Paul Verhoeven is the most famous and most successful film maker in The Netherlands. in the 1980s he left his native country, and went to hollywood to direct box-office hits such as robocop and Basic instinct. After Verhoeven had gone, the Dutch film world changed course.
In 1980, Paul Verhoeven’s film Spetters caused a row. The film followed several young people trying to escape from a narrow-minded provincial environment through the world of motor cycling. The commotion around Spetters was caused by several violent scenes in the film involving homosexuals. Another point of criticism was the many vulgar sex scenes and the gratuitous nudity. Left-wing activists even started an action group, protesting against the homophobia, sexism and cynicism in Verhoeven’s film. Dutch film critics all campaigned against Spetters. Before the film was even made it had created a commotion. At that time, no film was made without government funding. The Netherlands Film Fund which was responsible for allocating the funds, had rejected the first scenario of Spetters. “Too vulgar and too commercial”, was their judgment. A second version of the scenario, involving less sex and less violence, did however, receive a substantial financial contribution. Verhoeven filmed the first, rejected script regardless, much to the anger of the financier. The director never once considered apologizing for his deceit. He was of the opinion that all means were justified to fight The Netherlands Film Fund, and that he was entitled to the money because of his great reputation. Turks Fruit (Turkish Delight), attracted 3.5 million visitors in 1973 out of a population of 14 million people, and brought him an Oscar nomination. Turks Fruit still counts as the best-visited Dutch film ever. Three of Verhoeven’s other films were in the top ten of the most frequently visited Dutch films, amongst which of course his international breakthrough Soldaat van Oranje (Soldier of Orange), the adventurous war film that won a Golden Globe. The thin veneer of civilization His first step towards Hollywood was with the Spanish–American co-production Flesh + Blood (1984), which was received with confusion in the United States. In this gory adventure film about a group of medieval mercenaries who go around plundering and raping, in order to take revenge on a chatelaine who owes them money, Verhoeven’s cynicism reaches its full growth. As in his Dutch films, the characters in Flesh + Blood are mainly driven by opportunism. In most cases, sex is, at best, a means of exchange, violence is inherent in human beings, religion is organized deceit, and civilization is no more than a thin veneer. Verhoeven’s nihilistic view of the world did seem to find resonance in his Hollywood debut, the morbid and extremely violent action film, Robocop (1986). The story about a privatized police service that fights crime with an unrelenting mechanical preserver of law and order is set in a gloomy future. But the film can also been seen as a satire on the neo-conservative America of Ronald Reagan. The relatively cheaply made Robocop became a worldwide box-office success. After that, the maker proved that he could also be successful in Hollywood with the futuristic Arnold Schwazenegger vehicle Total Recall (1990) and the unprecedented successful erotic thriller Basic Instinct (1992). This film, in which the bi-sexual character played by Sharon Stone, spreads death and destruction as an icy femme fatale, evoked intense reactions reminiscent of the commotion around Spetters. Especially the tightly-organized gay movement protested vehemently against the way Verhoeven portrayed homosexuals as weirdo mass murderers, and did everything possible to hinder the film shoots in gay capital San Fransisco. Many Dutch film professionals followed in Paul Verhoeven’s footsteps and went to Hollywood. Actors Jeroen Krabbé and Rutger Hauer built an international reputation, while cameraman Jan de Bont (De Vierde Man/The Fourth Man, Flesh + Blood) booked success as greatly sought-after director of photography and, later, also as the director of very successful action films like Speed (1994) and Twister (1996).Young artistic film makers The film makers that stayed behind in The Netherlands had to change course. With the advent of video stores, and lack of maintenance, the ailing cinemas could only get full houses with vulgar comedies such as Schatjes (Darlings!, 1984) and Mama is boos (Hitting the Fan, 1986), in which Ruud van Hemert, with very little effort, aimed his satirical arrows at the Dutch bourgeois mentality. This was also the heyday of Dick Maas, who scored triumphs with simple, steam-roller action films such as Amsterdamned (1988), and the extremely banal – but unbelievably popular – film trilogy about the antisocial Familie Flodder (1986-1995). In the same period, a new generation of artistic film makers arose, who attracted a lot of attention at the large international film festivals. Orlow Seunke, Alex van Warmerdam and also the somewhat older Jos Stelling put a new Dutch film product on the map with De Smaak van Water (The Hess Case, 1982), Abel (1986), De Wisselwachter (The Pointsman, 1986) and De Noorderlingen (The Northerners, 1992). Without exception, they were all stylized productions, with very little dialogue but full of a dry, often absurdist sense of humour and surrealistic scenes. Theo van Gogh The vacuum Verhoeven left behind as an agent provocateur within the profession was filled by the most distinct outsider of the Dutch film world, Theo van Gogh, who was murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist in 2004. He scored one of his biggest successes in a year in which the Dutch film industry hit rock-bottom. With a mere 30,000 visitors, Van Gogh’s naughty telephone-sex drama 06 turned out to be the most frequently visited Dutch film in 1994. The commercial malaise, however, also made room for young film-makers with little money and a lot of energy, to make different kinds of films. The generation-change started with Robert Jan Westdijks’ refreshing debut film Zusje (Little Sister, 1994), an independently financed portrait of young people living in Amsterdam. Completely unexpectedly, this turned into a Dutch art-house hit, and was a success at international film festivals. Westdijk explicitly turned his back on the established order: “At that point, Dutch film, was so stiff and wooden and I wanted to react against that. Nobody gave a damn about directing, for instance”. Following Westdijk, young film makers such as Martin Koolhoven and Lodewijk Crijns took the chance, with open-minded actresses like Kim van Kooten, Carice van Houten and Nadja Hüpscher, to tell film stories that were close to their own experiences. Eddy Terstall is also an authentic film maker. His Simon tells the story of a man who is suffering from cancer that cannot be cured, and who therefore, chooses euthanasia. The film is quite successful abroad, albeit mainly at film festivals. Noteworthy is the fact that the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs sometimes uses the film abroad to show people the different facets of euthanasia. Family films It was not just the independent artistic cinema that flourished in the late nineties. Spurred on by a tax regulation that made investing in film attractive, more and more successful Dutch popular films were launched. Family films in particular were remarkably popular. Old-fashioned children’s books such as Kruimeltje (Little Crumb) and Pietje Bell were the foundation for the nostalgic box-office successes of Maria Peters, while producer Burny Bos scored hits with Abeltje and Minoes: imaginative film versions of popular children’s books by Annie M.G. Schmidt. Of course there was no room in these films for sex and the vulgar language that was characteristic of Dutch film at the time. Typical of the change that was taking place was the production of Oesters van Nam Kee (Oysters at Nam Kee’s, 2002), an erotic melodrama with a leading role for sex bomb Katja Schuurman. After a test screening, young viewers complained about the explicit sex scenes, after which the producers reduced the amount of nudity considerably. In the popular teen films Costa! (2001) and Volle Maan (Full Moon, 2002), by the successful producer and director Johan Nijenhuis, the well-known soap actors even keep their clothes on as much as possible. New Dutch film environment The Dutch film environment had therefore changed drastically when Paul Verhoeven returned in 2005 to make his first Dutch film in twenty years. His American career had been damaged after the fiasco of Showgirls (1995) and the disappointing Hollow Man (2000). Throughout the years, Dutch opinion about Verhoeven’s films has changed. Now he is seen as an important film author with his own recognizable style and personal themes. The new appreciation became clear when he was awarded a number of oeuvre awards. To top it all, he was awarded a knighthood in 2007. In this favourable atmosphere he completed Zwartboek (Black Book), the most expensive Dutch production ever. The war drama is about a young Jewish woman who is told by the resistance group to sleep with a high ranking Nazi officer. As agent provocateur in heart and soul, Verhoeven hoped to stir up feelings by portraying an honest Nazi and a whore with a heart of gold, while some members of the resistance were anti-semitic or false traitors. Verhoeven’s view on good and evil during the German occupation in the Second World War would have led to intense discussions a number of years ago because, wrongfully so, the idea prevailed that all Dutch people had been in the resistance during the war. In 2006, only few were surprised by Verhoeven’s cynical view on the German occupation. Verhoeven’s typical characteristics – nudity, sex and violence – caused even less commotion. In the country that had pilloried him twenty-five years ago for Spetters, the former ‘enfant terrible’ Verhoeven has become a respected artist, who reflected a point of view shared by many. Zwartboek was the most successful Dutch film of 2006, with 1 million visitors. Even that turned out to be nothing special: in the new Dutch film world: a year later the optimistic romantic comedy Alles is Liefde (Love is all) had an equal number of visitors.
Fritz de Jong is a film critic for the Amsterdam based newspaper Het Parool.