The latest film from Dutch master Paul Verhoeven is a two-sided coin: it draws heavily on the technical skills he honed to create his Hollywood blockbusters like Robocop and Basic Instinct, while telling an intimate story of loss and survival in World War II Holland. Black Book focuses on Rachel, a young Jewish woman (Carice van Houten) who loses everything in the carnage of the war and eventually finds that the only safe place for her is in a resistance movement that is actively thwarting Nazi plans to deport Jews from their homes in Holland to certain death. In typical Verhoeven style, the film deals squarely with the brutal, ugly side of human nature and shocks as much as it entertains. Group think, prejudice, tragic decision-making and the raw, persuasive power of sex -- all Verhoeven staples -- get some fresh interpretations here, as Rachel faces death around every corner and unwittingly steps closer and closer to a nasty secret.
Verhoeven, van Houten and co-star Sebastian Koch were on hand to take part in this week's Black Book roundtables in Manhattan. 69-year-old Verhoeven, amped-up as much as a human being can get, knocked over tape recorders and spoke a mile-a-minute almost without interruption as he talked up the film. Van Houten was more the soft-spoken ingenue, answering all questions quietly and politely. Here is a sampling of questions and answers from the event:
Cinematical: Two projects -- Azazel and the Robocop remake -- what are the status of those projects? "I don't know anything about the Robocop remake. Many times discussed, but no script, as far as I know, is there. You know, I'm not a big fan of sequels. I've been able to avoid them all, which was not easy with Basic Instinct. Total Recall became Minority Report -- the sequel to Total Recall was based on the same story. It was Total Recall 2, called The Minority Report. Then somehow, Carolco, the company, went bankrupt, as you know, or Chapter 11, and disappeared, and the project floated slowly through Jan de Bont, my former DP and now director/producer, then it came to the hands of Spielberg and he made an independent movie out of that.
I hope I can start shooting Azazel in July. Nobody other than Milla Jovovich is attached. It's a detective story based on a Russian novel that was published in the United States about three years ago, in English, under the title Winter Queen. The real title, the Russian title, is Azazel, which we use now because I think it's more intriguing. Azazel is in fact a Jewish demon and also a scapegoat. And basically, the scapegoat turns into a demon or the other way around, I forgot that. It's a detective story situated in St. Petersburg and in London, around 1876. So its about 130, 140 years ago. It's very modern in its narrative; it's kind of charming, but it's also very deadly. Its about suicides, its about murders, its about terrorism, and global conspiracy. In one book!"
Cinematical: This film reminded me a lot of John Sturges films from the 60s; the war movies like The Great Escape. Were they an influence on you? "No, well, subconsciously or unconsciously, I'm sure it was. I've been brought up, let's say, with American movies, my whole life. With a small exception of a period where I was highly influenced by the French New Wave -- but then I went back to American movies. I'm sure I've seen all these movies, but I didn't think about particular movies. I felt like it was kind of a different story, although there are clearly elements that are similar. But I was mostly and highly influenced by historical reality. A lot of films say 'inspired by true events,' but these are true events. It was the material we found in the archives of the Dutch War Museum and in publications, scholarly publications, over a period of about twenty, twenty-five years, that inspired us mostly, I think. The style of the movie is pretty modern, I think, although the narrative has a Hitchcockian twist, I would say, and you know I'm a big admirer of Hitchcock. I'm sure that might have been more of an influence than anything else, but not consciously either. There are no scenes that are done because Hitchcock did something similar -- in fact, he did not. But Basic Instinct was clearly highly influenced by Hitchcockian thinking."
Cinematical: Did you see Army of Shadows? There are also lots of similarities there. "I saw it when it came out. It's very delayed here in the United States. It was in the 60s or 70s or something like that. Sure, that's one of the movies that, basically, I thought was very impressive at the time I saw it. I've never seen it again anymore, but I'm sure elements of that movie basically influenced me also, without knowing it anymore. You don't know what influences you, really."
Cinematical: Have you seen Basic Instinct 2? "Yes, I saw that. I'm glad I didn't make it."
Non-Cinematical Question: War profiteering is a theme of this film, just like in Starship Troopers -- it's a driving factor. There's also a racial element in both -- the idea of fighting againts aliens, and so forth. "It's true, but the driving factor of Starship Troopers for me was always 'Let's go to war and die! Hoi!" Clearly, there is an enemy, but it's a book of Robert Heinlein, first of all, then the screenplay writer Edward Neumeier, who did Robocop. This is really going to another side, basically. It's historical research, and it's written by Gerard Soetemen, who did all my Dutch movies. I think it has another tone, but it has the same director, clearly, so certain elements will be similar. But I think the corollary with Soldier of Orange is stronger than with Starship Troopers, you know. Starship Troopers expressed itself often politically, in a kind of ironic, hyperbolic way. It's not like 'This is strange, isn't it, what we're doing here?' Starship Troopers has a primary narrative which is like, 'Great, we're going to war!' and 'Great, we're going to die!' The underlying tones are of course, let's say, a certain vision of American society."
