On Black Book and his recent Hollywood defection
Known for big-budget Hollywood vehicles like RoboCop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven had his greatest success with the white-hot erotic thriller Basic Instinct, a tawdry mash-up of sex, violence, and schlock, and his biggest whiff with the Razzie-winning Showgirls, a $45 million megabomb also penned by Instinct‘s Joe Eszterhas. But long before he mired himself in the eddies of lurid Hollywood fantasy, Verhoeven was lionized in Holland for provocative films like Spetters, Flesh + Blood, The Fourth Man, and his freewheeling, Last Tango in Paris–style 1973 drama Turkish Delight, starring a young and unapologetically horny Rutger Hauer, the director’s favorite leading stud in the seventies. With an arthouse pedigree and a solid track record as a box-office wizard paving his way to Hollywood, Verhoeven’s eventual bid for depraved bard of the American dream factory was a natural evolution.
Verhoeven’s latest drama is Black Book, a propulsively paced World War II action-adventure about an unlikely love affair between a Gestapo officer (The Lives of Others’ Sebastian Koch) and a Jewish singer (the sensational Carice van Houten) with ties to the Dutch Resistance. Written by Gerard Soeteman, the screenwriter who inked all his pre-Hollywood features, Black Book has been widely hailed as a masterful return to form for Verhoeven, who went back to Europe to cast and shoot the film after his last picture, Hollow Man, left him frustrated with the creative constraints of the American studio system. Black Book was the Dutch entry for the 2006 Academy Awards and made it to the vaunted Top 10 list of last year’s Toronto Film Festival. In January, London’s ICA honored the director with a retrospective, “Paul Verhoeven: Dutch Master,” which lent an air of institutional respectability to the auteur’s outlandish early oeuvre.
The tension between high and low has been a distinguishing feature of Verhoeven’s cinema since the beginning, from the salacious early softcore of Diary of a Hooker(aka Business Is Business) to his later, effects-laden hits. So has his knack for generating controversy: In 1992, Sharon Stone’s smoldering, subversive turn as a bisexual femme fatale in Basic Instinct brought protests from gay activist groups, who were angered by the old stereotype of queers as murderous head cases. It must have been a familiar din to Verhoeven, who for 35 years has been labeled everything from a homophobe to a misogynistic, sex-addled smut peddler. The truth is, he’s merely polymorphously perverse, and neither ridicule nor well-intentioned dissent have stymied his success over the years. Even Showgirls, Verhoeven’s cynical (and yes, campy) take on the Vegas sleaze racket and his biggest box-office loser, has its champions. They include Nouvelle Vague filmmaker Jacques Rivette, who’s on record as an admirer of Verhoeven’s carnival of excess, which he likens to a Lichtenstein painting.
With his new film, shot in Israel, Germany, and the Netherlands, Verhoeven revisits the monumental past — his own, his country’s, and that of the high-flying Hollywood action films that have inspired him since youth. Though he was a small child at the time, Verhoeven vividly remembers the Occupation years, especially the bodily carnage of downed Allied pilots, which he has always claimed made an indelible mark on his imagination. In contrast to his über-patriotic Soldier of Orange, a tale of intrigue and derring-do in the anti-Nazi underground based on the real-life exploits of Eric Hazelhoff Roelfzema, Black Book stages a bold, revisionist view of Dutch war heroism.
Opening on a kibbutz in 1956, Black Book flashes back to Holland, 1944, to tell the fate of Rebecca Stein (Van Houten, right), a plucky young Jewish girl-in-hiding who, after narrowly escaping a Nazi massacre of her kin, finds work in a factory through Resistance leader Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman). Opting to join the Resistance effort, Rebecca adopts the Christian name Ellis De Vries, bleaches her hair (every bit of it), and is dispatched to seduce a handsome Nazi officer, Ludwig Müntze (Koch), for the purpose of intelligence-gathering. Of course, Ellis not only falls for Müntze but is forced to consort with the very people who orchestrated her family’s murder. In Verhoeven’s most audacious inversion, the salutary efforts of the Resistance are clouded not only by the presence of blackguards and hidden traitors, but by the depraved acts perpetrated on collaborators when the Allied forces finally arrive (culminating in Rebecca/Ellis’s being subjected to a nauseating Carrie-like hazing at the hands of her jeering citizen-captors).
