Dutch-born filmmaker Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, RoboCop, Showgirls) took a six year break from the big screen and now returns with Black Book, a World War II drama which was nominated for a BAFTA award for best foreign film and was the official foreign language entry from the Netherlands for the 79th Academy Awards. Black Book is the story of Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a gorgeous Jewish singer who joins the Dutch resistance to seek revenge against the Germans.
Why did you pick this subject matter? Were any of your friends or family members in the Holocaust?
“Nothing. None of the above. I picked it partially because it happened in The Hague and I was a child in The Hague. The Hague is the government city of Holland. And basically this happened in the city of The Hague. Not in Amsterdam, in The Hague. It was relatively big in Holland. It happened all close to my heart. All these events happened, say, within three miles of my house. That's how small the city is and the German government was in The Hague. And of course the connection with the time and the place, I was living and I saw the dead bodies. I saw the bombs and I saw the big rockets fly over my house and all that stuff. Dead people on the side executed and whatever, so there is certainly something personal about it. I was a child and I was not in the resistance.
On top of that, I think it was that we found all this material while I was doing another WWII movie, Soldier of Orange. I found this whole story of the little black book, the lawyer, the good German Muntze (played by Sebastian Koch), the bad German Franken, the resistance fighter Hans, all that I found in the archives of that war museum. [I found it] basically already in the late '70s, '80s so basically this project was in development since '81, '82, but we couldn't solve it until 2002. Then we found the clue how to do it and then basically it went on. It's fairly personal to me in that way but not because my family, no. My family was not Jewish, basically. We were not persecuted. My father basically had to hide under the floor when the Germans came, otherwise he would be sent to work labor camps in Germany. The whole quarter of the city next to my house was bombed and gone, but nobody died. My mother got sick but she survived. I wouldn't say that I was traumatized in any way by the war, no. I was interested later when I got older. When I [turned] 16,17, I started really to ask myself what happened here in Europe.”
Was it difficult for you to maintain the same aesthetic telling a story in foreign cinema as in your American films?
“There's less restraints there. Of course, there is nobody breathing over my shoulder. There are restraints financially and making an independent movie like Black Book in Europe is very difficult. $21 million is a lot of money basically for a European movie. To get that together is a nightmare and to keep it together and to finish the movie is difficult. For example, we shot the movie, I finished in December 2005, and the scenes in Israel we could only shoot in June 2006, just before the war with Lebanon started because there was no money anymore. We had to wait so that's all difficult.
From the creative point of view it's paradise, of course. Nobody's telling me that I should not do this or that, or too much sex or not enough sex. That's what they would never say here, of course. Not enough sex - I've never heard that from a studio. But too much violence or these immoral situations, unethical stuff, a Nazi officer with a German Jewish girl, I mean an opportunistic girl, that basically is [spoiler deleted]. The immorality of that or lack of morals or absence of morals, all this stuff is possible in Europe.
All the elements of the movie are kind of true. It's not a true story, but it's really based on things that happened at that time. That's what human beings are about, I think. I think moviemaking in the United States and often in other countries, too, have always had a tendency to improve life. But I think I'm more probably in reality, forgetting my science fiction work. I have always been more interested in not improving life but showing it, showing that this is true, this is what happens, this is what people do. That's how good they are; that's how bad they are. I felt that it was quite luckier, basically, to be that free for one and a half year. As I said, the financial situation was horrifying but we got it. It's a financial labyrinth and we just moved through all the things. I finished the movie just in time.”
Did you lose sight of yourself or your soul in Hollywood and felt the need to go back?
“That was clear, yes. Especially, I didn't feel that when I was doing Starship Troopers because I felt that I worked a lot on that script and had a great collaboration with Ed Neumeier who also wrote RoboCop. I felt I could do a lot of political things that were underneath, but with Hollow Man I felt that I'd crossed the line. Basically, it was a movie that anybody could have made. Basically, you cannot say that of RoboCop. I felt that I was on the way to becoming this formula director, basically. and then doing Hollow Man 2 or 3 or Basic Instinct 2 or whatever 2, 3. It was a conscious decision not to lose my soul, yeah. And I decided to stop, ‘I need $100 million. I need a salary of six, seven million or eight million,’ whatever they would give you there for these kinds of movies. I had to stop that because then I would be a slave of that.
I tried to set up American projects that were more realistic. One was about Victoria Woodhull. It disappeared. We lost the rights to the book. A new book came out about her so it's still there in my mind. But at that time, I couldn't provoke any interest in a woman that was a feminist and a prostitute and a clairvoyant and running for President. She's a fascinating woman. I think it's a great period, but it's too provocative. She was, of course, white trash but she was great and her family was crazy. It's amazing. This whole story is absolutely amazing. It's great, but couldn't get it off the ground. At the same time I was developing this, Black Book, and a script based on a Russian novel translated in English under the title Winter Queen but the title is Azazel.”