Seminal German director takes on a new battle
German-language cinema may be having some kind of renaissance these days””and the 15 or so such films on display at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival suggest that it is””but it's not as if no one was trying before. Michael Verhoeven, for example, has been an inspiring figure on the scene since the late 1960s, when he began making establishment- tweaking features and TV shows.
It was 1982's The White Rose that really put him on the map, however. A gritty, impressionistic take on the short-lived student resistance to Hitler and his march to war, the film made Lena Stolze a star at home for her portrayal of Sophie Scholl, executed by the Nazis just days after she was arrested by the Gestapo.
At the end of that decade, Stolze anchored an even bigger Verhoeven film, The Nasty Girl. It tells the true story of a Bavarian student who got in trouble for investigating what her townspeople did in the Third Reich””a subject he returns to in his latest film.
“In some ways,” Verhoeven says, in English, on the line from his home near Munich, “I was like the nasty girl: always asking questions and looking at things I wasn't quite supposed to know about.
“What was most interesting was that you didn't have to dig very far to find what was buried. One of the things that I discovered in my investigations for The White Rose is that there was a more widespread resistance to Hitler than was written about after the war. The only thing I could conclude was that the people in charge were not part of it, so they wanted to hide that. But it's in the Gestapo records, which are all available now.”
The veteran filmmaker””born in Berlin about a year before the war began””knows that it requires a lot of effort to reach people who have grown comfortably numb avoiding the truths before their feet.
He certainly steps into it with his acerbically titled documentary The Unknown Soldier: What Did You Do in the War, Dad? The new film, which first shows here September 28, came about when Verhoeven noticed the furore a travelling exhibition caused throughout Germany.
In fact, the large folio of photographs, which showed ordinary soldiers doing the genocidal work normally associated with Himmler's SS, didn't raise that much of a stink until it hit Munich, where neo-Nazis staged violent protests that drew fresh attention to the images. It was then that the filmmaker knew he needed to document not only the exhibition but the reactions of ordinary Germans, war veterans, and social observers.
“We were taught, as children, that the best people in the country during the war were the soldiers. This was a fairy tale of the '50s. My father was not a soldier, so I had no direct experience to relate to. The Wehrmacht-ausstellung, the exhibit, brought forth many new ideas and thoughts. It was also thought that these famous Prussian families that were in the army had such a high ethic. But that was also not true.”
Indeed, the film delves into the notion that Abu Ghraibs are always lurking around the corner when armies are unleashed, no matter what the PR states.
“In a way,” says the director, who will be here for the film's October 11 and 12 screenings, “it gives me some comfort to actually say what I'm seeing. It's always difficult dealing with hidden things, but those are things that are real things.”
Grappling with the tangible is important to his socially active family. His wife of exactly 40 years, '60s glamour queen Senta Berger, is a best-selling author and the current president of the German Film Academy, and she stars in Under Suspicion, a politically charged police thriller on German TV. They have two sons, one a budding filmmaker and the other an activist who recently returned from a half-year of development work in Vietnam.
“Obviously, this generation has different interests and values,” Verhoeven concludes. “I like what I see, actually. I can honestly say better things about my country these days, and one is that the old military ideals are gone now, and I think gone for good.”
In recent years, Verhoeven has seen the authoritarian, support-the-troops mentality shift to other nations with expansionist notions. But he doesn't want to be trapped forever in the role of angry critic of bad state behaviour.
“I always wanted to quit doing this,” he says with a quiet laugh. “After I got an Oscar nomination for The Nasty Girl, I spent quite a while in America; I was sent lots of scripts and, I tell you, all of them dealt with Third Reich. But I'm not a specialist. I wanted to do comedies, and I did them, and lots of other types of stories. But somehow this damn subject keeps pulling me back in!”