Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writers: Gerard Soeteman from the memoirs by Neel Doff
From: Cult Cinema; Drive-In
A period piece about a young woman’s coming-of-age in late-19th-century Amsterdam that tracks her evolution from washerwoman to prostitute to socialist revolutionary to aristocrat’s wife.
The first thing to note is this is an actual movie. I know everything from these sets is “actually” a movie, but this is a serious piece of filmmaking, not an overt work of exploitation. This was an early film by Paul Verhoeven who went on to direct Robocop, Total Recall, and Showgirls among others, and was also, up until then, the most expensive Dutch film ever produced. So how did it end up in these sets?
Well, it’s amazing what slap-dash editing and dubbing can do.
Had this been imported with the view of treating it like the big-budget art piece that I think it was, this would be a very different film. Instead, it was imported post I Am Curious (Yellow), which, as Joe Bob Briggs notes in Profoundly Erotic, established “foreign art film” as code for “porno.” Thus a tale with socialist overtones about a girl being forced into prostitution being included in these sets starts to make sense. And that feels like the focus of the movie: there’s some character stuff happening, but it’s all filler between the nude scenes.
The movie starts with Katie’s family leaving their small town to move to Amsterdam and hoping for better economic opportunity. As they boarded the boat, the sound cut out, and I wondered if there was something wrong with my copy. Turns out, whoever dubbed the film didn’t bother to include any audio apart from the voices and an occasional bit of music that repeats throughout the film. Seriously. There are long stretches of silence and the line reads of the people dubbing the secondary characters are terrible. This gets into hilarious bad kung-fu-style dubbing.
On the way to Amsterdam, Katie catches her sister having sex with a random member of the ship’s crew and she gets mad at Katie for interrupting because she’d been promised some bread with bacon fat. You can guess what the narrative arc of the movie will be from here.
So they arrive, Katie gets a job at a dye-plant, tries to sing “the Internationale,” gets shouted down, gets into a fight with a co-worker, and is fired. Then she gets a job at a hat shop and delivers an order to a bordello where she discovers her sister working as a prostitute. Katie’s roped into letting an old man feel her up and then she gets raped by her boss at the hat shop.
I was also a little shocked at how quickly things escalated.
And escalate they do! Katie gets beaten by cops while stealing some bread. She's diagnosed with tuberculosis, but the doctor won’t give her medicine unless she sleeps with him. After she’s healed, she returns home and her mother puts her on the street to work as a prostitute. Katie’s second customer turns out to be an artist who wants Katie as a model, not a sex worker, and starts painting her as the muse of Socialism. This, though, just leads to her meeting his banker friend who wants her to be his kept woman and to spy on local business people to see if the are safe bets to give loans.
Katie leaves him and stumbles across a Socialist march that she immediately joins. Cops descend on the protesters as the artist and his aristocrat friend (who’s also in love with Katie) try to convince the crowd to turn back before they’re shot. The pair try to get Katie to safety, but the aristocrat gets shot, and Katie rides with him back to his estate. She speaks to him in his bed and then an end title card tells us they got married and the memoirs by Neel Doff that the movie was based on were nominated for the Nobel Prize. PS. They weren’t.
The description makes it sound like the movie is full of incident and social commentary, but what’s not coming across is how everything is built around nudity and sexual exploitation. Women are constantly naked in this film, and it’s not in a fun way. Most of the time they’re being looked over as a product, or being forced into taking their clothes off for someone else, or being actively assaulted. They’re never happy to be stripping down and that makes all of it uncomfortable.
Likewise the Socialist edge is clearer when I’m writing about the content of the movie than it is in the movie itself. What is the message of the movie? That selling our labor is just selling our bodies by other means, that Capitalism reduces us all to a product? I don’t have a problem with that reading, but what, then, are we to make of the end of the movie where Katie is rescued from the Socialist march and taken to the aristocrat’s estate to become his wife? Is that family and love triumphing over the exploitation of labor or is that the final moment of sale, that because he’s the richest he’s the one that ultimately can buy her?
So this isn’t very good as it is. Maybe a subtitled version of the original works better with dialogue (and background music) that foregrounds a bit more of what the movie’s arguing, but I missed whatever this version was trying to do. As I said above, I think this was imported and dubbed by some exploitation distributors. They didn’t care about the story or politics, just the abundance of nudity so they worked with that. The original may be interesting, but I’d suggest giving this version a pass.