Offering a fresh perspective on the German occupation of Europe during World War II, as well as bracing elements of sex and violence, the epic-length melodrama Soldier of Orange ticks several noteworthy boxes in film history. At the time of its release, it was the most ambitious and expensive Dutch film ever made, earning such international accolades as a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film. The picture was a milestone in the career of co-writer/director Paul Verhoeven, and it brought notoriety to leading man Rutger Hauer. (He soon found his way to Hollywood, and Verhoeven wasn’t far behind.) Finally, because the picture looks at World War II through a Dutch prism, Soldier of Orange became a point of national pride, and was, in 1999, named the second-best Dutch film of the 20th century. Tellingly, the first-place winner in that ranking was Turkish Delight (1973), a provocative romantic film that marked the first Hauer/Verhoeven collaboration.
Based on a biographical novel by Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, Soldier of Orange tells a complex story that sprawls across nearly a decade of Dutch history. Following a prologue, the movie proper begins at a college in the late 1930s, with ambitious fraternity pledge Erik (Hauer) experiencing brutal hazing at the hands of an older student, Guus (Jeroen Krabbé). Feeling guilty for his behavior, Guus helps Erik get through life, so their fates become entwined even as history nudges the Netherlands toward involvement in the war. The movie also tracks the lives of Alex (Derek de Lint) and Robby (Eddy Habbema), two other members of Erik’s collegiate social circle. Without getting mired in details, the gist is that Soldier of Orange follows the way different men react to the invasion of their country by German forces. Some collaborate, some resist, and some fall victim to the Third Reich.
In one important episode, Dutch resistance operatives create a pirate radio network to communicate with Allied forces in England. In another, Erik and Guus flee the Netherlands by steam ship, then accept orders from their queen-in-exile, Wilhemina (Andrea Domburg), to return home for a dangerous covert mission. Several highly eroticized love stories get woven into the mix, notably a triangle revolving around a British military secretary (Susan Penhaligon). By turns, the movie features adolescent tomfoolery, exciting spycraft, horrific torture, sexy romantic interludes, and the psychological horror of countrymen turning against each other.
Nearly everything that happens during the 149 fast-paced minutes of Soldier of Orange is interesting, though tracking all the names and places is challenging. As always, Verhoven’s filmmaking is emphatic and robust, so even though he’s a skillful storyteller, he sometimes plows so brazenly into complicated scenes that it’s tricky to remember who’s doing what to whom and why. It doesn’t help that some of minor characters are interchangeable, or that Verhoeven mostly portrays Nazis as one-dimensional monsters. Yet the strongest elements of Soldier of Orange are world-class. Production values, including re-creations of period costume and design, are impeccable. Hauer and Krabbé give performances that are, respectively, earnest and sly, so key moments are specific and vivid. And if Verhoeven occasionally succumbs to his lower impulses, with overlong scenes of carnality and carnage, that can be forgiven as a way of imprinting the piece with an authorial stamp.
Whether a resounding theme emerges, however, is another matter; Soldier of Orange has so much of everything that it feels more like an informative miniseries than a purposeful drama. Perhaps that was the idea. Instead of making a Grand Statement about the Dutch experience of World War II, maybe Verhoeven and his collaborators meant to show as many dimensions as possible of that experience. They did so, in forceful and unusual ways.
Soldier of Orange: GROOVY