Perfect Perversion: The Feature Films of Paul Verhoeven (Part One)

In which Jacob Knight spends a ton of time examining the Dutch auteur's brilliant but controversial body of work.

This article is in honor of Paul Verhoeven's Elle, which you should totally see and can buy ticket for here.

The most famous shot of Paul Verhoeven’s career revolves around a pussy.

Not just any pussy, mind you, but the finely manicured lady parts of one Sharon Stone, who uncrosses and then re-crosses her legs whilst being interrogated by a room full of sweaty, leering male authority figures in Basic Instinct (’92). Essentially, these fleeting frames of shadow-cloaked genitals, plus the reaction they elicit from both the woman’s inquisitors (not to mention the audience), sum up a solid subsection of Verhoeven’s interests. He loves women, especially powerful ones, and the way they wield their respective sexualities as weapons. It’s just one of the many contradictions that mark his body of work as being utterly beguiling. In a sense, he’s the ultimate “have my cake and eat it, too” cinematic artist. There’s no doubt Verhoeven strives to titillate with this brief glimpse of beaver, yet also wants to feel intellectually superior while doing so. He’s barely in control of his own kinks and fetishes, exploiting them just as much as he’s exploring them onscreen.

The key to unlocking Verhoeven’s filmography is his uncertainty about the very things he’s attracted to. Sex and violence do not possess any moral façade within his movies; they’re merely tools utilized by characters in order to accomplish individual goals. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Verhoeven is a European-cum-Hollywood filmmaker who exhibits a mastery of craft, but does so in a way that almost feels fretful and flabbergasted. Male sexual anxiety becomes an extension of both directors’ works, and the abuse that angst generates has often led to accusations of abhorring women. However, this indictment often discounts the fact that Verhoeven never lets his male protagonists off the hook, and often damns them for their own imprudent misdeeds. When combined with the over the top sci-fi allegories he’s created that explore humankind’s predisposition toward fascism (‘87’s RoboCop; ‘97’s Starship Troopers), it becomes clear that he despises the majority of mankind, as none of us (at least in his filmic universes) deserve the existences we’ve been granted by God. We waste them trying to dominate both our own and other species, instead of living in harmony. This attitude generates a cold, distancing effect that’s hard to grasp for most mall crowds, as he’s clearly producing populist-minded pictures while simultaneously believing he’s better than those filling the seats.

Perhaps this misanthropy was born out of being a first hand witness to the ultimate evils humans are capable of. Born in Amsterdam on July 18, 1938, Verhoeven was a small child when the Nazis invaded Holland during the spring of ‘40. Though they’d only occupy his country until he was seven years old, the director’s touched upon the psychological impact these events had on his developing brain. Having discovered the bodies of shot down Allied pilots and seen propaganda reels projected in Dutch cinema houses, Verhoeven once commented that peace seemed strange in relation to the atrocities of war he’d been brought up with. Though it’s always a dodgy proposition to try and diagnose an artiste’s mental preoccupations based on half-sketched autobiographical narratives, the temptation to draw conclusions in conjunction with his work is too great. Young Verhoeven observed what hate could do when allowed to run rampant, and it painted his earliest memories of people with the worst possible palette. Concurrently, propaganda movies taught him that cinema could relay the lies of its creators; skewed perspectives that hid true intentions of mainstream art.

Verhoeven’s oeuvre can be divided into two distinct halves. First were the Neverlands-produced features after his brief stint shooting documentaries for the Royal Navy and a career in narrative TV (where a 12-episode adventure series established him as a popular director). Then there’s his American genre work, where he integrated unique motion picture propensities into the Hollywood studio system. Like Douglas Sirk, Verhoeven became a tongue-in-cheek student of the United States’ filmmaking fads, tackling projects with mass appeal while never abandoning the captivations he cultivated during his years in Holland. Wrestling with sexual identity, enthralled by angular femme fatales, and punctuated by blasts of extreme, gory violence, Verhoeven produced some of the most debauched, hilarious and upsetting movies in Hollywood’s history. In short, he never lost his taste for perversion; often utilizing it to smuggle subversive material into what could otherwise be regarded as innocuous popcorn cinema. Judgment became his currency – slyly scolding the populous as they strained to comprehend these twisted amusement park attractions.

