Paul Verhoeven's Spetters (1980) takes its name from a Dutch slang term meaning “hotshots”, centring on three cocky young men who live in a small town outside Rotterdam. They desperately want to escape their dead-end lives, seeing sport as a way of getting out and achieving success. Rien (Hans van Tongeren) and Hans (Maarten Spanjer) are aspiring dirt-bike riders, who dream of winning the national motocross championship, following in the footsteps of their idol Gerrit WitKamp (Rutger Hauer). In fact, Rien is the only one with any real talent, as Hans comes across as a buffoon, barely able to stay on his bike let alone win a race. Best pal Eef (Toon Agterberg) serves as their trusty mechanic, trying to keep their tired old machines on the road. The motocross scenes interspersed throughout the film are excitingly shot by acclaimed DoP Jost Vacano, giving this low budget drama more of a cinematic feel.
Between races, the guys chase women and soak up the local nightlife. There are several nods to Saturday Night Fever, including a blatant homage at a disco, complete with flashing floor tiles and some flamboyant dance moves. The soundtrack is infused with sounds of the late seventies, perfectly complimenting the mood, pumping out Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” (before it was famously used in Trainspotting) and Blondie’s “One Way or Another”. With his shaggy hair, Hans looks more like he could have been the fifth member of Bucks Fizz. Despite some lighter moments, we’re never lulled into a false sense of security, as screenwriter Gerard Soeteman - a regular collaborator with Verhoeven – continually takes the film into risqué territory.
Loyalties are put to the test when sexy Fientje (Renée Soutendijk) rolls into town with her fast food van, setting up business at the races. Peddling croquettes filled with dog food to the unsuspecting punters, she soon starts to turn heads. Tired of smelling of chip fat, Fientje has ambitions of her own for a better life. Seeing Rien as a golden ticket away from her humdrum existence, the temptress sets out to lure him away from girlfriend Maya (Marianne Boyer). All three friends soon find themselves competing fiercely for Fientje’s affections, leading to an unforgettable sequence involving measuring calipers. Verhoeven scores points for sheer audaciousness, squeezing in numerous graphic sexual scenes along the way.
It’s difficult to like many of the characters in Spetters. Rien demonstrates a ruthless streak, ready to ditch loyal Maya and his friends in favour of Fientje, simply because she has negotiated a sponsorship deal for him. When a tragic accident leaves him permanently in a wheelchair, his dreams shattered, she callously walks away. Realising that Rien can no longer help to fulfil her ambitions, the cunning Fientje is forced to change her game plan, focussing on his two friends instead.
Like many of Verhoeven’s films, there are themes around religion and its effects. Eef’s stern god-fearing father regularly beats him for committing various sins, and this repression provides the impetus for the young man wanting to escape. Eef’s journey is the most problematic, as he’s presented at first as a homophobe, who torments a gay man in the street. This leads to further unsettling scenes where, unbeknown to his friends, he robs other men at a local gay cruising haunt to supplement his income. As the narrative unfolds, Eef explores his own sexuality, but his eventual self-discovery is particularly troubling as it follows a violent encounter where he is gang raped.
What Verhoeven does very proficiently is encourage the best out of his cast, many of whom had little screen experience, yet were required to perform some difficult scenes. By comparison, the more established performers, such as Hauer and Jeroen Krabbé (as a sports reporter) are given relatively minor roles. Soutendijk’s highly memorable turn here follows a tradition of strong female characters in the director’s films, which began with Monique van de Ven, and would continue over the years with tremendous performances from the likes of Carice van Houten in Black Book (2006) and Isabelle Huppert in Elle (2016).
The director is certainly no stranger to controversy, continually pushing the boundaries and subverting genre conventions. Despite the provocative nature of his work, even he was unprepared for the furore that greeted Spetters in Holland upon its release. A furious backlash would lead to The NASA (Netherlands Anti-Spetters Action) group being formed to oppose the film, citing offensive portrayals of women, gay men and the disabled. Verhoeven would resolutely defend the film, explaining that his aim was to make a realistic coming-of-age drama reflecting what was happening in Rotterdam at that time. Despite such a negative initial reaction from some circles, the film went on to become successful in the Netherlands. It's an intense, sometimes disturbing early work that would put Verhoeven's name firmly on the map.
Spetters makes its UK debut on Blu-ray from the BFI, with a 4K scan of the 35mm interpositive. This is the full uncut international version, as previously released on DVD in the UK during 2005 by MGM (earlier UK cinema and video releases were cut by the BBFC). This two disc set includes a DVD that contains the extras only.
The HD image, presented in a ratio of 1.66:1, boasts vibrant colours and plenty of fine detail. I've seen the film on various formats over the years, including an earlier HD release from Germany's Koch Media, but this is the best it has ever looked in my opinion. The Koch Media Blu-ray suffered from heavy grain, but it is much better managed here.
The original mono soundtrack is preserved, with the Dutch dialogue distinct throughout (English subtitles are provided).
A superb selection of additional features, mostly sourced from an earlier German release.
Audio commentary by director Paul Verhoeven.
Symbolic Power, Profit and Performance in Paul Verhoeven’s Spetters (2019, 17 mins): An intelligent and thorough audio-visual essay written and narrated by critic Amy Simmons.
Andere Tijden: Spetters (2002, 29 mins): An excellent Dutch TV documentary on the making of Spetters. This includes archive interviews with the cast and crew from the 1980s, plus more recent contributions from stars Renée Soutendijk and Toon Agterberg. Soeteman and Verhoeven recount the difficulties in getting the film made, where they were instructed to use a revised script with more explicit material removed, but defiantly shot the original version anyway. Determined producer Joop Van de Ende, who would win through with funding, later became founder of Dutch media giant Endemol. Briefly mentioned is the tragic death of star Hans van Tongeren, who committed suicide shortly after filming was completed. The backlash that Spetters initially received in Holland is discussed, with contributions from critics past and present - it's interesting to see how opinions have changed.
Speed Crazy: An Interview with Paul Verhoeven (2014, 8 mins)
Writing Spetters: An Interview with Gerard Soeteman (2014, 11 mins)
An Interview with Jost Vacano (2014, 67 mins): In this fascinating in depth interview, the retired German cinematographer - whose career spanned 45 years - reflects back on his collaborations with Verhoeven. Vacano started out working on documentaries for German TV in the sixties, before moving into features and working with Verhoeven on 7 movies. This began with acclaimed war drama Soldier of Orange (1979), then continued with most of the director's work in Hollywood, including Robocop (1987) and Total Recall (1990). Vacano observes that "Paul doesn't do things by halves" - as if we didn't already know, providing some further amusing anecdotes to illustrate this point. He discusses his work on Spetters, notably staging the thrilling motocross sequences - apparently Verhoeven had in his mind the chariot race in Ben Hur! Vacano also talks about the differences of working in the USA, describing Schwarzenegger as a "great guy who can't act" and Sharon Stone as "difficult".
Image gallery (3:13): Mostly still taken from the BFI archives.
Trailers (Dutch, English and German variations)
Fully illustrated booklet (first pressing only): A great accompaniment that runs 38 pages, featuring a new interview with Paul Verhoeven, new writing by the film’s screenwriter Gerard Soeteman and authors Rob van Scheers and Peter Verstraten. Also included is an original review and full film credits.