After a career charged with controversy, scathing reviews, groundbreaking films and massive cult success, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven returns to his homeland and delivers one of his most acclaimed films yet with the WW2 drama Black Book. By Pauline Adamek, Filmink Magazine
With Black Book, trouble-magnet Dutch-born director Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, Showgirls, Robocop) has come full circle. Since 1987, he has been working almost exclusively in Hollywood and wholly in the English language. But this big, bold, epic story – a WW2 drama about a Dutch Jewish girl (Carice Van Houten) who joins the resistance to find out who betrayed her family and was ultimately responsible for their deaths – represents change on a whole number of fronts: it boasts Verhoeven's first writing credit since 1985's Flesh + Blood, and reunites him with Dutch scripter Gerard Soeteman, with whom he collaborated on his early films; it's a major move away from his usual themes and stylistic bent; it's a period film; it's been produced independently outside the Hollywood studio system; and is cast with actors largely unknown outside of Europe. Though not as wildly transgressive or cinematically rough as his earlier European works, Black Book sees Paul Verhoeven literally turning back the clock.
Verhoeven and co-screenwriter Gerard Soeteman wrote the fictional screenplay over a period of almost twenty years. The movie was almost cancelled in 2004, when foreign investment failed to materialise. Production was abruptly green-lit again in the autumn of 2005, when almost the entire budget was finally secured, and the film was rushed into principal photography. To date, Black Book is the most expensive movie in Dutch cinematic history. “Making an independent film like Black Book in Europe is very difficult,” Verhoeven says. “$21 million is a lot of money for a European movie. Getting it together was a nightmare, and keeping it together and finishing the movie was very difficult. I was never sure that I would shoot next week, because the money would not come in. Working with a crew that hasn't been paid for months was very difficult. They did it because they liked that I was doing this movie. It was a big European movie, so they stayed. If that wasn't the case, they would have left. That was not a pleasant feeling, to work with a crew that is not getting paid.”
Though Verhoeven experienced the kind of budgetary constraints that he'd never had with his Hollywood work, Black Book did, however, provide him with the freedom he'd been missing. “Nobody was telling me that I should or should not do this or that,” explains the director. “Nobody was telling me that there was too much sex or not enough sex…though they'd never say that in America, of course! In the film, the heroine is a Jewish girl who has a relationship with a Nazi officer. She's an opportunistic girl, and is not really punished for that. The amorality of that – or the absence of morals – is possible in European cinema. I had the pleasure to be that free while I was making Black Book.”
The mix of intrigue, action, history and sex that Black Book blends together has given Verhoeven (who still lives in the United States) his best reviews since his earlier work in Holland, and the director hopes that it will open a few doors for him. “In some way, I hope it will change the perception of my work, and that people will not think of me just as someone who does big science-fiction and action movies. I hope this film shows that I can work with actors, and that it's not all bang, bang, shoot, shoot. I can also work with a smaller budget; I can work with a budget of $21 million, instead of the $100 million budgets of Hollow Man and Starship Troopers, which gave me a bad name. I was typecast. I tried to get out of it with Basic Instinct, but then closed the door with Showgirls. After that, the only possibilities left for me were science fiction, because they didn't trust me with anything else. I hope that this will make it clear to the Hollywood community that I can do other things.”