Verhoeven Returns

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Interview By David D'Arcy

Paul Verhoeven should not be so misunderstood, since his films are efforts to tell simple truths, usually in the simplest cinematic language. The truths are painfully simple in the case of Black Book, which looks at survival and betrayal in the Dutch resistance to the Germans, as World War II was drawing to a close and the Dutch were preparing to govern themselves once again. The title comes from a black book in which the names of Dutch collaborators with the Nazis are listed. Let's just say that the top priorities as the war ends are not truth and reconciliation.

In this riveting melodrama, Carice van Houten plays the Jewish songstress who watches her family die while "escaping" into a Nazi trap, and then falls in the love with the Gestapo chief whom she's seduced as part of an undercover operation. Sebastian Koch is the Nazi who is supposed to be hunting down people just like her, the realist who negotiates with the Dutch resistance in the hope of avoiding killings on both sides.

True to his reputation, Verhoeven has made a film that is violent, often gross in its tactility, and skeptical about lofty motives when money or opportunity are at stake. Black Book was a huge hit in Holland, in spite of the Dutch critics who accused Verhoeven of being too American in the first film that he's made in the Netherlands in 20 years.

Setting his story against the backdrop of the Occupation gives Verhoeven everything he seems to need - a tense situation where death can come at any moment, the intrigue of young idealists fighting the Nazis with whatever means they have, and a grey moral zone in which those idealists learn that they are putting their lives on the line for someone else's benefit. When the British troops roll in to liberate Holland, keep your eyes on the Dutch who are most extreme in punishing the collaborators.

Verhoeven is almost 70, and certainly seems much younger than that, with two long careers behind him, one in Holland and one in the US, and a third that seems on the rise with an epic that took all of $21 million to make. Soldier of Orange (now more than 20 years old), also about young resistants in Holland during the German Occupation, was an earlier shot at the same period, which pointed to the betrayals that Verhoeven would examine in Black Book. Bear in mind that a higher percentage of Jews were deported to the Nazi camps from Holland than from any other country. Verhoeven first witnessed the war as a child in Holland, and it's been with him ever since. He's the kind of Dutch Calvinist who seems to know that everyone is in need of salvation, but very few deserve it, or are willing to earn it.

Is his target hypocrisy? America was a perfect place to refine his aim at that bull's-eye - it was a sandbox where simple ingredients could be used to construct fables, and to deconstruct them. The ingredients were as easy to parody as they were to pile on top of each other. It certainly was the case in RoboCop, in which a young policeman (eventually resurrected as a mechanical savior, in Verhoeven-esque Christian imagery) ends up fighting two battles, one against the everyday crime that takes over Detroit, another against corrupt politicians who devote much more money to developing a rival robot police enforcer from a rival private company. RoboCop wasn't making the streets safe. He was eating up market share that the politicians saw as their turf. Are we talking about private contractors profiting from a public function that they are performing badly? Sound familiar in the Iraq context? It should. You're paying for it.

The other Verhoeven film from which to draw parallels to our contemporary quagmire is Starship Troopers, one of the reasons Verhoeven hasn't made a Hollywood film in a long time. Spend $100 million, and bring in half of that at the box office, and shoot your mouth off, and maybe you'll be looking for work somewhere else, too. Watching it again, I saw parallels to war movies, westerns, and old sci-fi, but Verhoeven also seemed to be taking us back to the sensibility of Psycho Beach Party, or something like it. His satire is so inanely deadpan that we lose sight of the bodies - insect or human. Try switching back and forth between Starship Troopers and C-SPAN. On C-SPAN you don't get the happy ending.

I spoke with Verhoeven about war and resurrection - personal, that is.

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