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Verhoeven, Paul

Entry updated 25 October 2021. Tagged: Film, People.

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(1938-    ) Dutch filmmaker whose long career began in 1960 when he was still a student in Leiden, where he studied to Master's level in mathematics and physics. He refined his craft through the sixties, particularly in a documentary produced during his national service and on the iconic Dutch television series Floris (1968), where he made a star of the young Rutger Hauer. In the seventies he emerged as a major, if notorious, director of provocative sexually-themed features which attracted growing international attention (and domestic critical hostility). After De vierde man (1983) he made his English-language début with the gritty medieval swashbuckler Flesh + Blood (1985), a transitional work made in Europe with international money, cast, and production values; it led to his first US film RoboCop (1987), an iconic satire about a Cyborg policeman modelled partly on Judge Dredd, which spawned an enduring franchise including two disappointing film sequels scripted by Frank Miller, four live-action and animated television series, four comics series, and a 2013 film reboot. It was followed by Total Recall (1990), an exuberantly brutal adaptation of Philip K Dick's "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" (April 1966 F&SF). After a non-sf hit with the sexually based crime thriller Basic Instinct (1992), he incurred critical derision with a second Hollywood sex melodrama, the lavishly ludicrous Showgirls (1995), which flopped domestically but eventually turned a profit overseas. He returned to sf to reunite with his RoboCop writer Ed Neumeier for Starship Troopers (1997), an exquisitely deadpan self-satirizing adaptation of Robert A Heinlein's novel. His final Hollywood film was the studio project Hollow Man (2001), a lesser but far from negligible work exploring Invisibility in brutally Wellsian terms. He subsequently returned to the Netherlands, where he made the lavish World War Two drama Swartboek (2006) and in 2008 published a book Jezus van Nazaret on his longstanding interest in the historical Christ, with an English translation appearing in 2010. (Verhoeven is the leading lay member of the Jesus Seminar, a maverick international group of boat-rocking New Testament scholars.) He directed an experiment in crowd-sourced screenwriting for Dutch television under the title Steekspel (2012; vt Tricked), and continues to develop film projects to direct in Europe, but none has so far come to fruition.

Though he has made only four sf films in a fifty-year career and has long since moved on from the genre and from Hollywood, Verhoeven's standing as one of science fiction's most important and distinctive filmmakers has only grown as his films have matured in the cultural imagination – where they have recently been achieving re-entry via the remakes Total Recall (2012) and RoboCop (2014), with a Starship Troopers also in development. Ironically his involvement with sf, and the laconic heroes of his first two American films, arose in the first instance from simple diffidence over directing English dialogue at a sufficient level of nuance for more naturalistic genres; but he quickly found a voice as an unreconstructedly European sensibility at the heart of American pop mimesis, revelling in the collision of European and American values, celebrating eroticism, satirizing violence, and shaking the political complacencies of Hollywood attitudes to both. At the same time he demonstrated a flair for big-budget action and technically adventurous special effects which straddled the analogue and digital eras (as did his special-effects chief Phil Tippett, who moved from the creaky stop-motion of RoboCop to the fluid digital bugs of Starship Troopers a decade later). He has often traced his preoccupation with violence, fascism, and the politics of control to his childhood under Nazi occupation in The Hague, drawn on directly in Svartboek but already definitively reimagined in Starship Troopers, probably his most assured achievement, whose confessedly satirical and liberal intent was delivered with so straight a face as to be widely read as its exact opposite. His signature hard-edged wit and mischievous brutality towards his heroes have remained remarkably consistent across languages and genres; but they have found their most effective canvas, as well as their widest audience, in sf. [NL]

Paul Verhoeven

born Amsterdam: 18 July 1938

about the filmmaker


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