In Paul Verhoeven’s Words: Leap Into the Unknown

Verhoeven compared making RoboCop with making Elle and once said that the experience was a “leap into the unknown”. He elaborates it in an interview:

So you go to an unknown part of the world where you don’t know the people, and that’s frightening. But also, at the same time, if you do it, it turns out to be extremely inspiring. Because suddenly you’re activated – every cell in your body seems to be alive. It’s like a, let’s say, rejuvenation process to do it. I think that’s what I meant when I said doing RoboCop was similar to doing Elle.

With Black Book, at least I went back to Holland, and back to people that I knew. But in going to Paris, I went to people I didn’t know; locations I didn’t know; crews I didn’t know. And again, that step was frightening, because it was in another language – the third one. First working in Dutch, then in English, then working in French. I think that is anxiety-provoking, and for a long time I had headaches before shooting, because I was afraid…

That really wasn’t very pleasant. But doing it made me, probably, much more creative, you know? You step into the unknown. I feel that’s always creative. It’s existential, isn’t it, to step into something you don’t know. You can’t judge the moment, you can’t tell where it’s going to lead you. You’re not going down the same street you go down every day. It’s an unknown direction, and that activates something. That’s what I felt in RoboCop and in Elle.

Paul Verhoeven

 An interview for the Den of Geek in 2017

European directors who went to America to find an opportunity for artistic expression can be compared to Pilgrims who first colonized the continent. Anxious about their position in Europe, they travelled across the ocean to practice their religious beliefs freely. Directors like Billy Wilder, Roman Polanski, Douglas Sirk and many others found the possibilites the United States offered difficult to resist. We can imagine that something similar happened to Paul Verhoeven who came to the States and made his masterpieces which, to some extent, criticize the very country he moved to (similarly to Wilder and Sirk). The experience which Verhoeven narrates in this interview is not concerned with the final product (the specific film) but with the personal experience of leaving everything behind you and experiencing existential anxiety about it.

Although this is a fear of failure in making a specific film, this feeling of angst is not a fear about something concrete, it is an anxiety about one’s own being-in-the-world, understood by Heidegger as a path to authenticity of one’s own life. It is associated with care, as Heidegger understands it, but is in fact related to the something completely indefinite. When Verhoeven made that giant leap into the unknown, he was rootless. Everything around him was completely new, immersive, without a possibility of holding on to something familiar, he experienced the dread of not being “at home“ in the most complete sense. For Verhoeven, making films in Holland can be compared to feeling at home, being on your own soil, with people and culture familiar to him. But, when he moved from Holland to the United States and finally decided to make Elle in France, he experienced feelings of anxiety, and most likely consciously wanted to recreate them. In his own words, he pushed the boundaries of his own self and made himself more aware of his position in the world as an artist than the filmmakers who stay on their own soil throughout their whole career.

The first film Verhoeven made in the U.S., RoboCop, portrays the death of a police officer and his “rebirth” as a cyborg who fights crime, but is in fact programmed to serve a corporation. This narrative which resembles a Philip Dick novel can serve as a metaphor for Verhoeven’s own condition in the States. RoboCop experiences dread for being turned into a cyborg, the repressed material in his unconscious returns in a way which disrupts the unitary identity, it is uncanny as Freud understands it. While this uncanny feeling is not an impulse toward regaining one’s own self, since it is irreparably lost, it is a spark which ignites the rebellion. It would be too far-fetching to compare RoboCop’s experience in the film to Verhoeven’s, but the director’s anxiety and the drive to be artistically productive in a foreign environment can be compared to RoboCop’s position. The feeling of dread that RoboCop which feels in his new skin, is a catalyst for rebellion against the system which created him anew. This was Verhoeven’s desire, to fight the injustices of the very system which provided him with an opportunity of self-recreation. By creating RoboCop, Verhoeven managed to transform his own anxieties and fears into an artistic rebellion.






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