Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Soldier of Orange
Paul Verhoeven's Soldier of Orange was the film that started him on the path to Hollywood, the film that made no less than Steven Spielberg take notice of the Dutch talent. It's not hard to see why: it's an epic, masterfully made film, a brisk, constantly moving wartime adventure about friendship, betrayal and the ways in which people can stumble upon their principles. The film traces the lives of a group of rowdy friends between 1938 and 1945, from their time at a Dutch university to their entanglement in World War II, as their home country is dragged into the conflict by Hitler's invasion. These youths are initially far from interested in the war or Germany or anything else. They expect their country to remain neutral, as usual, and if anything many of them are sympathetic to Germany, nursing some of the same anti-Semitic sentiments as Hitler and his followers. So they play tennis, and go to parties, and compete over women, oblivious to the impending chaos about to engulf Europe. When Britain declares war against Germany, a few off them are troubled, but most don't care: they simply switch off the radio and return to their tennis match and their gaiety. This only changes when Germany actually invades Holland, bombing civilian targets and sending in soldiers.
What Verhoeven's interested in here is defusing the usual war movie clichés: the over-the-top patriotism, the stoic heroes, the girl loyally waiting back home. He signals his subversive intent, subtly, in the opening scenes. After a mock-newsreel introduction of the Dutch Queen returning to her own soil after the war, greeted by an extravagant welcome, the first scene of the film proper is a noisy, chaotic sequence in which a group of shaved-head young men are berated, beaten and mocked by neatly dressed men who order them around like drill sergeants. The film's subject, and its opening (with a credit sequence accompanied by the Dutch flag), prime the viewer to interpret this scene through the filter of World War II history: the shaved heads, the shouted commands, the sniveling men who seem to be prisoners. Actually, it's a particularly brutal fraternity hazing, and its end result is to forge a lasting friendship between new recruit Erik (Rutger Hauer) and the fraternity president Guus (Jeroen Krabbé).
Verhoeven patiently explores the pre-war life of these young men, upper-class boys studying to be lawyers and take their place in society. Their lives are disrupted by Hitler's bombs, and the German invasion forces them to make difficult choices, to choose sides. Guus and Erik will join the underground resistance against the Nazis, along with friends like the Jewish boxing champion Jan (Huib Rooymans), the resourceful organizer Nico (Lex van Delden), and Robby (Eddy Habbema), who runs a transmitter sending messages to England. Erik's friend Alex (Derek de Lint), who has a German mother and thus sees the situation somewhat differently, joins the fascist army and goes to fight in Russia. Others, like Jack (Dolf de Vries), simply lay low and wait out the war at home, secretly completing his degree and preparing for post-war life even while the bombs are falling and his countrymen are dying and fighting back. Verhoeven doesn't want to present a simplistic portrait of patriots fighting for their country: these are real people, with complex relationships and complex reasons for what they do. The film is based on the real story of Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, the aide to Queen Wilhelmina whose book about his experiences provided a starting point for Verhoeven's film.
Indeed, Erik is a hero, but he arrives at it only slowly, even reluctantly. He dabbles in the resistance, but his efforts are wasted, and he sees his friends and allies dying and being captured, seemingly betrayed. The Germans strategically allow him to overhear that they have a spy in London, a man named Van der Zanden (Guus Hermus), then they release him. So when Erik gets the chance to escape to London, he does so, along with his friend Guus, intending to help out in any way he can and especially to expose the traitor who may have been compromising the Dutch resistance. As usual with Verhoeven, such things are more complex than they seem at first. The supposed spy turns out to be a staunch ally of the Queen, and the traitor within the midst of the resistance has his own reasons for doing what he does. Robby turns out to be the weak link in the organization, agreeing to help the Germans when they threaten to take his Jewish fiancée Esther (Belinda Meuldijk) to a concentration camp.
