Paul Verhoeven: Back in Black
by Alex Simon
Paul Verhoeven has returned home to Holland for his latest film, which ranks among the best of his career. A sort of companion piece to his 1977 masterpiece Soldier of Orange, which told the true story of a Dutch aristocrat who is forced to come of age during WWII, Black Book tells the harrowing story of a young Jewish woman (Carice van Houten, who deserves to become an international star) who finds herself thrown by circumstance into the resistance against the Nazis, where she is asked to pose as a sexy cabaret singer in order to get close to Holland’s head of the SS (The Lives of Others’ Sebastian Koch, also excellent). Black Book is one of the most harrowing WWII stories every filmed, and deserves to be recognized in Oscar’s Best Foreign Film category at next year’s awards. Paul Verhoeven sat down with us recently to discuss his latest addition to the cinematic canon.
ALEX SIMON: Black Book returns you to your roots, both as a Dutchman and as a filmmaker. It’s an amazing companion piece to Soldier of Orange, and it also reinforces the fact that all of your films, going back to Turkish Delight, deal in some way with fascism, whether it’s fascist politics, or fascist relationships. When we first met, ten years ago, you said something I’ll never forget: “When I close my eyes, I see buildings on fire, and dead bodies.”
PAUL VERHOEVEN: That’s correct. I was a small boy during the war, but the mind takes these images like a sponge at that age, and the images were so extreme: bombs exploding, buildings collapsing, the whole sky turning red because the city was on fire … I felt these things coming back to me when I stood on the roof of the Bellagio Hotel watching the riots (in 1992). I felt these things coming back when there were those big fires in Malibu, and I was driving to my house in the evening, and driving into this horizon of reds. There is something childlike, something almost exciting for me, seeing those images at first, although I know as an adult to correct my thoughts, because people are dying and burning. But in a primitive way, these images are always there.
SIMON: Obviously the fascism you experienced as a little kid is something you’re still trying to process.
VERHOEVEN: Yes, process and understand it. By now, there are six hundred to seven hundred books I have collected and read on WWII. This goes for me and my old friend, the screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, as a child you don’t understand. If you grew up in an occupied country, in a violent atmosphere, war was more natural than peace.
SIMON: That was certainly the case for the character of Rachel, your protagonist in Black Book.
VERHOEVEN: One of the elements that was extremely important to me in this film, was this feeling that when liberation day comes, everybody would be happy, but the protagonist would be in more danger than ever. That feeling was propelling me to make this movie for many years now, and I don’t know where it comes from. It might be something very personal, but I always thought it would be so compelling to see all these happy, dancing people, and in the middle of it all would be these two people who were in more danger than ever before.
SIMON: One of the compelling things about the film is how it’s all about gray areas, whereas Soldier of Orange was much more about black and white.
VERHOEVEN: Right, there were good guys and bad guys. Here, we’re more morally ambiguous. There was an enormous amount of latent anti-Semitism in Dutch society then, some that was even ingrained into the Dutch language, expressions that used the word “Jewish” in a denigrating sense. This was true through the fifties and sixties, until people were finally confronted with the realities of the Holocaust, and slowly this disappeared. There was even a notorious incident with the Dutch Prime Minister around that time where he used one of these anti-Semitic expressions, and he was nearly forced to resign.
SIMON: It’s interesting that it took twenty years after the war for this to happen.
VERHOEVEN: Well, it really took that long for people to realize what had happened in the Holocaust in the first place. We didn’t realize it very well in Holland at all, especially during the war. Did we know that the Jews were being sent to Poland? Yes, because we saw it. But people were so occupied with surviving themselves, particularly during the last years of the war, they didn’t think about things like Jewish people who were being put on trains to Poland. It didn’t occur to them that it was something other than labor camps.
SIMON: But one thing that this film illustrates graphically, as do most of your films, is that fascism can only exist through the complicity of the masses. Soldier of Orange even opens with a college fraternity hazing.
VERHOEVEN: Yeah, that was the idea. It was supposed to look like Auschwitz, with the shaved heads and closed-in spaces. You weren’t supposed to know what it was at first, then it turns out to be a fraternity ritual. I was in that fraternity at University of Leiden, and I always felt when that hazing would go on “this is fucking fascism that’s happening here.” So once I got through the hazing, I really wanted nothing to do with the fraternity. And it still goes on. Look at Abu Ghraib, and what happened there. So yes, there is something evil in our nature that seems to goad us on to abuse people that we seemingly have power over.
SIMON: It was great to see you go home, so to speak, with this film, reuniting with your former screenwriting partner, and several actors who were in your Dutch productions. How did you and Gerard, over twenty years, come up with this story?
