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Twenty years after leaving Netherlands for the United States, Verhoeven returned to his country to make Black Book, a story inspired by real events during the war, a film which tells how reality and morality were displayed in shades of grey, not black and white. Verhoeven talks about why and how he persevered for so long to make the film.

With Black Book, I was glad to have the opportunity to make a film from a script that Gerard Soeteman and I had worked on for twenty years. For a long time we couldn’t 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 didn’t 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.

"a thriller inspired by true events"

It’s 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. And plenty has been written about the Black Book of the title. Gerard first came across it in the book Moordenaarswerk by Hans van Straten that was published in the 60s. 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 Boer’s black book, which probably contained names of traitors and collaborators – all the way to the top – was never found.

Together with Soeteman, we read between 700 and 800 documents 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 wasn’t 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 wouldn’t have wanted to be at their mercy.

In a way, Black Book is a correction to the heroic Soldier of Orange (1977) which I made. 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 grey. 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 sympathisers were villains. Van der Heyden takes a fresh look at the Netherlands during the war. A post-modern look with plenty of alternative interpretations. People were neither heroes or villains. They could be heroic while behaving like villains, and vice versa. Jan Campert’s 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 the concentration camp Neuengamme, and possibly killed by fellow inmates). He had been placed on a pedestal, but now his legacy is in question.

"films are a wonderful cross between art and business"

Of course, films are a wonderful cross between art and business. The ultimate goal is to combine those opposites in some brilliant way. That’s what makes for a film of lasting value and commercial success. That’s 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.

Published July 5, 2007

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Paul Verhoeven with Carice van Houten & Sebastian Koch

Paul Verhoeven has directed over 20 films throughout his career. His 1973 Oscar Nominated success Turks Fruit (Turkish Delight), was honoured as the best Dutch film of the 20th Century and catapulted him to worldwide recognition. After finishing De Vierde Man (The Fourth Man, 1983) Verhoeven made his way to Hollywood and made several high profile films - like RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992) and Starship Troopers (1997).

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