Sunday, June 24, 2007

Pantheon movie of the month - SOLDIER OF ORANGE/SOLDAAT VAN ORANJE

Some spoilers follow:

is Paul Verhoeven's masterpiece. The Dutch director has since become known for his sexually explicit dramas - not least BASIC INSTINCT and SHOWGIRLS. But in his more serious work, he has used his brutal honesty to expose the hidden truths behind accepted social history. We saw this most recently in his Dutch resistance drama, BLACK BOOK. But he originally visited this theme in the brilliantly-made war movie, SOLDIER OF ORANGE. The movie was originally released in the Netherlands in 1977 and was a great revisionist work. It refused to peddle the happy myth of noble Dutch resistance to the evil Nazis and took a more complex view of human motivations and actions during the occupation. The movie achieves the rare combination of seeming authentic but also contemporary. The story is based on the autobiographical novel by Dutch war hero Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema and is shot on location with lavish attention paid to uniforms, interiors and military hard-ware. But this is no staid costume drama - nor does it feel "over-dressed" in the way that BLACK BOOK sometimes did.

The movie opens with apparently vintage black and white news-reel footage of Queen Wilhemina returning to the Netherlands after the liberation from the Nazis. As she descends from the airplane she is shadowed by an adjutant upon whom the camera momentarily pauses. She moves on through cheering crowds to her palace. The narrator tells of the glorious liberation. It's the pre-revisionist view of the Dutch occupation, wherein a proud stalwart nation is temporarily subdued but comes back with its honour in tact. Technically, the inter-cutting of vintage and re-created footage is superb, with Verhoeven even bringing the old radio announcer out of retirement to dub his newly shot work.

Next, we move to the opening credits which are brutishly simple. The Dutch flag is shown in garish tri-colour; militaristic music plays; the credits are bold but nothing else moves.

And then, the movie switches to a dark room full of shaven-headed young men. They are let out into a Leiden University hazing ceremony. The freshmen are humuliated and already a few form a lose bond in their humiliation. One student, Erik Lanshof, played by Rutger Hauer, sustains head injuries and is visited the next day by the charismatic President of the society, Guus, played by Jeroen Krabbe. Already we see that this a privileged milieu - elitist, secretive, given to displays of ritual and tradition.

We move to a rather civilised meeting of six handsome, well-dressed university friends. They wear their privilege lightly: they play tennis, listen to jazz, speak of love affairs. The news announcement that England is at war with Germany is merely a distraction from a summer party. The presumption is that the Netherlands will stay neutral. Anyone who takes a more morbid view is presumed to be a Jew, and so dismissed. Time moves swiftly and the camera moves fluidly from one lavish summer party to another white tie ball. Sure, a few more men are in uniform but there main aim is to look dashing and have a little excitement. (And this being Verhoeven, this will involve a little gratuitious nudity).

When the first air raid occurs we are only twenty minutes into this fast-moving film. Although SOLDIER OF ORANGE was the most expensive Dutch film at the time, in restrospect it is amazing how good the special effects in the bombing sequence are despite the fact that the budget was low by international standards. And, yes, it's Verhoeven, so you get grizzly disemboweled limbs. Our heroes are still in white tie, and on scooters, on their way home from the party. Serially harassed by German troops, their vanity insulted, they begin to object to the invaders in a vague sort of way. Nonetheless, Verhoeven is careful to show us that normal Dutch people were pleasantly surprised at the good manners and generosity of their occupiers.

Things move fast. We're not twenty minutes into the film and Holland has capitulated. After the capitulation, life continues to be jolly. Beach parties, sex in haystacks, flirting with the German soldiers and the Dutch flag still flies, albeit alongside the Nazi flag. Of course, Jewish professrs are banned from the University and it becomes acceptable to taunt Jews on the streets. Within the group of six, motives are becoming blurred. Alex originally joined the Dutch army, but when he sees his German mother interred he joins the Germans. The Jewish member of the group becomes increasingly politicised. Robby, who has a Jewish girlfriend, becomes a radio operator for the resistance. And Guus and Erik try to help their Jewish friend escape to England.

Their early attempts at resistance are cartoon-stupid, with a discarded cigarette igniting a trail of benzine which blows up their beach-hut, Wyl-E-Coyote style. Robby, the radio operator, is already known by the Germans. Erik and Guus attempt to sail to England. In the aborted attempt, the Jewish member of the group is arrested and beaten up. Still, the rest of the group seem like dilettantes - playing at war-time heroism.

An hour into the film and the adventure heroics are gone. The first of the six, the Jew, is shot dead in a strangely subdued scene. Brilliant sound design in a sand dune echoes the moral vacuity of the new regime. Our hero Erik is also under arrest but has been released to bait the rest of the student resistance. He crosses a Nazi parade and sees his friend Alex, who has joined the German army. Alex smiles at him warmly, not seeing the clear division. Pointedly, Verhoeven shows ordinary Dutch women following the parade raising Nazi salutes. Still, as the first half of the movie ends, Guus and Erik have successfully made it onto a boat to England.

The second half of the movie is more of a straight-forward war movie with clearly delineated heroes in a plot against the Nazis. Erik and Guus are trained by the RAF to go back into the Netherlands. The atmosphere is one of a war-time thriller and it's all well-shot and tense. However, Verhoeven still throws in the odd cynical line. Edward Fox's RAF officer is happy to sacrifice a few Dutchmen to throw the Nazis off the scent. The atmosphere is also darkened by the friends' suspicions that they have been betrayed by one of their own - although, as it turns out, that person also has a conflict of interests as to how to "do good".

As with BLACK BOOK, Verhoeven is brilliant at pointing out how acts of heroism are not carried out by austere noble men, but young idiots who like to have casual sex and dance. He also shows how even in times of war, people will find a way to have a good time. So, torture scenes exist alongside riotous parties. Moreover, by the end of the film, it turns out that our erstwhile hero, Erik, is the close advisor of the Queen, and heavily implicated in the equivocal PR.....

Overall, SOLDIER OF ORANGE is a brilliantly made movie that satisfies us on many levels. It's a fast-paced war thriller as a well as an intelligent examination of the Dutch war-time experience. As such it is a finely balanced example of what Verhoeven does best, unlike his later, more unbalanced Hollywood work.

SOLDIER OF ORANGE was originally released in 1977. It is available on DVD in the 152 minute cinema cut. However, there is apparently also a version that includes footage originally used in Verhoeven's TV serial version of the film.

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