As Salon critic Andrew O’Hehir once pointed out in an insightful career profile cum artistic defense of the Dutch maestro, Verhoeven’s art is based on a profound ambivalence — call it the dialectic of desire and disgust. He gleefully toggles between both poles, balancing frivolous decadence (the gratuitous special effects and comic-book bloodbaths in Starship Troopers, for instance) with subversive manipulation (positioning us to identify with the galactic marines’ fascist ideology). Ambiguity, it’s clear, is his de facto mode. A few critics leveled the charge of moral indeterminacy at Black Book, with its discomfiting reversals of hero and enemy, oppressor and victim, in the context of the Jewish Holocaust. But this is a classic Verhoevian maneuver, twisting up good and evil, sex and violence, high and low cultural referents. His topsy-turvy world may be weirdly conflicted, at times puerile or even repugnant, but it is also exhilarating to experience, in a way that the tepidly grandiose blockbusters of Roland Emmerich and Jerry Bruckheimer, his closest peers in Hollywood, rarely are. With Black Book, Verhoeven has rediscovered his best impulses as a storyteller and visual artist, and the result is his most accomplished and rip-roaringly fun movie in years.
In April, I spoke with the director in New York about the genesis of Black Book, art versus mass entertainment, and why Sharon Stone once gave him her panties as a present.
Can you tell me about the origins of the script for Black Book and delineate how much of it is based in true events?
It was one of the scripts that I developed, based on an original idea from a long time ago, in 1980 about, immediately after Soldier of Orange. In the research for Soldier, we found a lot of things that are now in Black Book, and which we couldn’t use in any way: the little black book, the lawyer, and Müntze, the good German and bad German — that’s all from history. Many characters are not inspired by, but straight from history.
Why did you feel compelled to make Black Book now, especially since you’d covered similar ground in Soldier of Orange, albeit from a different point of view?
You could ask, why was there interest in this movie, both inside and outside of Holland? I think that might be the right question. I was interested in this story since 1980, and my scriptwriter [Gerard Soeteman] too, and the amount of books that we collected in 20 years is probably this high [holds his hand to neck level]. We were continuously faxing each other about this project, but basically couldn’t solve it until 2001. I don’t have a real answer as to why people were interested, because we had this other script, this Russian novel by Boris Akunin, Azazel or Winter Queen in English, that we could not finance, but this we could. So I think perhaps people felt that, in some way, the ambiguity that’s in the script, the moral ambiguity — let’s say the fact that you cannot discern really quite well if a good person is really good or if a bad person really bad — might have something to do with the political situation in the world, especially provoked by American politics. I think. But that’s just a thing I throw out — I cannot prove that. I was amazed, basically, that all these countries were willing to pay money for a Dutch movie that was about the Dutch Resistance in ’44-’45. They had the script in English so they knew what it was about. We never saw it as a metaphor, clearly, because it was history, but somehow the ambiguity and the fact that the American government, for example, has been lying so much [seemed relevant]. Some people are better than you think and others are much worse than you think. Certainly there’s a parallel for what’s happened in the last four or five years, especially since the beginning of the war in Iraq. So I think perhaps that interested them, that they felt there was a grey zone. In fact, four years ago, a Dutch book came out called The Grey Past, and you could basically look at this period in American history, and in five or ten years we’ll look back at what’s happened and probably call it a grey zone, isn’t it? I would say. Of course, there is no parallel to the invasion of Iraq in Black Book. We didn’t even try. On the other hand, I think we were well aware [of contemporary events] when we were shooting the scene in the prison [of Ellis’s humiliation], which was based on something I found in 1966, doing research on the documentary I made about the Nazi leader of Holland, Anton Mussert. I found that in the Dutch archives, so I knew that had happened — and worse. By then, the time we were shooting, which was in 2005, the photos of Abu Ghraib had been in the newspaper media all over the world. So I think we were well aware that we were shooting something in Dutch terms, basically, that had a strong resemblance with the American situation.
What was it like for you to go back to Europe and work there again? How had things changed and how did it affect your process?
