Interviews | Vulgar Moralism: Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book

By Robert Koehler

The arrival of Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, his first European film since the medieval softcore epic Flesh+Blood (1985), forces viewers to reconsider World War II in particular, and Verhoeven in general. It’s true that, as many a wag has noted and Verhoeven long ago confirmed, his great twin obsessions are Hitler and Jesus (in perhaps that order); Black Book doesn’t necessarily alter the Hitler side of the equation nor the priorities Verhoeven set for himself in 1968 when he made his first officially professional film, Portrait of Anton Adriaan Mussert, a documentary about the head of the Dutch fascist party during World War II. A surface glance at Black Book, seen merely as the cloak-and-dagger tale of a Dutch Jewish singer, Rachel Stein (Carine van Houten), swept up into the wartime underground resistance movement and recruited to be a mole inside the Nazi’s Dutch military headquarters, would suggest nothing out of the ordinary as far as Verhoeven the entertainer is concerned.

But Verhoeven likes to fuck with his viewers, placing his films within a seemingly conventional genre framework only to suddenly reveal his true intentions and ideas. When the in-hiding Rachel is made a refugee by a Nazi bomb attack and narrowly survives a nighttime ambush of a boatload of fleeing Jews, her decision to sign up with the underground resistance at first suggests a mere variation of the heroics displayed in Soldier of Orange (1977). Soon, thought, an involved game of sexual desires and wills plays out when Rachel becomes a mole inside the Nazi high command, and the fact that she’s almost too good at her poses sets her against her resistance brethren. As often happens in Verhoeven’s cinema, but more dramatically in Black Book than ever before, presumably “good” and “bad” characters not only become less clear-cut as time goes on, but even switch moral positions. As skillfully as any living director, he revels in cinema’s powers of deception, to conceal and then reveal reality, to cover subversive ideas inside the armour of genre. Those bourgeois fans of sexually titillating foreign films (preferably French or Swedish, preferably with enough but not too much nudity) were screwed by Verhoeven with Turkish Delight (1973) and Katie Tippel (1975), in which sex became something too dangerous for refined sensibilities. When critics and audiences figured that they had Verhoeven down as the new Dutch wild man, along came Soldier of Orange (1977) and its forthright, flag-waving fictionalized account of Dutch anti-Nazi hero Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema’s wartime exploits. Nobody at that time could have forecast that Verhoeven would become Hollywood’s most interesting science fiction director over two decades—from RoboCop (1987) to Hollow Man (2000)—as well as a collaborator with two of Hollywood’s most oversized personalities, Arnold Schwarzenegger (with Total Recall in 1990) and Joe Eszterhas (with Basic Instinct in 1992 and Showgirls in 1995). But just as the brilliant Starship Troopers (1997) shreds every conventional notion of what both a science fiction and a war movie should do, and RoboCop is the actual Jesus movie that Verhoeven strived to make for years, the woefully misunderstood Showgirls creates a bizarre hyper-reality gloss on top of the backstage drama that makes Turkish Delight’s anarchism appear tame. And make no mistake: People hate Verhoeven for all of this.

It’s because of the history that Verhoeven lived through as a young child in The Hague during the Nazi occupation, Allied liberation, and subsequent invasion of American capitalism—not some childish inner demon—that makes him congenitally unable to ever play by the rules. Black Book goes much further, though, by reviewing the myths of history and the audience’s internalized myths of what to expect in a historical film—a film about the Holocaust, no less—that poses as a spy-thriller. Like Rossellini revisiting the liberation of fascist Italy in Era notte a Roma (1960) that he first captured in Paisan (1946), or Ford turning his view from US horse soldiers to the Native Americans they massacred in Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Verhoeven and his screenwriter Gerard Soeteman return to the ground they explored in Soldier of Orange to reveal something entirely different: That the Dutch underground was marbled with anti-Semitism, that some high-ranking Nazis knew they were trapped in a matrix of insanity, that war can be fun, that liberation can be terrible, that revenge against Nazi collaborators can unleash new forms of ugliness no less horrific than Nazism itself, that Israeli kibbutzim offer no refuge from permanent war. Black Book becomes a study, in the thriller context, of the harsh reality that to survive a war is to live though a chain of moral contingencies, so that the Nazi you are trying to defeat today may be the one that you love tomorrow, and that even your closest friends may have things to hide. Verhoeven likes to call this his return to “reality,” by which he means his flight from Hollywood’s fantasy machine. We are just at the beginning of the latest phase in Paul Verhoeven’s lifelong pursuit to reframe himself, and us.

