Interview with Michael Verhoeven: “In terms of politics, cinema was my ‘street’”
Mr Verhoeven, can you sketch how O.K. came about?
The starting point was an article in the magazine “Der Spiegel” about five American soldiers who, bored during a break in the fighting, captured a South Vietnamese girl named Mao, raped her, and in the end killed her for fear of punishment. I spontaneously wrote a theatre piece about it whose original title was “Massaker”. At the time, I had a framework contract as a film director with Rob Houwer Filmproduktion, for which I had to shoot two more films. We were unable to agree on the scripts. I suggested my play to Mr Houwer as a script project. He agreed. I wrote the script and titled it O.K., because that was the shortest symbol for America and the American war in Vietnam.
When exactly did the production begin?
We started rehearsals at the beginning of March 1970. They took place in a riding stable, because of the peat soil, which resembles a forest floor. I found the main location for the fictional battleground in Grünwalder Forst in a perfectly rectangular clearing. We were a small team: Igor Luther was the cinematographer, I directed, but I also took the role of the soldier Erickson, who breaks out of the group and reports the events to his captain. The Bavarians Hartmut Becker, Friedrich von Thun, Wolfgang Fischer, and Ewald Prechtl played the roles of US soldiers at my side. The popular actor Gustl Bayrhammer played the captain. All of us wore original US uniforms, but spoke colloquial Bavarian in our roles.
How did you get the idea of a Vietnam film with a Bavarian accent?
That was the compelling idea for the film, because I wasn’t concerned solely with the United States, but also with the question of whether or not Germans – citizens, politicians, journalists – should support this war. Of course, it could have been done in High German as well. But I grew up in Bavaria and was evacuated to Franconia as a child during the war. As a boy, I played football with the FC Bayern team. As a student at school, I was a speaker for Bayerischer Rundfunk in radio plays and school broadcasts. Bavarian was the language in which I could best write dialogues. And I wanted to bring the distant Vietnam War closer via the telescope of the Bavarian language, and at the same time react to the fact that the Vietnam War, via the evening news, was threatening to become a gruesome kind of entertainment for the German and Bavarian population. This alienation effect is explained in the film’s opening credits, when the actors present themselves by name and put on the American uniforms and army boots.
How were you socialised politically?
I started studying medicine at the Free University of Berlin in 1958. At the same time, I rehearsed and acted in Berlin’s theatres – in the Komödie am Kudamm and at the Renaissance-Theater. I also acted in films, for example in UND NOCH FRECH DAZU!, which was directed by Rolf von Sydow. The medical students around me seemed to have conservative stances, but the young people in theatre and film tended to be progressive and joined the early 68ers. I didn’t belong to either. But I sympathised with the student movement, with the “restless” youth, whom I called the “alarmed” youth. A small distinction.
Vietnam was one of the leading themes of 1968. You had already addressed it cinematically before making O.K.
I didn’t want to support the militant, violence-prone students in the streets and in the halls of the universities. I never joined the marches. Instead, in 1969, as my personal contribution to the issue of the Vietnam War– even before writing the play “Massaker” – I shot the satirical short film TISCHE about the so-called preliminary Vietnam peace talks in Paris, which were not focused on ending the war but on the shape of the negotiating table. A square or a round table was out of the question, because it would have made the warring parties seem formally equal. That seemed to me a very cynical attempt to make “peace”. My film TISCHE won international prizes, but the film rating commission [FBW, today: Deutsche Film- und Medienbewertung; ed. note], headed by the features editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Karl Korn, refused it the economically important seal “especially valuable” and threatened to withdraw the lower rating “valuable”. But the distribution company Atlas packaged TISCHE together with Ingmar Bergman’s magnificent film SKAMME as a non-exchangeable prelude film. In terms of politics, cinema was my “street”.
How did Eva Mattes become involved in O.K.?
