Narratives of Resistance: Verhoeven's Soldier of Orange

By Telotte, J. P. | Film Criticism, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Narratives of Resistance: Verhoeven's Soldier of Orange


Telotte, J. P., Film Criticism


Paul Virilio has suggested that contemporary culture has become a kind of "vision machine," one that constructs images that effectively "colonize" our perspective and ultimately our consciousness (Vision 59). Film, television, advertising, even the internet, he offers, produce narratives that, like some colonial power, assert a mastery over us, impose a certain control over how we see, and defy resistance. In the films of Paul Verhoeven we see a consistent effort at revealing that cultural machine and countering the master narratives it projects--an effort that moves from foregrounding the workings of the vision machine to interrogating its operations, even its implications for film. Certainly, that effort shows most strikingly as a stylistic feature of the films he has made since moving to America: the way he consistently embeds in his narratives images of the contemporary media's powerful presence and evidence of its insistent voice, constructing how we see our world and ourselves. Yet even before arriving in the mediated world of postmodern America--and before critics had begun to comment on symptoms of this vision--Verhoeven had begun to survey this territory and, more importantly, to explore the deeper desire found throughout Western culture to control how we see. His Soldier of Orange (1974), a film about the German invasion and occupation of his Dutch homeland during World War II, and especially its historical account of the resistance to those events, is a case in point.

All of Verhoeven's American films, but especially his science fiction works, explore the technological shaping or control of our perspective, and particularly how that shaping affects our sense of the real. The most obvious evidence of this concern surfaces in the interspersing of television news and commercial spots throughout Robocop (1987), a device which establishes the loss of all measure of appropriateness or law in the futuristic world that film depicts. Total Recall (1990) deploys similar media intrusions to motivate its protagonist's actions; the character Quaid/Hauser keeps having "bad dreams"--dreams that lead him to believe he is someone else--because, as his wife tells him, he is "always watching the news." Starship Troopers (1997) offers a variety of propaganda, news, and commercial clips, presented as if part of a worldwide interactive video feed that evokes the workings of the internet. They suggest in that film the nearly irresistible power of the "vision machine," a power easily able to transform us all into "troopers" willing to accept and support a fascist agenda. And the recent Hollow Man (1999) depicts an extension of that effect, as it focuses on a technology that fosters this slippery sense of the real, rendering the individual invisible, making the eye irrelevant, and replicating the sort of side effects we see in all of these films: a kind of detachment from the real world and even from the self, an image that is there and yet not there.

Although hardly a science fiction film, the genre most closely associated with Verhoeven, Soldier of Orange lays an early foundation for this line of interrogation. Its apparent differences derive largely from its anchoring in a relatively recent historical situation, one that prompts us to draw all too easily the lines of good and bad, of controlling and controlled, even of truth and fiction--in short, a context whose realistic grounding obscures the subtler workings of that vision machine which, Virilio notes, was just taking shape during the World War II era. In fact, initial reviews of Soldier of Orange clearly sought to frame it in a rather conventional context, as a kind of historical romance, detailing the brave Dutch resistance to the Nazis. Janet Maslin, for example, notes the film's historical basis, describes how its action elements lead "in the direction of swashbuckling," and rather dismissingly terms it "a good yarn," a tale of "derring do in dinner clothes" (Maslin). …

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