|Soldier of Orange|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 24 April 2001|
This is one of the best films ever made about World War II, and the chances are good you've never heard of it. It was the most expensive movie ever made in Holland, a genuine epic on a Hollywood-like scale. It may be the best depiction by anyone, anywhere, about the uncomfortably close relationship between the Nazis and the people in the countries they occupied. This movie is still controversial in Holland for its unflinching honesty in showing that collaborators weren't always greedy opportunists, but usually just ordinary people whose motivations varied widely.
It is about World War II, but there are no scenes of actual battlefield combat; it's rigorous in its focus on the Dutch to the point where we never see a single American. Though working on a budget modest by Hollywood standards, Verhoeven, cinematographer Jan de Bont and art director Roland de Groot recreate the time frame -- 1938-1945 -- with convincing authority. Not just the buildings, but the clothing, hairstyles, even attitudes, seem utterly real, utterly of their time. In historical films, it's not just the broad strokes but the detail that flesh things out, make the past pop into reality, and "Soldier of Orange" is rich with these details.
The movie was based on an autobiographical novel by Erik Hazelhoff, who was a wealthy student at the University of Leiden, briefly active in the Resistance, then flew for the Royal Air Force before becoming the aide de camp to exiled Dutch Queen Wilhelmina. In fact, in the newsreel footage that opens the film -- some real, some faked -- you can, as Verhoeven's superb commentary track points out, see the real Erik Hazelhoff.
Rutger Hauer, young, blond and beautiful, plays Erik Lansof, the character based on Hazelhoff. As the movie opens, as a freshman he and his friends go through a painful hazing at the Corps Minerva fraternity. The fraternity president, Guus LeJeune (Jeroen Krabbé) singles out Erik, but soon thereafter, they become close friends. Among their other friends are Jacques Ten Brinck (Dolf de Vries), Jewish boxer/student John (Huib Rooymans), careful, practical Nico (Lex van Delden), Germany-favoring Alex (Derek de Lint), and Erik's neighbor, Robby (Eddy Habbema), who's forever on the verge of becoming engaged to Esther (Belinda Meuldijk), who's Jewish, and who herself is more than attracted to Erik.
When Germany invades Poland, most of these young men are relatively uncaring; Erik even suggests that "a spot of war" might be fun. But when Germany invades Holland, and the conflict ends in four days with the capitulation of the Dutch government and the flight of Queen Wilhelmina to England, things swiftly change. Nico becomes involved in the quickly-developing Resistance movement, while Robby sets up a clandestine radio operation in his back yard, trading information with contacts in England. Alex was in the Dutch Army intending to fight the Germans, but with the collapse of the Dutch government, he joins the GERMAN army.
Erik's insouciance begins to fade, and with Robby's help, he makes plans to escape to England, but at the last minute, decides to allow John to take his place. But this ends disastrously. Eventually, though, Guus and Erik do reach England, where they're immediately coopted into espionage efforts, and where both are attracted to British Susan (Susan Penhaligon).
Though some elements of the story feel familiar -- the group of friends, their activities before and during the war, how their characters are revealed -- the perspective is fresh and unusual. Holland was one of those countries, like Belgium, that the big countries ran over like adults tromping through children's sandboxes, peripheral to the "important" countries, like France, Germany, England and Italy. But it was indeed a world war, and every country in Europe was profoundly affected.
Verhoeven is unusually realistic in his refusal to falsify the record of his countrymen; some behave heroically, some behave like traitors -- and yet he does not actually judge any of them. Alex is drawn into the German army because of his already pro-German leanings, and because his mother is of German descent. When Erik re-enters Holland as a spy, he unexpectedly encounters Alex at a lavish, Nazi-sponsored ball. To cover their reactions, they go into a flashy tango, trading bitter quips, but Alex does not give him away.
According to the excellent production notes on the back of the DVD cover, Verhoeven was initially reluctant to cast Rutger Hauer, with whom he'd worked a couple of times, as the aristocratic Erik. But Hauer proves to be an absolutely ideal choice; he seems patrician, outgoing but self-involved, a hero who's more interested in adventure than in righting wrongs. Erik is suave but not dashing, intelligent but not scheming, trusting but not naive. This may be the best performance of Hauer's career, but he's always good. It's such a goddamned shame that he so rarely gets good roles in the United States.
Jeroen Krabbé is also excellent, even more aristocratic than Erik, even more interested in serving in the war for adventure's reasons. But once committed, he's in it all the way. The brave are not always those with a cause; sometimes they're brave because it is in their nature to be brave. On this side of the Atlantic, Krabbé has generally been cast in villainous or darker roles, but he's capable of a much wider range. And he works extremely well with Hauer.
This is the best film of Verhoeven's Dutch period, and possibly his best film ever, although in America, with titles like "RoboCop," "Basic Instinct" and "Starship Troopers," he was able to give vent to his love of excess. "Soldier of Orange" is much less flamboyant, much more realistic. It's deeply engrossing; you wish it ran four hours rather than the two and a half it lasts.
As with their recent collection of Werner Herzog titles, Anchor Bay has released most of Paul Verhoeven's Dutch-language films in beautifully-packaged editions. The sound, though mono, is crisp and clean, and the colors rich and dark-toned. The film seems to have been given a new set of subtitles, better than those on the 1979 US theatrical release.
The extras are relatively standard -- biographies, a trailer, etc. -- but the commentary track by Verhoeven is way above average, partly because, as a director, HE is way above average. (Surely we can forgive him "Showgirls" by now.) His lively, clipped voice, full of enthusiasm and graced with a colorful though easily understood accent, underlines and explains scene after scene in an ingratiating, entertaining manner. And he's often funny.
War epics like this are usually described as "sweeping," but "Soldier of Orange" is too intimate, too personal for that; it takes you to a time and place and involves you with interesting people in a manner that too few films of any kind do. It's an outstanding movie.
Footnote: the insert shows that Dutch ads for films can be as wildly inappropriate as those for American movies.