Black Book: Interview with Director Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven has directed over 20 films throughout his career. Making his start in Holland with popular films including, Wat Zien Ik (Diary of a Hooker, 1971), Keetje TIppel (Katie Tippel, 1975), Soldier of Orange (1977) and Spetters (1980) Verhoeven drew millions to the box office.
But it was his 1973 Oscar Nominated success Turks Fruit (Turkish Delight), which was honored as the best Dutch film of the 20th Century that catapulted him to worldwide recognition. After finishing De Vierde Man (The Fourth Man, 1983), the acclaimed and controversial director made his way to Hollywood where he found success with films like RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992) and Starship Troopers (1997).

Twenty years after leaving for the United States, Verhoeven has returned to the Netherlands to make Black Book. This film invites us to take a closer look at an unquestioned moment of history and see the gray areas between the black and white accounts of post-war Holland.

Returning to the Netherlands

Most of all, I was glad to have the opportunity to make a film from a script that Gerard Soeteman and I have worked on for twenty years. For a long time, we couldnt get the story to work. The basic idea stayed the same: a group of Jews are betrayed and killed in the Biesbosch and the main character hunts down the traitor.

Originally, it had a male lead. And that gave us a problem: we didnt know how to get him to credibly infiltrate the German command. Three years ago Gerard solved the puzzle: the lead should be a woman. Then all the scenes we envisaged suddenly fell into place.

Reality Based

“Black Book” is a thriller inspired by true events. All the story lines in Black Book have their basis in true events. Most characters are based on real people.

Did the black book ever exist

Absolutely. Plenty has been written about it. Gerard first came across it in the book Moordenaarswerk by Hans van Straten that was published in the 1960s. Gerard immediately thought it was a good start for a script. The little black book was the diary of a Mr. De Boer, a lawyer in The Hague who was shot in the Goudenregenstraat just after the war. The killers were never found. During the war, De Boer negotiated between the German army command in The Hague and the resistance to try and prevent unnecessary bloodshed. The resistance would assassinate people and the Germans would exact revenge by shooting hostages in the street. When I was six years old, I was made to walk past those bodies. De Boers black book, which probably contained names of traitors and collaborators–all the way to the top–was never found.

Black Book Versus Soldier of Orange

“Black Book” is a correction to the heroic “Soldier of Orange.” “Black Book” is a more realistic depiction of history. That is the main reason why I wanted to make this film. I wanted to show in an absorbing way what reality was like then. Not black and white, but in shades of gray. The film follows on from the book Grijs Verleden by Chris van der Heyden from 2001, in which the writer reassesses the past. It used to be conventional wisdom that the Dutch and the resistance were heroes and the Germans and their Dutch sympathizers were villains.

Van der Heyden takes a fresh look at the Netherlands during the war. A postmodern look with plenty of alternative interpretations. People were neither heroes nor villains. They could be heroic while behaving like villains, and vice versa. Jan Camperts story is a good illustration of that (Campert, a resistance fighter and author of one of the most famous anti-German poems of the war, was recently claimed to have behaved dishonourably in concentration camp Neuengamme, and possibly killed by fellow inmates). He had been placed on a pedestal, but now his legacy is in question.

Black Book as Entertainment

Of course, films are a wonderful cross between art and business. The ultimate goal is to combine those opposites in some brilliant way. Thats what makes for a film of lasting value and commercial success. Thats what I always strive for: an entertaining film that appeals to a broad audience, from professor to shop assistant, which remains worthwhile for decades. Apart from David Lean few people have achieved that.

Films with Lasting Value

The films that have proved themselves these last twenty years are Turks Fruit (Turkish Delight) and Soldier of Orange. De Vierde Man (The Fourth Man) and Spetters I also like, but I dont think Wat ZIen Ik (Diary of a Hooker) or Keetje Tippel (Katie Tippel) will survive.

Motivation to make “Soldier of Orange” Heroic

At the time, as I said, we didnt have a script for Black Book. Eric Hazelhoff Roelfsemas book had been very popular, and we got support from the royal family and the army, which helped to get the funding sorted out. Gerard read the book when we were working on Turks Fruit (Turkish Delight). The plan was to make it a TV series. Meanwhile we made Turks Fruit (Turkish Delight) and Keetje Tippel (Katie Tippel). When we discussed new projects with Rob Houwer our first idea was to make a remake of De donkere kamer van Damocles (The Spitting Image).