Non-Cinematical Question: Talk about how your work has been received by the Dutch film critics. "Some of the Dutch critics didn't like at all, clearly, that I was much more inclined to use a driving narrative. The narrative is much more driving, compelling you to keep looking. There is much more of a question mark. 'Where is it going? What's going to happen?' It's something very normal to American cinema, but in European cinema, if you look for example at La Dolce Vita or 8 1/2, which are great movies, but there's no compelling narrative. So I think basically my years in the United States made me ask my scriptwriter to write a script in a certain way so that there would always be question marks, and that the young audience that would be sitting there for ten minutes would be seduced not to leave. There would be things already happening, so that they would ask the questions, 'Where is this going? What's going to happen?'"
Non-Cinematical Question: Are you looking forward to returning to Hollywood? "I live in Hollywood. I live in Los Angeles. And I'm not leaving! I was looking forward to doing this movie as a sabbatical, and perhaps I will do another European movie, but I would love to go back to American filmmaking, which I have enjoyed very much too. I think it was time to do something different, you know? I felt, after Hollow Man, which I felt was really a movie that many directors could have done -- I feel very differently about Starship Troopers and Robocop; I say 'I could have done that and not so many other people' -- I felt I should go back to something personal, and if I do an American movie, I would like to do something that is not derivative, and something that only I could do well. If I can find it."
Non-Cinematical Question: Talk about how you deal with actors on set; do you encourage improvisation and so forth. "Mostly, I stick to the script, to a large degree. Especially in a script that is, say, a detective story. You cannot allow too much improvisation there, because you would lose your information. They would forget the information or put it in a sideline, and nobody would notice it. So you have to stick to the script, I think, there. I am not also a big fan of long rehearsals, because I feel that if I reach too much in the rehearsal, I never get it back. I noticed that early in my career -- that I got great rehearsals, so wonderful I taped them sometimes -- and then when I was shooting it I never got it anymore, at least not to that degree. So I stopped early -- moving rehearsals too far. In this movie, we didn't rehearse too much. We read through the script, and then there was a lot of explaining, especially for people that had not lived the war. There was a lot of explaining to do, which I knew of course, saying 'What does that mean? What's the relationship? How is this built? Why is he an SS officer? What does this mean in the movie?' That kind of stuff. So it was more about that, and we did that with all the people, but then of course made the groups smaller and smaller, and ultimately ended up with three or four of the main actors."
Non-Cinematical Question: Talk about what it was like working with Carice. "Carice, I think, adds everything to the movie. I think without Carice, I don't know anybody in Holland, in fact, who could have done this. There is nobody. If Carice wouldn't have lived, I shouldn't have made the movie. Because she brings so much to the movie -- you're probably aware, to a certain degree, but I am much more aware -- that she is completely central and that basically, without this performance, the movie would never have worked. So I'm a top fan of her. I'm, artistically, completely in love with her, and I think basically that she is a great actress. She's a good singer too, in fact. She's audacious, and I think she's wonderful. I wish her a great career, and I hope I can work with her again in my life, because I think she's so talented. I've often said that in many, many cases -- because you asked about rehearsals -- I felt on the set that after me directing her, and saying she should do this or that or you should feel such and such, she would be doing things and ultimately I had to say 'Carice, sorry, forget everything I said -- do it your own way! And it will be fine.' And it was always true."
Carice van Houten
Cinematical: Talk about the ending of the film -- the big decision your character makes. How did you feel about it and what is the message? "It's one of my favorite things in the movie, actually. It says 'it's very, very difficult to forgive.' That's probably the biggest thing. It says, even if you are a hero throughout the whole film....she's not the hero you see in books who in the end says 'I will pull you up the skyscraper because I am a good person -- I'll forgive you.' It's not like that. It's not so easy to forgive. I think it's almost a cry for....it's a Christian thing. It's a cry for peace. Paul wants to show an ugly side of life and an honest part of life. I liked it very much that she's not the hero kind. It's difficult, obviously."
Cinematical: Did singing come naturally to you? "Well, I had some singing lessons, but I had singing in school. I went to a sort of drama school that was a little more oriented on singing and dancing and writing and music."
Cinematical: Are there any American directors you'd like to work with? "When I saw Magnolia, I thought 'if this man is going to call me, I'm on the plane as soon as possible.' I think this movie is....but I don't know where he went!"
