Soldier Of Orange Review
Following the disappointment he had experienced making the flawed and indeed critically maligned period drama Katie Tippel, director Paul Verhoeven chose as his next project a war epic that not only consolidated his international reputation as an estimable filmmaker but indeed remains his most personal film to date. Published in the early ‘70s, the autobiographical novel 'Soldaat van Oranje' detailed the early life experiences of author Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, a WWII hero who had joined the Dutch resistance and who had flown bombers for the British RAF during the Nazi occupation of Holland. He would later go on to become aide-de-camp to Queen Wilhelmina, head of the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange, when the war finally ended. The royal family had in fact been forced to flee to England when the German army invaded Holland in May 1940. The Dutch army had been defeated after only four days of fighting, and the after-effects of the conflict that followed would reverberate through Dutch society for many decades to come. Verhoeven still recalled his own childhood memories of the war and recognised the dramatic possibilities in Roelfzema’s story. In fact, the director shared much in common with the writer: both men had attended Leiden university (albeit many years apart) and both had gained membership into the very exclusive and elitist fraternity house, the Leiden Studenten Corps Minerva, an association notorious in its day for the incredibly cruel initiation rituals committed against new members. Thus, Verhoeven realised that he could make an epic war film about the Dutch experience of World War Two that would also enable him to incorporate details of his own life into Roelfzema’s story.
The film opens with black & white newsreel-style footage of Queen Wilhelmina’s triumphant return to her native country after the liberation of Holland in 1945 before jumping back seven years to Leiden university where we are introduced to the central character, Erik Lanshof (Rutger Hauer), and his friends, Jack (Dolf de Vries) and Alex (Derek de Lint). The three young men are being put through a series of public humiliations by arrogant fraternity house president Guus (Jeroen Krabbe) as part of their initiation ritual. When one of them is injured during the initiation, Guus takes them under his wing and a small circle of friends is quickly formed. We are soon introduced to the other members of the circle: John (Huib Rooymans), a boxer and all-round good guy; Robby (Eddy Habbema), whose girlfriend Esther (Belinda Meuldijk) has designs on Erik; and Nico (Lex van Delden), nicknamed ‘Mr. Particular’ by the group because of his no-nonsense, fastidious manner. The students enjoy an enviably high standard of living until war is declared. At this point, we see how differently each member of the group responds to the threat of German invasion and how dramatically their lives change as a result. The mild-mannered Jack intends to keep his head down and continue his studies privately; however, John’s status as a Jew means that he and others of his background will be forced to leave the university and eventually, flee the country in fear of their lives. Guus maintains his customary air of insouciance and apathy whilst secretly working for the Allies as a spy. Robby too works as a covert radio operator for the Allies but worries for the safety of his Jewish fiancée, Esther. Most notably, perhaps, Alex initially joins the Dutch army against the Nazis but when his parents, one of whom is of German descent, are rounded up and treated as traitors against Holland, he switches sides and joins the SS.
Nevertheless, the main focus of the film is on Erik, and it is he who we will follow over the course of the story. Erik’s interest in joining the war effort is initially motivated by nothing more than a desire for excitement and adventure. Just as he has revelled in the pleasures of student life, indulging his tastes for wine, women (including his best friend’s fiancée) and extravagant parties, he now eagerly signs up with the underground resistance movement, of which Nico has now become a leading member, naively believing that “a spot of war would be quite exciting.” The politics of war and the concerns of morality are of no interest to him; he’s in it strictly for the action. However, Erik’s carefree attitude soon changes when a secret mission he undertakes goes disastrously wrong, and one of his friends is tortured and killed. More determined now, both he and Guus escape to England where they meet the Queen for the first time and offer to help her and the British forces in their clandestine efforts. This involves one of them having to return to the Netherlands to make preparations for an ambitious and very dangerous smuggling operation but with spies and collaborators everywhere, can the plan possibly succeed?