The crews in Holland were much better. There was not much amateurism around anymore. When we were shooting in Holland ten years ago, people were just beginning then. That was the period that the first Dutch movies were successful, and of course [they] had much less experience. So I stepped into a situation that was professional to nearly an American degree, excluding, of course, digital exploration. But I swore that I would not do digital [for Black Book]. I did a little bit — I had to — because of the parachutes that come down with the containers [in an airdrop scene]. That’s CGI because it was too dangerous for the actors. We couldn’t find out exactly where they would fall and they couldn’t give us guarantees, so I thought, OK, I cannot do that. But I swore after Hollow Man and Starship Troopers I don’t want to do any digital work because it drives me nuts. It’s so time-consuming, and I wanted real planes and real boats and real trains. And I got it. So that was good, the crews were good. We shot two years in Brandenburg, in Berlin, which was excellent. Great German crew, great Dutch crew, a good combination of the two, and a German-American DP, Karl Walter Lindenlaub, [who] did a lot of work for Roland Emmerich. Financially, [it was] a disaster, getting money from all these different sources, about fifteen, and with the distribution deals, then you have thirty deals or something like that. But it’s a co-production with Germany, England, Holland, and Belgium, and all the post-production had to be done in England. In Babelsburg, we used all the interiors there, and there was a lot of extra German funding because there were three very important German parts. Then, of course, we had the Dutch funds, television funds, and then there is this European fund, situated in Strasbourg, I think, so to keep that money going parallel to how much money you’ve spent is — well, it’s not parallel at all. So from that point of view, the United States is ten times easier. Certainly if you work for a studio, that’s not a concern in any way. Artistically, of course, it was paradise, because nobody told me “This is too violent or too sexy, too many breasts, too much this, too much that, morally too ambiguous.” Or “That’s not possible — a Jewish girl and a Nazi officer — it’s morally unacceptable,” et cetera. None of that. We had the script, and the producers said, “Good, let’s shoot this.”
So you would not have been able to make this movie in Hollywood?
I think in a very different way, probably by changing a lot of things, yeah sure. But it would have been in English and completely unrealistic and would be much tamer, I would say. I don’t think it’s always been that way. But certainly the nudity — you still have big issues here. You know, the government was constituted by Christians and [they are] basically repressed. So that was all wonderful that nobody’s controlling me. And then I had also complete access to everybody, talent-wise, in front of the camera — I could test everybody. And I could ask them to do a scene and check them out, whatever, and that’s much more difficult in the U.S. When I started the movie, I was very sure about every actor — that they could do the part and that it was exactly what I wanted.
You’re pretty well-known for demanding actors to do what you want.
Okay, politely, I imagine.
Yeah sure, otherwise you get nowhere. Demanding is the wrong thing, I think.
So what led to your flare-up with Sharon Stone on the set of Basic Instinct?
There was no flare-up on the set of Basic Instinct at all, of course, as you know.
I thought there was a lot of tension between you two on the set.
But not based on, let’s say, film reasons. All the tensions basically in the script were translated to the actors, I had the feeling, and me. So whatever you see on the screen is really a projection of those tensions. The characters were so diabolical, clearly, and there are so many ambiguities in the script and I think all that translated into tension but not between me and Sharon specifically. There was always a certain tension about everything, and that helped to make the movie, so that was not a problem. If you refer to that scene where she crosses her legs, of course when we shot that, there was no problem at all, because that could be the only controversy that I’m aware of. But it was certainly a controversy that happened after the movie.
I recall reading an interview where you commented on both loving and hating Sharon Stone while you were making Basic Instinct.
Right. Loving her basically for what she could do, and hating her for when she basically felt compelled later to attack me based on that one scene, which she had agreed upon 100 percent. And I was not aware that there was any problem, you know, it was only after the movie was done that she suddenly turned against me and said, “I didn’t know you were shooting that.” Which is just nonsense, because she saw it on the video monitor. And she gave me her panties before we made the shot, in fact. [Smiling] As a present. So she cannot have not known what she was doing. I got her panties as a present. So that was all nonsense what she said, and whatever she says about that, that’s just a lie. And I have been very consistent with my story and she has not so much.
Did you have any of the same kind of tension with Carice van Houten, who was game enough to peroxide her pubic hair on camera?
