REVIEW: DVD Release: Soldier Of Orange

Film: Soldier Of Orange
Release date: 16th August 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 149 mins
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Rutger Hauer, Jeroen Krabbe, Susan Penhaligon, Edward Fox, Derek de Lint
Genre: Adventure/Drama/Thriller/War
Studio: Palisades Tartan
Format: DVD
Country: Netherlands

Paul Verhoeven has always been a cynic, teetering on just the right side of violent nihilist. Robocop was a vicious satire on the police. Starship Troopers a vicious satire on the military. Soldier Of Orange is set during the Second World War, it would be forgivable to call it a vicious satire on war, but it's not. It's a relatively gentle (for Verhoeven) satire on life and friendship that is no less devastating in its critiques for that.

Eric Lanshof is attending a fresher party at university. During the ritual humiliation dished out by seniors, he is knocked unconscious by the union president Guus Lejeune. Later Guus apologises, and the two share digs and a group of friends - Robby, Nico, Alex, Jan and Jack. As war descends upon them unexpectedly, these seven men react in very different ways.

Robby sets up a secret transmitter. Nico becomes heavily involved in the Dutch Resistence. Eric and Guus both decide to escape to England. Jan and Jack try to sit out the war, while Alex, whose mother is German, becomes ever more seduced by the German army. After an aborted attempt to reach England, which leads to the capture and execution of the Jewish Jan, Eric and Guus finally escape, but Eric has been fed false information about a traitor, and almost shoots the wrong man.

As two of only a handful of Dutch escapees, Eric and Guus are introduced to the exiled queen Wilhelmina, and recruited into her plan to bring the leaders of the Dutch Resistance to England. The plan is complicated and the traitor strikes again. The resistance leaders, Nico and Robby are shot and killed and Guus executed.

Eric returns to England once more, and becomes a pilot in the RAF, before becoming the queen's aide. On her triumphant homecoming to a free Holland, Eric returns to his flat and finds Jack, the only other survivor of his friends…

Soldier Of Orange is a film that bears all the hallmarks of being unremarkable, and yet, by the end, has left you breathless. It has gained the tag ‘epic’ due to its sheer length, yet it does not deserve such a tag - epic films are those that deal in broad sweeps of history. The characters in Soldier Of Orange don't so much make history as stumble around events that they barely comprehend, and mostly end up getting killed for their trouble. Thus while the characters are at first unremarkable, the events small and every day, we are slowly brought into their world, bearing witness to their deaths and entrances, and most especially, their failures, until the end scene, which is understated, yet quite devastating. Eric, the hero, has returned home. As he opens the doors to a scene of mass jubilation of freedom, he is asked what he will do now. “I don't know,” he replies, instantly hollowing out the perception of heroism and forcing the viewer to face a reality of war, that warriors become defined by what they do, that they have no purpose other than to fight, and while the Nazi's needed to be fought, what then? That Verhoven can express so much with a single line, instantly smashing the perceptions of a broad sweep of history, of heroes and villains, of bravery and cowardice, indicates the full power inherent in this film.

Verhoven is painting in shades of grey, his camera is a pure eye of realism, and he doesn't falter when covering his characters mistakes and failures, which are many. Indeed, Eric's RAF career, where he is successful, is barely covered. Verhoven isn't interested in it. He knows that heroes are created by how they face their mistakes, not how they celebrate their successes. Eric and Guus run a disastrous mission that ends up with most of the group dead. As Eric realises the danger and tries to save the mission, he puts himself in greater and greater danger, until, in a staggering scene, he finally finds himself literally dancing with his old friend Alex, now a fully fledged Nazi, and having to bluff his way past someone who knows almost everything about him.

The image of Guus escaping across the beach is unforgettable cinema in a film filled with memorable moments. Guus later guns down the traitor in broad daylight, and is immediately caught and then executed. By this point, we have almost forgotten that Guus sadistically humiliated Eric on their first meeting. Verhoven does not judge, however, his camera is simply there to record journeys. We sympathise with Alex, Jack, Robby and Esther, his wife, because we know why they do the things they do.

But this film could not have succeeded without its cast, all of whom are outstanding, but, of course, Rutger Hauer as Eric gives one of the great film performances. Hauer is a very difficult actor to film because he has such a gigantic presence on screen that he can often be allowed to dominate the camera, without even intending to. When he is onscreen, it's difficult to remember that other actors are around him. Some directors exploit this; others aren't good enough to control it. Verhoven, perhaps uniquely, manages to keep Hauer as part of a talented ensemble, and, in so doing, brings out shining performances.

Every major character is unforgettable, filmed beautifully, acted perfectly, and with understatement. We watch them grow and flower, whether as heroes, cowards or Nazis. We understand their justification, whether or not we accept it. Esther, who has turned a blind eye to the obvious, says, “I survived.” Esther is Jewish. Jan, the other Jewish character, did not survive. The audience do not need telling the obvious. How many of us would make the same decisions? These are real people we are watching.

Soldier Of Orange is a film made by a director at the height of his powers. The script, cinematography, direction and acting are all beyond compare, and sent Hauer and Verhoven to Hollywood. A masterpiece of European and war cinema, this is essential viewing, not just to cineastes, but to everyone. Unflinching and real. PE


  1. this is a tremendous film - Black Book is another classy offering from Verhoeven. neither are as good as showgirls though lol

  2. It is amazing how many great European directors go to Hollywood and make absolute tosh but then return home and show they are still tremendous talents. You only have to look at del Toro's filmography...