Think of the biggest figures in Dutch history, and images of the erudite scholar Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, the painter Vincent Van Gogh from Zundert and Amsterdam-born footballer Johan Cruyff will slide through your mind. And if things go to plan, soon fellow Amsterdamer Paul Verhoeven may be joining them.
You might not recognise the name. But he is the biggest contemporary Dutch director, and the producer of some of the most profitable productions in recent years of US cinema. We may be exaggerating, but audiences at Sitges Festival certainly loved his last thriller, Black Book ('Zwartboek', 2006), which has brought the director back to his native land after twenty years in the States.
During a festival press conference, Verhoeven is mobbed by a horde of fans and journalists calling out to him, asking questions and flashing their cameras. It is obvious that Verhoeven is popular here. With smile fixed on face, he signs an autograph here and answers a question there, keeping everyone happy. As well as being talented, Mr Verhoeven is an approachable, friendly kind of guy.
The first thing you notice about him is his physical form. His passport must have it all wrong; it says he’s 68. He doesn’t look a day over 50. OK, he’s got white hair, but his heavy build and his smile would be enough to fool anyone.
We start chatting in the hotel foyer. My first question has to be, why has he come back to Holland? After successes like the Peter Weller vehicle Robocop (1987) and the Schwarzenegger starring Total Recall (1990), most directors would stay in Hollywood.
‘I wanted to come back to the real world. They’ve got me down as a science fiction director over there. They wouldn’t even think of giving me a comedy because they don’t know about my first films of other genres. I wanted to escape from all that and do a more realistic kind of film.’
The result has been the eagerly-awaited Black Book, a European blockbuster set during the Second World War. Borne from the spy movie genre, much of the film’s action takes place in small spaces. It demystifies the Dutch resistance to Nazism and is inspired by true events.
‘I was affected by the war as a child, and since the seventies I have been researching this subject. I must have 700 odd books in my house on the subject. I also collected information for the film from a museum in Amsterdam. Nothing you see in the film is exaggerated. Obviously, I have allowed myself a certain amount of creative licence with the characterisation of the roles. The main female contains elements of three real women of that time. I wanted to my work to be properly researched.’ Verhoeven felt free to make the film how he wanted it. He is satisfied with the result: a commercial film that entertains its audience whilst at the same time, invites reflection.
Verhoeven really knows how to keep his critics and his public happy. He sometimes fails; Showgirls (1995) and Hollow Man (2000) were both box office flops. But when he gets it right, the praise is universal. Everyone has heard of or seen Basic Instinct (1992).
What is special about this Dutch director? Well, besides his enviable sense of timing, he has an acceptance of human beings that has allowed him to connect with many types of public, whilst acknowledging criticism at the same time. ‘It would be a lie to say that the world is full of decent people, because man will be man; nearly all of us lie at some point. There aren’t goodies and baddies in real life. This is the case with the Nazis in my last film. Over the years, a stereotype has developed of the German soldier whose only mission is to kill, kill, kill. It just wasn’t like that. There were also decent people who were not involved in all of that.’ As the words pour out of his mouth, his gaze is fixed on mine. His tone of voice, somewhere between the serious and the sarcastic, belongs to somebody who really believes what he is saying. He has convinced me.
Sex and violence: magic formula
Analyse Verhoeven's back catalogue, and you'll discover that his success cannot only be attributed to provocation and moral ambiguity. In Hollywood, you need something else to attract an audience. In all of Verhoeven’s films, there is a dose of sex and of violence; two contradictory components. I ask him why. First, he talks about sex with a frank smile. ‘How can people ignore it? It is natural, and it occurs at the most important moments of our lives. I love sex, and that is why I include it in my films.’ Keep it simple and suggestive: Sharon Stone’s infamous legs crossing in Basic Instinct, or the strange sight of a hooker with three breasts in Total Recall. Not to mention Verhoeven’s first stint of erotic hits, like Turkish Delight (1973).
The director has an answer to the violence question too. Why does he use it? ‘Because I detest it. I’m interested in depicting the behaviour of human beings. If you look over the twentieth century, you realise that we are the most violent species on the planet. We’ve killed over 50 million people. Think of Uganda, Vietnam, or the two World Wars. Now, the Americans are killing people in Iraq without a second thought.’ Verhoeven waves his arms around, visibly moved, and ends his statement with an ironic conclusion: ‘What is happening is the same as in Starship Troopers (1997); soldiers shouting ‘Kill’m all, kill’m all’ whenever they were faced with a problem.’ Although some may have been shocked at some of the more violent scenes in Robocop, Verhoeven knows the world is a violent place and has no intention of hiding it.
My time is up, and I ask Verhoeven about the future. He peers at me suspiciously and assures me that he will carry on making dramas in Holland. He seems determined to put the genre that led to his triumphant success, science fiction, on the back shelf. ‘I really like works such as Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, but I would never do anything like that.’ That’s a shame. Many of us will miss him in the fantasy world, but for the moment, Verhoeven is serving the mass culture.