That would have been closer to Black Book than to Soldier of Orange. But Rob didnt like the idea, because it was a remake. He proposed to try and realise Soldier of Orange as a feature film. When we researched that, we came across some remarkable events in The Hague in the last years of the war. About SD officer Munt and Frank of the Sonderkommando. Those stories didnt fit with Soldier of Orange, but theyve now been incorporated into Black Book.

How Many Documents You Read for the Film

Between 700 and 800 over a period of some forty years. In 1967, I was doing research for the TV documentary Portret van Anton Adriaan Mussert. Jacob Zwaan, then archivist at the RIOD (National War Documentation Centre), alerted me to the report Kamptoestanden by Dutch Nazi party member reverend Van der Vaart Smit, who was imprisoned after the war, which gives prisoners accounts of abuse and mistreatment in those camps. We have weaved some of those stories into Black Book. This is what makes the film so provocative, because nobody has yet shown how we treated our prisoners in 1945. But that wasnt our only source of inspiration for the film. Picture archives were another. For instance pictures of the camp guards. Members of the provisional army and resistance people. After all, after the war everybody claimed to have been in the resistance. There were lots of dubious people there. If you look at those pictures, you wouldnt have wanted to be at their mercy. They way they strut when they had arrested a Dutch Nazi, makes you fear the worst.

Are Rachel and Ronnie Inspired by Real People

In Rachel, a number of people have been merged. Both resistance fighters like Esme van Eeghen and Kitty ten Have, as well as an artist like Dora Paulsen. Gerard and I fused them into one character. Ronnies character is fictional, but in those days there were a lot of girls like that. Those, who went wherever the wind blew them. Politically shes very nave. Many people on both sides were at that time. The NSB, the Dutch Nazi party, had lots of members who were fanatical Nazis. And I dont mean people who joined in 1941 for opportunistic reasons, but people who had been members since 1933 and who had lost their jobs as a result, but were even more zealous as a consequence.

Working with Soeteman on the Script

Gerard sets out the structure and the general drift. He monitors story development and character development. He writes the first draft and the next drafts. I then add things and change things, scenes as well as characters. If my memory serves, I came up with Ronnie, as I did with Maja in Spetters. The scenes at the end in the prison camp are mostly mine. I have made a significant contribution to the script. For most films I made with Gerard, the script was mostly his so I didnt get a credit. But this time my contribution was such that Gerard and I both felt that we should share the writing credits.

Influence on the Movie

I think it comes out of our collaboration. When Gerard works alone or with others, the dynamics are different. Gerard and I have always clicked. We are from a similar background, even though our characters are very different. Gerard is only two years older than me. We were both children in the war, we went to grammar school, studied at Leiden University, and both did our national service. And then we met on the TV series Floris. With such similar backgrounds its easier to work together than when you are from different worlds. Our different characters in practice really gel. The collaboration with Gerard is the most creative of my life. In America I worked with Eric Neumeier on RoboCop and Starship Troopers, but working with Gerard is just the best because we have such a good balance as a team. Of course language is also an issue.

In Dutch,I am confident when I write dialogue, I know when it sounds right. When I write something in English, I first ask Stacy Lumbrezer, my co-producer to check it because usually the English is pretty poor, awkward or stiff. I dont feel secure writing in English. Perhaps thats why Ive made so many genre films in America. I have writing credits on none of my films there. I can respond to American culture, I can add to it, I can criticize and be ironic. And I have. But I cannot really think in that culture. So I need a writer to give me a solid blueprint. And then I am enough of an architect to play with that and add minor scenes. On Dutch productions I understand the characters better. Especially after the political developments of recent years I have a hard time understanding Americans. Not so much the people in Hollywood, but mostly those of the Midwest. Eventually I will return to Holland. I havent become such a fan of America that I want to spend the rest of my days there.

