The Verhoeven Case: Fascinating Fascism or Fascinating Fascia? By Laszlo Kriston
What do Leni Riefenstahl and Paul Verhoeven have in common? Much more than you might think or what this article’s title would suggest.
Certain archetypal qualities can be traced in the views and philosophies of outstanding artists. Creative people are born with the innate intent to express. They are like minds: They form a timeless brotherhood, a fairly coherent gestalt, that of an organic configuration of individual consciousnesses. Those who are fascinated with the human body form one such group. For now, let’s call them the ‘Body Artists.’
Verhoeven has been concerned throughout his career with the aesthetics and politics of the human body. One can see it early on, in his sometimes clumsily made TV films. In The Wrestler (1970), the story revolves around cheating. The protagonist bangs a married woman in a heavily rocking minivan in an Amsterdam square. Eating and routine swashbuckling take center stage in the TV series Floris (1969), something of an embryonic version of Flesh+Blood (1985), starring a very young Rutger Hauer. In Feest (1963), he displays a New Wave sensibility in spontaneous scenes of college parties, at which the main objective is dancing, drinking, making out, and eventually getting laid—all much less decadent than what was about to come.
Who else would daringly celebrate the act of lustful, or rather manic, fucking in the cool, well-made erotic thriller, Basic Instinct (1992), then would unsuccessfully attempt to repeat this success by exhibiting uninhibited females performing erotic dancing in Showgirls (1996)? And who but someone who is truly, completely involved in man’s carnal existence would treat the connection of body and mind by playing with memory overload in Total Recall (1990); explore cyborg body form, flesh and steel in RoboCop (1987); show a teacher’s mutilated arm, dissect a big nasty bug, indulge the camera in a communal shower of hunky cadets, break their backs, necks, stab them, and later chop off their heads with such precision—and delight! — in Starship Troopers (1997); and address the possibility of (partially) losing one’s identity as one’s body parts become invisible in Hollow Man (2000)?
The Infamous Verhoeven Touch
After four high-profile critical and financial flops in a row, which made him something of box-office poison in Hollywood in the mid- to late ’90s, and following a six-year long hiatus, Verhoeven triumphantly returned to form at last year’s Venice Film Festival with a film he made back in his native Holland, Zwartboek, or Black Book (2006), a polished period piece, an erotic thriller, and melodrama with a sweeping narrative drive. Verhoeven’s latest film is a nice example of conventional filmmaking which, all in all, looks pretty much like an MGM thriller of the ’40s or ’50s. Strangely enough this European picture is closer to what classic and mainstream Hollywood filmmaking is supposed to be than some of his costly Hollywood misfires.
When in “Black Book” human waste is thrown on the female lead (played by Carice van Houten) after the Second World War as torture for her supposedly Nazi-friendly wrongdoings, we encounter a highly typical moment of the Verhoeven Touch. There are others: the brutal killing of rich Jews on a boat, the detailed lesson in how to loot their corpses, and the female lead’s dying her pubic hair full-frontal.
It is an over-used joke that if Leni Riefenstahl had made Star Wars, it would have looked much like Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Black Book, the story of a Jewish woman who is an underground resistance fighter but on a mission of deceiving (as well as pleasing) her Nazi officer lover to get crucial information about SS operations, once again provoked a debate about whether Verhoeven himself is a Nazi in terms of values and ethics. One of my fellow jurors in Palm Springs articulated the argument: “Treating people as objects is Nazism”. Okay, but that is a principle in every totalitarian system. so it’s misleading and a bit narrowing to use the term Nazism in relation to the Dutch-born director’s body of work. Yet it also makes sense, since Verhoeven has dealt with Nazism and its oppression in several of his films, most notably his TV film Voorbij, Voorbij (1979), in which he actually kills a surviving WWII war criminal, a frail, old man. He also tackled the same period in Soldier of Orange (1977). Fascism of the left, fascism of the right, comes the argument for sticking to the term. Also Verhoeven himself said that the German and American occupation that he experienced in Holland inspired him to become a filmmaker. Okay, is he a Nazi? Despite the fact that he makes a martyr of his Nazi SS officer in Black Book and thus glorifies him in the scene where he is executed, I do not think that Verhoeven is one. Even the self-mocking, ironical subtext of the carnal gags of Starship Troopers is not so much in admiration for Nazi abuses but emerges from the simple fact that for a ‘Body Artist,’ what else can the source of humor be rather than the human vessel itself? His built-in fascination with the politics of the body comes not from Nazism but from somewhere else.
