Filmmaker Interview: Paul Verhoeven

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Between receiving his first-ever tribute, at the Marrakech Film Festival, and holding a Masterclass, Paul Verhoeven, the director of such modern-day classics as Basic Instinct, Robocop and Show Girls, discusses both the comedy of being gifted Sharon Stone’s knickers, and the tragedy of rape in his latest film, Elle.

Verhoeven is the author of the book, Jesus of Nazareth, and will serve as president of the Film Festival Jury at the Berlinale in February.

“You can’t compete with the reality anymore.”

This Is your first tribute?
Prizes, yes, but a tribute, no. There were retrospectives and stuff like that, which is nice, in Paris at the Cinematheque and in New York at Lincoln Center. So they showed the films, they talk about your films, but this is a real tribute with a sculpture too.

Can you tell us about the book you have written about Jesus?
You can read a lot about that in the New Testament, as you know. The book is about a man, that I would say, but is not about God. It is not theology. It is history, as far as you can decipher history from what is written down at that time, which is not that much. The question is what the Gospels point out. They are written 30 or 40 years later. Based on fake information and perhaps some eye witnesses far in the distance. My view on Jesus is that he could not be anything else but a man. It is not possible what the Catholic Church taught us, that he is fully man and fully God. That was the dogma, which is not possible. Unless you say that every person is God himself, which is Old Testament thinking.

I really concentrated on Jesus, as a man, in the politics of his time, in an occupied country. It’s like Israel and Palestine. He was occupied by the Romans. I grew up in Holland, which was occupied by the Germans when I was young. So I know what occupation was, and I think that has been really lost…of course not lost, there are enough theologians that have pointed it out, but, in general, you don’t think about Jesus being, let’s say, in the resistance. In his way, he was in the resistance. Not in the way of say Che Guevara but certainly there is a Che Guevara aspect to him. If you read the Gospels precisely, especially in the Gospel of John, you see he is persecuted all the time. You see that he was really in the public domain and preaching and exorcising. He has to be seen partially as a resistant, but not a resistant that immediately grabs to weapons, to create a coup, but someone that is also thinking the Kingdom of God is coming. That’s the essence. And the Kingdom of God not being something fantastical, but it is something that would happen in Israel, short term.

In my opinion, it is that he really believes something very specific will happen in the history of Israel. It is absolutely not different to anything that was said by all the prophets in the Old Testament. All the prophets point out that God, at a certain moment in time, will intervene in the history of Israel, and make Israel whole again. That Israel will be ruled, in some way, by God. That is Old Testament. Jesus really followed that. It didn’t happen. There is no Kingdom of God. The church said, that’s us, but there was no church at that time. Jesus was really thinking about something happening in the next couple of months that would transform Israel. He was talking in parables and exorcising. By day, he was practicing exorcisms. In the evenings, he was offered meals in the villages for exorcism, or basically healing people. He was really doing exorcisms, nearly what you see in The Exorcist. Basically, he was curing people, and exorcising the demons, like those from blindness. He would spit in the eyes of blind people.

The Gospel of Mark was illuminated by the other Gospels. It shows what he was doing, getting in anger and screaming and all of that. He was exorcising, and was a fantastic parable creator. He was a poet and an exorcist. In the latter part of this ministry, in the Gospel of Luke, it says: I told you not to worry about anything. God will take care of you, but nowadays, today, not so long before he died, he says, I tell you sell your cloak and weapon yourself, perhaps not in a revolutionary way, but that basically we have to fight. Basically, this whole thing of Jesus is very human.

Do We Find Jesus in Your Films?
Robocop has a metaphor of Jesus. The reason I did it was because, for me, there were two metaphors. One is really Paradise Lost, which is when he comes to his house. He is already Robocop. He doesn’t know who he is. He goes to his house and gets flashes of something wonderful that was there. His wife and his child, and the love of them. That’s lost paradise. He cannot touch it but it was there. When I made it, this was important to me. It was the decision moment to me.

The other metaphor is a resurrection. That is why he gets killed in an even more brutal way because I felt that was a metaphor for crucifixion. Murphy gets killed and resurrects with another brain. It is very interesting if you read in the Gospels about Jesus being resurrected. He doesn’t say anything anymore. It is monosyllabic. But after the resurrection, he expresses himself with monosyllabic phrases of five or ten words. If you look at Robocop, that’s what he does. If you look at his eyes, you slowly start to see what he sees. Most things he says is, “put down your weapon” or whatever. At the end of the movie, because I was living in the United States, the metaphor is that he’s walking on water. In the front of the water, there are the walls of an abandoned steel factory. You can see these walls like the walls of Troy or Jerusalem. I put grit under the water so he could walk on it. To make him into an American Jesus, he turns to the bad guy and says, “I’m not going to arrest you anymore. I’m going to kill you”. That for me was the American Jesus.