Although Soldier Of Orange sometimes plays like a Boy’s Own-style adventure movie (and some critics in Holland were quick to dismiss the film as such when it was first released), Verhoeven still maintains a healthy dose of stark realism throughout the film, ensuring that for all the scenes of heroism and derring-do, one is constantly reminded of the human cost of such an endeavour. Indeed, the film is often incredibly harsh and unsentimental, from the graphic (but not gratuitous) depiction of the torture of one of the main characters to the astonishingly abrupt and matter-of-fact execution of another in the final stages of the movie. That said, Soldier of Orange is fairly unique amongst Verhoeven’s body of work in that it finds the director exercising an unusual degree of self-discipline, lacking as it does the filmmaker’s customary predilection for lengthy scenes of graphic sex and/or bloody violence. Verhoeven still manages to squeeze in some sex, nudity and gore, of course – could we expect anything less from the Sultan of Shock? – but he keeps things remarkably restrained for the most part. The pace of the film never flags over its two and a half hour running time, and despite the intimidating scope and complexity of such an epic tale, Verhoeven ably rises to the challenge, producing a film that is tense, exciting, educational and moving but never dull. Humour too is an important ingredient in preventing the story from becoming tedious or too depressing, for example, the scene where Erik’s poor eyesight causes him to perform abysmally on a British firing range – “I trust the Germans will give you time to put your glasses on” – or the moment when our hero attempts to obscure the sight of Guus and his girlfriend’s lovemaking from the full view of the queen.
More than anything, Soldier Of Orange is a film of moments, little incidents and twists of fate that linger long in the memory. Verhoeven and co-screenwriters Gerard Soeteman and Kees Holierhoek have apparently taken the best episodes from Roelfzema’s story and incorporated them, along with the director’s own recollections of the war, into a film that is jam-packed with authentic detail. The examples are numerous: the fascistic behaviour displayed in the fraternity house scenes; a busy street rapidly cleared of people when a siren alert goes off; Erik motorcycling down a road notices parachutes dangling from the trees – the Germans have arrived; a woman riding on a bicycle through a quiet neighbourhood hides a potentiometer under her dress as she and others try to locate where a covert radio signal is coming from; Erik hiding a shard of his spectacles between his fingers so he can pass an eye test; a man being administered an injection to paralyse his vocal chords so he can’t scream on the way to his execution; the list goes on and on. As Verhoeven mentions in the audio commentary, some of these incidents are all the more startling because they are true. Despite the budgetary limitations imposed on the film (particularly evident in the RAF bomber scenes), Verhoeven still keeps the action scenes and tense set-pieces coming: a German patrol boat intercepting an Allied seaplane; an aerial bombing of the streets of Leiden; and most memorably, a suspense-filled sequence where Erik races to save his compatriots on the beaches of Scheveningen. Although these incidents are small-scale in comparison with today’s big-budget war films, they still manage to pack a punch thanks to Verhoeven’s talent for creating believable characters that we genuinely care about.
Soldier Of Orange struck a nerve with both Dutch audiences and critics alike when it was first released; Holland was a country still coming to terms with the part it had played in the war. Once the Dutch army had been forced to capitulate, the country was abruptly and forcibly split down the middle; a nation suddenly found itself torn between those who joined the resistance and those who collaborated with the Nazis. Though he came him in for some criticism at the time, Verhoeven’s film was controversial precisely because it refused to pass judgment on its characters, whether they ended up on the right side or not. The concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is a theme Verhoeven would explore in some of his other work (Starship Troopers, for example) but here, he hit upon a profoundly human, true-life story that allowed him to explore the moral ambiguities apparent in times of war. For example, I’ve mentioned that Erik’s heroic deeds at first have little to do with ‘fighting the good fight’, with trying to help the Allied cause, but rather stem from his childlike desire to live life on the edge. Indeed, in one key scene where Erik and his old friend Alex (now a SS officer) dance the tango together, the latter points out that Erik might very well have ended up fighting on the other side if fate had been a little different. Thus, the two characters become a kind of mirror image of one another (and it should be noted that Verhoeven generously presents Alex with as much depth and compassion as any of the other characters.). This blurring of the moral line happens frequently in the movie: acts of heroism result in more casualties registered than lives saved; resistance fighters are forced to become collaborators to save their families, indeed, each of the main characters are faced with moral dilemmas that will affect countless lives, including their own. Put simply, there are no absolute heroes or villains in Soldier Of Orange, only fallible human beings.
The performances are all first-rate, particularly Hauer, who proves to be very charismatic in his role as the brave, resourceful and vulnerable hero, and Krabbe, whose initially haughty and egotistical character becomes more selfless and humble (not to mention, fearful) as the story progresses; in fact, it was their eye-catching work in Soldier Of Orange that first drew the two (then unknown) actors to the attention of Hollywood where they would later make their careers. The script is, as I’ve already said, packed with memorable characters and episodes, and the music by Rogier van Otterloo is suitably rousing and dramatic. Admittedly, some viewers may find the film too long, certain scenes may be too disturbing and, if you’re expecting a war film on the scale of Apocalypse Now or Platoon with similarly extravagant battle scenes to boot, well then you’d best watch those movies instead. Nevertheless, regardless of what the film may lack in terms of big-budget spectacle, Soldier Of Orange still remains a powerful and thought-provoking experience, and if you enjoy intelligent, character-based dramas that avoid the pitfall of cheap sentimentality, or if you are simply a fan of Verhoeven’s work, then this ambitious and morally complex war epic comes highly recommended. [Incidentally, Soldier Of Orange proved to be a great international success, finding favour with audiences and amassing numerous critical accolades around the world before eventually going on to win the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 1979.]
Presented in anamorphic 1.66:1, the print Anchor Bay has sourced for this DVD is impressively devoid of any noticeable dirt, scratches or damage. However, the transfer is a little soft so the image tends to suffer in terms of fine detail. The picture is also rather grainy for much of the time although artefacting is minimal. Colours are also slightly muted but, generally, this is a very acceptable transfer and I doubt the film could look much better than this.
Presented in Dutch 2.0 mono (with optional English subtitles), the dialogue is clear and hiss-free, and the sound effects, such as explosions and gunshots, are rendered well enough given the limited soundstage. The music score also sounds punchy and effective. Nothing more to be said.
First of all, the disc contains a standard main menu accompanied by music from the film while the movie has 32 chapter stops. The extras include a theatrical teaser (which last 45 seconds and contains absolutely no footage of the film itself, just captions informing the audience of the cast, who the director is, and when the film is to be released), a still gallery consisting of 54 images (some of which show the film under the alternate title “Survival Run”), detailed talent bios of director Verhoeven and stars Rutger Hauer and Jeroen Krabbe, and finally an audio commentary from Verhoeven.
On it, he discusses such topics as his relationship with the cast and crew, his personal attachment to the story and how his own life experiences shaped the way he shot certain sequences such as the frat house scenes, the on-set rivalry between Hauer and Krabbe, as well as revealing what happened to real-life writer Roelfzema after the war. He describes the shooting of the film, and the mixed reaction of the Dutch public to the on-location filming of certain historical incidents, for example, a notable scene which depicts German soldiers marching on parade through the streets of Holland receiving flowers from members of the Dutch community. He also talks about his use of music in the film, the artistic licence he took in adapting the story for the screen, and his initial uncertainty regarding Hauer’s ability to effectively portray the central character of Erik. Most interestingly, perhaps, he also mentions a significant error he made in the representation of one of his main characters, and regrets that he did not rectify it. Overall then, although Verhoeven’s comments may occasionally tend to echo what is happening on-screen, the director still manages to be as illuminating and as entertaining as ever, and the commentary should prove to be a useful guide for those interested both in Verhoeven’s filmmaking process and in the historical background of the story.
Released as part of its ‘Paul Verhoeven Collection’, Anchor Bay has delivered another fine DVD of one of the Dutchman’s best films. Picture and sound quality are solid and the extras are pretty good, so if you enjoy WWII films and you’d like to experience Verhoeven’s work at its most humane, then there’s no reason not to add this disc to your wishlist.
Last updated: 04/07/2018 05:36:31