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Starting out national
Paul Verhoeven's Turks fruit (Turkish Delight, 1973)
Verhoeven's glittering career in Hollywood making blockbusters disguises a lesser-known past making Dutch-language films, including directing what is acclaimed as the best Dutch film of all time. Matt Ross investigates.
Paul Verhoeven is now best known for the international hits he made in Hollywood: Robocop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), Starship Troopers (1997) and Hollow Man (2000). However, for over a decade before that he had a career as a Dutch-language film-maker. In contrast to his more famous features, Verhoeven's early works explore cultural attitudes of his home country and made films that could be considered typical of a "national cinema." His approach to exploring cultural identity can be seen by looking at his 1973 domestic hit Turks fruit (Turkish Delight, 1973), starring Rutger Hauer and Monique van de Ven.
Hauer plays Eric Vonk, a talented Dutch sculptor with a predatory attitude to beautiful women and a disposition towards violence. In between picking up girls and masturbating, he is haunted by the past. First, he recalls murders he has committed, and then he is taken back in time to his relationship with the red-haired Olga Stapels (van de Ven), propelled by the sight of a sculpture he made of her.
His reminisces over their tempestuous marriage that ultimately disintegrates form the first part of the film. Vonk, having mulled over his previous passion, gets another chance when Olga returns to the Netherlands from America, and the second half of the film changes gears as the two reunite, but the relationship ends tragically with Olga dying of a brain tumour.
Both the film and original novel by Jan Wolkers on which it was based (with some deviations) have received critical acclaim as well as considerable national success. The novel has sold over 100,000 copies in the Netherlands alone and has been reprinted over 28 times since its original publication.
On its release in 1973, Turks fruit was widely praised by critics and movie-goers alike. Hailed as the greatest Dutch film of all time, it was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award in 1973, and in 1999, the Netherlands Film Festival awarded it the Golden Calf Trophy, proclaiming it the best Dutch film of the century. The video distributors also claim that it "has been seen by more than half of all males over 18 in the Netherlands, and by almost an equal number of Dutch women," and a commemorative postage stamp was even issued in the film's honour.
Turks fruit can be placed in the context of the socio-political landscape leading up to the 1970s, both in the Netherlands itself and in the Low Countries generally, which have experienced a kind of symbiosis between the various nations which make up the area, as they share many political, economic and social characteristics.
During the Second World War, the Netherlands first maintained neutrality and then was occupied by the Germans. Following the liberation, the Dutch shared the economic prosperity experienced by the rest of Europe, experiencing a "twentieth-century Industrial Revolution." This era has been described as the most prosperous in Dutch history up to that point. This trend continued during the late 1940s and early 50s, when the Netherlands received the benefits of the lingering presence of American culture in Europe following the war (and the glamorisation of the "American lifestyle" is something I will discuss).
During this period, the Netherlands experienced the growth of a consumer society, a fascination with technology and cultural development. This is highlighted in the film by the examples of the bourgeoisie lifestyle so despised by the bohemian Vonk, such as the patrons of art galleries he encounters and the appliance store that Olga and her family own.
Many reviews of Turks fruit also cite the 1970s sexual revolution so graphically depicted in the film as another reflection of the cultural climate of the time. As parts of Europe experienced the ethos associated with "the swinging 60s," it seems that the Netherlands enjoyed a similar period in the late 60s and early 70s.
The sense of a loss of respect for authority and the disregard for the rules of society is also reminiscent of the punk movement, which would later spread east across Europe. The common associations of this movement, such as sexual liberation and rebellion against authority based on an age hierarchy, are clearly evident in Turks fruit.
At the funeral of Olga's father, Erik and his wife storm out, finding the commercialised proceedings too stifling for their taste and refusing on the way to take over the role of Olga's father in running the family business. Moreover, he and Olga dress in informal and revealing attire for the visit of an unnamed monarch to a building Erik has been commissioned to sculpt for.
Indeed, the only time where Erik follows an instruction given to him is when it suits his own interests, such as when Olga's father asks him to take care of her when he is gone. Because Erik loves her, he does so (to a certain degree, given that the marriage is a failure), but only because what is requested of him is concurrent with his own goals.
His insistence on showing up those he sees as prudes and hypocrites manifests itself several times throughout the film as he causes a scene in a restaurant when he feels he is being patronised by the curator of the museum he is working for. The couple's blatant and repeated disregard for etiquette and protocol reflects a growing trend associated with youth movements in Europe of the time.
A film culture on the edge
The Low Countries have never had what could be described as a prolific film industry. They have not only suffered from a lack of general interest from the national public audience, but have often been marginalised from an external point of view. The relative reputation of different national cinemas internationally is summarised by Ginette Vincendeau, writing in the Oxford Guide to Film Studies. She states that the major countries in European cinema—Britain, France, the Soviet Union and Germany—cast a vast shadow over the rest of the continent: "The rest of Europe tends to be considered in regions—Central Europe, Northern Europe—while 'minor' countries remain in isolation if not oblivion: Belgium, Holland, Greece, Portugal, Austria, Switzerland." Moreover, a large proportion of films from this region are collaborations between the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and others and so arguably go beyond being "national."