CINEMA SCOPE: It’s thought that Black Book is your second film about the Nazis and the Dutch resistance after Soldier of Orange, but it’s actually your fourth, including your early documentary, Portrait of Anton Adriaan Mussert, and your short film Gone, Gone (1979). What was the impulse for your two returns—to Europe and to World War II?

PAUL VERHOEVEN: Black Book was a very old project that I and Soeteman, who has written all of my Dutch movies, had been holding onto since the ‘70s. During our research for Soldier of Orange and Gone, Gone, we gathered a lot of darker and shadowy material about the Dutch resistance that we could never use. We tried to carve out some new scenario, but we never could solve the story problems and so we put it aside. This also coincided with me gradually leaving Holland and moving to the United States. But then, five or so years ago, I decided to bring it back to Soeteman so we could try again.

The plot problems hadn’t gone away, of course, and Soeteman suggested a different approach, starting with a young sailor who had survived a boat attack early in the story and a young woman named Rachel, who died. He realized that this had to be reversed: the boy should die and she should live. I wouldn’t say that, from this point on, the script wrote itself, because it took an enormous amount of time to organize a complicated plot. This represented another, darker WWII that fascinated us and was in sharp contrast to Soldier of Orange which is much more heroic and a bit patriotic perhaps, and with a lighter touch in general.

What led me back to Europe was that, after Hollow Man, I couldn’t find another movie to do in the US that I cared about. And after having done a lot of science fiction, I wanted to return to reality. I had long felt that I should make more realistic films, which I couldn’t find in the US. I was experiencing what had happened to Hollywood after 9/11, with the shift toward fantasy action, from Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to Spider-Man. They weren’t making anything like Lawrence of Arabia (1962). That was entertainment too, but it was also about reality.

SCOPE: And a form of history.

VERHOEVEN: “History” is a word you don’t use anymore. I wonder if it’s not forbidden in most places now.

SCOPE: Does this dichotomy between your Hollywood work and your generally more historical work in the Netherlands say something about the differences between the two places?

VERHOEVEN: I’m not sure. You could also argue that I was typecast after RoboCop and that as long as it was in Fantasyland, I could get projects. But if I wanted to do something realistic—and the most realistic one was Showgirls. It’s very interesting to consider that. A lot of the events in Showgirls are taken from real incidents, which is perhaps why so many people hated it. Mario Kassar, who ran Carolco, which produced a number of my films, knew my Dutch work and that I could do something like Basic Instinct, but after RoboCop and Total Recall, the studios wouldn’t have even thought of me as a thriller director. So I got out of that mode, and then after Showgirls, I couldn’t go there anymore. All the doors that opened with Basic Instinct closed with Showgirls. Not all was lost: I could continue to make expensive and interesting movies like Starship Troopers and Hollow Man. But I also think that once people in Hollywood see Black Book, they’ll be able to trust me with material beyond science fiction.

SCOPE: One of the many ironies about Black Book is that it marks your first separation from Hollywood in 20 years, and yet it celebrates the verities of classical Hollywood storytelling, a tradition that Hollywood now makes a habit of dishonoring.

VERHOEVEN: The interesting thing about what you say is that I came to the United States in 1985, having made movies in Holland that were realistic and biographical, but they weren’t plot-driven. Like in some Japanese movies, there was a big scene followed by another big scene, rather than a driving narrative. After working in the US for 20 and returning to Holland, what I appreciated in the US was the narrative. At the same time, as you say, the narrative has been abandoned in Hollywood for spectacle. I brought to Soeteman my desire for a compelling narrative and plot, something I would have never felt had I not spent time in the US. I have a feeling with Black Book that I somehow combined my desire to do a realistic film about where I came from with a respect for the American film industry, where narrative has always dominated. It also meant that with Black Book I didn’t have to rely on extravagant editing and startling devices to keep the audience awake, as I did in Soldier of Orange.

