Only the Paul Verhoeven of “Basic Instinct” fame gets an entry in most film encyclopedias, but another Paul V. (no relation) directed nearly 40 pics and founded a film dynasty still active in Germany. Felix Moeller’s enjoyable documentary “The Verhoevens” traces the careers of this other Paul, his children, their spouses (including Senta Berger) and grandkids. Well done, if standard, docu nicely juggles talking-heads with clips and home movies, creating a window on postwar German cinema and theater life. An obvious choice for Euro cable, this has enough appeal to interest U.S. small-screen arts programmers.
Paul was an established theater actor when given his first helming assignment with Goebbels’ mistress, Lida Baarova, as star. The connection certainly helped his career and, though he never joined the Nazi Party, he had a fruitful time under the Third Reich making mostly musical comedies. At war’s end he was exonerated, but his kids remain ambivalent about the decisions their imposing father made during those years.
Son Michael began as a popular child and teen star, then rebelled against the family biz and became a doctor. But the pull of the director’s chair proved too strong, and he made an international splash with his anti-Vietnam War film, “OK,” famously banned by 1970 Berlin fest jury head George Stevens and then championed by Dusan Makavejev. (The controversy cut short the fest that year and no major prizes were awarded.)
Since then, Michael has tackled social and political issues, most famously his Holocaust inspired pics, “The White Rose,” “The Nasty Girl” and “My Mother’s Courage.” As sister Monika notes, “He confronts the issues our father failed to face after the war.”
While finishing med school, Michael married international star Berger, who in the mid-’60s was flying high with starring roles opposite Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston. Berger chafed at being pigeon-holed and, frustrated at losing the best parts to the likes of Julie Christie and Jane Fonda, she returned to Germany, where her Hollywood past made her something of a pariah among the crop of “Young German Cinema” helmers eager to distance themselves from both their Teutonic predecessors and anyone tainted by U.S. associations.
Less known Stateside is other sister Lis, who concentrates on theater as both thesp and director. Her brief marriage to Mario Adorf brought another topline acting name into the family, and their daughter Stella continues in the tradition – as do Michael and Senta’s sons Simon, studying acting and directing in NY, and Luca.
Moeller’s by-the-book style remains distanced while blandly sympathetic to all. Docu’s main interest is in how the concerns of the past 70 years are reflected in German cinema. Sapling Simon has little interest in making the kind of social-issue pics dad Michael gets kudos for, and he and brother Luca barely know grandpa Paul’s work.
As a whole the family speak well and don’t avoid difficult questions like Paul’s passive collaboration during the war, but are also reluctant to pass judgment. Also, it’s nice to see Berger again, whose recent career is little known in the U.S.