VERHOEVEN: The scene at the end of the movie, in the prison, I discovered that when, in 1966, I was doing research for a documentary about the Nazi leader of Holland, who was executed by the Dutch in ’46. So that scene had been in my mind for forty years: what happened in Dutch prisons after the war, what they did with the Nazi collaborators. It really shocked me the way the Dutch behaved when I did that re- search. Then, at the time we did research for Soldier of Orange, we came across a lot of great material about the end of the war that we couldn’t use in the film, such as the story of the little black book, which really existed, as did many of the characters in the film. So it was created step-by-step over the years, with long intervals of time where we’d leave it alone, and then come back to it. The final structure we came up with in 2002–3, by making the protagonist a woman, which was a dilemma we’d had for a long time: whether to make the character a man or a woman. The character of the Jewish girl was always there, but once we made her the protagonist, everything fell into place.
SIMON: You’ve been a big studio moviemaker for the past twenty years here. What was it like to go home and make a comparatively small picture?
VERHOEVEN: It’s much less of a sensation than you would expect. The Dutch and German crews were excellent. There have been lots of movies made in both countries in the past fifteen years because of the tax incentives, so the crews were much better than when I made films in the sixties and seventies. There was a lot of freedom, more freedom than you would get in any of the studios here, because nobody was dictating what I could or couldn’t do. The only negative side of working in Europe is the enormous difficulties in getting the money together for an independent movie of this size. The budget was $21 million. This is really a European, as opposed to a strictly Dutch, film because the financing came from four different countries: Holland, England, Germany, and Belgium.
SIMON: Not only that, but a lot of the moral ambiguity, sexuality and violence in the film would have been watered down, had it been an American studio picture.
VERHOEVEN: Yes, absolutely, not to mention the fact that it would have cost $70–$80 million, as opposed to twenty-one. And it wouldn’t have been the same film without those elements you mention. One thing we wanted to do with this film was to show that sometimes the people we think of as “good guys” can be really evil, and that the “bad guys” can have a heart. There’s an old joke in Holland: “Everyone (during WWII) was part of the resistance.” Well, if that had been true, would the Nazis have been able to overthrow the country? Not as easily, certainly. There were good and bad on both sides, and we need to recognize that.
SIMON: The other thing I love about the film is that it combines your two schools of filmmaking: it has the European elements we just discussed, but also the narrative drive that’s characteristic of American pictures.
VERHOEVEN: Yeah, I think I learned that in the United States, and brought it back to Europe. I asked Gerard, whose sensibilities are more European, and therefore the narratives might be a bit less compelling, I asked him if he would write this movie with that kind of narrative drive. I think the combination of the two is interesting and compelling to the audience, as well.
SIMON: Do you tend to give lots of direction to your actors, or do you prefer to cast well and stay out of the way?
VERHOEVEN: It depends upon the actor. Sharon Stone, for example, I would give lots of direction and I would be continuously busy with her. With Carice, I found the less I did, the better it got. If I gave her too many instructions, it would limit her too much, whereas if I just let her go, she was limitless. She was like Meryl Streep that way. So I got whatever I wanted from her, but ultimately I had to tell her to not listen to me, and just to do what she felt, which was always the perfect solution.
SIMON: I always felt that Starship Troopers was your unheralded masterpiece: no one on this side of the pond understood that it was a satire.
VERHOEVEN: Not only that, but there are several different layers to it. The one that we added to (Robert) Heinlein’s novel, which was a satire on American society, was also a real stab at fascism. I think it was too unusual a film, and not what people expected. Perhaps we should have pointed out that these elements existed before we screened it. In many countries, including the US, the film was accused of being fascist or neo-Nazi. It addressed what I felt were the possibilities of American fascism, but it was anything but pro-fascist.
SIMON: And of course, if you look at what’s going on now, it was prescient.
VERHOEVEN: Yes, we didn’t realize that at the time, but we could see the beginnings of it even in the late nineties. I mean, these last five years didn’t come out of nowhere. It was ways of thinking that had been rampant in the eighties, even before Clinton. The whole neo-conservative philosophy has a long history in this country. I was aware of that, and certainly (screenwriter) Ed Neumeier was too. We went that way to counter Heinlein’s narrative a bit, which was very militaristic, and perhaps a bit fascistic, as well. So the ironies were invented to counter the original narrative in some way. We borrowed a lot of imagery from Nazi propaganda, like Leni Riefenstahl’s films, and the designs of the uniforms, so perhaps that’s where the accusations of Nazism came from. What I like about the film, is that we did it in a playful way: I don’t think we were grabbing the audience by the throat, trying to choke them with our viewpoints.
SIMON: Now that you’ve “gone back home again,” do you want to continue to work on both sides of the pond?
VERHOEVEN: Sure, oh yeah. I can see that you can make European movies, which I used to be not so sure about, but the nightmare of the financing for this one would prob- ably dictate that I would need to see more solid ground from the beginning. But yes, you can make interesting movies there, and in the United States, I’d prefer to go a bit more into realism, instead of doing so many science fiction and fantasy types of films. I’d love to do a film like The Departed, for example. I’ve never done that in the United States, really. Showgirls, perhaps was realistic that way … (Both laugh.) Okay, okay, so I mean that in a somewhat amusing way, but Showgirls was based on a lot of research!
SIMON: Maybe we should end this conversation with your desire to do a film like The Departed.
VERHOEVEN: Good idea! (Laughs)
Venice Magazine April 2007