No. I think because with Carice I felt more like she was my daughter, whereas with Sharon I felt more like I could be her lover. But I say Grace to God, basically — [laughing] if he exists — we were not lovers. My feelings for Sharon and her feelings for me are really physical on the screen. But with Carice I did not feel that because Sharon is not my age but still pretty close to me, and Carice isn’t. Anyhow, Carice fell in love with Sebastian Koch. I saw Carice expressing her feelings for me like for a very nice grandfather. [Laughs] That’s not very sexual, isn’t it? I saw an interview with her in England, and somebody asked her, “Did you have some romantic feelings for Paul?” And she said, “What do you mean, he could be my grandfather!” So that didn’t exist. And in some way, that was also not necessary. I think for Basic Instinct it helped enormously that Sharon and I had this — and it included Michael Douglas and Jeanne Tripplehorn, too, in this strange quartet, with all kinds of things happening there — that we had this extremely tense relationship that was, in my opinion, enormously creative, as was the challenge that Michael Douglas presented to Sharon onscreen. Onscreen and offscreen, because he was always challenging her. And as I said before, I think Sharon is that brilliant in Basic Instinct because Michael was so good.
So you and Carice had a different working relationship.
It was extremely creative in that she could do exactly what I wanted without me even telling her. I ultimately decided to say as little as possible because she had such a good grip on what should be done that my instructions often were superfluous. I had to say often to her, “Forget everything I said, just play it as you thought it was supposed to be, and we’ll shoot you.” So it was a great relationship. I think she’s phenomenal doing something she’s never done before: Playing an adult woman, very sexual. And the parts she had done before, mostly this movie where she plays a cat [Undercover Kitty], were very different, certainly. And when I saw that, I was certainly not aware that she would be my star. It came when I started to test her, and then it was very clear in ten minutes that she was the right person.
Ellis De Vries embodies a type who recurs throughout your films: a charming, uninhibited blonde who uses her sexuality to get what she needs.
But there is one big difference in this case. I think all these women who have been in my movies — or say, 80 or 90 percent of these strong, sexually oriented women — are all opportunistic or diabolical, and sometimes both, isn’t it? And so, Ellis is a woman who’s not diabolical, and she’s not opportunistic either. In fact, the most provocative thing she does is done at the request of the head of the Resistance, Akkermans, whose son is in prison. He asks her, “Will you start an affair with a German officer? It is a way into the Gestapo headquarters so we can get my son out.” And basically, she decides that after what the Resistance has done for her, she is willing to give something back. Then, in the process, she falls in love with the guy, but she still does her job. So I think she does a dangerous job for altruistic reasons. I think she’s not afraid to use her sexuality to attain her goals. But these are the goals of the Resistance.
If one lines up all your movies and watches them back to back, there are a number of repeating themes that play out in different ways. And I think anyone who comes to see a new Paul Verhoeven film is going to expect to find provocative blasts of sex and violence. I wonder if those obsessions are essential to your art.
Well, I think the question is perhaps wrongly phrased. Because why is it that so many directors seem not to be aware that we exist through sexuality, and that we are extremely violent? Why don’t they show that? If you feel that art has something to do with life, and expresses reality, transcending it or transforming it or putting it in symbolic terms or whatever, as art I think has to do, then . . . I’m educated in Holland since the 17th-century with our paintings, which are all realist, that art should work with elements of reality. I think that’s what I try to do. If you look around, then you should be aware of the fact that you or I, we are all sitting here because of sex, isn’t it? Our species uses falling in love to make babies. That’s the evolutionary situation we’re all in. And the baby is the species trying to continue its existence. There’s this force in nature of survival and basically the species has a strong [urge] moving us toward what we are. Basically we need sex and violence to attain our goals. So is it normal then, that I depict that? It’s abnormal if people don’t.
I’m wondering if we don’t all look at reality through our own distinctive lenses.
Then we forget to look at reality in two major ways. We are an extremely violent species. I think we killed about 150 million people in the last century. And we all do sex. I reversed the whole thing a little bit. [Laughs] I don’t know if that’s an obsession. I would call it more my interest in reality. That’s how it goes, you know, that’s how we do things. Why not report about that?
Seeing RoboCop and Starship Troopers again, it was hard not to read them as critiquing certain aspects of the American zeitgeist: Reagan-era social policies, for instance, and militarism.
Fascism too, I would say, for Starship Troopers. It’s a fascist utopia, isn’t it?
Absolutely. And even more relevant now.
Than when it came out, yeah. Although the elements were clearly there.