I. Dutch Delights

Verhoeven’s freshman narrative feature –Diary of a Hooker (’71)(a/k/a What Do I See? or Business is Business) – irrefutably belongs to the rookie auteur; to such an extent that it’s difficult to comprehend how he hadn’t already been crafting big screen comedies for a decade plus. A chaotic portrait of two female prostitutes (Ronnie Bierman; Sylvia de Leur) and the men who both love and abuse them, the movie is gleeful in its erotic disreputability. Ribald, goofy and super groovy, it’s a guided tour through the red light district of Amsterdam that is unsurprisingly high spirited (given the director’s subsequent output) despite the rather dark subject matter. From the outset, Verhoeven’s establishing a key theme that would run throughout the entirety of his filmography – we do what we must in order to survive. These women may be making the most of a rather run down life, but it’s still a tale of persistence that’s relatively easy to swallow in comparison to what would come later in his career.

The first sex scene in Verhoeven’s sophomore film occurs less than a minute into the movie’s runtime. Turkish Delight (’73) is a work of seething male rage centered around Eric (Rutger Hauer), an Amsterdam libertine trying to cope with emotional devastation after his wife cheats on him. Where Diary of a Hooker presented us with two strong women whose lives we became positively invested in, Olga (Monique van de Ven) is Verhoeven’s first sensuous force of destruction, bearing the characteristics of the femme fatales he would later fall head over heels for in The 4th Man (’83), Basic Instinct, and Showgirls (‘95). At first seeming earthily elemental in her ex’s eyes, Olga re-emerges after betraying Eric as a prototype for the trashy blonde fetish object that would dominate much of Verhoeven’s later filmography. Hiding a deadly disease that’s eating away at her beautiful form, Olga nevertheless lures the former lover back into her web of deceit, only to die in front of him via a cruel twist of fate. Accusations of the auteur’s misogyny would be well founded thanks to the picture’s focus on its temptresses’ apocalyptic power, if it weren’t for the adoration he shows Olga. She’s a goddess of judgment, punishing her male counterpart for possessive indiscretions.

Turkish Delight was the first of several collaborations between Verhoeven and Hauer, as the two developed a Herzog/Kinski-esque partnership that defines the majority of Verhoeven’s Dutch directorial career. Verhoeven’s lens so clearly worships the blonde haired, blue-eyed thespian, and Hauer gives very corporeal performances that are ambiguous in terms of sexual orientation. Though they’d ultimately experience a massive falling out on the set of Flesh + Blood (’85) – arguments so intense that they’d be physically restrained from one another by the crew – their collaborations were lovely and raw, rendered all the more beautiful thanks to photography by future Die Hard DP Jan de Bont. Turkish Delight was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film of ’80, and would later be denoted the finest Dutch film of the century by the Netherlands Film Festival in ‘99. It’s the closest Verhoeven’s come to grasping a gold statute, unless France’s unexpected nom of Elle (’16) ends up netting that film a trophy.

While Verhoeven isn’t credited as a writer on many of his movies, there’s a unified voice to his narratives thanks to constant collaborations with screenwriter Gerard Soeteman. Soeteman wrote all of Verhoeven’s Dutch output, including the TV mini-series companion to Solider of Orange (’77), Voor Koningin en Vaderland (’79). Along with cinematographer Jost Vacano (who’d alternate with de Bont as the director’s go to DP for the rest of his career), the Verhoeven aesthetic was cemented by a family of creators who stuck together until the auteur high-tailed it to America (at which point Vacano would mostly remain, as a stable of Hollywood screenwriters rotated in and out). Katie Tippel (’75) was Verhoeven and Soeteman’s return to the world of prostitution after Turkish Delight. The 19th century period drama saw another woman being forced into a life of sex work thanks to her impoverished family. It was a retread of the survivalist themes Soeteman satirically mined in Diary of a Hooker, played straighter faced as a result of being an adaptation of Neel Doff’s novel. A minor work, for sure, but still revelatory (in terms of theme) to the rest of the writer and director’s partnerships.

