Paul Verhoeven has always courted controversy. Most famous for Basic Instinct and RoboCop, he makes films bordering on smut, packed with comic book violence and two-faced protagonists. Even before he started his "American adventure" in 1985, he'd built his formidable agit-prop reputation in Holland with a series of domestic box-office smashes: Turkish Delight, Soldier of Orange and The Fourth Man.
While Dutch audiences rushed to see the explicit sex, critics lambasted his commercial choices and had a field day hounding him with accusations of being a misogynist.
He went to America to get away from the parochial politics of the Dutch film industry. The irony is that over the course of the two decades of his American odyssey his reputation and personal status would go full circle. Feted after his debut RoboCop, he followed this up with the smash hit Total Recall and then came the most famous scene in Nineties cinema - Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs. Despite the success, there was a sizeable minority of detractors, the groups who protested about the stereotype of lesbians in Basic Instinct, and much concern over what was perceived as the glorification of violence. It took one film, Showgirls, for the sky to start falling in. A misguided musical set in the world of erotic dancers, Showgirls' infamy was confirmed when it "won" a record number of Golden Raspberry awards, the anti-Oscars presented for the worst in cinema.
Verhoeven used the situation to show his light-hearted side. He became the first director to pick up the worst director award, and used the occasion to joke that now the American critics had joined the Dutch critics in calling his films "decadent, perverted and sleazy", he realised he had become accepted as an American. But now the studios only wanted Verhoeven if he was making sci-fi, a genre that he landed in only because it enabled him to get away with having a weak grasp of English when he first arrived in Hollywood. The underrated Starship Troopers and the dull Hollow Man followed. He became as frustrated with the American system as he had once been with the Dutch and decided that it was time to go back to his roots. The result is Second World War thriller Black Book.
Although the 68-year-old is determined not to close the door on Hollywood, saying: "For this movie I came back to Europe. You shouldn't extrapolate that to mean that I've gone back to Europe. I came back for Black Book, because I felt this movie would be done in an authentic way; I wanted to do it in the four languages that the characters actually spoke. Also, I was trying to get out of science-fiction syndrome and this movie gave me an opportunity to do that."
Black Book is an espionage thriller. Set in The Hague at the end of the Second World War, it centres on a young Jewish girl asked to masquerade as a Nazi to woo a German officer. What follows is a rollercoaster ride of twists and turns, bluff and counterbluff done at a rollicking pace with a tongue-in-cheek tone. It's a period and place that is especially significant for the director. One of his first memories is living near a German V2 rocket installation in The Hague and fearing that his parents had been killed when a British bomb missed its target and landed in the residential district. His parents were safe, but Verhoeven had learnt a lesson, and one which is the backbone to all his films - in war and life it's not always your enemies that you have to be most worried about.
"I started to work on Black Book, a long time ago," says Verhoeven. "I did a movie, Soldier of Orange, which took place during the second year of the war and I always wanted to do a film about the period 1944 and 1945 because when I was preparing for Soldier of Orange I discovered a lot of things about this period, highly intriguing and unethical and often combined in the same person."
Indeed in all of Verhoeven's films, from the ice-cold killer in Spetters to the beautiful soldiers in Starship Troopers, you're never quite sure if the protagonists are heroes or villains. The director says: "I think that is a bit closer to life, isn't it? I have a hard time believing in all these hero stories. People are complex; to see them as heroes and villains is an American idiosyncrasy to divide the world into good and evil."
When Verhoeven started out as a struggling film-maker he got his girlfriend (now wife and mother of his two daughters) pregnant and she had an abortion. It was a period that saw him turn tentatively towards religion, although he knew something was amiss when he was watching the 1933 version of King Kong and started to think that the ape was an avenging angel from the Old Testament. His fascination with religion continued and he pushed his view that RoboCop was a version of the story of Christ. It is one of his ambitions to make a film of the life of Christ.
Verhoeven's career is full of repetition. There is a bathroom scene in Flesh + Blood that is replicated in Showgirls. Spetters can be seen as a prelude to Showgirls, and The Fourth Man as an early incarnation of Basic Instinct. Black Book, with its femme fatale heroine and Second World War setting, is like his "best of" selection with ideas, scenes and characters coming from the whole of his oeuvre. He even returns to "that scene" from Basic Instinct when he shows his heroine dying her pubic hair blonde so that the Nazi officer will not guess that she is an impostor.
"But it is a different angle," argues Verhoeven. "And in fact it was a result not so much to copy but as a discussion as to what she would do having dyed her black hair blonde and realising she would have to sleep with the German officer that she would have to do something with her pubic hair. So it was not really, 'let's do a pubic hair situation again'."
He also does not see his career as being repetitive because he's never gone back to the same characters. "I've been able with difficulty to avoid doing sequels. There was a lot of pressure to do Basic Instinct 2. I discussed with the producers how I wanted to do it, but it would have been much more expensive and I would have asked for another Michael Douglas type of star, but they felt that Sharon was enough. I went to see the sequel because I wanted to see what they had done, but by the time I saw it I had already seen the reviews and the box office and so I knew there was a problem and I had been right in analysing the situation that they needed a strong male character to counterbalance Sharon." He's opinionated and straight-to-the point until the end. It's the Verhoeven way.
Black Book opens on 19 JanuaryReuse content