Any article or interview about Paul Verhoeven invariably refers to him first as a provocateur, a man whose work is characterized by explicit violence and sexual content, and while larger themes are usually explored, the low hanging fruit never remains unplucked. This reductive characterization tends to be a reaction to work that is challenging and thoughtful about the human condition, that doesn’t conform to expectations, recognizes that violence and sex are inescapable facts of life that arise from complex motives, and that people are never black and white, but always some shade of grey. Whether protesting the films Spetters (1980) and Basic Instinct (1992) for being homophobic and misogynist, or mistaking the subversive, anti-militaristic satire of Starship Troopers (1997) for fascistic propaganda, or condemning the equally subversive satire of Hollywood dreams and the sexual exploitation inherent to the entertainment industry in Showgirls (1995) as straight up exploitive trash, viewers frequently can’t tell whether to take the material seriously or not as he never indulges in any narrative hand holding, and confused, angry reactions follow and often lead to misplaced vitriol. Verhoeven is a great filmmaker, one whose philosophical probing into human nature I’ve always found fascinating, especially as it’s always wedded to the meat and potatoes spectacle of great cinema. This being the Avocado, I hardly need to argue his self evident merits, I simply wanted to express my admiration for a fine man and superb director that continues to make his most challenging films as he approaches his 80th year. With Immortan Scott’s Sight and Sound poll, I made a last second decision to cut Robocop and replace it with Apocalypse Now, and as atonement for my terrible guilt at this slight, I’ve opted to focus this Double Feature on a couple of Mr. Verhoeven’s less frequently discussed films, along with a brief bonus double of Keetje Tippel (1975) and Basic Instinct (1992).
I had never seen Soldier of Orange (1977), as a 1977 film it gave the entry for this series, and which along with Turkish Delight (1973) had established the reputation that would eventually lead Verhoeven to twenty years and six movies in Hollywood after becoming disillusioned with the Dutch film industry. At the time, this adaption of a Dutch resistance soldier’s autobiography by Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman was the most expensive Dutch movie ever made, and the budget allowed the scale necessary to convey the Nazi invasion and occupation of Holland as it impacts a group of six young college friends in Leiden, primarily Erik Lanshof (Rutger Hauer) and Guus LeJeune (Jeroen Krabbe). The film initially opens with newsreel footage that shows Queen Wilhelmina returning to the Netherlands from London with Erik in her security entourage, and then flashes back and spends quite a bit of time establishing the friends’ character and the carefree, privileged life of parties and drinking and sport that their comfortable status as well off students affords while they deride but dismiss the Nazis as a threat to their way of life, as they assume the Dutch will remain neutral, and they take a cavalier even mocking attitude towards their Jewish friend Jan’s mounting worry. Their reverie is abruptly ended when the Germans invade and the Dutch quickly surrender after the Rotterdam blitz, the friends fracture as their lives are upended and they are forced to make the hard choices that everyone faced between collaboration and resistance and all the awkward and uncomfortable places in between.
While one friend, Alex, who has a German mother, joins the German army and is pleased to be on what he presumes will remain the enduring power, the others all work for the resistance with varying degrees of commitment. Guus, a photographer, gathers intel while feigning an interest in bird watching as cover and continues to enjoy himself; Robby uses a radio transmitter to send and receive messages with London, when Erik, trying to find a way into the conflict, discovers Robby is in in contact with the resistance. Robby, who considers Erik his closest friend, (he’s unaware that old randy Erik hooked up with his fiancee when Robby was otherwise busy,) offers to get him out on a seaplane that is making a rendezvous to pick up their intel as an introduction to the London based resistance. After Jan, a champion boxer, intervenes and pummels two collaborators near to death for harassing a Jewish peddler, Eric is forced to hide him and volunteers his seat on the incoming seaplane to get his Jewish friend to safety. We also first learn here that Robby’s fiancee is Jewish, as Erik tells him he wants Jan to have his seat, Robby becomes angry and says that he could have given the seat to Esther, but offered it to Eric instead. He nonetheless allows Jan to row out to the rendezvous with the intel, but the Nazis swoop in as they were tipped off by a collaborator who had allowed Guus to use his land to photograph Nazi seafront fortifications, Jan is captured, many are killed, and Robby and Erik barely escape.
