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An ultimate guide to Paul Verhoeven’s masterpieces and trash

Razzies and oscars, full-frontal nudity and accused fascism – a 26 letter rundown of the iconic director who’s been ridiculed as much as he has been praised

Few directors have managed to straddle the line between fine art and trash as expertly as Paul Verhoeven. For over four decades, he has been the filmmaker that many have tried to be, and many have failed; his irreverent, critical observations of American culture from the viewpoint of a Dutchman who lived through World War II are inimitable. He has received both Razzies and Academy Award nominations, employed and subverted clichés, been named the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ director in almost the same breath. Verhoeven has directed harrowing accounts of wartime, he’s made hugely successful Hollywood films, and he has brought us movies that had everyone asking: “is this guy fucking serious?”. To celebrate the legacy of the man who somehow brought us both Showgirls (1995) and Total Recall (1990), settle down with our 26-letter guide to Paul Verhoeven.


Aside from his infamous 1996 Razzies sweep, Paul Verhoeven has been nominated for and won a number of awards. In his 40 year career he and his films have, among others, won two Academy special achievement awards, the Saturn award for best director for RoboCop (1987), and been nominated for nine Oscars, primarily for editing and effects – though he’s never won one.


Verhoeven’s fourth Hollywood film, Basic Instinct (1992), is an enjoyable and shocking erotic thriller starring Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas. The film received mixed reviews and was the centre of controversy for its explicit content and for its portrayal of bisexual women; it was nominated for 3 Razzies, but was still one of the highest-grossing films of 1992 and is recognised by the AFI in a number of lists.


Since the beginning of his career in both the Netherlands and Hollywood, Verhoeven’s films have long been at the centre of controversy; the violent and sexual content is part of the reason why he left the Netherlands in the first place. After he arrived in Hollywood, his films remained contentious for a number of reasons; blood and gore, sex, homophobia in the case of Basic Instinct, and most recently Elle for its themes of rape and sexuality.


Born in Amsterdam and later moving to The Hague, Verhoeven’s roots in the Netherlands have lent to his unique style of filmmaking. He began his career making Dutch films such as Turkish Delight (1973), a romantic drama, and Soldier of Orange (1977), a film about the Nazi occupation in the Netherlands. However, he later left to work in Hollywood, where he stayed for a number of years. His outsider status as a Dutchman and his interest in (and criticism of) American culture have made even his blockbuster films like RoboCop (1987) stand out from similar works.


Joe Eszterhas is a Hungarian-American writer who worked with Verhoeven on Basic Instinct and Showgirls (1995). Despite falling out briefly over Basic Instinct, Verhoeven told Eszterhas during lunch that he wanted to make a “big MGM musical”; Eszterhas then scribbled down the idea for Showgirls, an erotic drama about a woman who goes to Las Vegas and climbs from stripper to showgirl. He was advanced $2 million for the story, and his two Verhoeven collaborations along with Sliver (1993) made Eszterhas the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood history, although Showgirls did receive the Razzie for worst screenplay. Classic lines like “it must be weird not having people cum on you” lent to the screenplay’s derision, but also to the film’s later cult status.


After living through the Nazi occupation of The Hague in World War II, Verhoeven developed an obsession with Hitler, and fascism on a more general level. He’s worked through this in a number of both his Dutch and American films: Soldier of Orange, Black Book (2006), and Starship Troopers (1997). However, especially in the case of the latter, many people misunderstood Verhoeven’s tone; he was accused of admiring fascism or being a literal fascist himself for using Nazi-esque design and for creating a far-right utopia. The Washington Post went as far as to say that the film was written by a neo-nazi.


Verhoeven has worked across, combined, and subverted a number of genres; he has also used mainstream genre film to get across bigger themes and morals to audiences. His main moral preoccupations are with fascism and American consumerism; in the case of his American films, he uses them as a vehicle to criticise the culture. Beginning his career making Dutch films like Turkish Delight, the most successful Dutch film ever, he has also worked in horror (Hollow Man (2000)), suspense (The Fourth Man (1983), science fiction (RoboCop, Total Recall), erotic thriller (Basic Instinct), drama (Showgirls), and more.


