Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Windmill Too Far

Film: Soldaat van Oranje (Soldier of Orange)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

If you look at my archive, you may notice that I haven’t specifically avoided any part of the list or any film in the specific. I realized recently, though, that I have somehow missed all of the films by Paul Verhoeven. This is surprising and completely unintentional. Now, close to 60% done, Verhoeven is a measurable part of The List, which is the main reason I watched Soldaat van Oranje (Soldier of Orange) today.

There’s a particular type of World War II film that I watched a lot of as a kid, frequently in the company of my older brother. My guess is that my own personal interest in World War II comes in no small part from these films and their specific way of looking at the war. There is a moral clarity in these films, a sense of good and evil, right and wrong. There’s also a good bit of adventure and danger, which is what kept me in my seat while I watched. I’m thinking of films like The Great Escape or A Bridge Too Far specifically, with its cast of thousands and stories of both the military and The Resistance. Such a film is Soldaat van Oranje.

A group of relatively wealthy college students in Holland acts like, well, college students. They play pranks on each other that sometimes backfire, play a lot of tennis, and suddenly, their lives change completely as the war starts. It is their belief and hope that, as with the previous war, Holland will remain neutral, a hope that quickly becomes shattered when Germany invades. The film follows the fates of these young men as the war goes from bad to worse, to unbelievable and then to final victory.

Erik (Rutger Hauer) and Guus (Jeroen Krabbe) are the main focus of the film, or are at least the characters with whom we spend the most time. When Holland is invaded, both attempt to join up, but are pushed aside by the recruiter, who seems unable to focus on anything. Instead, the pair joins the Resistance, eventually attempting to make their way over to England. Meanwhile, their friend Jan (Huib Rooymans), a boxer, defends a pair of Jews, and must escape. Erik offers him the chance to make it to England, but Jan is caught, imprisoned, and tortured.

On the other side of the fence, we have Robby (Eddy Habbema), who runs a small wireless set in communication with the Allies. Eventually, the invading Germans find him out, and convert him to work for them, mainly because Robby’s fiancée Esther (Belinda Meuldijk) looks (and likely is) at least partly Jewish. His compliance with sending false information and helping round up the Resistance is what keeps her out of a Polish labor camp and a mass grave. The final member of the group is Alex (Derek de Lint), who joins the Dutch Army, and with the capitulation, signs up with the Germans and fights in an SS unit on the Russian Front.

Throughout the film, we move back and forth between the stories, seeing in many cases the results of particular actions as well as the personal and private failures and successes of the characters. Jan, for instance, never talks and never reveals any information to the Germans, and eventually pays for it, ending up buried in an unmarked grave in the sand dunes near the coast. Guus and Erik eventually make it to England where they work for the Resistance, both eventually crossing back into Holland with the goal of bringing out important people for post-war Holland as well as tasked with the idea of spreading rumors about the imminent Allied invasion of the continent, hoping to mislead the enemy into thinking the invasion might occur on the Dutch coast. As one British officer comments, it’s not important whether or not they return or die as long as they help further the cause of misinformation regarding the invasion.

And so, while the machinery of war marches on heartlessly, using up and discarding the people caught up in the struggle, those people continue to live and survive as best they can—as dupes, as collaborators, as fighters against oppression. The plot, such as it is, is one of survival through the war and the struggle to reclaim Holland and eventually the European continent, all told through the lives, actions, and thoughts of these characters.

Soldaat van Oranje is not a character-driven movie. We see, for instance, Erik graduate from college with a law degree, but that degree never really enters into the film otherwise. He could have just as easily had any other degree for all of the impact this makes on the narrative. In fact, based on circumstances, many of these characters could be swapped out for each other. While it might be a stretch to see, for example, Erik donning an SS uniform as Alex does, it’s not a difficult think to envision him trapped in the same sort of conflict as Robby and thus acting as Robby does.

That, certainly, is a part of the point of this film, but this is not a film with a deep or important message. The story is what’s important here, the story of the struggle and of survival against these terrible conditions and odds. Throughout, there is less a sense of duty and urgency and more a sense of fate in the proceedings. Esther, at the end of the film, her hair cut short to mark her as a collaborator, holds no grudge and shrugs about her treatment. She and Robby did what they did to survive, just as everyone else who survived did.

There’s plenty of action and intrigue in this film, which is probably why it seems shorter on character and longer on events. It’s also another reason why it feels so familiar to me, like those films I mentioned back at the start. What people do here is far more important than who is doing them. The actions are critical, and in many ways independent of the characters.

If I have a complaint, it’s that everything wraps up too quickly—not an easy thing to say for a film that runs about 2 ½ hours. Erik, though, desperate to fly for the RAF, only gets into a cockpit with about 15 minutes left. It’s almost as if Verhoeven ran out of film or was told to keep the film under a certain length, so he cut half an hour from near the end and shoehorned a year of war into 15 minutes. In many ways, I’d have loved to have seen this as a mini-series of 4-6 hours in length where the full scope of the story and the characters could be given room to breathe and stretch, but I’ll take it and enjoy it for the ripping yarn it is.

Why to watch Soldaat van Oranje: A classic tale of World War II.
Why not to watch: After a sweeping story, it all wraps up far too fast.


  1. It was interesting to see a WWII film from the Dutch perspective. Yet, like you, I found the ending rushed and unrewarding.

  2. There are parts in the middle (the unsatisfying and ultimately there-for-titillation sex scenes, for instance) that could have been cut for a more satisfying end. As a four- or six-part miniseries, it would have ultimately been more satisfying.