Very Basic Instincts: Innate Intent
Let’s suppose first, that no consciousness is a result of merely accidental composition of atoms. In that sense, every human being is born into this world with a particular intent.
In the late ’60s an Elmira, New York-based medium, Jane Roberts, began to ‘channel’ a no-longer physically focused soul, who billed himself as ‘the essence of an energy personality’, one that has disengaged from our reality; in other words, he was talking from ‘the other side’. The session resulted in a series of some 30 books of perennial philosophy known as the Seth books. Seth introduced the notion of ‘essence families,’ essence being that eternal, pure core that continues to exist after you leave your body, and talked about the family of ‘Speakers’ (‘Sumari’), which he himself belonged to.
After Jane Robert’s death in 1985, in the mid-90s another medium started to speak for a non-psyhical entity named Elias, who continued to lay down a more elaborate view on essence families. He named and described nine of them, these gestalts being the human minds that now form the six billion inhabitants of the earth. This information seemed to cast new light on the Jungian notion of archetypes, on the basic typology of people, their interests, on the underlying factors of waves and trends in history, and, for that matter, the history of the arts as well.
Here we focus solely on one of those gestalts. Verhoeven seems to fit squarely into its desires for sensual perception, fascination with carnal expression, and firm focus on the physical. This one of the nine (metaphysically-rooted) gestalts of consciousness is the so-called ‘Zulis’, or the ‘Imagers,’ what I referred to earlier as the ‘Body Artists’. Or the Sensualists, which was actually an alternative title for Verhoeven’s ’70s film, Turkish Delight. Their focus is body-centric, sensual.
“Basic Instinct”: The title itself of one of Verhoeven’s most successful movies is the point. Verhoeven’s motivation runs deeper than mere lust. It all goes back to this elemental level of consciousness. It’s a sort of subliminal certainty, an instinct, if you will, yes, a basic instinct—that one instinctlys feel what he’s meant to do, create, and fulfill in life. Ideally one knows what he’s good at, what activities he seems destined to pursue. Artists, more often than not, are more aware of it than most people, and therefore can best voice their fascination, create a philosophy out of this special, distinct worldview. In cinema, we have been calling them auteurs for the past 45 years! Even though Verhoeven works in genre films, he can be deemed an auteur. The two are not mutually exclusive. It’s really about finding one’s own unique voice. Those who do follow their true calling and express themselves within the ranges of a Consciousness Gestalt that they belong to.
The Zuli Gestalt in the Arts
By identifying your own qualities in relation to the distinct gestalt you belong to, you allow yourself a fuller comprehension of your ‘innate desires’, of your ‘views/belief systems’ and of your ‘interactions’ with other individuals. People who belong to the ‘Zuli gestalt’ are primarily concerned with physical expression. Performers and athletes often emerge from this bunch, since they are excellent manipulators of the physical form. They have a developed appreciation for beauty and the greatness of the body. As Elias says, ‘They incorporate living art.’ Their bodies are connected with their consciousness, within a deep understanding of each other. They listen to them.
They express themselves through arts such as sculpting and painting, as well as through their own bodies. No wonder hookers per se, along with other kinds of sexually ambitious women, are major figures in the Verhoeven pantheon (see Diary of a Hooker, 1971, and other films that caused him to be labeled a misogynist). The notion of using one’s body for pleasure and for achieving professional success is obviously very appealing to Verhoeven — and it’s also a very Zuli-ish view (and, in my opinion, not necessarily a misogynistic one).