Verhoeven’s last Hollywood film was Hollow Man (2000), a science fiction horror film that features Kevin Bacon as an invisible man who goes on a killing spree. The film was incredibly complex and expensive to make, receiving an Academy Award nomination for its special effects. Despite this and Verhoeven’s attempt to tone down the blood and sex to make a commercially viable film, it lacked his usual flair and received negative reviews; it is perhaps even to blame for his return to Europe. Of the film, Verhoeven said: “I can defend Showgirls, but not Hollow Man.” He added: “I couldn’t even put a personal touch to it. I fell into that trap.”


Verhoeven’s hugely successful 1987 American breakthrough film RoboCop was positively received and considered one of the best films of the year. Functioning as a mainstream science-fiction film, RoboCop was still a scathing commentary on American culture and consumerism, and a great deal of narrative is told to us through the television screens scattered throughout the film – a convention that was relatively new at the time. Some of the most memorable lines, like, “nukem!” and “I’d buy that for a dollar!” are told to us through the television. The televisions in RoboCop are as important if not more important than many of the characters; this is a commentary on the role that they played in our lives in 1987 that still holds true today.


Verhoeven has long used film as a way of working through his Jesus obsession. He was a member of The Jesus Seminar, a research group in the 80s and 90s; Verhoeven was the only one without a degree in biblical studies, a fact that has led some to dispute the group’s legitimacy. He has even written a book about Jesus, called Jesus of Nazareth: A Realistic Portrait, which provoked outrage from Christians for downplaying miracles and supernatural events as unprovable, and for reinventing Jesus as a radical political activist. He has also said in the documentary Flesh and Steel: The Making of RoboCop that his intention with RoboCop was to portray Murphy as a Christ figure; as represented in his horrific death, resurrection as RoboCop, and the imagery of RoboCop walking on water.


His first after the highly successful Turkish Delight, the Dutch film Katie Tippel also starred Rutger Hauer and Monique Van de Ven. The film is based on the memoirs of Neel Doff, and centres on a woman who gets into sex work to feed her starving family. The film was the most expensive produced in the Netherlands at the time at 2 million guilders (almost 2 million pounds), but despite this and despite having the same stars as Turkish Delight, it did not perform as well.


One of the most talked about, if not most talked about, movie moments of 1995 was Sharon Stone’s infamous leg uncross in Basic Instinct. While Stone’s character Catherine Tramell is being interrogated by police officers, she uncrosses her legs and – just for a second – you see a flash of her vulva. The scene was hotly-discussed and also controversial – Stone later said that she was misled into filming the scene, although this has recently been disputed by many and denied by Verhoeven.


While Verhoeven is amazed by and loves America, he is still critical of it. He uses his trademark so-called “moral vulgarism” in his films to critique American culture, fascism, and in Elle (2016), rape. He cloaks serious matters in a Trojan horse-esque generic framework and uses comedy, violence, and sex to get across his own views and criticisms of culture. While his Hollywood films seem to be crass or bloody or mainstream, there’s a lot going on below the shocking veneer.


Verhoeven’s trademark nudity is often something that has had to be toned down in an effort to get a lower certificate rating – and with his latest release, he shows no sign of slowing down. The full-frontal nudity in Black Book, Showgirls, Basic Instinct, and others has been discussed, but as far as Black Book goes, Verhoeven said, “Of course there are nude scenes, I'm Dutch!”


Verhoeven lived in The Hague during the Nazi occupation, something which had a grave affect on him as a child and on his filmmaking, especially in his preoccupation with blood and gore. He often recalls the violence, blood, explosions, and hunger of that time; including the fact that his parents almost died when bombs fell on a street crossing. He explored this theme initially within his Dutch films, which gained massive critical attention from Soldier of Orange. Despite the accusations surrounding Starship Troopers, Verhoeven made another Nazi film in 2006, Black Book.


Verhoeven has not been shy in using his films as a vessel for delivering his politics, despite frequently being accused of political incorrectness. Black Book and Starship Troopers contain messages of anti-fascism, while RoboCop and other American films attack American culture from the inside. Most recently, he used Elle (2016), to broach difficult discussions surrounding rape, consent, and sexuality. Often these messages are lost with critics who believe he is making the opposite point or being offensive in the way that he discusses them, but Verhoeven has also been praised for his bravery in dealing with things nobody else dare touch.