SCOPE: In Black Book, you exercise something quite new with your subversive side, which is what I believe is what got you in trouble with Hollywood. You really give it to the Dutch Resistance here. For example, when the Resistance cell members overhear Rachel on the surveillance line and get the exactly wrong impression—that she’s changed sides—their anti-Semitism instantly surfaces. This is a fascinating, shocking detail.

VERHOEVEN: Yes. So is another scene where a character says, “When is an ordinary Jew more important than a good Dutchman?” It isn’t translated in the subtitles. It raises a moral issue, and suggests that not everyone had a clear understanding of what was happening in the concentration camps at that point. Using that aspect in the film was like sticking your hands in your dark heart. There’s always been a latent anti-Semitism in Europe, for centuries. I thought it was interesting and audacious to explore that, especially with people who in principle you should respect and like because they do engage in this work. These people aren’t exactly good.

SCOPE: There’s a sense running through Black Book that a person actually can change and not betray others but betray him or herself. The “good” Nazi, Müntze, played by Sebastian Koch, does betray himself.

VERHOEVEN: Or you could say that he was a realist, since it was April 1945. The writing was on the wall. Müntze was based on an actual character named Münt; the lawyer is real; the doctor with the black book is based on a Mr. De Boer. On the other hand, the doctor’s relationship with Rachel is invented, and Rachel’s relationship with Müntze is derived from one of three women we used as a composite to create her character; this woman also had a thing with a German officer, but a different one than Münt. Some of them were in Rotterdam and some in The Hague, so we put them together. Only Rachel was assembled from three different characters.

SCOPE: She does feel like a fictional creature.

VERHOEVEN: Only one of the women was Jewish. None of the three survived the war. Another example of this blend of fact and fiction is the escape by coffin near the end of the film. It was based on an actual event, but it didn’t happen to this person. The actual guy escaped to Spain with a lot of pearls and cash in the coffin with him. We came upon this pamphlet about him in our research.

SCOPE: How can you not use that? Over three years of working out who these characters were and how they would work together and figuring out the plot mechanics, how many drafts did it require?

VERHOEVEN: Once we finally figured that Rachel was the protagonist, we spent two years working out the details and rewriting. Soeteman would do a first draft, fax it to me—we did all of this handwritten because I feel it’s more creative—then I did a draft, sent it back to him, and so on, until he did the fifth and final draft. The plot was difficult, since you want to avoid explaining too much and never be boring.

SCOPE: Not only that, but you have this remarkable irony in the third act when, as the war ends and “peace” breaks out, things get really dangerous.

VERHOEVEN: This reflects an emotion I had since I was a child experiencing the war and its end. In our neighborhood in The Hague were people who were not so bad but had gotten along with the Germans, and they were punished in the most awful ways. All of the horrors in the film are based on reality, but there were far worse things than what we see in the movie. It was always the idea that we would create a situation where the worst would happen after the liberation. So we thought that to contrast Rachel’s danger with the crowds singing the national anthem, and to develop something even worse than what had happened before, would create an interesting and strange quality. To have a character who’s in danger during the war, but in even worse danger once the war ends always felt like a beautiful idea. It takes you deeper and deeper. At moments like that, I feel the pleasure of creation. It was extremely important to me from the first time I had the idea for this story 30 years ago.

SCOPE: Was the framing device always in the story?

VERHOEVEN: Our original story did have a framing device, but it depicted some in the Resistance reuniting to dedicate a street in honour of a colleague who had just died.

SCOPE: Good thing that you abandoned that. It sounds like a Spielberg idea, though you did have it before Spielberg.

VERHOEVEN: I never really liked it, to be honest. The framing became Rachel’s new kibbutz home in Israel, and it was much more appropriate, since it seemed true to her and gave you more information about her, that she had turned her back on her fellow Dutchmen. You could enter the movie in a more philosophical way.

SCOPE: And then a new movie begins at the very end. The war never ends.

VERHOEVEN: For a Jewish girl who goes to Israel, certainly, that’s the reality. It doesn’t look like it will end for at least another 50 years or more at this rate. I wanted to show that she had achieved a new life with her husband and kids, but also that it was not paradise—it’s a tough world.

SCOPE: It also illustrates that history never ends.

