Paul Verhoeven and His "Black Book"

Howard Feinstein/indieWIRE April 13, 2007

There are several constants — crafty females and an obsession with sex and violence being the most obvious — but for the most part, Paul Verhoeven’s feature career is divisible into two parts: the upfront, character-driven movies he made in his native Holland between 1971 ("Business Is Business") and 1983 ("The Fourth Man"); and the slick, faster moving genre films he directed in Hollywood from 1985 ("Flesh and Blood") through 2000 ("Hollow Man"). Included in the Dutch group are such movies as "Turkish Delight" (1973), "Soldier of Orange" (1977); in the American, "RoboCop" (1987), "Basic Instinct" (1992), "Showgirls" (1995), and "Starship Troopers" (1997). For his latest film, "Black Book," he returned to Holland, where he reteamed with Gerard Souteman, the screenwriter for most of the films he had made there. A masterly synthesis, "Black Book" blurs the line between early and late Verhoeven. Combining the gutsy openness of his Dutch films with the sophisticated technique he learned in Hollywood, the 68-year-old director exposes the skeletons in Holland’s wartime closet.

[Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in indieWIRE April 2, 2007. The film opens Landmark Theatres in the Bay Area this week.]

"Black Book" is, as he points out, a corrective to "Soldier of Orange," a World War II tale which paints a black-and-white picture of the Dutch resistance (good), Nazis (bad), and the general Dutch population (decent). These categories occupy a gray area in "Black Book," a ballsy, provocative work which calls into question received notions of wartime and postwar events in his native country. At the same time, it takes you on a fast-paced ride, as a well-constructed suspense movie should.

It unfolds in flashback from an Israeli kibbutz in 1956. Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a beautiful, young, and strong-willed Jewish chanteuse, loses everything to the Nazis in an occupied Holland where collaboration is rampant and anti-Semitism second nature. Under the pseudonym Ellis de Vries, she joins the resistance, where she forges a close relationship with a courageous doctor, Hans (Thom Hoffman). When asked by the chief, Kuipers (Derek de Lint), to infiltrate the Gestapo by sleeping with its commander, Colonel Muntze (Sebastian Koch), she complies. Unexpectedly for all concerned, Rachel and the sympathetic Muntze fall in love. Rachel bonds with the shallow, feisty Ronnie (Halina Reijn), who is sleeping with another Nazi officer. Ultimately, both the Nazis and the resistance go after Rachel and Muntze. Dutch fascists abound. Once the war is over, the general populace is vindictive toward those they believe to be collaborators, including Rachel. Rachel realizes she must clear up misunderstandings with her resistance comrades and discover who in the tight-knit group had betrayed them.

Like a Fassbinder heroine from the postwar trilogy ("The Marriage of Maria Brown," ""Lola," "Veronika Voss"), van Houten’s Rachel carries the film. History rides on her shoulders. Verhoeven makes certain that parallels with America’s occupation of Iraq do not go unnoticed. "Black Book" also reflects Verhoeven’s ongoing fascination with certain subjects: religious themes and iconography and the human body, for starters.

indieWIRE: The script of Black Book is much tighter than those of films you made much earlier in Holland.

Paul Verhoeven: It’s clear that what I took from American filmmaking for "Black Book," more than from my earlier Dutch movies, is a very strong sense of dramatic, or compelling, or driving, narrative. I would say, with the exception of ‘Basic Instinct,’ I have not had a compelling or driving narrative. If you look at European cinema, the ones who influenced me, like Fellini, did not have a driving narrative. But then, living 30 years in the United States, I have been doing so much of that, I certainly have become aware of the help of a driving narrative to keep the audience there.

indieWIRE: How did you get involved in this project?

Verhoeven: The research came out of another World War II movie I did in ’78, ‘Soldier of Orange,’ a Dutch movie. My screenwriter, Gerard Soeteman, and I found a lot of additional material that we thought was extremely interesting that we could use for the movie. Gerald and I put it aside. We picked up our collaboration again in 2000; so many outlines had been written between 1980 and 2000. We only solved the biggest problem at the beginning of 2001, because we had the wrong protagonist.

At that time, here in the United States, I felt that I had to get out of science fiction. I wanted to do something realistic. My career started in realism, Dutch realism. (His first film was the 1965 short documentary ‘The Marine Corps’). I tried different projects in the United States but people wouldn’t trust me with realism after ‘Showgirls.’ They trusted me with science fiction but all the science fiction scripts I read the last couple of years were a combination of ‘Total Recall’ and ‘The Matrix.’ And I didn’t think that the script and basic situation of ‘Basic Instinct 2’ were good enough.

