusting... I left the worst out. They'd throw bottles on the ground and force prisoners to take shoes off and walk through it, for instance. One of the other people in that prison whose wife I interviewed in '67 told me that her husband had to take his clothes off and put a rope round his prick; they'd pull him through the prison and put him every morning in the tank of shit. It was not the nicest of times.'
Acknowledgement of the realities of this period, however, has so far been largely restricted to academic research, so Verhoeven was braced for trouble. 'I did expect that there would be controversy about certain elements in the movie, like Rachel's behaviour, the Dutch treatment of the prisoners after the war, the betrayal in the Resistance. The Resistance has been seen for a long time in Holland as very heroic and extremely trustworthy, and the movie is undermining that completely. But everybody agreed that I should shoot it as I wanted. If they told me to leave a scene out, it was because we didn't have the money: "Do you need the plane?" But nobody said, "Should she sleep with a German officer?"'
Most of the extensive location work was in and around the Hague, whose government and people proved very supportive. 'There was no antagonism at all. When I was shooting 'Soldier of Orange', some people were traumatised, they weren't able to differentiate between what they saw on the street and the past, like a flashback. So [for 'Black Book'] I added psychologists to our team and put it in the newspapers that we were doing these scenes and help was available, but nobody came.'
The film's domestic reception was also uneventful. 'Strangely, nobody cared. There was no controversy, no discussions on television, no letters to the newspapers; not from the Resistance, not from Jewish people. I think everybody realised that these things happened, even though they had never seen them [on screen]. They thought, "That makes sense."' It proved popular at the box office too.
'Black Book' is entirely consistent with Verhoeven's other films in its rejection of a straightforward division between heroic and villainous. 'I think a lot of the film has to do with this ambivalence towards typifying people and putting them in certain classes,' he suggets, 'That's the reality of life, of course, and some of that might be inspired politically by the fact that we're living in a world dealing with an American government that has been lying a lot when you look at the past, your brain is trained and sees these things. If you allow yourself to think that the President of the United States has been lying about weapons of mass destruction, then you give yourself a lot of freedom in creating characters of high level that turn out to be low-level. It opens your mind for the evil hidden in the most wonderful clothes.'
This willingness to embrace ambiguity 'trying to accept the shadow even of the hero' might, Verhoeven offers, stem from the fact that as a teenager he fell in love with a girl and befriended a boy each of whose parents, he later discovered, had been prominent collaborators. 'People in the streets would always walk around them, which I felt was unfair from the very beginning. These things happen in your youth and they're very important in the way you look at people. It probably helps me look for villains with a sunny side and heroes with a dark side.'
In that spirit, he hasn't given up hope in the US, despite the professionally and politically troubling past few years. 'Not at all! I'm still living there. I think it's a very inspiring people and they're not worse than anybody else. If you see the Dutch behaviour in the prison [in 'Black Book'], that is really Abu Ghraib. The French did the same in Algeria, and the Germans did the same in every prison in the war. All people can be seduced to follow someone who is not trustworthy. All people of the world are able and willing to do that.'
'Paul Verhoeven: Dutch Master' runs at the ICA January 14-25 and includes screenings of 'Business is Business', 'Turkish Delight', 'The Fourth Man' and 'Soldeir of Orange'. For more information, head to the ICA website here.