Soldier of Orange (’77) represents the hazy remembrances of Verhoeven’s infancy during the Nazi occupation of Holland. Following the Dutch Resistance during WWII, it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film in ’80, and even attracted the attention of Kathleen Kennedy and Steven Spielberg (who were considering recommending Verhoeven to George Lucas as a candidate to helm Return of the Jedi). A rather straightforward war picture, it views the conflict through the eyes of several students from the director’s alma mater, University of Leiden, who rise up against the oppressive military presence. Solider of Orange was Verhoeven’s first attempt at action filmmaking, and would also showcase the satirical bent that RoboCop and Starship Troopers became (in)famous for. Opening with a doctored newsreel, we see a celebration of Holland’s liberation from their invaders; a piece of propaganda that omits the fact that there was still widespread Dutch collaboration with the German regime. Verhoeven is recollecting how his country was lied to by the form he loved when he was a child, as motion pictures were manipulated by the state in order to deceive his fellow countrymen.

Just as quickly as Soldier of Orange earned Verhoeven Hollywood’s attention, Spetters (’80) killed the interest dead. A reckless youth picture revolving around dirt bikers and the woman they become obsessed with (Renée Soutendijk), mechanical sex, transformation and destruction are again placed front and center. Verhoeven’s latest femme fatale jumps from man to man, using them for all they’re worth before leaving the boys damaged and broken by the side of the road. Explicit in both depictions of intimacy and its aftermath, lovers are either maimed in accidents (thus leading to suicide) or (in the most controversial scene of Verhoeven’s early career) gang raped until their orientation is switched. One glimpse at these moments of unbridled carnality sent studios screaming for the exits, and the writer/director was relegated to working in his own country’s industry. However, this seemingly permanent national prison allowed the director an artistic freedom he may have otherwise sacrificed on a franchise altar, leading to the greatest movie of his career thus far.

Like David Cronenberg, alien subcultures and societal sections captivate Verhoeven. Spetters begins this filmographic leitmotif, as he penetrates a dusty cult of death-defying sportsmen. The auteur would oft return to this method of social investigation, delving into heightened depictions of futuristic enforcement organizations (RoboCop), invented intergalactic colonies (Total Recall [‘90]), and the backstage lives of entertainers (Showgirls). Often literally naked in coed locker-rooms and in front of gaudily lit mirrors, we’re granted access to the most revealing moments in his characters’ lives, while also witnessing the trials and tribulations of ultramodern police officers, Martian rebels, and high class strippers. These universes are all meticulously designed and constructed, allowing the director’s prowling, apparently weightless camera to capture their inhabitants with the morbid curiosity of a Mondo documentarian. He’s an adventurer inside manufactured artifices; opening new doors while never letting us forget that his work is pure, unadulterated cinema.

Before Basic Instinct, there was The 4th Man (’83) – Verhoeven’s last pure (read: completely unfunded by American money) Dutch motion picture, whose psychosexual dream sequences allow it to play like the surrealist European forbearer to that slick, straightforward slay ride. When taken together, the two films create a grotesquely muscled torso to this perverse body (unified by de Bont’s lensing), as a sexually bored writer (regular Verhoeven player Jeroen Krabbé) finds himself drawn to a mysterious woman who resides by the beach and may be a multiple murderer (sound familiar?). Like Sharon Stone’s ice pick wielding pulp novelist, Catherine (Spetters’ Renée Soutendijk) is also a creator; a filmmaker who keeps reels of celluloid devoted to her three deceased husbands. Though our man engages in copious amounts of coitus with Christine, in actuality he’s using her to seduce a most studly laborer (Thom Hoffman). This bi-centric motivation further strengthens the parallels to Basic Instinct, only Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas were never going to be able to smuggle a sexually fluid leading man into a ‘90s Hollywood blockbuster. So that team took the gay lovers plot and spun it on its head, giving the American erotic thriller a lesbian duo that may be at least partially comprised of a black widow.

Unique to The 4th Man is its representation of Verhoeven’s views on religion, a topic so intriguing to the auteur that he’d eventually publish an entire book examining Christ (“Jesus of Nazareth”) in 2007, based on research he’d done for a failed feature. Regardless of this text, Verhoeven is far from a zealot, labeling Christianity a “major symptom of schizophrenia” that is “grounded in one of the most violent acts of murder, crucifixion”. The mixture of sacred and blasphemous imagery contained within The 4th Man’s nightmare sequences suggest Verhoeven believes that this duality doesn’t only need to coexist within society, but that the two are essentially inseparable. For Verhoeven, a crucial portion of the Bible is based on an instance of horrendous torture, so while humans may reject certain impulses, they are nevertheless approving and glorifying other atrocities. This chaotic need to rationalize existence can also be found in the love triangle at the center of The 4th Man, as our main character is attempting to identify his own orientation and come to terms with boredom and loneliness. Problematic? No doubt. But the image of a homosexual man being felt up on a cross is one of the most striking in the director’s filmography. Some have accused The 4th Man of being homophobic, but really it’s only gender that’s damned, as Christine (like Catherine Trammel) leaves the men who orbit her spiritually and physically annihilated.

