Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, May 13, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1977)

4. Soldier of Orange
Soldaat van Oranje

Paul Verhoeven was a little boy when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands and began occupying the country. He has talked about the effect this had on his young psyche. How he saw dead bodies in the streets, how V2 rockets were launched out of his backyard. So it's not surprising that Verhoeven would eventually make a film about Holland's role in World War II. Based on the memoirs of resistance fighter Erik Roelfzema, the film would become another critical and financial success for the director. In America, it was nominated for a Golden Globe. In the Netherlands, it would eventually be voted the second best Dutch film ever made, after Verhoeven's own “Turkish Delight.” If “Katie Tippel” was the director making a serious historical drama, “Soldier of Orange” is the director's war epic.

The film begins in 1939 and follows four friends. Erik, Jacques, Jan, and Alex meet Guus during a college fraternity hazing ritual. Soon, the five men become close friends, also inviting Robby and his beautiful girlfriend, Esther, into their social circle. That September, World War II begins.
After the occupation starts, Alex joins the SS. Jan, a Jew, begins collaborating with the Dutch resistance. Robby builds a radio transmitter in his shed, decoding secret messages for the British army. Erik and Guus flee to London, assisting the resistance from the British side. As the war goes on, it becomes clear the friends will never be the same.

“Soldier of Orange” is not your typical war epic. It doesn't follow soldiers on the battlefield, weaving through gun fire and exploding mines. There's almost zero machine guns or tanks rolling over buildings. Instead, “Soldier of Orange” follows ordinary people living under fascism. Several of the protagonist do what they can to undermine tyranny, being drawn more into the resistance as the story goes on. However, for the most part, the men are just trying to survive. Though epic in length, “Soldier of Orange” covers World War II from a more intimate angle. We're seeing the war from the perspective of a country whose involvement isn't often discussed.

By focusing in on one small corner of the conflict, “Soldier of Orange” captures the quiet tension of living under Nazi rule. Barry carefully guards his radio transmitter. Once he's uncovered, a Nazi agent begins blackmailing him into cooperating. Soon, Erik is being followed and observed by German officers. There's this sense that anyone could be captured, tortured, and killed at any point. The Nazi flag often looms in the background, when it isn't being proudly displayed during frequent marches. The film successfully captures the unease that everyone must feel when their country is occupied by an insidious force.

At the same time, “Soldier of Orange” is also about how mundane war can be. Long scenes focus on secret messages being translated, a tedious and drawn out process. Once Erik and Guus make it to London, the film focuses just as much on planning various intelligence missions as actually carrying them out. The film devotes a lot of time to the political handwringing that goes into planning international espionage. It's also notable that almost every single mission in the movie goes wrong, resulting in death and tragedy. The message seems to be that war is messy but it is just as often boring too.

Due to centering on the everyday aspects of World War II, “Soldier of Orange” is not very heavy on the blood and guts. Yet, when the violence comes, Verhoeven makes it count. An early scene has Erik and Guus driving through a town after Germany bombs the city. They see men writhing in agony on the ground, their legs blown off or reduced to bloody stumps. They later meet a military officer who is so shell-shocked, he sits in a destroyed officer, repeating the same phrase over and over again. Jan is captured not long after joining the resistance. He's repeatedly tortured for information, with one sequence seemingly involving sticking a hose up his ass. The violence in “Solider of Orange” is characterized by a blunt brutality, startling while remaining strictly within the realm of reality.

At least one of the film's posters displays Rutger Hauer's Eric storming a beach with a machine gun in hand, striking an action hero worthy pose. That's more than a little misleading. In fact, Hauer's Erik begins the film as something of a coward. He's introduced getting a bowl of soup cracked over his head and spends many of the early scenes following around his more successful friends. He gets drawn into the resistance primarily to protect his friends. More than once, he outright says he's done with it. After fleeing the Netherlands, he seriously considers never going back. Only after loosing friends does he begin to earnestly fight the Nazis. It's another good example of how unusual a war movie “Solider of Orange” is. Hauer's performance is sensitive and low key. (Even though I've seen Hauer in far more English-language films, it's a little surprising to hear his very clear English after seeing him speak his native Dutch so much.)

If there's one problem with the film's script, it's insistence on including two separate love triangles. In Holland, Erik quickly begins an affair with Esther, not long after meeting Barry. These scenes eventually pay off, when Eric returns to the Netherlands and meets a traumatized Esther. After moving to England, he begins to share a pretty, blond, English officer with Guus. These scenes are even more disposable, as there's never much competition between the two men. The romances don't add much to the story. It mostly seems to be an excuse for Verhoeven to include some of his trademark graphic sex and nudity. Though it does lead to an amusing scene where Esther distracts the German officer pursuing Eric with her naked breasts.

Hauer does lead an impressive cast. Jeroen Krabbe plays Guus. Considering the film introduces Krabbe bullying the main character, the actor goes a long way to make the audience like him. Krabbe plays Guus as someone deeply loyal to his friends yet retains a slightly inscrutable element. Hulb Rooymans as the fiery Jan does get one of the best scenes to himself, when he attacks two German soldiers who were harassing a Jewish man. Probably the best of the supporting performances is Belinda Meuldijk as Esther. It's easy to see why Eric falls for her, as Meuldijk projects a mysterious, attractive aura.

In a lot of ways, I found “Solider of Orange” to be a bit too slow and a bit too long. The movie, however, does have its share of brilliant moments. Jan is marched to his death among the Dutch beaches, forced to dig his own grave before being gunned down by a Nazi firing squad. This sequence is brilliantly drawn out, forcing audiences to face the inevitable along with the character. Later, another character is also sent to die. This time, we see the guillotine blade drop in shadow, an atmospheric choice. Maybe the most famous scene in the film has Eric, as an undercover agent, meeting with Alex, in full-blown S.S. regalia. The two proceed to have a face-to-face tango, the audience wandering if Alex is aware of where his friend's true alliance lies.

“Soldier of Orange” follows its characters from the beginning of the war all the way to its conclusion. This leads to an extended epilogue, showing everyone's eventual fate. Some of these scenes are rather interesting. Such as Alex being blown up, while sitting on the toilet, by a disgruntled child he bullied. Other moments, which show Barry and Guus' final fates, are necessary for plot reasons but don't interest the viewer as much. One also can't help but notice that these scenes extend the movie over two hours, given this war epic an epic run time too. Ultimately, the film is trying to make the viewer understand how much the war has changed these characters. Yet it also feels like it goes a little too far with that.

“Soldier of Orange” would mark Verhoeven's third collaboration with composer Rogier van Otterloo. Otterloo contributes his best score thus far. The music combines sweeping strings with pounding drums, hinting at the war setting. Souring horns add a heroic theme, often accompanies the characters as they go after their goals. At times, Otterloo's music works so well as a traditional “war movie” soundtrack, that it's slightly at odds with how the film actually treats its subject. Yet it's hard to argue with music this powerful or stirring. I'm curious if the long running and popular stage musical based on “Soldier of Orange” – yes, really – utilizes any of Otterloo's score.

Whether or not “Soldier of Orange” really is the second best Dutch film ever made isn't for me to judge. It's not as powerful a motion picture as “Turkish Delight,” the film it's often runner-up to in Dutch cinematic polls. In many ways, I found “Soldier of Orange” a little too slow. It's characters didn't resonate with me very much. Yet it's still a good film, featuring strong performances and several powerful moments. If nothing else, it provides a personal perspective on the Second World War from an angle we're not use to seeing here in America. [Grade: B]

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