Q&A with Paul Verhoeven

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Filmmaker Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven's Black Book is simultaneously a sexually charged, non-stop action movie about the Dutch resistance to German occupation in World War II and a bleak examination of the often morally dubious activities of the underground. Not all of the Germans are brutes; many of the oppressed are betrayers of their cause. It may be the most honest — and certainly the most exciting — movie about the secret war ever made. It also represents a comeback for Verhoeven, who left his native Holland in the mid-1980s for Hollywood, where he made big budget sci-fi movies like Starship Troopers and sexually controversial pictures like Basic Instinct, before the resounding failure of Showgirls nearly drove him out of the business. He talked to TIME's Richard Schickel about his new film and the wild ride that brought him to it.

TIME: Black Book takes you back almost to your beginnings in film. How do you compare it with Soldier of Orange, which is also about the Dutch during WWII?

Verhoeven: There's a big difference in that the tone of Soldier of Orange is less shadowy and dark than Black Book; the attitudes of the Dutch are clearly less positive than what we showed in Soldier of Orange in 1977. The darker material we found at that time was useless to us then. But Gerard Soeteman, who wrote both films, and I were fascinated by it, and put it to the side. It was only in 2001 that Gerard solved the script.

Perhaps it took some extra time for audiences to come to grips with the notion that people in the underground are often morally ambiguous. For example, there's an almost casual anti-Semitism among many of your underground fighters.

That's based on historical reality, but it's only in the last 20 years that young academics began looking into the archives and finding things that had never been put forward before. The fact that the Dutch embraced Black Book must mean that they are now quite aware that all these beautiful stories about the resistance were only partially true.

You've said that experiencing as a child the German occupation shaped you as a filmmaker. How so?

What I meant was that I would not have become the filmmaker that I am if I had not been living in an occupied country and not seen an enormous amount of violence. This is my vision of the world because I grew up amongst bombing and the ruins and the dead. War was the norm and peace was the exception.

One of the things that's striking about the film is the viciousness in the immediate aftermath of the war of the persecution of people thought to be collaborators — they're the most appalling images in the film.

Yes, they are. They were put in prisons all over the country, and in the archives I found how the Dutch had treated these people and I was shocked by that, and it never left me. It was always something that I felt that some day should be expressed in a movie, where the protagonists would be more in danger after liberation than before.

I want to turn for a minute to the style of the movie, the sheer rush of it. It moves like a bullet train. That style makes us breathless and heedless, so that the full implications of the movie, its full embrace of moral ambiguity, occur later when you're thinking it over.

That might have to do with my total, obsessive interest in the times, and my completely being able to fall into them mentally. But I have the feeling that the drive of the movie has to do with my American education. Working in the United States for 20 years brought me to a different narrative style than I had used, for example, in Soldier of Orange. I think I made it mine and perhaps more than mine.

It also seems to me that there is a deliberate sexualization going on in this movie that's quite different from what we are used to seeing in resistance movies.

That's quite true — there was an enormous amount of sexuality happening. Maybe I'm pushing it, but they would be sabotaging the trains or they would be murdering collaborators or they would be shooting at German officers, then they would come home and sleep with girls.

Is that because they're living such intense and dangerous lives?

I suppose so, yes — the adrenaline that you need to do these acts of resistance might also push you to be very candid and straightforward sexually. My interest in sexuality is well-known, but here I was supported by historical fact. The character of the girl, Ellis, is based on three Dutch women, one of whom was asked by the resistance to start an affair with a German officer, and did so, and then fell in love with him. So that was basically the start of the whole story. Then, of course, her sexuality was transformed into what you would call love.

In the past your sex scenes got you into highly controversial positions with the critics and the freelance moralists who always surround movie-making.

Well, it's correct when the movie asks for it. When I feel that it's not to the point I don't do it. You could also say that in American movies like Basic Instinct or Showgirls I was not really a strong participant in the creation of the scripts, of the ideas. I was just projecting into the project as much of myself as I could. So it might just be the director putting himself, his signature — his soul, if you want to be heavier — into the movie. I had the feeling I could do something completely innovative, always with the risk, of course, to be so innovative that people would be disgusted.

You committed the only sin that really counts in the movie business: you made a flop with Showgirls. You've had to go back to Holland to reestablish yourself. Do you feel embittered by that response?

No. No, I'm not. You have to fight back. I mean it is really about getting up again, and not letting yourself be damaged by the results of your work or by the way the people talk about you. Otherwise I wouldn't have found the inspiration and the energy at my age to put myself on the line with the experiment of returning to my own country, which is not always the best thing to do in life. But the fact that you make a flop — that's not the whole story and will never be. Stepping into the unknown is extremely important — to go into areas that are not laid out and have not been walked upon, and of course have an element of danger. But if you look at it in another way, it nearly stopped my career.

In a sense the sexuality of Black Book is like that Basic Instinct and Showgirls. There's a simple acceptance that human beings are sexually driven creatures. They will sometimes get it on in the most amazing circumstances.

Yeah, completely so, because it's clear that without sexuality neither you nor I would be here, isn't it? It's really evolution pushing us forward towards the next generation.

I'm going to quote to you a phrase from one of your more severe critics, who accuses you of reducing humanity to the level of "plastic toys." Is that your view of human nature?

I'm not convinced that human beings in general are looking for the good things in life, or looking to help each other. I mean I think in general there's a lot of egotism and a lack of altruism. I'm a big fan of the Parables of Jesus about the merciful Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. I think that's the essence of my humanity. But I have the feeling that the reality of life is nearly a caricature of the attitudes phrased by the historical Jesus.

But here you come to America and engage yourself in a bourgeois business, one that likes happy endings and inspirational characters. It doesn't really want to deal in the kind of bleakness — or objectivity — that lies, at the center of a lot of your movies. Did you come to the wrong place?

No. And it doesn't really have to do entirely with the United States. I mean Black Book is clearly stating that something like Abu Ghraib happened in Holland in 1945, isn't it? But I don't believe films should give messages to people, or make them happy.

You've said that somewhere deep in your soul, you're still not really comfortable with American themes, that even as you confront American society in some of those films, you're still thinking in Dutch,.

Basically coming to the United States when you're 47 or 48, it is impossible to transform yourself completely into an American. On the other hand the United States to me is an extremely inspiring, challenging, a country that makes you think every day — in contrast to Holland. I was never really interested in Dutch politics, because they were so gray. Everything was OK, and nothing was really good and nothing was really bad.

I think you're saying that America is a more melodramatic country.

It is, yes. And of course it is a country where basically every step it makes has deep impact on the rest of the world, which you cannot say of Holland.

So you don't feel any regret about leaving Holland and going for the big American budgets and stars?

No, not at all. By the time I left Holland my chances to make decent movies had been reduced to 10%, I think, because of the effect that these movies had had on the committees that were giving the money. My departure had nothing to do with me being seduced into working in the United States. It was more a flight — and trying not to drown in the sea — to be able to do movies I liked instead of being forced by the Dutch to make movies they liked and I did not.

But now you have made what I think is your best movie, Black Book, and you have done that by going back to Holland. Does that irony strike you?

It strikes me, yeah. It is strange to come back to myself.

What do you want an American audience to take from Black Book?

Well, first of all that they will be grabbed by the story, and not be able to leave, even to go to the toilet. But it is as important that among the dark, shadowy, deceitful betrayals the movie says there is something positive to build upon. I think that the fact that two people, one of them an anti-Semitic Communist and the other a Jewish girl, come together at the end and do this thing — killing the common enemy — says that although things will never be completely OK, there are moments that are OK enough.