Michael Verhoeven Politically Motivated, Socially Committed

Michael Verhoeven at the set of “Let’s go!”.  Photo (detail): Barbara Bauriedl
Michael Verhoeven at the set of “Let’s go!”. Photo (detail): Barbara Bauriedl | © EIKON

While films like “The White Rose” and “The Nasty Girl” instantly became part of film history, Michael Verhoeven’s “O.K.” also provided audiences with a bit of controversy. His latest effort “Let’s go!” is an adaptation of Laura Waco’s novel “Von Zuhause wird nichts erzählt”.

“Doctors are a dime a dozen,” said actor and director Paul Verhoeven to his son Michael way back in the day. The comment obviously stuck with him. Since the end of 1972, Michael Verhoeven, who completed his doctorate in 1969, has been working exclusively as a director, producer and screenplay author. His career as a doctor is well and truly behind him, but Verhoeven recalls that, “It was painful, really. That period of living a double life was definitely the best time for me, aside from my private life. I was always a new person, sometimes in this world, sometimes in the other.”

Works of humanism

Indeed, Michael and his wife, actress Senta Berger, are both now professionally committed to that other world with their company Sentana Film Productions, which they founded in 1965 in Munich. In addition to numerous TV films, a series of award-winning feature films have also emerged under Verhoeven’s direction including the film on the Vietnam War O.K., that caused controversy between different members of the jury, then public protests arose and finally the of the competition at the Berlinale 1970 was terminated.

In addition, among Verhoeven's films are Gefundenes Fressen (1976), The White Rose (1982), an historical portrait of Hans and Sophie Scholl; The Nasty Girl (1990), which was nominated for an Oscar and My Mother's Courage (1995), a film based on George Tabori's novella of the same name that received critical acclaim on the film festival circuit. Overall they are politically motivated and socially committed films, but they are also dedicated to history and exposing historical events. In a literal sense, Verhoeven’s body of work can be referred to as humanistic in nature; one completely devoted to the concerns of people the world over.

The White Rose, Verhoeven’s most famous film both at home and abroad, was in limbo for ages until filming could actually begin in the early 1980s. Verhoeven recalls that, “Politics got very much involved here and didn't want the project to proceed at all. We were held back for a long time by simply not being able to get funding. We were rejected five times by the Federal Film Board. That in itself is pretty rare. The battle went on for years but I still have a hard time explaining why exactly it was such an undesirable film at the time, particularly because it still runs in theaters. It even premiered in Tokyo in 2006.” In the United States a group of people created the “The White Rose Society” in response to the film and other foundations followed suit.

Reevaluating history

It comes as no surprise then that two of his documentary works from the 2000s – The Unknown Soldier (2006) and Human Failure (2008) – are dedicated to the critical reevaluation of historical events. They are a sort of cinematic retrospective of remembering and commemorating. Verhoeven says of the projects, “I really believe that certain subjects can not and should not be fictionalized. To go into a concentration camp and create fiction with extras that look as emaciated as possible is not just difficult but borderline cynical.”

For The Unknown Soldier Verhoeven used the exhibition War Crimes of the Wehrmacht as a starting point. Portraying the war of annihilation in Eastern Europe between 1941 and 1944, the traveling show caused uproar among audiences and critics alike. Verhoeven, for his part, began filming where the exhibition began, at the town hall in Munich. He filmed inside the exhibition as well as outside on Munich's famous Marienplatz where people gathered to demonstrate against the exhibitin. The result was a 100-minute-long documentary which, in addition to already addressing an uncomfortable topic, offended some and caused controversy on a number of fronts. The Unknown Soldier, which was shown internationally, is a nightmarish and complex film.

By contrast, the compelling documentary The Second Execution of Romell Broom (2011) takes on the topos of the death penalty in the United States. More specifically, it covers the case of Romell Broom in the state of Ohio, who many believe is innocent but who is still on death row for an alleged murder committed in 1984. His execution in September 2009 failed despite two hours and 18 attempts to complete it. “It's interesting, of course, but again it's one of those things. I wasn't looking for it.” Like the other documentary topics that appeared out of nowhere, topics seem to seek him out, not the other way around. Michael Verhoeven filmed the movie in Ohio and visited both the accused and his family. The situation of this potentially innocent man was an inspiration to Verhoeven.
Verhoeven’s new film

His latest film is Let's Go!. Verhoeven says about its inspiration: “Laura Waco, the author of Von Zuhause wird nichts erzählt, had seen my film The Nasty Girl and sent me her manuscript because she wanted me to make a film out of it. That was in the mid-1990s. I really liked the book. As far as I know, it is the first autobiographical novel that portrays in such a fabulously artistic fashion how traumatized parents who have just escaped from a concentration camp can pass on their own fears and suffering to their children. Laura was born in 1947 in Freising where the parents ended up. They didn't want to go back to Poland due to the intense anti-Semitism there and the USA seemed too far away both physically and culturally. It was drummed into the kids that they not tell anyone about their home life and that nobody should know they were Jewish. Laura didn't even know it for a long time.” Let's Go! was filmed in 2013 and will be shown in 2014.