A Different Morale: Diabolico Metabolico
Let’s get back to the sequence in Black Book when human waste is thrust onto the female lead’s body. In a moment like this, Mr. Verhoeven would exhibit Nazi tendencies only if he would suggest, “Look at this, isn’t it fantastic?” But what he says (in my opinion) is, “Look at it, don’t you see how it feels to be humiliated through your body?”
In a manner of speaking, a ‘Body Artist’, a Zuli feels the world through his own skin. He perceives reality through the five senses more than anything like thoughts, emotions, or political ideas. And if any of those do come up, they are provoked almost exclusively by sensual impressions and bodily impulses. Some of Verhoeven’s critics would claim that even to show something like this is evidence of Nazi tendencies. But if you turn it upside down, what’s a positive interpretation? That the ‘Body Artist’ embraces carnal existence as a whole. He doesn’t deem any of it as unsignificant. Every single cell is worthy of attention.
They don’t shy away from risky issues (of the body). True, they may not maintain scrupulous principles in doing so, so that the fascination can override other considerations. In their perhaps relentless pursuit of the ‘Zuli Spirit’ (the celebration of being alive in a physical body), they may appear immoral. In the actualization of their intent they may go further than others. They are so amazed with the body that everything else is of secondary importance. Political responsibility, for instance: The might deny any, as Riefenstahl did. The consensus of decency is also somewhat irrelevant: Verhoeven is deliberately trying to create images that feel repellent, or seem to be of an exploitative nature, to subvert with the (literally) nakedtruth (excessive violence, raw sexuality). This desire has motivated him throughout his career and has earned him much notoriety. After all, he’s the man who made himself well-known internationally by shooting an erect penis in close-up in Turkish Delight (1973). The following quote from Verhoeven, found on imdb.com, is revealing:
“As a director, my goal is to be completely open. Just look at how I portray sex in my films. They’re considered shocking and obscene because I like to carefully examine human sexuality. It has to be realistic. I really like documentaries, therefore, reality is important to me when I do fiction. It is often related to my own life, my Dutch background. The art scene in Holland has always attempted to be realistic. The Dutch painters of four hundred years ago were meticulously realistic. The example I always like to use is a marvelous painting by Hieronymus Bosch titled “The Prodigal Son”. It is a painting of a brothel, and in the corner is a man pissing against a wall. You would never, never find something like that in an Italian, French, or English painting of that epoch. The Dutch have always been more scientific, interested in detail; certainly less idealistic and more realistic. The sex scenes in The Fourth Man and Turkish Delight were based on real experiences I had or a friend had. It’s very personal. Of course, I must admit that I love to shock audiences.”
The ‘Body Artists’ do not always seem to possess the same kind of moral imperatives as others. There is an uninhibited use of the body. In the Zuli universe, man’s body is at the center, around which all other planets circle. Without comprehending this, one cannot understand the ‘Body Artists’, those who are meant to fulfill carnal qualities, but one can only (wrongly) judge them as immoral, hazardous, and exploitative bastards.
Drawing from fairy tales, the archetypal figures and narratives that are inherent in every civilization regardless of cultural background, Jung tried to trace those characteristics present in every human being’s mind. As he defined the archetypal figures of human existence (the old wise wizard, the witch, the prince, the young bride etc), he provided some kind of a road-map to what sorts of roles life offers to us.
In mapping out the several kinds of human destinies, archetypal fates, storylines, blueprints of existence, typology of life stories, and by going deeper, we arrive at the notion of intent. Intent defines what role we all take on. Verhoeven becomes the repellent, edgy, occasionally trashed posterchild for pulp-auteurism of the body. That’s his role. What it all boils down to is the intent itself, the primal fascination, the elemental desire, the major interest, the pure motivation, and yes, the basic instinct. He exemplifies the ‘Zuli Spirit,’ despite the varying quality of his films. And that, one must, if not salute, at least recognize and acknowledge.