The emotions in this film are complicated and subtle, especially for a war epic with action taking place on a grand, international scale. Verhoeven never forgets about the human dramas, never leaves behind the characters and their smaller stories in favor of the big picture. What's striking, then, is that everything that happens here amounts to so little, does so little to affect the outcome of the war either way. These people and their struggles are peripheral to the main thrust of the war, as the British officers themselves acknowledge: they're using the Dutch fighters mainly as a distraction, throwing Erik and his compatriots at the Germans in order to waste the enemy's time, to draw their attention away from more important matters. Verhoeven's storytelling is taut and his action sequences are suspenseful and perfectly conceived, and yet by the end of the film it's obvious that virtually nothing has been accomplished by all these intrigues and missions: Erik presumably does much more in his mostly unseen bombing runs than he did throughout the entire rest of the film. Verhoeven is interested in history, but he's interested in it largely as it happens on the ground, as it affects individuals and their small, historically minor lives. He is bringing historical footnotes to life, investing their stories with all the grandness and nuance and detail usually reserved for major players in these struggles. Despite the opening, in which Verhoeven skillfully blends faux-period footage of Hauer in with genuine newsreel footage, this is not a Forrest Gump kind of historical movie, in which the characters wander through major historical events. Instead, this film is all about unraveling the tightly knit story of abstracted history into the individual threads that comprise it, each small strand insignificant in itself but each adding to the cumulative experience of a time and place.
This is rich stuff. Verhoeven, so often thought of as a director of big, bold gestures and over-the-top stylization, is actually just as capable of subtlety and restraint. He largely hints at the deep emotional bonds linking Erik to his friend Robby's fiancée Esther. The two have a halting, infrequent affair, succumbing to passion for one another at times of stress, but Verhoeven communicates their longings largely through glances, through silent moments in which a great deal seems to pass between them. There is a wonderful, perfectly staged scene late in the film, when Erik begins to suspect that Robby is a traitor when he sees all the nice things that Esther has at their house, at the peak of wartime in Holland. She tells him that Robby gets all these things for her, things that Erik couldn't even get in England, through his friends in the resistance. But when Erik asks her if she really believes that, she pauses and simply shakes her head, just once, from side to side, her face steeled but her eyes sad. There is so much in that gesture, the resignation and defiance and the knowledge that her man has betrayed his principles, betrayed even his friends in order to keep her safe, and that even though she is torn up by it she has gone along with it, has allowed him to do it and allowed him to think that she doesn't know. This all happens beneath the surface, again in the exchange of looks between Erik and this woman who he loves, but who various circumstances have kept from him.
There is a similarly great dynamic at work in London, where Guus and Erik engage in a friendly rivalry to bed down the pretty English military secretary Susan (Susan Penhaligon). Again, a lot happens between the lines, as Susan flirts with both men, inviting Erik under the covers to join them after she and Guus have had very public sex in a second floor window, with Erik down below hilariously trying to prevent the Queen from getting an eyeful. Verhoeven allows a great deal of ambiguity in the way Susan manages the rivalry of these men for her affection: when she conspires to have Guus and not Erik sent on a dangerous mission, is she trying to maneuver the man she wants closer to her, or trying to make the man she already has a hero? Also implicit in these scenes is the homosocial love of Guus and Erik for one another, a love that transcends their sparring over Susan, even when she lays naked in between them. Later, this kind of love between men will bridge even the opposing sides of the war. One of the film's most memorable sequences is the extended tango that takes place between Erik and the fascist soldier Alex, when Erik stumbles undercover into a party for the Nazis. The two men dance together, their faces just inches apart, their hard profiles seemingly on the verge of a kiss, and discuss the vagaries of history that have made them enemies rather than friends.
Soldier of Orange is a typically dense, potent epic from a director who consistently manages to find the difficult and powerful emotions within blockbuster material. This is a deeply personal and contemplative war epic, even as it moves at a brisk, thrilling pace. It satisfies every expectation of its genre, packing its lengthy running time with battles and betrayals and suspense sequences — like the indescribably tense climax on a Dutch beach guarded by the Germans — and yet it is also subtle and humanistic. It's a film about the tight interplay between choice and fate in determining the flow of a person's life during times of upheaval. And it's also a visceral, rousing action picture. Verhoeven is one of the few directors who is able to have it both ways, while compromising neither.