VERHOEVEN: And also tells you that chaos will always be there.

SCOPE: It looked like you directed this movie much differently than your previous work.

VERHOEVEN: Since Basic Instinct and Showgirls, I had staged in long shots with a moving camera, usually a Steadicam. I abandoned that here. There’s much more cutting. Wide shots then cut to a slightly closer shot then back to wide, for instance. It’s like in Gone With the Wind (1939). I used multiple cameras to shoot scenes at slightly different distances—some closer, some further away. It’s not even a matter of going from master to medium to close up—they’re more subtle shifts than that. If it’s done right, you’ll never notice. This was the result of working with a new cinematographer, the German Karl Walter Lindelaub, after 35 years with, first, Jan de Bont, and then Jost Vacano. I choose a DP stylewise.

SCOPE: And you stick with them: you’ve worked with only three cinematographers your whole career, and minus Black Book, only two. Even Bergman worked with more lighting cameramen than that over thirty years.

VERHOEVEN: Yes, I started with Jan and then switched between him and Jost, who retired two years ago. Hollow Man was his last film.

SCOPE: His work on Hollow Man is amazing: the images are so intensely sharp and with such saturated colors.

VERHOEVEN: And with as close as you can get to true blacks and ochres. The shooting style for Hollow Man carried over on Black Book, in the sense that I started with one camera, and then after a week Karl Walter pushed me to add two and three cameras. I found myself changing during the shooting. There was a practical as well as aesthetic advantage, I learned.  If you shoot this way, you get in more minutes each day. It’s done a lot now, because shooting schedules seem to be getting shorter and shorter. Certainly in Europe. I shot Black Book in 42 days. Smaller budget films have no more than 20-22 days. You can thus survive within your budget by shooting with more cameras. There’s no need to stage another set-up. The catch is that you can’t grasp the editing as well. With one camera, I always had a clear sense of when I needed to cut. But with material shot on two or three cameras, I can’t choose, so I give it to my editors, and see what they do with it.

I ask the editors to do a cut, a final cut so to speak. I’ve always worked this way. I don’t believe in assemblies, since they’re so loose and you don’t really know what you have. I want my editors to think that this is the real final cut; of course, it’s not actually the final, but I also don’t want them to make a loose, provisional assembly. If we did that, then we would go through another three or four months until a firm cut. I really believe in the editor. How can it be creative if I tell them exactly what to do? It’s more important to let them go. I’ll whittle it back if I think a scene is going the wrong way, but that practically never happens if you choose the right editor. I never want to push myself in the face of the editor, or the DP or the composer. They can only be creative when they have absolute freedom. And I give them that.

SCOPE: Given that Hitchcock is your idol, what you’re describing is so different from how he worked, issuing firm instructions to every collaborator.

VERHOEVEN: He went through even more extreme changes, from the continuous shooting in Rope (1948) and gradually moved more and more toward staging for shots and more and more cuts. By the time of Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959), he’s completely committed to montage and only moves the camera when he absolutely has to.

SCOPE: And on to The Birds (1963), where there’s more montage than ever before.

VERHOEVEN: Yes. For me, a little chaos, a little not knowing, can help. Don’t be so fixated that it has to, has to be this way. And I learned a lot from Karl Walter in guiding me to do something completely different from staging everything in front of the single camera. The takes in Showgirls, for example, required an enormous amount of time to rehearse and set up.

SCOPE: Do you get a sense of the actual reception to the film when you’re at a festival?

VERHOEVEN: You can measure it by applause. Is it polite, or is it real? In Toronto and Venice, it was very genuine. A large percentage of people like it. I’ve never had this before where I walk on the streets in The Hague or Amsterdam and people stop me and tell me that they liked it. It seems that equal numbers of older and younger people are seeing it. People seem to greedily want to know more about WWII, either because they lived through it or because they want to learn more about it. I always want to create the sense in my films that you’re entering a world. In this case, I think people seem to like this. This is despite some harsh criticism from Dutch critics, but some of them have always held me in deep suspicion because they think I’m superficial. Everyone in the Dutch press hated Spetters (1980). There wasn’t even a contrary voice. There was even a committee called The National Anti-Spetters Committee. It was just like Showgirls.