In the meantime I had asked Gerard to do three different projects based on European history. One was "Black Book." There was a lot of interest in European countries in this project, perhaps because elements of the script parallel the situation in the world. I mean Iraq, of course. I think people in Europe recognize things about deception, ambiguity, pretending to be this and being that, false information, right information as we have been witnessing the last five or six years in the United States.

indieWIRE: I read about your ultimately creating a female protagonist to resolve the script dilemma of how to infiltrate the Gestapo. Even so, her manipulative use of her sexuality continues a recurrent theme in your work.

Paul Verhoeven: Strong woman, sexuality, yes. I think there is one thing different basically compared to most of my films. Rachel (aka Ellis) is not opportunistic. She is not mean or diabolical. "Black Book" is a bit contrary to the other films, where the woman is mostly driven by opportunistic reasons to improve her position, to climb up, using her sexuality.

"Black Book" is also based on things that happened in the war. Rachel is ASKED by the leader of the resistance — in this case a Communist cell, clearly; you should know that the Communists and the Calvinists were the strongest people in the resistance, they were driven by Marxist ideology and help-thy-neighbor Christianity, respectively — -to sleep with the German officer. She can stop his son’s execution, so she does it out of altruistic reasons rather than egoistic ones.
Rachel later falls in love with him. Her character is based on an actual Dutch woman, Esmee van Eeghen, who was asked by the resistance to start an affair with a German officer. She did and in the process fell in love to the degree that they decided to marry. But the resistance thought she was a traitor, that she had switched sides. The Germans by that time realized she was a spy and executed her. Rachel is a composite, really, of her and two others.
Perhaps because I am getting older, I thought it was time to do something different. "Spetters" and "Showgirls" are very close to each other: A woman is looking for the right guy to marry in "Spetters," and Elisabeth Berkley is trying to move up by kicking around anybody that’s in her way in "Showgirls." These women are very male-oriented in pursuing something that they want.

indieWIRE: What about the scenes in which Rachel is dying her pubic hair, recalling Sharon Stone’s exposing herself in "Basic Instinct," and in which a huge bucket of shit is poured on her in prison, inflicting yet another indignity? Don’t they fan the flames of the oft-repeated accusations of misogyny and sexual exploitation in your films?

Verhoeven: The pubic hair is a plot point. She dyes the hair on her head blonde to mask her Jewishness, then she’s asked to sleep with the guy. She is forced to dye her pubic hair; otherwise she would be found out. I thought, if she did it, why not show it?

The shit scene is based on reality. It’s based on a prison that was in Scheveningen, near The Hague. These things happened there under the supervision of Dutch guards. It happened all over Holland. During the first two months after liberation, people were killed, and prisoners were humiliated even much worse than in Abu Ghraib. You can only conclude that people all over the world are the same. We are able in certain situations to have our feelings of disgust or revenge get the best of us, so that we fall back on some animalistic behavior.

indieWIRE: You come down hard on the Dutch.

Verhoeven: After the war ended, there were only feelings of anger and revenge, not so much targeting German soldiers and officers, but rather the Dutch who had collaborated with the Germans, who had been prostituting themselves to the Germans, who had slept with Germans, or who had worked for Germans in industry building bunkers — all the people who in some way had cooperated, pragmatically or politically or for money or ideology. All these people were seen by the Dutch as the ultimate traitors, and no pardon should be given. So they were picked up off the street, girls that had been sleeping with German officers, they cut their hair off and all that stuff, they put tar on them, put them in shit, moved them to jails. It was absolutely horrifying. It has been written about in the archives of the Dutch War Institute, you can find a lot of that stuff. It was worse than what I showed of it, which has parallels with Abu Ghraib, clearly.

It has haunted me for 30 or 40 years that the Dutch did terrible things to the Dutch just because of sleeping with a German officer, for example, or falling in love and wishing to marry him. The Germans in the first three or four years of the war did not see the Dutch as typical enemies. There is a lot of correspondence between the Dutch and German languages, as Ronnie points out. Goering had noted that Dutch was just a German dialect. Those years were not full of animosity. The resistance did not go into overdrive until after January ’43, after Stalingrad, when people started to realize that Holland would not, and should not, be part of Germany.

A lot of people had felt that it should, in the first couple of years, that there would be a new Europe, with Holland and Belgium and France as provinces of a German dictatorship. They believed things would go that way and were trying to adapt to that thought. Then, besides the German loss at Stalingrad, the Allies started to move forward, so people started to put their cards on the other side. A lot of people who hadn’t done much realized they could make a good impression if they joined the resistance.

(Reprinted with permission, copyright Howard Feinstein, indieWIRE 2007.)