Black Book (’06) marked Verhoeven’s return to his motherland after twenty-plus years working abroad, in order to tackle a familiar subject – the Resistance against German occupation during WWII. This time, the director melded his signature erotic pulp with somewhat traditional war filmmaking, congealing the two into an amalgamation of personal fixations. Our initial impression of Rachel (Carice van Houten), the Jewish lead of Black Book, sees her being scorned at the breakfast table. “If the Jews had listened to Jesus,” her sheltering protector grumbles, “they wouldn’t be in such a mess now.” It’s September ’44 – the end of the invasion ostensibly nowhere in sight. In response, Rachel dribbles a crucifix of jam into her oatmeal, smiles to herself, and then vigorously stirs. Her family has been lost to the horrors of combat, and the former singer falls in with a Resistance Cell not too unlike that from Solider of Orange. They bestow upon her a new identity and a mission: to infiltrate the local SS HQ via an intimate rendezvous with senior officer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch). She succeeds and, as the Nazi reign begins to crumble, Rachel realizes she may have less to fear from the disarmingly decent Müntze than she does from the ‘heroes’ of the underground freedom movement. Verhoeven is yet again operating in a state of never-ending ambivalence, refusing to give us a clear ‘hero’ to root for, as if those ever exist in human battle.

Like Showgirls and Katie Tippel, Black Book is focused on a woman who is simultaneously concentrated on climbing higher into a social stratosphere and surviving, all while utilizing her sexuality as a weapon. Rachel may be the most sympathetic of Verhoeven’s protagonists, as she is also struggling to maintain a sense of her own Jewish identity amongst the most hostile crowd imaginable (transforming again into a blonde bombshell in order to conceal her religion). Van Houten’s performance is revelatory, and a great example of how good the auteur is with actors. In many scenes, she’s literally glowing; like a silent movie actress utilizing her body as an exotic tool of communication, deftly telegraphing an entire spectrum of emotion. Maybe this is due to the fact that, nearly forty years into his career, Verhoeven finally discovered a human character he can fully connect with on a soulful level. Rachel’s a wandering ball of rage, unwilling to be controlled by a state that wants to see her people eradicated. Yet his seething contempt for the self-branded righteous cannot be suppressed, as Verhoeven goes as far as to cover this warrior in literal shit, just to get the point across.

Elle (’16) isn’t a Dutch movie. Instead, it’s Verhoeven’s first picture made in France, at the spry age of seventy-seven. After being turned down by nearly every actress who read David Birke’s script, he met with Isabelle Huppert, with whom he’d always wanted to work. She agreed, but the movie was still going to be an uphill battle with critics and audiences alike. Centered on a woman who develops a relationship with her repeated rapist, it’s Verhoeven’s wicked manifesto on forbidden desires, showcasing a central performance that literally changes the tone of the movie at will (the director freely admits to following Huppert’s creative lead). Elle’s already divided many with the mere implication that a woman could possibly enjoy the company and comfort of her attacker, even going as far as to seek him out in the wake of a rather catastrophic event when she has no one else to call. It’s an incredibly complicated, uncomfortable picture – shot with the same eye for atmospheric thrills as his American giallo, Basic Instinct. Concurrently, it sees Verhoeven returning to the business of spotlighting a strong, independent woman, who not only works inside of a misogynistic industry (video gaming), but also may actually be transforming her rapist’s need for power over her into a bond where she retains control and even becomes the victimizer. Don’t get it twisted; this is not a work of feminism, but rather one of fetishism, as the director’s again allowing his personal obsessions to get the best of him. Nevertheless, if this is to be Verhoeven’s last motion picture, then it’s truly a grand capper to and culmination of his perverse filmography – morally grey and wholly provocative, never once leaving the audience with easy answers to the questions it poses about our antihero’s long-gestating appetites.

Stay tuned for part two - "Hollywood Fascism and Fucking" - which will arrive tomorrow!