SCOPE: Joe Eszterhas has written that Spetters was the basis for Flashdance (1983).

VERHOEVEN: Yes, I’ve seen that although funnily enough he never told me that. He’s very good at changing the reality, and altering the parameters. When he writes about me, either negatively or positively, Joe is very amusing. He makes things up sometimes, or adds to it. He’s done that all along. He did this when he was a journalist.

SCOPE: In all of Eszterhas’ references to you in his book, he would refer to you as “my friend Paul.” So are you friends?

VERHOEVEN: We have very much a love-hate relationship, I would say. He’s written things that are completely untrue. I know because I was there. This may also be the case when he writes about others as well.

SCOPE: Speaking of legends, this recalls your magnificent commentary for the Soldier of Orange DVD, where you discuss the need to embellish the facts of Eric’s (Rutger Hauer) adventure.

VERHOEVEN: And these events were embellished to begin with. Embellishment is unavoidable when you’re turning actual events into a film. Look at Truman Capote writing In Cold Blood, which is beautifully dramatized in Infamous (2006). “You’re making things up here,” people would complain to him. “Stick to the facts.” Well, yes, you stick to the facts in some ways but then you push them. I would never say, Black Book or Turkish Delight or Soldier of Orange—“a true story.” That would be falsification. “Based on a true story,” yes. Or “Inspired by.” Look at how Bolt rearranged events in Lawrence. It’s both based on The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and on Bolt’s own research and writing. Normally, I wouldn’t even think of inserting a phrase “inspired by true events”—that was the idea of one of the Black Book producers.

SCOPE: Given the shift in your activities, what’s your current perspective on working in Hollywood and working in Europe, and how the systems differ?

VERHOEVEN: Simply, in Holland I can really do what I want, but there’s no money. In Los Angeles, I have to do what they want, but there’s money. To gain, you lose, and to lose, you gain. In Europe you have more artistic freedom and you don’t have people telling you to tone down a scene because it’s too extreme. In the US, especially in the last ten years, you serve as a director of a movie developed by a studio. Of course, this isn’t fixed. There are big- budget, artistically restricted films made in Europe, and there’s filmmaking in the US that’s free and clear of studios.

SCOPE: Which do you prefer?

VERHOEVEN: I don’t think I have an answer, because both have their advantages and disadvantages. Just getting the money together in Europe is really difficult. The financial arrangements on Black Book, it’s just a horror story. Many times I was concerned that we would have to stop shooting because the crew hadn’t been paid. It was horrible and unpleasant. The gains are that you are your own master and commander. In Los Angeles, you work in a larger operation with the producers and levels of executives weighing, but the money is there. I think that this is also fantastic. I’ve made a lot of movies here, and most of them were actually quite interesting and pleasant to make. But Black Book is more me, just as Turkish Delight and Soldier of Orange is more me. Yet I would never be able to make the science fiction movies I’ve made anywhere in Europe. On the other hand, I could find enough personal possibilities making American movies to be happy. So I would never reject out of hand any American movie that I found interesting. The system has been very pleasant for me since the studios have let me be to a large degree. I’m exaggerating a bit with all of this, but if you don’t exaggerate, then there’s nothing to life.

SCOPE: Something that’s frequently overlooked in discussions about you is your academic background in math and physics. How did this training affect your filmmaking?

VERHOEVEN: I earned a math doctorate. I did physics first, then mathematics. It trains you to think in big structures, you’re given a proposal and then you build an entire structure and concept on top of that—that’s the working process. That could have been handy in helping me think about two hours and constructing a whole film in my head. For the rest, I might have had better training for filmmaking by being a New York taxi driver for seven years rather than studying mathematics. I had no idea what I could do with it. I did it because I could do it. I know physics helped me understand the optics of lenses and the use of light in cinematography, but the truth is that I rely a great deal on my cinematographer.

When I was 17, I wanted to attend a film school in Paris, because after my last year in a French high school to learn French I had a teacher who had a film club. I realized, beyond just watching movies, I could make them. But I had no idea how they were made. It seemed like a nice job. I had been interested in the movies since I was a child. I was drawing comic books a lot since I was 13. That wasn’t a bad training actually. But when I applied to the film school, I was much too late for the year. My father suggested that instead I should go to university in Leiden, and do mathematics or physics, which everyone did at that time.