This lack of interest in the national product can be attributed to the lack of belief by funding agencies that film can be seen as a representation of culture. In contrast to more prosperous cinemas like that of France, there is very little support for attempts to represent the various facets of national culture through filmic means. This is exemplified in the success of Dutch film-makers who move away from the Netherlands to countries like America in order to work in a more conducive environment. Such examples of Benelux successes are Verhoeven himself, Turks fruit cinematographer Jan de Bont and the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc.
However, there exists a discourse as to the state of the Dutch film industry. According to writers such as Bart Hofstede, Dutch national cinema does not suffer from the above-cited anonymity: "It is too simple to paint a negative picture of Dutch Cinema, and the facts support this." According to Hofstede, Dutch cinema has remained active despite the disappearance of other European countries' national film industry. Although he doesn't elaborate further on the nature of these facts he mentions, he paints a picture of an industry fuelled by a new breed of young filmmakers who are "rediscovering Dutch Cinema."
This is one of the reasons it is so important to study a film by a director like Verhoeven, who has attained international commercial success by emigrating. His early domestic success has only recently been brought to international attention with, for example, the release in 2001 of Anchor Bay's DVD "Paul Verhoeven Collection." This has meant that Verhoeven's work has been little-discussed in the mainstream of English-language film literature. Anchor Bay's project has, though, led to a plethora of reviews on the internet. Many of these choose not to analyse the film from a stylistic/aesthetic point of view (although Jan de Bont's hand-held camerawork is notable) or even its cultural significance. Rather, they highlight social aspects that could be taken as having some wider, international significance.
Another theme is that of the glamorisation of America and American culture. Following the Second World War, the lingering American presence in Europe caused a growth in the popularity of the American lifestyle. Examples of this glamorisation are particularly evident in Turks fruit, but are ultimately critiqued by Verhoeven. After Eric and Olga separate, she comes around to his studio to collect her belongings. Whilst there, she brags of her new relationship with her American fiancée. She tells Erik that after the wedding, they are moving to "the States."
Later we see her when she has returned to Holland. She has become "Americanised": Her clothes and make-up suggest a glamorous air, but Verhoeven manages to make her look pale-skinned, garishly made-up and out of place. This criticism of this "stylishness" brought over from America links to later in the film, when we see Olga lying in the hospital, with the same pale skin, wearing a luxurious wig to cover the scars of her brain tumour. This attempt to hold on to the sophistication of her American style lasts up until near the end of the film, where she dies still wearing her wig.
Although the film is set exclusively in the Netherlands, mainly in Amsterdam, where Eric lives in his studio, we see very little of any specific landmarks or cultural stereotypes to let us know that this is the case. Many shots could be reminiscent of a number of European cities; the "Dutchness" comes from other metaphors, such as the use of language.
It may seem trivial to say that as the film's script is in Dutch (with incidental voices and labels in the background in Dutch, too) that this is indicative of a "national" view of film-making. However, due to the often varied nature of funding for cinema of the Low Countries, exactly what language the film uses can be a clue to the intentions of those making it. It is not uncommon for a film from the Low Countries to be in any number of languages, including French, Dutch, Flemish etc. The grouping together of these countries means that usually language cannot be used in such a definitive fashion to indicate the culture of a film. The exclusive use of Dutch in the film is, therefore, notable.
With such a strong indicator that the film is "Dutch," why would Verhoeven feel the need to leave the Netherlands to establish himself as an international director? Verhoeven at the time of Turks fruit was a young film-maker who was enjoying domestic success with his television series and short military service films. While embracing Dutch culture, however, he was fast becoming disillusioned with the state of the Dutch film industry. In an interview with Metro Times, Verhoeven remarked on his dislike of the Dutch allocation of funds:
I was never really able to express myself on an international level with my Dutch films. I went to the States because I hated the politics surrounding the Dutch film in general at that time, mainly because the Dutch Film Fund always worked against me. I don't need them anymore now.
This may well be the case, but Verhoeven's most recent project, "Zwartboeck" (currently in pre-production and scheduled for release in 2005) sees him return to his roots somewhat, shooting a story with a Dutch theme and using Dutch in the script. The director's past as a national film-maker is clearly not something he has completely left behind.
Whilst the Dutch reception of Turks fruit has been ecstatic, the international reception has been severely delayed, and is still gathering pace. As Verhoeven "In most countries, people know my name now. I never achieved that just with my Dutch work, that's just the way it goes. Even English-spoken Dutch films never manage to cross the border. European countries don't buy each other's films and they don't want to see each other's films."
But while Dutch film-making never gave Verhoeven the international voice he clearly craved, he clearly saw some allegiance to the idea of a national cinema in the face of governing and funding bodies that have looked to regionalism over nationalism. Verhoeven, not unlike Vonk in the film, challenged authority and prevailing values, and with the runaway success of the film proved that Dutch cinema could have a voice.
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