Reasons for Working in Holland Again

The best thing was to be able to work with the biggest acting talent, Carice van Houten, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn, Peter Blok and lets not forget the Germans, Sebastian Koch, Christian Berkel, Waldemar Kobus. These are actors of the highest quality. In America, I had almost no access to that category. I would have loved to make a film with Nicole Kidman or Tom Cruise, but its almost impossible. The only way is a special project thats tailored to the star. So in my American productions, I have never been able to retain a fixed group of actors. The way in which in Holland I worked several times with Rutger Hauer, Monique van der Ven, Rene Soutendijk, and now again with Dolf de Vries and Derek de Lint.

Casting the Leads

Carice and Halina are both wonderfully talented and dedicated professionals. They are very gifted and have great intuition, which you need to really get under the skin of someone who lived 50 years ago. Theyre also very attractive, charismatic and have strong personalities. Because Carice is more introverted Rachels part was better for her. Halinas extraverted-ness was better suited to Ronnie. Shes a get up and go girl. And Carice and Halina are a great combination. We auditioned over thirty actresses for these parts, selected by casting directors Hans Kemna and Job Gosschalk, but they were head and shoulders above the others. After fifteen minutes I knew. And to think I presented a Golden Calf to Carice for Minoes.

Thom Hoffman

I knew Thom from De Vierde Man (The Fourth Man). But I didnt specify I wanted to work with him. Like so many other actors he was proposed by Hans and Job. We chose him because there is a sense of danger about him that fits the part, but mostly because of the chemistry between him and Carice. There were other actors that I thought were right for the part, but none of them had the necessary sexual chemistry with Carice. Thom and Carice did a scene when theyre very close to each other on the train, and you felt the tension immediately.

Producer San Fu Maltha

Initially, Rob was to produce the film. But we had disagreements about contracts, not for the first time either, and Rob pulled out. Rob and I have had plenty of disagreements over the years, but it has never affected our friendship. We have dinner together now as the best of friends. I then sent the script to Joop, but he never responded. I came to San Fu through Jos van der Linden, an old friend that Gerard and I have always stayed in touch with. Jos was executive producer on for instance Spetters. San Fu felt right immediately. Because of his collaboration with Jos, because hes increasingly putting himself on the map as a producer, and because hes got this international air about him. Hes got lots of contacts abroad, and that was important for this film. After all, Black Book is a big international production. And I my intuition didnt lie, because San Fu has made some excellent financial deals. By finding co-producers in Germany, Britain and Belgium, but also negotiating distribution deals in many countries.

Disadvantages about Working in Holland
Well, I wouldnt call it a disadvantage, but in a Dutch context, “Black Book” is an enormously big and complex production. There is not much experience in Holland with that kind of scale of production, and that can be difficult.

Hiring Experienced Americans

No, I didn’t consider hiring Americans. I wanted Dutch people to gain experience so the film would also have social value. When Joris Ivens made a film in China, he would get a local crew, so they take something away from it too. Im only here for six months, but theyll learn a thing or two while Im here. I thought that was a nice gesture, and Ive always remembered it. Now I have the chance, I wanted to do something similar. In 1995, two special stamps were issued to celebrate the Year of the Film: one featured a scene from Turks Fruit (Turkish Delight) the other a portrait of Joris Ivens. And now Im following in his footsteps. Gerard and I have had a number of heated arguments about Ivens. Gerard hates him for his communist sympathies and his falsified images but Im a big fan. Ivens has made some wonderful films.

Old Friends in the Crew

A few, like Hans Kemna and Jos van der Linden, but most of the people I used to work with are retired or dead. On Black Book I was in the same situation as with RoboCop. A fresh start with a largely new team. We had to find a new camera man anyway. Jan de Bont, who shot Turks Fruit (Turkish Delight), De Vierde Man (The Fourth Man), Flesh & Blood (1985) and Basic Instinct, is now a director. Jost Vacano, who did Spetters, Soldier of Orange, RoboCop and Total Recall had retired. As Black Book is a co-production with Germany and Britain, it could be a German or a Brit. I spoke to Karl Walter Lindenlaub, who did Independence Day (1996) and The Haunting (1999), in Los Angeles. We clicked. He wanted to get away from the American film industry for a while and do something smaller. Britain has made a massive contribution to the film in Anne Dudley. Shes composed the score for The Crying Game (1992), The Full Monty (1997) and American History X (1998).