Non-Cinematical Question: Verhoeven is known for being tough on his actresses - did he put you through the ringer? "He did, but he didn't do it the way I thought he was going to do it. I was really scared that he would....I just saw a documentary about him making films in the 70s, and he was screaming, and there were actresses who didn't eat for twenty-four hours and they were just like turning their heads for somebody to shove something in their mouths so they could just move on. So I was a little afraid of that, because I've done a lot of movies in my home country, but never so big. Of course it's a big, big responsibility, to sort of be the main part in this film, because if you don't like me, you have a problem for two and a half hours. So I felt that was a big thing. I know a lot of people want to hear something else, like crazy stories, but he was really, like, the sweetest director I could have had, because he knew what to do. Such a thing needs trust, and you need somebody who leads you through that, and he did it. Every morning when I came on the set, I thought 'maybe this is the day he's going to explode,' and 'maybe this is the day we're all sort of waiting for,' but it never happened."
Non-Cinematical Question: Do you like to rehearse a lot? "I personally don't like to rehearse so much. I really sort of trust my instinct. I like to talk and talk and talk and talk, until we have to do it. As well in the theater -- I'd like to just sit around the table until the premiere, and then do it. But of course, that's not always possible. I'm not a method actor, I just....I can't even explain it so much, what I exactly do. I couldn't really put the finger on the way that I do it, but Paul is not so interested in character building. He says a character is just three close-ups at a good moment. He really sees it from a whole different perspective. I think I'm a very intuitive actress. With his knowledge and technical skills, this combination worked well, if you know what I mean."
Non-Cinematical Question: Talk about the retribution scene, where the vat of shit comes pouring down on your character's head. How did that feel? "It was a combination of, like, potato powder, peanut butter and some sort of greasy cookie...it was so horrible that I was screaming for real shit at the end of the day. I was really screaming, like 'give me real -- I can relate to that -- I know that smell -- this is something horrible.' And of course, it was not a funny day, because not only is it an unpleasant feeling to have 200 liters of 'whatever' on you, but it was as well very heavy. I couldn't even stand up anymore. I didn't know what to expect, so it costs a lot of energy because you're so nervous, you don't know what's going to happen. I think we did two or three [takes.] I'm pretty tough on the set -- not so much in person -- but I couldn't even make jokes anymore. This thick stuff, just going with all this stuff in the shower, I felt horrible. It was humiliating to do, not only for me as an actress, but it was one of these days that I thought 'we are now reproducing history and doing things that still happen as well.'"
Non-Cinematical Question: What kind of Dutch history did you take with you into this part? "In Holland, we learn that we were the victims, let's say, and the Germans were all bad. I was brought up with that as well. My father is a little milder, but the fact that I have a German boyfriend now....twenty years ago, he would have had bigger problems with it, let's say. So, it's still a big thing. You can see it even in football -- they're fighting the war out still, there. It's still there. But as well, I knew always that Holland was a country that traded -- the Dutch peopled traded the most Jews of all the countries. So that's what I knew as well. I knew that we were not the heroes that was in the books. Of course, Anne Frank -- I was brought up with that -- I read it I don't know how to many times."
Non-Cinematical Question: You have a Marlene Dietrich quality -- do you sense that affinity? "I see myself as a nerd who looks completely different when hidden behind someting. When I see the movie, I see two things -- I see somebody completely else and I see myself in a very strange situation, let's say."
Non-Cinematical Question: Talk about working with your co-star, Sebastian, and the on-set romance that sparked. "I knew that he was going to play the German guy. Of course, with modern technology you can google somebody, so I googled his name and I saw this picture. It was an older picture, but I think I completely fell in love with him immediately, which is cliche, but true. He came to the first meeting and I thought 'it's going to be on my forehead,' so I have to just sort of play 'hard to get.' But the fact that I did that made him realize immediately. We were like two older people, just sitting and talking. It was not glamorous, we were very slow and we had a lot of fun. Of course it's always precarious because if it goes wrong and you have to shoot, I don't know what, you're in trouble, so we were very low key."
Non-Cinematical Question: Talk a little about the nudity in this film -- it might be more than some American audiences are used to -- are you ready for the reaction? "I'm completely ready for it. I'm not at all ashamed. I can understand people being something like 'oh, do we have to see this?,' especially the pubic hair scene. It's really Paul's handwriting there. I think it's funny and I think 'why not?' This is a part of this film. Of course I'm not an exhibitionist; it's not my favorite thing in the world to do. But I like to deal with this subject with humor; if I go on the set, I swallow first, then I undress, and I say 'boys, this is Tom and Harry, we're going to work together with them.' I'm very sensitive; I feel that if you are ashamed, then of course everybody wants to watch it. So I want the people around me to be comfortable, because with all these tensions I cannot work anymore. So it's for my own sake that I have to make jokes about it."