In Black Book (in theaters across the U.S. today), Dutch starlet Carice Van Houten plays the typical Paul Verhoeven femme fatale—aggressive, cunning and gorgeous. The director, best known in the United States for classic guilty pleasures like Basic Instinct and Showgirls, returned to his native Holland to tell the complicated story of life in the country during the final days of WWII. With a compellingly and risky performance that earned her a third Golden Calf (the Dutch equivalent of an Oscar), Van Houten plays a Jewish woman who goes undercover for the Dutch Resistance and falls in love in the process. Eric Kohn spoke with the Dutch actress in Austin, TX last month.
What sort of reactions have you been getting to your performance as the Jewish character Rachel Stein?
It’s funny. Even though she isn’t the perfect hero, the audience is with her anyway, because you like her. She’s a human being, not Catwoman.
She is identified as Jewish, but the movie doesn’t make overt physical connections to her culture and faith.
It was difficult, because in the beginning I was thinking, ‘I don’t look Jewish. I have blue eyes!’ But then I felt really stupid because, of course, there are black people and redheads who are Jewish. It made me realize that not everyone looks like Woody Allen and Anne Frank. And the German [character in the film] wasn’t a blond guy with blue eyes. To play my character, I talked to a few Jewish people, asking them, ‘What is typically Jewish?’ It was difficult for them to answer that.
Rachel falls in love with the Nazi Ludwig Muntze, played by Sebastian Koch. Somehow he’s an entirely sympathetic character.
It’s complicated and we wanted to approach it very subtly and carefully. We wanted to see if a love story could overcome the fact that it’s between a Jewish girl and a German man, who obviously isn’t the German you expect him to be. Even though he chose the bad party, it doesn’t mean he was born an asshole.
Do you consider the movie a tragedy?
Yes, in a way. These people connect because they were both wounded. He lost his family as well. It happens so often that people fall for the wrong guy.
There is a lot of subtlety to your performance, particularly when your character has to pretend to enjoy herself in the company of Nazis. How did you bring such nuances in your reactions?
Paul [Verhoeven] gave me a lot of freedom. He gave me a lot of space and trust. I felt really like I could do my own thing. Of course, sometimes he would correct me a little, but he trusted me. I was brought up on silent films—Chaplain, Laurel and Hardy—because my father was a silent film freak and he writes about them. It’s all in me. I would love to do a film where I don’t speak. I fuck up so much with talking. Really!
As an actress with a career based in Holland, what’s it like for you to encounter American audiences?
I’m very happy that they’re subtitling it here. They dub it in Germany, Italy and France. Reaction-wise, there’s not so much difference between Europe and America. Maybe Americans see the more amusing side of it, the irony—there were more laughs in the audience outside Europe. Of course, in Europe, the story is a little closer to home.
Do people consider Rachel Stein to be the hero of this movie?
Yes. I read a lot about young women in the Resistance in Holland, and after reading about just one 19-year-old girl, I was already identifying with her. It was all very scary, courageous work. All of sudden, she has to shoot someone because he’s in her way. Everyone [who sees the film] wants me to kill the killer, which is very interesting. If you want the innocents to kill, then it’s never going to stop. It shows how difficult it is to forgive if people do bad things to you.
Is this movie your calling card to the American film industry?
I hope it is, so I don’t have to knock on the door of every agent in showbiz. I’m very grateful for the fact that I can say, â€˜Well, if you’re interested, just go and see the film.’ It’s a dream part for a woman. I definitely would like to work outside my own country, because the film industry [in Holland] is too slow.
Are there particular American filmmakers you’d like to work with?
This [Guillermo] del Toro man is interesting. And the directors of Little Miss Sunshine are very nice as well. I always say that if Paul Thomas Anderson calls me, I’m on the first plane. I love Magnolia. And Sydney Pollack. Tootsie is one of my favorite films. I’ve worked so hard and so much so there are so many things I haven’t seen yet.