Reconciling with the past
German film director Michael Verhoeven, who is currently here as a guest of the Jerusalem Film Festival, is known in Israel mainly by virtue of one film: his sharp satire "The Nasty Girl" from 1990, which tells the story of Sonja, a high school student in a small German town who decides to write an article that will reveal the deeds of the town's inhabitants during the Third Reich. At first the townspeople object politely to Sonja's intention to reveal their past, and when politeness proves unproductive they employ violence against her. This excellent film was an international success, won many prizes and was nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign film category.
However, "The Nasty Girl" is not Verhoeven's only film that deals with World War II and the Holocaust. Inter alia, in 1982 he directed "The White Rose," which told the story of Sophie Scholl and her friends, who formed an anti-Nazi underground cell during World War II. In 1995, together with playwright and author George Tabori, he directed "My Mother's Courage" - the story of Tabori's mother during the war, and in 2006 Verhoeven directed his first documentary, "The Unknown Soldier," about crimes committed by the Wehrmacht on the eastern front that incriminated not only the high officers but also the simple soldiers who obeyed their orders.
The "ordinary man's" involvement in the Holocaust is a topic that interests Verhoeven and is also the subject of his new film "Human Error" (Menschliches Versagen), the screening of which at the Jerusalem Film Festival has brought the director to Israel. At the immediate level, the film deals with the question of what happened to Jewish property confiscated by the Nazis: To where did the furniture, pictures, jewelry and even children's toys disappear? At a broader level, Verhoeven's film depicts how everyone was involved in implementing the elimination of the Jews: neighbors, acquaintances, merchants, some of whom did not even define themselves as Nazis.
In conversation, Verhoeven relates that he had never asked himself where the property of the Jews who fled Germany or were sent to camps disappeared to. The question came to him when he read a newspaper article about an exhibition of findings from an archive in Munich, which was full of files with detailed descriptions of every item taken from Jews. The exhibition was no longer on when Verhoeven read about it, but he phoned its curator, came to see him with a camera and that it is how the film got going.
What is the source of his attraction to making films about the war and the Holocaust? Verhoeven, a pleasant man, does not obfuscate his desire to remind the Germans of what happened. On the contrary, even.
"When I was in high school," relates Verhoeven, who was born in Berlin in 1938 and was celebrating his 71st birthday on the day of our conversation, "the subject of Nazism and the Holocaust was taboo. You weren't allowed to talk about it. I was one of the few who came from a home where they did talk about this topic, perhaps because both my parents were actors, and there was a lot more openness. From an early age I was annoyed by the silence surrounding this topic. I would tell my schoolmates what I heard at home, and they wouldn't believe me. They would say that I was making things up, badmouthing, and their reactions were very often quite aggressive."
In other words, you were the "nasty boy," like Sonja, the heroine of your most famous film?
"Yes, but I, unlike Sonja, didn't suffer. I didn't go through what she went through in her attempt to uncover the past. I was in conflict not only with my schoolmates but also with my teachers. In history classes Nazism and the Holocaust were not mentioned at all. We studied German history until the rise of Hitler, without mentioning Hitler's name, and then we seemed to skip over a black hole in Germany's history in the present. I would ask my history teachers why we weren't learning about what happened during the war, but they of course were not capable of answering me.
"Because I came from a wealthy home, I attended private schools. The paradox was that most of the teachers who taught me had been Nazis, who after the war were kicked out of the public institutions where they taught and went to private schools. Later, I transferred to a public school and then, at that period, the Nazi teachers were kicked out of the private schools and went back to teach at the public schools, so I had to put up with them again."
At a particularly moving moment, Verhoeven related that he did not argue only with his schoolmates and his teachers, but also with his father, Paul Verhoeven, who was one of the most famous film actors in Germany. His father was never a Nazi, but he continued to work in Germany during the Nazi period and in this context a huge quarrel erupted between father and son. When Verhoeven talks about it, his voice trembles with regret.
"Human Error" is directed with simplicity and narrated with highly effective dryness. It consists mostly of interviews with researchers and descendents of Jewish families whose property disappeared during the war. It includes still photographs and photographs of documents, but not filmed archival material from the time of the Holocaust. This was a conscious choice on Verhoeven's part. I ask him why he did this.
"It's a concept," he replies. "In Germany they believed for a very long time that Nazism was the result of a few madmen who controlled the country, but that wasn't true. Everyone was a partner to it. It didn't come from above; it wasn't something that fell on us from God. It was a broad human failure that included the whole German nation."
While watching the film I was astonished once again by the detail and precision with which the Nazis documented their every move. Only few of the archives from the war period have been opened thus far, but the quantities of documents brought to light are tremendous, and they detail every item that was taken. The Jews themselves were required to list the items belonging to them that they left behind. Even children, Verhoeven tells me, had to list what belonged to them, how many dolls they had and how many toys.
Is this need for detailed documentation of every single step in the process of eliminating the Jews a German pathology?
"No. The Nazis believed that they had to document everything in order to leave this information for future generations, for history, as testimony to the greatness of the Third Reich, in whose victory they believed. Nazism was like a religion for them, and those detailed documents were like sacred texts bearing its gospel."
As we speak, we are joined by Verhoeven's wife, who has accompanied him to Israel. She is actress Senta Berger, 69, and still astonishingly beautiful. Berger has also starred in non-German films like Sam Peckinpah's "Major Dundee," Michel Anderson's excellent "The Quiller Memorandum" with a screenplay by Harold Pinter and, Melville Shavelson's "Cast a Giant Shadow" (1966) which was filmed mostly in Israel - and she is still working constantly.
"They chose me to play an Israeli soldier girl in "Cast a Giant Shadow" because I'm Jewish," she says, and laughs. "I made friends with many Israelis at that time," she adds, and notes that Verhoeven visited her during the filming (they got married the year the film was produced). Verhoeven takes the opportunity to laugh at the amount of machismo that surrounded his wife in that film, in which she starred alongside Kirk Dougas, John Wayne, Yul Brynner and Frank Sinatra.
The couple have two sons, and when I ask Verhoeven whether they too work in film, he sighs and laughs and says that to his regret, they do. Simon, the elder son, is an actor who has just directed his first film, a comedy soon to be released in Germany, and Luca, the younger, is also an actor. Verhoeven relates that when he watched his elder son's first film he was so tense sitting next to his younger son, and laughed so much, that he didn't notice that throughout the whole screening he was clutching Luca's arm so hard that he left marks on it.
And what about the future? In his next film, a feature film, Verhoeven will document the last year in the life of Karl Marx, who lived in London at the time and was completely controlling of his three daughters' lives.
"After all, he was a Jewish father. This will be the story of Marx's last journey," he relates, adding that Marx will be played by German actor Mario Adorf, who until his divorce from Verhoeven's sister was his brother-in-law.
When I ask Verhoeven when the filming will start, he laughs and says that first he needs to write the screenplay, but he'd better hurry since Adorf is now nearly 80 years old.