The action kicks into gear from here, as arrests and interrogations, executions and narrow escapes, collusion and double crosses follow. Both Eric and Guus eventually make their way to England disguised as seamen on a Swiss freighter the Nazis reluctantly allow to leave port. Once in England, Erik is taken under the wing of a General he was initially led to believe by the Nazis was a traitor, and whom he tried to assassinate, and then becomes an important liaison to the Queen, who makes a speech about the monarchy being dead and the future post war government being a democracy in the hands of the leaders of the resistance. There is also something that almost feels like comic relief in Erik and Guus work with English handlers Colonel Rafelli (Edward Fox) and adjunct Susan (Susan Penhaligon), especially the almost menage a trois between Susan and the Dutch boys. Guus and Erik are drafted into a mission to infiltrate Holland and smuggle some of the underground’s leadership out to help the Queen establish the formal democratic government in exile she envisions, and this forms the largest and most action packed sequence in the movie. I’ll note that Erik is almost absurdly fortunate throughout the movie, I haven’t read the autobiography on which this is based, amd fate does seem to favor some people to a high degree, particularly in war, and Erik’s what-me-worry attitude seems almost like armor as time and again, women, members of the resistance, complete strangers, and even Nazis, provide him with the means of escape and chances for advancement, and Rutger Hauer, being the charming motherfucker that he is, carries the improbability off with ease.
I looked forward to this movie, as aside from Verhoeven’s first, Business is Business (1971), a comedy about two prostitutes that by all accounts shares the learning experience limitations of many first films, I’d seen them all, and to be honest, I was mildly disappointed as I guess I expected something a bit darker and grittier and more complex. This is a fine film, don’t get me wrong, shot and staged with fluid skill and energetic action and good performances. It was also interesting to see a larger production about WWII from another perspective than the usual American and British ones, but it’s also clearly a story made for the Dutch market and experience. There is also so much time spent on the build up to becoming resistance fighters and the execution and failure and fallout of the key mission, that once it resolves, the movie wraps up the final four years of the war in quick cut mini scenes that feel like an afterthought; Guus is guillotined after killing the collaborator Robby and enduring torture; Alex is killed on the Russian front in a latrine by a grenade after he denies a begging child a crust of bread and throws it in the mud; Erik joins the RAF and becomes a bomber pilot despite his poor eyesight with Susan’s tricky help; really, just a rush of exposition before the return of the Queen, Erik in tow, and he can look up the lovely, straying, widow Esther, who has improbably survived, and now sports a collaborator’s shaved head post liberation.
The Robby/Esther dynamic formed the most interesting part of the film, where some more serious questions are asked. The infidelity is not really an issue, relationships are complicated, and Rutger Hauer is a handsome, charming motherfucker after all, but after the Nazis gradually track down the signal from Robby’s garden shed transmitter, they arrest him and present him with the choice, have your fiancee slowly murdered in a concentration camp and be executed yourself, or spy for us and provide us with intel, and survive. If it’s only your life at risk, maybe you bravely face the torture and execution, but what about the woman you love? Do you drag your feet and try to misinform the Nazis and help the resistance with as much honest information as you can, knowing that’s ultimately doomed as the Nazis will see right through that eventually? Do you enjoy the chocolate and coffee and meat you are given as inducement, when you know how your countrymen suffer and starve, simply because it can’t last? What do you do when your betrayal will expose your lifelong friends to arrest, torture, and death? The movie neither hides from nor answers these questions that Verhoeven eventually explores with much more depth in Black Book (2006), a movie that took some heat for its sympathetic portrayal of a Nazi and disguised Jewish woman becoming emotionally involved, as well as the overt violence and cruelty heaped upon the collaborators post liberation. As he stated in interviews at the time of its release, it was all meticulous historical research, the Nazi was known as “the soft one” by the Dutch, and the scenes of violence were direct recreations of recorded witness accounts. This honest and accurate probing into the complex motives of human behaviour always characterize his work, and the questions themselves often seem to be the only answer we can expect.
I saw Flesh + Blood (1985) in the theater when it briefly played, and it was the beginning of my fascination with Verhoeven, one that would be cemented by Robocop (1987), and was also his first Hollywood co-production, though made before he moved there, and I love it. A historical epic set in the plague year of 1501, written by Verhoeven and Soeteman again, it follows a band of mercenaries led by the charismatic rogue Martin (Rutger Hauer, always bringing the charm) that also includes the long awaited on screen reunion, denied by Blade Runner, with Leon, er, uh, Karsthans (Brion James) as a fellow soldier. The cinematography by frequent collaborator Jan de Bont, (The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down), in the Spanish countryside locations and castles is beautiful, and the action scenes are large scale and impressively staged, with the movement and locations of the warring parties always clearly defined and filled with antagonism and momentum. Martin and his group, comprised of soldiers, a slumming holy man, Cardinal (Ronald Lacey), and a few women, one of whom is very pregnant by she hopes Martin, are attached to a group of regular soldiers in the employ of a nobleman Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck) retaking his castle from a usurper. The men are promised a full 24 hours of pillaging and plunder for their services, but after the castle is taken, Arnolfini decides, fuck ‘em, it’s my gold, and orders his captain Hawkwood, (the always good Jack Thompson) to disarm them and drive them into the countryside, which he easily accomplishes as they’re pretty far into drunken revelry and unprepared for a fight.
As Martin and company regroup, Celine (Susan Tyrrell) goes into labor and delivers a stillborn child. Martin promises a decent burial and in the process they uncover a buried statue of St. Martin of Tours holding his sword, which Cardinal believes is a sign from God that Martin will lead them all to great riches and happiness. They adopt the Saint as a mascot, and with renewed vigor and purpose they set out for revenge. Which comes quite soon with some fortuitous guidance from the Saint’s pointing sword. Arnolfini has betrothed his well read and educated son Steven (Tom Burlinson), who is fascinated with Da Vinci and the beginnings of modern thought (an anachronism throughout, because although set in Italy, some of the more modern ideas expressed by Steven are a ways from being written down or understood), to the lovely, spoiled, and strong willed Agnes, (an excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh.) Their meet cute arranged in the woods by Arnolfini reveals the two as rather similar, entitled, condescending members of the aristocracy, kind of made for each other despite Steven’s initial resistance to the idea, and as they head back to the castle having formed the beginning of a bond after a superstitious bite of a mandrake root, a group of beggars looking for alms, is, you guessed it, Martin and company, who kill the guards, gravely wound Arnolfini, and make off with the bride and her substantial dowry.
This film was also, as always, deemed controversial for its explicit treatment of sex and sexual violence, and frequent full frontal nudity, primarily JJL, though the fellows hang dong on occasion to balance gender accounts, and cuts were demanded by the MPAA and stunted the film gaining a wider release in America. Agnes’ manipulation of Martin, on which her survival depends, forms the heart of the movie. She recognizes he is the leader, and plays to him from the start in the hopes of not being gang raped or killed, and though he does rape her, as his leadership demands, he contrives to keep the others from joining in without explicitly ordering it, and he falls hard for her, she’s beautiful, smarter than he is, and way above his station, but all the while she keeps the fire burning for Steven. Martin’s protection of Agnes from a slightly later assault by means of distraction with St. Martin pointing to a distant castle, ultimately seals their fate. The infiltration and conquest of the castle is a great little action sequence Martin affects with Agnes’ help and it sets up the location of the extended climax. The castle’s owner throws himself from the parapets with his daughter in his arms as the mercenaries take control, and she survives and crawls away to be discovered by a searching Steven and Hawkwood, who was dragged against his will by a now ruthless Steven’s threats against a nun Hawkwood cares for, into leading the search. The girl quickly dies but they realize she must have come from the nearby castle, and also, she had the plague.
What follows is the siege of the castle, which involves at one point a wooden turtle like war machine with a telescoping ladder Steven contrives from his knowledge of Roman history and Da Vinci. It is of course totally improbable that this complex machine could be hacked together so quickly, or at all, but it’s a neat design and bit of practical stunt work, and a pretty great sequence that results in Steven’s capture after Martin, stealing an idea of Steven’s, blows it up.. An irate but resourceful Hawkwood, himself recovering from the plague after following Steven’s instruction, learned from Muslim doctors, to lance and drain the wounds rather than engage in bleeding, then hacks up a dead dog that succumbed to the plague after lapping up infected blood and catapults it into the castle piece by piece, before going for more men to continue the attack. This devious infestation, helped along with some well timed jealous betrayal by the chained Steven and conflicted silence by Agnes, leads to death and division among the group and causes their downfall.
Much like Soldier of Orange, this is a pretty straightforward historical epic, albeit done with a lot of skill and talent and energy, and is an even more enjoyable viewing experience. Verhoeven’s initial script focused on a long running conflict between Hawkwood and Martin and was redrafted to emphasize a love interest at the producer’s demand, and as good as this is, that version does sound more interesting. It doesn’t reach the thematic heights or complexity of Verhoeven’s best films, but I still found it intriguing for it’s refusal to advocate a consistent point of view as to who has the audience’s sympathy. The reunion of Agnes and Steven is played as just and desirable, but as usual, the rogues have all the best lines and the natural sympathy of being the downtrodden. They were betrayed and denied their promised reward, and also, fuck the entitled blood sucking aristocracy. Of course, they were being denied a full 24 hrs of rape and murder and robbery, which is bad, but it’s not like Arnolfini cares about the peasants fate, he just wants the treasure, and that’s not good either, and also he broke his promise and he and his son are dicks. Agnes has been kidnapped and assaulted, but ends up being treated well and protected, though she still pines for Steven, who finds he really has no limits as to what he’ll do to get her back despite his education and civility. Martin consistently betrays his followers interests to retain and impress Agnes, and doesn’t believe a whit in the St. Martin he uses to further his goals, but clearly still wants to protect his band of brigands and help them find a better life even though he sheds the blood of the innocent to do it. A typical refusal to anoint heroes and villains, with shifting motivations and loyalties, and everyone on both sides being shown to have both good and bad qualities, all landing somewhere in that moral grey area in between the two that we all inhabit.