A lot of people know you as a specialist of mass entertainment, of big action thrillers and sci-fi movies, and then there’s this other aspect to what you do. Do you see yourself as trying consciously to work in both registers, as a sensationalist and a social critic?
Yeah. And that’s basically one of the reasons, after Hollow Man, where I felt that I could not personalize that movie. I could not project into it what I thought was there. The studio had this kind of movie, and they didn’t want too much of this and not too much of that, and ultimately I felt after Hollow Man that I should change gears. I felt that I had got to a position that I never wanted to be in — having done something that felt a bit empty to me. With all the entertainment value and the perks and all that stuff in Starship Troopers, there was also this undercurrent of [imitating a gung-ho soldier] “Come on, guys, let’s fight and die! Argh!,” which is basically what it says. That was the idea bit of the movie. And all these young people are basically, after the first battle, 80 percent gone. So I think that I’ve always tried to find something in whatever project — in RoboCop, let’s say, there’s a certain irony toward entertainment, and urban situations. Even Showgirls is, in my opinion, pointing out what is a part of American thinking — although people don’t want to acknowledge that bit — where sexuality is mainly used for money, continuously every day and every second on every street and in every house in the center of Vegas. That is the situation, in fact. Forgetting about qualities of movies, the idea was always there to try something if possible. And in Basic Instinct it was my high interest at that time — also Total Recall, and perhaps a bit in RoboCop — in what you would call modernity, in what’s reality. In Total Recall, it’s very clearly expressed by [the concept], Is this true or is this a dream? And parallel with Philip Dick’s story and The Matrix, Are we in the computer or out of the computer? Are we the computer ourselves? Or whatever. So I think there are other themes I used there, but I always feel that if you make these kind of big movies, that there is an undercurrent of something else. I’m looking for that! Probably I need it, because otherwise I feel that it’s just entertainment alone, and I have never tried to do that. In fact, all my Dutch movies seem never to do that. And I try to keep that as much as possible in the U.S., which of course in the studio system is not so easy. I felt with Hollow Man that I had failed. And that’s why I went back to my Dutch scriptwriter, Gerard Soeteman, and said I want to do something that has to do with reality and politics and ambiguity and all that stuff, and get away from what I considered the emptiness of my last movie.
You alluded before to the moral ambiguity at the heart of Black Book. And I think that ambiguity has been apparent throughout your career. And in you, too, as a person: You have a Ph.D. in mathematics and physics, you are a noted scholar of Jesus’ life and the early Christian period, and you’re a filmmaker who tries to inject mainstream entertainment with some form of critical sensibility. How do all of those interests and influences work to help you realize your vision? Do you think they shape your process or the story you’re trying to tell?
I don’t think that my knowledge of mathematics, which is lost at this point [chuckles], helps me develop a script. My interest in structure, which is one of the core elements of math, certainly helps me with logic and to be interested in structure when I look at the movie as a whole. So it trained my mind in a certain way to look at movies and analyze scripts or set them up in a certain way, but that’s all, I think. And my interest in Jesus — you can see that a little bit sometimes in the movies, but I think normally I’m influenced by that in some way, but it’s not that I try to put that in a movie. By coincidence, for example, you can find many parallels to Jesus’ life with RoboCop. It was written by Michael Miner and Arne Schmidt. So I think I projected that into it, this Jesus thing. I felt it and read it. For me, it was really about the crucifixion of Peter Weller, in the beginning. It was about resurrection, it was about a man who was resurrected at a higher level because it’s all about the protection of innocents. But finally, when everything begins to culminate and go against him, and he’s nearly killed by the authorities, then he turns himself into somebody, walking over water near the end, practically, and says, “I’m not arresting you anymore, I’m going to kill you.” This is a development which you can see in Christianity and in the Gospels, where Jesus says — it’s something people don’t quote too much — but it’s a line of Luke that says “Whoever has a coat, sell it, and buy a sword.” And as we know, there was a sword fight when he was arrested. So I think that’s Murphy saying, “I’m not arresting you anymore.” I feel there’s a lot of correspondences, but it’s me projecting that into the movie without making a statement about it, which I think is anti-art, really. I like to fill it in with these kinds of things — or color it a little bit. So the knowledge of Jesus is here and the math is there and from a neurological point of view, I’m sure these things do interfere vaguely in the background, in my subconscious.