Verhoeven’s 1990 film Total Recall starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dennis Quaid, a construction worker who travels to Mars to uncover his true identity and to find out why his memory was erased. The film was one of the most expensive ever made and performed well, although many critics felt that it was “excessively violent”, with feminist critic Susan Faludi criticising its representation of women. The 2012 remake lacked the Verhoeven magic and, predictably, underperformed.


Verhoeven’s 95 desert stripper drama Showgirls is the stuff of legend; it was horribly received on first release, widely detested by critics, and even criticised by its own star Kyle Maclachlan. It received 7 Golden Raspberry awards (then a record, but now broken by Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill (2012)) from 13 nominations, and Verhoeven was one of only a few nominees ever to accept his award; the first to do so in person. Its winning categories included worst picture, worst actress, and worst original song; it then later won an 8th Razzie for worst film of the decade in 2000.


Starship Troopers was Verhoeven’s second to last Hollywood film and is a science fiction military movie. The film, written by Edward Neumeier and adapted from Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 book, is a satire of war. Verhoeven didn’t like the book as he said it was “very right wing”, but the film was a satire, and he was “playing with fascism or fascist imagery to point out certain aspects of American society...of course, the movie is about 'Let's all go to war and let's all die.” However, many did not see it this way. Seeing the fascist imagery, uniforms, and Nazi allusions, many accused Verhoeven of admiring the ultra right-wing, yet again.


Paul Verhoeven’s films are often difficult for audiences to understand, in part due to their moral grey areas, but also because of their tone. With Basic Instinct and Showgirls being prime examples, audiences and critics have struggled to understand whether Verhoeven is being intentionally funny, but also where they are meant to stand morally. Throughout his career Verhoeven has dealt with tricky situations, unlikable protagonists, and difficult emotions that he often conveys in a comedic way; with Elle most recently being the subject of both criticism and praise for its dark humour. The film is a story about a perhaps unlikable heroine: a videogame CEO who is raped and finds out her assailant’s identity to exact revenge.


After his films were considered too violent and sexually graphic for the Netherlands, Verhoeven moved to the U.S., where he could get away with more. Far from considering mainstream Hollywood films too vulgar, Verhoeven has been outspoken in his love of America (while still criticising its consumerism), and enjoyed the new speed, money, and potential for violence that he had to play with. His first American film, Flesh and Blood (1985), failed at the box office on first release (despite faring well critically), but RoboCop was hugely successful and ensured that Verhoeven could stay in the U.S. for a while.


The trademark bloodshed of Verhoeven’s films may have made him divisive, but it’s also led to a number of iconic movie moments; the Total Recall Cohagen death, The RoboCop toxic waste scene, of course, the Basic Instinct ice-pick-sex murder. Verhoeven’s love of violence is influenced by his upbringing during World War II, of which he has said, “the whole universe is full of violence”.


Verhoeven had put off invites to come to Hollywood for a long time, even rejecting Spielberg’s personal invitation, but it was his wife Martine that we have to thank for his mainstream career. She told him to go and that she would follow after the kids left school, saying: “there are so many possibilities in the United States, so just go”. She also convinced him to take on RoboCop; a script that he had discarded, but she picked it out of the trash and convinced him that it had substance.


While there’s a great deal more to Verhoeven’s films than sex and violence, they are a staple of many of his films, and are part of the reason that he had to leave the Netherlands to pursue work in the more open United States. His American films, like Total Recall and Showgirls, are known for being heavily imbued with sex, nudity, and violence – with many of his movies courting controversy for their content, being cut down, or even being rated NC-17.


While Verhoeven didn’t make his first feature film until 1973, he made his first short in 1960 at the age of 21. He then decided, after graduating from Leiden University where he received a doctorandus (M.Sc.) in maths and physics, to invest all of his energies into film. His early life had an influence on his future career, not only in his Hague upbringing, but as he and his father went to the cinema often after the liberation – even going to see War of the Worlds as many as 10 times in 1953.


Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession was a 2004 documentary film about Z Channel, a Los Angeles pay cable channel known for showing forgotten or underappreciated foreign films, erotic film, director’s cut, silent, documentary, and more. The film explored the channel the life of its programming director Jerry Harvey; Verhoeven appeared in the documentary as himself alongside other filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino.