Michael Verhoeven - Germany's Cinematic Conscience
German director Michael Verhoeven has been honored on both sides of the Atlantic for his unflinching portrayals of Germany's Nazi-era and wartime past. But he really would rather be making comedies.
Germany.info caught up with him during a December 2009 visit to Washington, when he was honored with a Visionary Award at the 20th Washington Jewish Film Festival, which screened his films Mutters Courage (My Mother's Courage, 1995), Oscar-winner Das schreckliche Mädchen (The Nasty Girl, 1990), and Menschliches Versagen (Human Failure, 2008).
Your father (Paul Verhoeven) was a director and actor, your mother was an actress, and you as well as your sister Lis took similar career paths. You have described the 12 years of Nazi rule in Germany as "stolen years" for your father. Did your parents ever consider leaving Germany – as many artists (from the German-speaking world) did at the time – and going into exile, for example to New York or Hollywood?
Enlarge image Michael Verhoeven in 2006 (© picture-alliance/dpa) Good question. That is how my father felt about it – stolen years. He was not an advanced high school graduate, he had no foreign languages, and so for him it was never even a consideration to practice his profession, which has so much to do with language, anywhere else other than Germany. So in this sense he felt trapped and this was kind of an inferiority complex which he had.
And within the context of this sense of entrapment his work simultaneously shifted from theater to film. That was the path which one could take at the time if one was lucky enough to have such a career. And that was the moment of truth – to maybe give up your career and do something else, so that you never were in danger of cooperating with the system. The big question was: "What am I allowed to do, what am I, what do they see in me?"
He was a very musical person, who could not read notes but could play piano – just like that (laughs)! That was fascinating for us kids: We would torture ourselves and practice and our father demoralized us by simply sitting at the piano and starting to play, and he always got it right and it always sounded wonderful. I then asked him: "How do you do that?" And then he said: "Well, I don’t even know – I can play with my eyes closed – and I really don't know why."
As a result of his musicality, his first film was Die Fledermaus, by Johann Strauß. That was his genre – music and comedy – and that is why he was not in danger. It would have probably gotten critical if he had ever been presented with a script that dealt with ideology. But he was lucky that he was not tested – on the one hand. On the other hand later we – when we grew up and became defiant – had difficult discussions with him, because I always said: "Even with a film about music, even with Johann Strauß, you supported the system." That was very difficult for him to endure.
Enlarge image German actor and director Paul Verhoeven onstage in Munich in 1974. (© dpa - Bildarchiv ) But he did in any event have this good fortune – he never had to refuse anything. He was never made an offer that was critical or distasteful vis-à-vis the machinations of the Third Reich. And he was rewarded later for his good fortune, when the Americans employed him as the director of the Bavarian State Theater. That is how we ended up in Munich – we are actually from Berlin – and now we are still in Munich (laughs).
But they were stolen years insofar as the theaters which he had worked at were closed in 1949. It was not until 1955 that he once again played his own first role at the theater (Julius Caeser). He did not perceive these interruptions as a suffering of the times or because of the political circumstances. But he still felt like it was a loss. Even people who were not personally threatened, like my father, suffered losses, or perceived these interruptions as a great loss. So that was what it was like with the stolen years.
By the way it goes on with my whole family as a theater family. My sister Lis was married to (the famous actor) Mario Adorf, and they have a daughter, Stella Adorf. She is also an actress and is in the midst of a great theater career. And she is married to a set designer. And my little sister Monika is also a set designer and a writer. It is simply a closed circle which I could only escape by saying: "Enough is enough, I'm not playing anymore roles and not doing anything else with theater and film – I'm going into medicine." And that is what I did then, much to the chagrin of my parents. "Medicine – what is that all about!?"
Your films for the most part address German themes, especially the dark side of events in Germany in the 20th century. What kind of an audience are you thinking of in making these films?
I cannot imagine any kind of audience. When you paint a picture, you can also not imagine who will linger in front of it and develop certain associations. I really cannot imagine it and I have had experiences that went against all of my own expectations.
For example my very first film (Paarungen/Couplings) was based on (August) Strindberg's Totentanz (The Dance of Death). I made this film in '67, two years after founding our company (Sentana), and it took two years until the film could be made, because the money had to come from somewhere. There was no funding at the time, so you could not submit your own project somewhere for funding.
Then everyone said: "Good Lord – Strindberg – when was that piece written?" "Well – 1900." "What, 67 years ago – are you crazy?" (laughs) But I had a great cast, with Lilli Palmer – it was about an old couple. The piece is about the Lebenslüge (life's lie) and I saw the immediate postwar years reflected through it … It was the Lebenslüge which I lived through as someone who grew up in the postwar years.
Enlarge image Michael Verhoeven and his wife, acclaimed Austrian actress and producer Senta Berger, at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1978. (© picture-alliance/dpa) And, oddly, at the very same time, Sir Laurence Olivier filmed it, as well as a Swedish director, Gunnel Lindblom – she was one of the two women in The Silence by Ingmar Bergamnn, and she also became a director. So three people in Europe had the same idea at the same time – to make a film based on Strindberg's Totentanz. But the film was still successful. And I almost went to ground, because everone said: "Man, you will never be able to pay back what you owe the banks." Yet it was not like that at all – luckily it went very well.
And it was similar several years later, with The White Rose. I submitted this project for funding in '80 and '81. It was refused five times. And the reason was always: "We cannot fund this, we are an economic entity, and no one is going to go see that – who is interested in young resistance fighters in the Third Reich?"
That was refused five times?
Yes, it was refused five times in a row over a period of two years. Yet it was only in those two years that I really began to conduct serious research, which freed me from the history books and everything which was in the institutes and I confronted the people who were still alive at the time. I thereby learned very different things than were written in books – naturally people wrote about the resistance who themselves were not active resistors. So you can also understand that everything was represented as a kind of self-defense: "Because I did not engage in resistance myself, any sensible civilian resistance could not have existed."
So that about sums it up. The White Rose group was dismissed as naïve and idealistic. You can still read about it today. And their dispersal of pamphlets was considered fanal – that was the Fanaltheorie (signal theory), which I then refuted. The Fanal (signal) was supposed to be: "Now you can murder us, we are martyrs of injustice." They were not that at all. And they had arranged to meet on that known day with their friends. They were totally normal young people – they went dancing and they had love affairs. There was just generally this totally wrong perception about them. I would not have uncovered the truth if I had not been rejected. So in retrospect I am not really mad about it.
I would tell you, when you ask which audience I imagine: It is not predictable what happens with a film.
So you are not thinking in particular of a German, a European or an international audience?
International? No, we never even dared to think about that. When I began the boundaries which we perceived were very limited. And I must say – these political films which I make, which are set in the Third Reich, I do not make for an international audience, I make them for Germany. I am not upset if the film is screened abroad, but it is not made for this express purpose.
I was in Jerusalem, for instance, with my latest film Menschliches Versagen (Human Failure), and there were a lot of old people in the audience, many of whom were certainly survivors. And then I thought: "My God, now they have to watch that. And I didn't even make that for you."
You are also a fully trained doctor and practiced this profession for several years. You have often said you really enjoyed doing so but then had to eventually give it up.
Enlarge image Senta Berger and Michael Verhoeven, who have been married since 1966, at the Goldene Kamera awards in Berlin on January 30, 2010. (© picture-alliance/dpa) I studied medicine as a form of protest against my family. It was of course also idealistic. Even as a schoolboy I saved all my allowance and what I earned as a young actor I sent to a clinic in the Amazon jungle. I had a romantic vision of medicine. I never wanted to work in a medical practice. I only worked in hospitals. I thought, originally, I would go to the jungle, where there are no doctors, so that there is also one there. That really was a romantic idea.
And then I experienced the daily grind in a hospital. That was not so great at the time in Germany, I have to say. There was still a very strong hierarchical mindset back then. I would never have dared to ask a surgeon anything during an operation, never.
And then I came to America, to Worcester, Massachusetts, for a four-month internship. There I saw that you can talk to doctors, that you can ask them questions, and they aren't mad about it at all (laughs). And I thought that was great, this American system, which was so open. I worked for many years in hospitals, until the end of '72, and parallel to this I had my film production, so I was leading a kind of double life. And when I worked in the hospital, later, as a chief physician, with more responsibility, then the American system had also been introduced in Germany. Thankfully that all turned out really well. And now it has gotten bad again, because they have no more money – too few nurses, too much understaffing … there is not enough money anywhere.
And did your experience as a doctor influence your work as a director in any way – are you essentially seeking to "heal" through your films, to use an obvious kind of cliche?
That is really kind of a cliche (laughs). No, you will laugh: I really prefer to make comedies. And I made a successful television series, starring Senta (Berger), my wife, as a taxi driver. It's called Die Schnelle Gerdi (Speedy Gerdi), because she is just speeding through everywhere. But she is speedy in general, because she does not reflect for a while, but instead simply does or says something. That was a great comedy series.
I simply like to make comedies. The fact that I always encounter this political material, even though I tell myself "nope, I don't want to delve into this 'Third Reich' topic anymore," stems from the unavoidable nature of this topic. It isn't pretty to sit at the cutting table and see these terrible images over and over again. We had a lot of footage for the documentary film Der Unbekannte Soldat (The Unknown Soldier), about the crimes of the Wehrmacht. I worked on that for nine years and then I thought "no way, never again."
But then another topic comes my way, like in my last film Menschliches Versagen (Human Failure), which I myself find so surprising. And then I am involved in a new project again.
And do you have the feeling that there are too few German directors who take on these tough topics like you?
Yes naturally. But you also must undertand that. My son, Simon, for instance, has made a comedy that has just opened in Germany called Männerherzen (The Hearts of Men), which focuses on romantic relationships – my son is in his mid-thirties. For him the Third Reich is already pretty far away. He says "that was a great film, which you made there!" and that's about it. But I believe he would never get the idea to do something like that himself.
He grew up very differently. He does not necessarily see himself as a German, he sees himself as a European. And it is nice to see how Europe is gradually learning to understand itself. Slowly, slowly – mutual understanding is most sorely lacking in Berlin, because of the Wall. They just tolerated it, this division.
Enlarge image A scene from The White Rose, starring Wulf Kessler and Lena Stolze (who also played the lead in Michael Verhoeven's Oscar-winner The Nasty Girl) as siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, Munich-based students who were executed by Germany's wartime Nazi dictatorshop for their roles in the White Rose resistance movement. (© picture-alliance/akg-images) I have a movie theater in East Berlin. I've had it now for 17 years. And when I talk to the people there, in Weissensee, well these are people who stick to their identies as DDR-Menschen (people from the former East Germany).
They experienced this history, and they do not want other people to tell them how their own history was. Everyone experienced it – for some it was bad, for others it was better. That is why this whole Stasi (East German secret police) thing is difficult, because even those people who worked for the Stasi have explained it in some form so that they can stand living with their own past.
So right there you could make a movie again about the Lebenslüge (life's lie).
The White Rose unleashed a heated debate in Germany. What was it like then?
It was like this: The Bundesgerichtshof (Federal Court of Justice) is our second-highest court, a court which does not issue verdicts itself, but reviews the verdicts of other courts, so it is an appelative court. Unfortunately the Bundesgerichtshof in two trials in the 1960's declared the People's Court (Volksgerichtshof) of Roland Freisler a proper, legal court which was only acting under its own conscience.
And then I came along and said: "Wait a minute, we're celebrating the people of the White Rose as role models and then we are saying those who murdered them only answered to their own conscience?" That is what led to this unrest. The judges stuck together in 1945. They also continued to be judges, of course, so then it was a colleague sitting in the office next door, so you did not want to attack him.
But I attacked the Bundesgerichtshof and said: "Just think about what you've decided there." That was an attack on a constitutional organ. That was the clash. And because my (film) credits attacked a constitutional organ, the film was not allowed to be screened by the Goethe-Institut’s. But then this clash still had a good outcome, namely that people rethought their positions. And then on January 25, 1985, two years after the beginning of this clash, the Bundestag (German parliament) issued a declaration, that it was indeed true what I had said and that this People's Court was an instrument of terror and not a court and all of its verdicts were "canceled".
Enlarge image Senta Berger as Die Schnelle Gerdi, a popular German TV show directed by Michael Verhoeven, in 2004. (And, yes, in Germany most taxi cabs are ivory-colored Mercedes cars!) (© picture-alliance/Sven Simon) (Hans) Engelhardt, the federal justice minister at the time, said, all verdicts that the People's Court had made were already "canceled" by the Allies – just look into the Federal Criminal Register, where you will not find any. And this gave us the idea to do that, so we looked into it and they were all recorded in there. Then the journalists stepped in and family members of the murdered White Rose victims. All verdicts of the People's Court are gone because of this film – there simply is no People's Court anymore!
.... I never even dared to expect something like that. I wanted to have the discussion, yes, but I did not hope that it would really lead to anything.
What is the general situation of German film? In the past you have expressed frustration at only 20 percent of market share. Should more Germans watch films from Germany?
Now we already have a bit more. But I have also experienced only 8 percent of German films screened in German theaters. Now it's relatively good, because it is already 25 percent. And I get annoyed that everyone is so euphoric and exclaims: "Oh – a market share of one quarter of all films are German!" Imagine if here in America only 25 percent of all American films would be screened in American cinemas – there would be riots!
I am not satisfied, because it is so paltry. This is a distortion of the market. And what is the cause of this distortion? Simply put it's the preponderance of the American "majors". There simply is more American money on the market. It is as if somone would open a hot dog stand up against McDonald's – no chance. We have no chance. And that is what makes me unhappy.
Aside from that I think that many Gemran films are truly exceptional – for instance comedies like Goodbye Lenin orThe Lives of Others, which of course is anything but a comedy. Or the new film by Simon, now I can show off a bit, had more than 2 million viewers withn the first five weeks in this small country – Germany.
So the quality of films and the success of films unfortunately have nothing to do with each other. One is making films, the other is marketing films. That is an almost insurmountable question: "How do I get my thing into the clogged up cinemas?" They are clogged by American films. That's where the power is.
Enlarge image German director, actor and composer Simon Verhoeven in 2008. (© picture-alliance/dpa) Simon would not have achieved this success with his film Männerherzen if he had not found an American distributor in Germany, meaning that they are putting all their resources behind carrying a German film. Simon is now the happiest person in the world.
He did not find any distributor for his first film. That is how close this connection is – he is still the same artist to be sure. His first film was a comedy, and I thought it was a wonderful film. It was called 100 Pro, but the title did not keep this promise. What can you do without a distributor? You could run to the movie theater with it under your arm and beg: "Please can you play this!"
That is a distorted situation which I cannot be happy about. But it could change, as in the way it has gone up from 8 precent to one quarter for instance. In Germany they speak German onscreen in American films. Many people simply accept that, and are happy that an American star is performing there whom they love, but who speaks German – "one of us". That has led to this distortion. The Americans are very intelligent in this regard and say: "Synchronization? Nope, wer're not gonna do it!" That is like a tariff barrier, and we cannot reverse this situation anymore, unfortunately.
What is the general situation of American film? Do you have certain favorites among your American colleagues, such as Woody Allen or the Coen Brothers?
You have alread named them. Woody Allen has even cited a European role model and said "Ingmar Bergman – that's how I want to make films". And the beauty of it is his films have nothing to do with Ingmar Bergman. I can only say it's great that there is a Woody Allen. The Coen Brothers also make interesting films. In general I have to say American film is mostly good, insofar as it comes to us. All the trash does not make it over to us, only the tip of the iceberg comes to Europe. And that is by and large excellent.
We also have great films in Europe. There are fabulous British films – Stephen Frears is one of my favorites. But they only have limited opportunities because of this distortation of the market. And I see in the case of my son Simon that this market power can be a wonderful thing, when a German film is championed by an American distributor in Germany.
You started out in theater. Should more film directors in your opinion also seek out experiences in theater?
Enlarge image Senta Berger with her then 1-year-old son, Simon Verhoeven, at a circus performance in 1973. (© dpa - Fotoreport) I teach film students in Munich. None of my students is someone who goes to the theater.
In Munich you are not exactly living in the boondocks. There are about 30 theaters in Munich and they could visit them anytime. Theater is just missing as part of the spectrum. I perceive it like this because I have known the theater since childhood. They only know television. Theater is more solid and perceptable – you can practically touch the people!
Do you have anything you would like to add? What are your next projects?
I hope that Simon's Männerherzen also comes to America!
Tomorrow I'm flying to Ohio, to research a possible new project. It is based on a true story in which someone is executed whose first execution failed. Can you execute someone twice?
Recently I was in Budapest on a scouting mission researching locations for a new film project. It is based on the diary of an 11-year-old Jewish girl which was a bestseller in the United States. The book is called Castles Burning. It is always compared to the diaries of Anne Frank. But it is a very different story, in particular because she survives. It is well written. The girl has a really sharp eye, with lots of humor. I received funding for this in Germany. It is really great what the German state has thought up. Funding for the survival of German film. Fantastic.
This interview was conducted by Karen Carstens in December 2009.