Keetje Tippel (1975) was Verhoeven’s follow up to the huge success of Turkish Delight, again co-written with Soeteman, and was conceived as a large scale historical drama that was the most expensive Dutch film before he exceeded it with Soldier a couple of years later. In 1881, a large family escapes the poverty of the countryside to try and make it in Amsterdam. Keetje (Monique van de Ven, who was deservedly as much of a breakout star as Hauer in The Netherlands after TD), is the smart, beautiful daughter who quickly discovers that her beauty and the vulnerability of her poverty expose her to constant threats of sexual violence and exploitation. After being fired from a couple of menial jobs for standing up for herself, she is coerced into prostitution by her mother to feed the family after her older sister fails at the same trade from drunkenness, not disinterest, when the father pimps her out. Keetje fortuitously meets a john who only wants her to work as his artist’s model and her charm brings her into his life and that of his friends socially, whence Hugo (Rutger Hauer) quickly moves in to secure her as his mistress, before she is cast aside by Hugo’s own social climbing, and ultimately finding herself at the end married to another friend, a rich socialist. Like all of Verhoeven’s films, he was in conflict with his producers over content and the budget, and ended up with a somewhat compromised movie. He intended Keetje as a way into larger examination of the mass migration to the cities from the countryside coinciding with the rise of socialism and the hypocrisy inherent to its conflicts with capitalism, and hints of this larger drama remain, though the film, like Soldier, seemingly ran out of money, and ends rather abruptly. I found it fascinating that it was an entirely fact based account of the life of Neel Doff (1858-1942), who I hadn’t heard of, who rose from poverty to marry well, and after moving to Antwerp poured her life into novels of the proletarian experience. Despite her unschooled writing, she narrowly missed winning the Prix Goncourt in 1911, and was a prolific and highly respected author for the rest of her life. The film is an overlooked gem, with fine period detail and a strong story of overcoming difficult circumstances, and for anyone interested, a nice HD copy with English subtitles is available to stream free on YouTube.
As much as I wanted to rewatch Robocop for the 20th time, or Starship Troopers or Total Recall for the 10th, Showgirls for the 5th, or even Hollow Man, which I’m a bigger apologist for than Verhoeven, I realized I couldn’t recall having watched Basic Instinct start to finish since seeing it in the theater, and that seemed like fun. Because the movie was such a cultural phenomena, with all the many and various attendant controversies, I guess it felt sort of exhausted to me, and I had just never seen the need to revisit it with a critical eye. Which means that I had forgotten what an absolutely perfect neo-noir thriller it is, formally dazzling with the spectacular use of San Francisco and Monterey locations, and dramatically transgressive with the story of a woman’s sexual independence being perceived as such a direct challenge and threat, the Jerry Goldsmith score is also pretty great, and I really enjoyed the rewatch. I won’t indulge in any recapping of the story, it’s the kind of movie you’ve seen and liked, or didn’t, or have no interest in. I had always liked how the story wrapped up its central mystery and never felt that it was ambiguous or that it cheated in its resolution. It did remind me though of a couple of things that are frequently forgotten about Verhoeven’s films. First, as skilled and technically accomplished as he is as a director, his work with actors is often overlooked. Here, Sharon Stone gives a magnificent performance, she eats every scene alive, a level she’s never approached since, and throughout his films, whether making stars of Hauer, Krabbe, and van de Ven, or even when working with C listers in Starship, or Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls, he pulls out career best work that perfectly serves the film he’s making, even if that is not always obvious. Second, despite being criticized as misogynist because of the nudity and sexually explicit content that is standard for many of his films, his films are always positive and generous towards the female characters. The women, while often forced to use their sexuality to survive, are always stronger, smarter, and prove more capable than the men, and approach life with an open minded honesty and determination that keeps them from falling into the mistakes and moral compromises that often doom the men. Even the secondary female characters, particularly in the science fiction films, think Nancy Allen, Rachel Ticotin, or Dina Meyer, are equal to the men in every respect without calling attention to that fact. And then there is Elle(2016), which I’d like to take a look at some day separate from this series.
Paul Verhoeven has consistently delivered deeply humanist work suffused with searching moral inquiry and cutting social commentary, all rolled into some of the most entertaining and diverse genre work that has ever been made. His films stand the test of time and seem to grow better every year.
I’d wrote that I intended to watch The Duellists this week, which after Sorcerer was the film I was most excited to rewatch, but I got sidetracked and it’s on the back burner for a bit. I think I’ll change focus to the actor and comedian Richard Pryor next time with Which Way Is Up? (1977) and an all time favorite Blue Collar (1978) along with probably one of his concert films. As always, thanks for reading, tot de volgende keer.