SCOPE: Everyone majored in physics?

VERHOEVEN: Yeah, physics especially because you could get jobs. My hands weren’t good for doing experimental physics, so I abandoned that immediately. Then I thought I would do theoretical physics, such as particle physics, but it was so enormously difficult and with so much competition, that it didn’t leave anytime to do something I really liked. So I abandoned that too. I did what was required in physics and then switched to abstract mathematics. I knew for sure that I didn’t want to be a teacher—my father had been a teacher—and I was also sure that I would never create new mathematical formulae. This was 1965, and then I was drafted into the Navy. I got myself into the Navy’s film department and that’s how I made my switch.

SCOPE: That’s where you made your first war film, wasn’t it?

VERHOEVEN: Yeah, about the Dutch Marines.

SCOPE: And you were effectively a commander over troops.

VERHOEVEN: I could get whatever I wanted. I could ask for 100-200 marines. We were in the islands of Curaçao, then a Dutch protectorate off the coast of Venezuela.

SCOPE: Then you had this strange encounter with Pentecostal Christianity. How did that happen, and how did your reaction to that experience prompt your concern for reality and even hyper-reality?

VERHOEVEN: My then-future wife Martine got pregnant in 1966, and we didn’t want a child at the time. I was just starting my film career, and the prospect of an unplanned child might force me to abandon film at least temporarily. To a large degree, it was disturbing: during that period, I had a sense that I was losing my mind. I wouldn’t say a psychosis, but it felt close to that. My response was to become a member of a Pentecostal church, for a month. It was an existential need. This wasn’t common in Holland in the ‘60s.

SCOPE: What made you leave?

VERHOEVEN: When an artist friend heard my problem, he told me that it wasn’t much of a problem. His father is a doctor of anaesthetics at the Red Cross hospital in The Hague, and he could help us. So reality and pragmatism brought me out of it. This encounter with spiritual, mystical Christianity had an enormous impact on me. As a result, to get out of this dangerously sectarian thinking in which the subconscious elements of my brain were seeping into my conscious, I felt that I had to close the doors of perception, as Huxley calls it. The subconscious elements can be very powerful, and if one isn’t careful, they can take over the conscious parts of your brain. This is what happened to Nietzsche when he lost his mind in Turin. I wanted to protect myself by concentrating for years of my creative life on reality. That explains something of my enormous interest in the reality of everything, and my sense of the reality of violence, an aspect of my work that some people continue to have enormous problems with.

SCOPE: And the body. I would argue that it reached its apotheosis in Hollow Man where the fascination with the body becomes so completely biological that the body itself finally vanishes.

VERHOEVEN: Yes, the body. The physical self, the cruelty of the world, to recognize that and put it on screen was my means of warding off my subconscious. In 1985, I started to be able to think about these things again, and open them a little bit, so some of that stuff could drip in. Now, I’m writing a book about Jesus.

SCOPE: What kind of book?

VERHOEVEN: What I think happened. The last years, based on research. I’m a member of the Jesus Seminar, based in Santa Rosa. Their seminars are twice a year, and I’ve attended a lot of them and have presented several papers. I’ve become really pretty good in theology. Although I would say that my focus is more on history than theology per se.

SCOPE: So your Jesus would be closer to Pasolini’s reading?

VERHOEVEN: Perhaps a more Marxist approach. I also love Monty Python’s reading, in Life of Brian (1979), which is just brilliant.

SCOPE: Your Christianity, though, seems compartmentalized from your filmmaking, except perhaps in RoboCop

VERHOEVEN: Where he walks on the water at the end, and its theme of the search for the lost paradise. Twenty years ago, I wanted to make a movie about Jesus, but I gave it up. Yet I was so curious about how the events surrounding him were perceived at the time that they happened, or could have happened, that I decided the best way to consider all of this was in a book. Soeteman told me that if I made the Jesus movie I wanted to, that I might not survive. He suggested I write a book first. The book is turning out OK, but a movie would be so much more powerful than a book. The book will be out in Dutch next year, and then hopefully translated into English. It might be interesting to people that the guy who made Showgirls has done a Jesus book.