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(photo credit: Courtesy photo/Content Film)
Paul Verhoeven is conflicted - consumed, despite himself, with questions of what is real and what is not. Over a cup of coffee in Jerusalem this week, the director of Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct discussed the questions raised by his new film, Black Book, about a young Jewish woman who joins the Dutch Resistance during World War II only to fall in love with the SS officer on whom she had been spying.
The film, which screened this week at the Eighth Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival and opens in Israel on Thursday, marks Verhoeven's return to European cinema after a more than 20-year absence. But despite its grim subject-matter and dismal view of man, Black Book feels polished, less the work of a Dutch filmmaker who has enjoyed enormous success in Hollywood than that of a Hollywood filmmaker who once directed some of the Netherlands' most revered films.
"With this movie I perceive myself as a European filmmaker, more so perhaps than a Dutch filmmaker," Verhoeven said. "I mean, I'm still European. I was 47 or 48 when I left Holland for the United States, so you cannot say that I ever became a real American. Of course, I tried really hard, but I'm not, clearly."
Before moving to Hollywood, Verhoeven created some of the most acclaimed films of Dutch cinema. His 1973 film Turkish Delight was awarded Best Dutch Film of the Century at the 1999 Nederlands Film Festival. But his last three films in Hollywood, Showgirls, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man, which Verhoeven says "felt a little bit like a hollow movie," were not well received, and Verhoeven now appears to speak about Hollywood with a certain resentment.
"It's always an enormous amount of work to do a science fiction movie, and I feel that I have done my child's play," Verhoeven said. "There's still hundreds of scripts running around that are a combination of Total Recall and The Matrix and a couple other of these movies, which are all about post-modern thinking, like what's reality and what's not. But I'm fed up with that.
"I was typecast [in Hollywood] anyhow," he said, "as a science-fiction/action director, and the typecasting - they don't only do that with actors."
For that reason, Hollywood and realism are antonyms for Verhoeven.
"I wanted to make Black Book as realistic as possible," he said. "That's why I didn't do it in English. That's why I did it in four languages, in fact. Because I felt I wanted to get away from science fiction. In Hollywood. I want to go back to reality, to realism."
And perhaps they are antonyms, for the least realistic aspects of Black Book are those that he brought from Hollywood. The film manages to be simultaneously cloying and relentlessly sadistic. Its bombastic, brass-heavy score and glossy production clash with the somber message Verhoeven aims to convey. But above all, it is the film's tireless Hollywood pacing that makes it feel less like a suspenseful World War II film than a World War II thriller.
"All the movies that I did in Europe before I went to the United States did not have much real what you would [call] plotting," Verhoeven explained.
"They were more events that happened. And I felt that to reach an audience now, that having a certain kind of plot that was driving the story would be handy and important to reach young people. So that's the only thing I brought out from the United States. In these 20 years that I spent in the US, I was really developing more a sense of what you would call narrative."
Narrative and publicity, that is. Black Book contains a reprise of the sort of frontal nudity that Sharon Stone displayed in Basic Instinct. But even when it comes to sex, Verhoeven is dogmatic about his realism.
"What I show is what I know. I've never done sex scenes that I don't know about," he said. "I don't fantasize about sex. I duplicate what I did."
Unlike its sex scenes, Black Book's main subject is by no means a duplication, though Verhoeven has made a film about the Dutch Resistance once before. His 1977 film Soldier of Orange, which he says Black Book could be considered "a correction of," was nominated for a Golden Globe. Soldier of Orange, he says, "had a more heroic tone. This is probably more a shadow of that. It's the other side."
Black Book is indeed dark. And for Verhoeven, the darkness is proof of the film's realism. In one of the film's most gruesome scenes, the heroine, played by the superb and stunning Carice van Houten, who has been taken for a collaborator at the end of the war, is stripped naked, beaten, jeered at and drenched in a deluge of excrement.
"I didn't exaggerate it," Verhoeven said. "I diminished it, even. In fact the situation was 10 times worse. The Dutch behaved in the most awful way - certain elements of the Dutch population. I still flatter myself by saying that I was very restrained."
The film depicts cruel victors' justice, sympathetic SS officers and ruthless members of the resistance, and it must be said that it is refreshing to see such shading in the most Manichean of cinematic subjects. But is there a deeper point?
"The winners can be mean," Verhoeven said. "Nothing is engraved in stone. Your enemy can be better than you think and your friends can be much worse than you think."
The titular black book is a real one that mysteriously disappeared and was never found. "It's supposed to have contained a lot of information about shadowy elements in the Resistance that collaborated with the Germans," Verhoeven said.
"The movie is called Black Book not only because of the little black book but because of showing a black side of events that were normally put in a positive side in Holland."
The bleakest aspect of the film, however, comes from the short scenes that bookend it. The film opens in Israel on a sunny day in 1956. A tour bus stops in the dusty parking lot of a kibbutz near Lake Kinneret as a beautiful young teacher, the heroine, walks past rows of giddy children in a classroom.
When English-speaking tourists descend from the bus and approach the classroom, the teacher scurries to the window to lower its blinds. Because Jews in the Netherlands were killed in greater proportions than in any other western European country during the Holocaust, in part because of the detailed quality of Dutch population registries, one might expect that the teacher is exhibiting a healthy bit of paranoia on behalf of her students.
But as we learn over the succeeding two hours of the film, it is herself that she is protecting from foreign eyes. And after witnessing her suffer through the past from which she had been hiding, we return to her in 1956, now with a husband and two children. As the film fades to black, guns fire from the kibbutz in what the audience can only take to be the outbreak of the Suez Crisis.
"The point being it never stops," Verhoeven said. "Even thinking that she might be in a safe haven, the message is clear: It never stops.
"But I didn't want to push it," Verhoeven said. "I didn't want a message. I wanted people to feel what I meant without saying, 'This is the destiny of human beings.' But in some ways it is, of course. In many cases, it is."