Eva Mattes was chosen from screen tests from about a hundred young actresses. She was simply the best, although she was only fifteen. But the real Mao was that young, too. I had never seen Eva before. And she hadn’t acted in any film that had been released yet. Working together with her was ideal, because she was politically very bright and – like all the actors in the film – considered working on the film as a statement against how the German politicians and media supported the war. While we were shooting and the camera was rolling, I could talk with the actors, because we were shooting “MOS” and the soundtrack would be added later. We all got along very well, and everyone on the set was in love with Eva. After the soldiers throw her in the cold water of the Isar river, where Eva Mattes doesn’t squeal or flinch, as if she were really dead, Senta [Berger, Michael Verhoeven’s wife; ed. note] was there with a warming blanket and brought her home to us, where Senta’s mother was already waiting with a hot bath and drinks. Eva was enormously tough, because she loved the work. A year later, she received the German Film Prize. The script won an award, too. During the later events at the Berlinale, Eva never left my side.
We’ll get to that right away. But first, a few words about your artistic team. The cinematography particularly stands out.
Already because of his training in Prague, Igor Luther had caught my attention as a very professional cinematographer, with a deep knowledge of film in terms of practice, theory, and history. But above all, he was a very flexible practitioner and an artist in his field. The film was shot mostly with a handheld camera. We consciously worked without spotlights, at least in the forest, and seldom used a dolly. We had eleven shooting days, extremely few. But the sparse means fit very well with the artistic concept of reducing things to the essentials. In film, war is usually very visually impressive. I wanted to avoid this fascination effect of war scenes. The black and white in itself alienates the image, because reality is in colour, but we all know the black and white images of newsreels as a depiction of reality. The intended effect of credibility was further enhanced by the choice of film material. We shot with ORWO film, which was manufactured in East Germany; it is an extremely contrast-rich, “hard” material that is difficult to obtain in the West. As a Czech, Igor Luther was familiar with it.
You also edited the film, together with Monika Pfefferle.
I had also co-edited my first film, PAARUNGEN (1967), with Monika Pfefferle. She was my absolute first choice for the edit, which was supposed to underscore the murder-ballad character of the narration. The music, composed by Axel Linstädt and played by his “Improved Sound Ltd.”, introduces the film’s individual chapters. Each of the five soldiers has his own “chapter”. Having the same piece of music for each chapter has the effect of increasing the drama, because it heightens the scenic development dramatically. The film’s editing and music were finished faster than usual. It had to be the case, because there was very little time before the Berlin Film Festival.
The film was finished in time for the Berlinale 1970, which back then was still held in the summer. How did you experience the events at the festival?
At the screening during the Berlinale, the German jury member Manfred Durniok left the movie theatre while shouting loudly, whereupon the film was interrupted. The jury president, George Stevens, demanded from Dr Alfred Bauer, the Berlinale director, who was present at the screening, that the film be taken out of the competition immediately. Bauer cited the Berlinale’s status as an A festival, which meant that an accepted film could not be excluded from the competition. This was followed by altercations between the leadership of the Berlinale and Stevens, and between the Berlin and international press. The night after the screening, our producer, Rob Houwer, learned from jury member Dušan Makavejev, who stood up for the film, what exactly had happened at the screening. But we couldn’t invoke Makavejev, because a jury member is not permitted to make external statements. Dr Bauer claimed that Stevens had made no protest against the film at all, which was clearly a lie. We called a press conference, but Dr Bauer stuck to his lies, although Stevens had already departed and the jury could not carry out its function.
When did it become clear that the whole festival was at stake?
We left the name of our witness Makavejev with a notary. There were several press conferences, the whole city took part in the events, and finally Makavejev stepped down from the jury and confirmed what we had said. The international filmmakers were outraged about Dr Bauer’s obvious lies and withdrew their films. Halfway through, the Berlinale had no more films and the competition was ended. Dr Alfred Bauer resigned as director of the Berlinale [temporarily; ed. note]. Many staff members and journalists saw an opportunity to restructure the overall situation of the Berlinale. This is how the Forum was established in 1971.
(Interview: Bert Rebhandl, February 2020)