From “Basic Instinct” to “Total Recall,” the underrated “Starship Troopers” to the much-maligned “Showgirls,” Paul Verhoeven has never failed to shock. On Wednesday, the 68-year-old director’s World War II epic “Black Book” hits. The story? A Jewish girl who joins the Resistance and ends up falling in love with an SS officer.
WWD: This is your second film about the Nazi occupation in Holland, the first being your 1977 breakthrough “Soldier of Orange.” What made you want to revisit the topic?
Paul Verhoeven: I wanted to add something new to it, to talk about the darker, not-so-heroic side of the war. When we made “Soldier of Orange,” we found material about Dutch Resistance members secretly collaborating with the Germans, but it didn’t fit in with the narrative, which was based on an autobiography by Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, who is still alive and considered to be a genuine Dutch war hero. In some ways, “Black Book” is a companion piece.
WWD: Was it hard going back to the Netherlands after 25 years of making blockbusters?
P.V.: Artistically, it was a pleasure. There was no one telling me there was too much nudity or that my character wasn’t politically correct, that a Jewish girl falling in love with a Nazi should be avoided because it might displease the audience. From a financial point of view, of course, it was much more difficult. If you do a movie with an American studio, you know that when they say yes, they mean yes, and they have the money. In Europe, particularly if you’re working on an independent movie, yes means “probably.”
WWD: You were two years old when the Nazis invaded Holland and seven when they left. What do you remember from the time?
P.V.: I remember the hundreds of American and English planes flying over to bomb Germany, the lines they would leave in the sky, the dead people in the streets when the English bombed a quarter of The Hague, where we lived.
This story first appeared in the April 2, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: The Hague was also the headquarters for the Germans in Holland. Why did your parents move there during the war, and what was their interaction with the Nazis like?
P.V.: My father was the headmaster of a school, and he’d always wanted to get out of the country and go to a bigger city. He wasn’t in the Resistance, but he had to hide under the floor of our house several times, because the Germans started to pick young men at random off the streets. They moved them to work in factories because all their men were away fighting.
WWD: Does your own interest in the Resistance stem from the feeling that perhaps he should have done more?
P.V.: Well, that’s true. But so should 90 percent to 95 percent of the population, most of whom were neutral. It’s similar to what we see now in Baghdad, where the majority of Iraqis just want to go about their business.
WWD: Yes, I watched “Starship Troopers” this week (a sci-fi feature about a war with aliens that also satirizes American culture and propaganda). And I wondered what you’d say about Iraq.
P.V.: I’d say it was a big mistake. And without saying “Starship Troopers” was prophetic, it was at least a reflection of elements in American society that were visible at the time, a kind of neo-conservative thinking that became dominant in the Bush administration and led to this disastrous war.
WWD: Many people didn’t see the irony then, just as they did not respond to your movie “Showgirls.” Are you surprised that “Showgirls” has since become a cult favorite?
P.V.: Well, I was never convinced that I made a really bad movie. I was taking my cues from Vegas itself, and I felt that in a very hyperbolic way, I was portraying the absurdity of a certain American reality. I thought it was funny.
WWD: From “Black Book” to “Basic Instinct,” your protagonists always wind up in disastrous affairs. Is your own romantic life as dramatic?
P.V.: Not at all. I’ve been married 40 years.
WWD: How did you meet your wife?
P.V.: I was doing a short at my old high school and she was the vice president of the student club. And we fell in love. But that doesn’t mean I have not been meeting and falling in love with people throughout my life. Because that’s happened, too. It’s not that I would not look at other women. Somebody who’s that interested in sexuality and erotic situations is, of course, going to have an enormous interest in women.