Paul Verhoeven's career is the living embodiment of 'never judge a book by its cover'. What on the surface appear to be nothing more than exercises in violent, sleazy indulgence bordering on soft-core porn, are in fact some of the most interesting, nuanced and intelligent examples of their respective genres (apart from Showgirls). Even so, you might struggle to defend Verhoeven's works on the grounds that they are entirely subtle - until you've seen Soldier of Orange, a truly great war drama which remains his best film.
What's so striking about Soldier of Orange is how little it conforms to the popular stereotype of what a Paul Verhoeven film is meant to be. Those of us who grew up with his Hollywood films (RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct and so on) will expect flesh-ripping violence, swearing and full-frontal nudity from the start. But instead we get a subtle ensemble character drama with several intertwining stories, which unfolds very gradually and whose moments of action punctuate the character drama as much as facilitate it.
There is an immediate comparison between this film and its contemporary A Bridge Too Far. Both Verhoeven and Richard Attenborough were striving to depict an aspect of World War II which had been hitherto overlooked - respectively the German occupation of the Netherlands and the failure of Operation Market Garden. Both films have large ensemble casts with characters of all ages, ranks and backgrounds, and both are broadly revisionist in their historical outlook.
Where the films differ is their tone and the way that said characters are presented. Attenborough is a director whose films emphasise respect: his characters are people who should be taken seriously, troubled over and admired - sometimes, as with Gandhi, to the point where we don't actually connect with them emotionally. Verhoeven, on the other hand, is driven by the need to tell the story as honestly as possible - and if that honesty involves showing people being smeared in goose fat or being blown up whilst on the toilet, then all the better.
A good example of this approach comes in the opening scene, where our main character Erik is initiated into his fraternity. The humiliating rituals the freshmen are forced to endure are depicted as something time-honoured, a tradition so entrenched that it has become absurd. You could argue that this is how If.... would have turned out had Verhoeven been in charge instead of Lindsay Anderson. Erik fills in for Mick Travis, and Rutger Hauer is every bit as charismatic as Malcolm McDowell, but instead of verbal taunting followed by a whipping, Erik sings off-key before being knocked out with a soup terrine.
There are several unexpected pockets of comedy throughout Soldier of Orange which prevent the film from drifting into any kind of awards-worthy stodginess. The funniest of these comes early on when a local stops a Dutch patrol, saying he has spotted some paratroopers in nearby farm buildings. The soldiers approach and hear groaning; presuming them to be wounded airmen, they round the corner to find two people having sex in the hay. The camera cuts back to the local, who dances around shouting "April fool!", while the couple explain he's escaped from the local asylum.
Although Soldier of Orange is more refined and understated than Verhoeven's Hollywood work, there are still several pungent layers through which we have to navigate. While the violence isn't as flesh-ripping or visceral as in Total Recall, the firing squad still is still pretty gruesome, for all the right reasons. And then there's the nudity, which is taken so much for granted that it's actually used as a plot point. When Erik finds he is being tailed by a German agent, he goes to the apartment of his best friend's wife, asking her to get undressed and then draw the curtains. The agent presumes the two are having sex, and waits for several hours while Erik escapes.
But once we dig beneath the surface, Soldier of Orange emerges as a really smart and often touching depiction of occupied life and the ethics of organised resistance. It is particularly effective at showing how war impacts on the innocent, and how this response varies across the classes. In an early scene Erik and his university friends are playing tennis when the declaration of war comes over the radio: the match stops, they all crowd round the radio - and then go back to the game as is nothing had happened. Their apathy is contrasted with the fearful faces of the teachers and schoolchildren, who are grilled by paranoid Dutch soldiers to see if any of them are Jewish (giving Hitler a reason to invade).
The story of Soldier of Orange is filled with a number of fairly complex sub-plots, using the copious nudity to set up a series of love triangles between the characters. For instance, Robby and Esther are married and deeply in love, but Esther and Erik have an affair as a result of Robby's absence through working for the resistance. The film never reveals how close the characters really are, leaving us to decide whether their relationship is borne out of love or lonely desperation.
The same goes for the platonic relationships, with the film throwing us off the scent about who the traitors might be. We hear so much about Van der Zanden being the mole that he takes on a reputation akin to Professor Moriarty, so that the true reason for his proximity to the queen comes as a shock. We understand the threat facing Robby which leads to his defection, just as we end up sympathising with Colin Firth in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It is testament to Verhoeven's skill that he can take something as silly as two men dancing the tango, and turn it into a complex battle of wits, with both parties being guarded with their words while being fully aware of the other's intentions and allegiances.
From a visual perspective, Soldier of Orange is distinctive in its use of photographs. The film opens with what feels like decolourised footage of Erik on Liberation Day: it's a good way to introduce him as a protagonist whom we know will do great things. Hauer plays these opening scenes brilliantly, using his suave yet intimidating presence to make us like Erik without being entirely sure that we trust him, thereby maintaining the suspense around his character. There is also a helpful framing device in the photograph of the six college friends, of whom only two will survive the war.
The reunion of Erik and Jacques, the two survivors, makes an interesting point in itself. One of them survived the war by helping the resistance and fighting for his country; the other survived by carrying on and getting his preliminary in spite of the occupation. Verhoeven is making the point that there is more than one way to serve your country; he pulls back from depicting Erik's heroism as the only kind of heroism that is acceptable or achieves anything.
There are a couple of small problems with Soldier of Orange. While its pacing is generally good, it does accelerate quite rapidly towards the end. This is done to make the opening foreshadowing work, and in the film's defence it resists ending on a lazy, jingoistic note. More problematic is that the women in the film are dealt less of a hand than you might expect from Verhoeven. In Spetters he gave the sexually open characters some kind of symbolic weight, but here neither Esther nor Susan get the screen time or development they deserve.
Soldier of Orange is one of the best films ever made about World War II and remains Verhoeven's finest work to date. Beneath its flaws and excesses lies a riveting and complex tale of loyalty and betrayal, with a strong script, a terrific central performance by Rutger Hauer and a hugely underrated score from Rogier van Otterloo. Above all it is a glowing testament to Verhoeven's directorial abilities and a truly great war film, in its time and in ours.