Masterpiece Theater, Dutch-style.
Paul Verhoeven didn’t always make big budget action pictures like Robocop or Total Recall or even Starship Troopers. Before his Hollywood period began in 1985, he had had a lengthy directorial career in Holland — one that was fairly successful, but seemingly often marked with tumult. Verhoeven’s collaborator and sometimes nemesis during much of the 1970s and early 1980s was Rob Houwer, his producer for five of his films. The two seemed to be frequently at odds over scripts, money, and publicity, with Verhoeven increasingly feeling that he was benefiting much less from their collaborations than the amount of effort that he was contributing as director should warrant. The film Keetje Tippel was released in 1975 and represented the mid-film of this cycle.
Anchor Bay has now released Keetje Tippel on DVD as part of its Paul Verhoeven Collection.
Times are tough for Keetje Tippel and her family, living in northern Holland in the late nineteenth century. The family moves to Amsterdam seeking a better life, but its arrival finds all them living in a rat-infested basement apartment, which soon floods due to heavy rain. Her father, sister, and even Keetje herself are unable to keep their jobs and soon the family is reduced to forcing Keetje into prostitution to put bread on the table.
Eventually, Keetje gets a job as an artist’s model and then catches the eye of a young bank clerk named Hugo. Keetje moves in with Hugo and she soon starts to become a more cultivated young woman. Eventually Hugo tires of her and Keetje leaves only to find herself caught up in one of the socialist street rallies of the times. As the rally progresses, she meets up with André, a wealthy activist who has secretly been in love with her for a long time. When the rally is brutally put down by the police, Keetje and André have to run for their lives.
The story dramatized by Keetje Tippel is based on autobiographical writings by Neel Doff, a Dutchwoman who lived from 1858 to 1942. As a young girl living in Amsterdam and Brussels, she worked first as a prostitute and later as an artist’s model. Eventually she married a rich socialist. For the film, Doff’s name was changed to Keetje Tippel, the surname Tippel meaning streetwalker in Dutch.
Keetje Tippel followed two years after Paul Verhoeven’s 1973 film, Turks Fruit (Turkish Delight), and showed a large degree of continuity in both cast and crew. Indeed the idea for the film came from Gerard Soeteman and Rob Houwer, the scriptwriter and producer respectively of that previous film. They saw the story as one in which Keetje would be portrayed as an individual in troubled times, as the period of her youth coincided with the appearance of the socialist movement in Amsterdam. Verhoeven was at first not enthusiastic about doing the film as he was unhappy with the story’s somber elements, but he was convinced to undertake it when it was suggested by Houwer that the film could be addressed on a grand scale. A sum of $2 million guilders was budgeted for what would be the most expensive Dutch film made to that time.
The first draft of the script ran an impossible 500 pages and reflected the grandiose vision that Verhoeven had for the film. Equal time was to be given to both Keetje’s life and the historical background of the times. At that point, Houwer intervened, essentially demanding a complete revision. The Dutch film commission, Productiefonds, also made its approval of funding subject to the film being primarily about Keetje with the historical setting touched upon more as background than anything else. Finally, a much-reduced-in-scope script was completed and shooting began in July 1974.
As with Turks Fruit, the two principal actors were again Monique van de Ven (Keetje) and Rutger Hauer (Hugo). Van de Ven is fairly effective providing Keetje with a measure of independence, free thinking, and to some degree innocence. Verhoeven apparently saw elements of Joan of Arc in Keetje’s character, but there is no sense of the conviction and faith necessary to suggest quite such a dimension in van de Ven’s portrayal. Hauer’s work as the bank clerk Hugo is fairly bland in a role that doesn’t offer much for the actor to sink his teeth into.
Some aspects of the film are nicely handled by Verhoeven. The entire opening segments that trace the family’s move to Amsterdam and their first night in their new lodgings give us a good sense of the family dynamic and the desperate state of poverty in which the family is trapped. The almost constant rain and drab surroundings that Verhoeven employs reinforces this emphatically. Once Keetje and the film move on to more congenial surroundings, the story becomes less interesting and Verhoeven seems to be merely going through the material in an uninspiring though workmanlike manner. Perhaps, by that stage, he was becoming frustrated by the whole business. Reportedly, the set increasingly suffered from battles for control with Houwer, not to mention marital discord involving the newly married couple of van de Ven and Jan de Bont (cinematographer on the film). De Bont was particularly perturbed by any nude scenes involving van de Ven and frequently made his displeasure with her known to all within earshot. Mind you, there are plenty of instances of Keetje involved in sex scenes for de Bont to complain about, but that’s par for the course in a Verhoeven film
Anchor Bay’s DVD release brings us Keetje Tippel in an anamorphically enhanced 1.66:1 transfer. The results are more pleasing than those of the Turks Fruit release. Colours are fairly bright and shadow detail is usually good, although there are some instances of murkiness. Some grain is evident, but is probably a reflection of the source material. Edge enhancement is not a concern.
The audio transfer is unremarkable. It’s Dolby Digital mono and does the job quite adequately. Dialogue is clear and free of age-related hiss or distortion.
The disc contains a reasonable selection of supplements. The primary item is an audio commentary by Paul Verhoeven. He gives us a generally interesting talk, the best parts of which relate to information about the cast and crew, many of whom are not familiar to most North American filmgoers. Although some of Verhoeven’s comments are simply descriptions of what we see on the screen, there are interesting remarks on production details, camera and lighting choices, and some of the film’s symbolism. Two theatrical trailers are included — a German release version and the U.S. release version — as is a short still gallery composed of both colour and black and white shots. Finally, there is an admirably detailed set of bios for the director and the two principal players.
The decision to scale back the scope of Keetje Tippel in order to concentrate mainly on Keetje really comes into question in the film’s second half. Up to the point where Keetje is forced to become a prostitute by her mother, Keetje and her family’s story is quite compelling. Once she becomes an artist’s model, however, the story becomes fairly prosaic. In so doing, what remains of the historical background — namely the socialist street demonstrations — seems sadly lacking. Those events come across as minor skirmishes that act merely as conveniences to drive Keetje’s story to the next scene, rather than significant events in themselves. As a result, the film seems to trivialize important events in Dutch history. This was obviously not Verhoeven’s original intent, but rather forced on him by circumstance. Nevertheless, the film suffers substantially because of it.
Keetje Tippel is somewhat of a mixed bag. It’s first half is very well-done, but the second half suffers from having to scale back substantially on a more lavish portrait of the times within which Keetje lived. Still, it’s interesting to see this type of Masterpiece Theater-like material set in Holland and Monique van de Ven’s performance is quite good for the most part. Anchor Bay is to be commended for making this sort of material available to us, and for making quite a reasonable effort on the overall DVD package. Uneven, but definitely worth a look.