Is Basic Instinct a parable?
That was not a parable, but there were two shots. One a bit further in that was not in the script. When I was young, in our circle there was a five or six-years-older-woman who came to parties without underwear, and she would do that. My friend, who was more audacious than I, went up to her and said, do you realize we can see your vagina? She said, of course, that’s why I’m doing this. That story I told to Sharon Stone when we had dinner. I said this happened to me. It’s true. I didn’t invent it! She said, yes let’s do that. Later she was horrified. We sent everyone away. The male actors were all gone. It was me, the AD and the script girl. We shot with no one there. There was video. She said great. Later she said, I did not know he was doing that, but you cannot do it without her knowing. Then, before shooting, she gave me her panties as a present, but she always forgets that. It is a funny story. I think it was more that the people around her, managers and agents and all that stuff, when they saw the movie and realized how good she was. She said that I want it out, but, in fact, it marked her career, didn’t it? Let’s be sure, she did a wonderful job, but this was the moment that made it special. Now it is 30 years ago.

Your films are satires of American culture?
That came naturally to me being so amazed by the United States. The satire has already started. You cannot even satirize it anymore. Of course, I’ve been thinking about what has happened now. How can you go further than what you have seen already, be better than, or more satirical, more artistic or whatever than just what happened the last year? You can’t compete with the reality anymore. I was thinking a moment like that was in history, like ‘33 or ‘34. You know it pretty well. Perhaps you have to do it in another way. Do it like ‘33 or ’34, without saying it is the United States. You cannot compete now with a movie. Reality is fascinating. Look at Oliver Stone and Snowden. The reality is almost impossible to improve or transcend. You are too much part of it, so you have to wait or use a metaphor for the past.

What about Elle?
I went back to Europe and spent a lot of time on this Jesus book. A couple of years, in fact. It stopped a bit, my film career. When I saw the book (Elle), I immediately said yes. It was unusual. Audacious. Perhaps controversial, and then it presented something I had not really done much of in my life, which was to show the interactions of so many people. It is like a musical composition, a Stravinsky with all the instruments. You don’t even know the characters in ‘Basic Instinct.’ Does she have a father or mother? It’s all just American plotting. The plotting is main. The characters are part of that, but you don’t know much about it. I felt that the book had a certain plot that she gets raped. Who did this? When she finds out, how will she react? In the book, there were all these personal relationships that were not so related to the plot. What happens to the mother has nothing to do with her being raped. Yes, they are crucial, but from the point of plotting, they are not connected. It is partially plotted in an American way. She’s raped. The man is masked. At the end of the second act, she finds out who he is. But the third act goes in the opposite direction of what American philosophy tells you. It should be a revenge movie, but it is not.

What’s the difference between filmmaking in the US and Europe?
I did a lot of publicity for this movie in Europe. There was no discussion about rape. In none of the interviews. No one asked about the morality of the stories. No one asked if it was dangerous. But in every interview in the United States, it was all about rape and how can you accept it when it is so horrible? Political correctness doesn’t mean you are politically correct. It is a certain part of hypocrisy to protest, but the United States is not different to the rest of the world. There are 1900 rapes a day in the U.S.. It is a rape a minute. Rape is there all the time. The United States has a problem talking about that violent sexuality. It happens anyway. It is not that we write about it and it stops happening. They basically are talking about themselves. They have the problem. If you go in such a politically incorrect direction as her accepting rape on her own terms and moving it to a sadomasochistic relationship, it is an anathema to American thinking. Sexuality is the most important thing in the whole world. Without it, there would be no species, so why would you not talk about it? Evolution is about babies. It doesn’t care about sex. It’s all about babies. Sexuality is the tool. It has created love and sex, because it wants babies. Not talking about it is winging it. Your parents went to bed together and boom, there is the baby.

You have been criticized for making Elle comic…
It is the wrong perception of the movie. There is no way you can connect the rape with fun. It is so violent and there is no escape. I thought it should be done with all the violence rape includes. Rape is a violent attack on another person.The scenes that are kind of funny about the half-black baby have nothing to do with the rape. The reproach is because I don’t stay in genre. I make all genres possible all the time. I have the feeling that I am trying to reproduce life as it is. Life is not genre. You are not living in a plot-driven world. There might be a rape happening in the next house while you are sitting at dinner. In this film, I do not accept genres. I threw them out of the window. It is sometimes horrible and sometimes funny. I don’t know what is wrong with that.

By Liza Foreman
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