Dutch director Paul Verhoeven is certainly not so obvious an ‘Expressionist’ as Tim Burton, but it’s not too difficult to trace the influence. Verhoeven has had a wide-ranging career, working in TV and Film (and Bible Studies, at a very high level!), in Dutch and English, and across several genres. He’s also made very well received films (Turkish Delight, Robocop, Total Recall) and at least one that was hated to a level which made it a cult in its own right (Showgirls – really, don’t bother.)
Perhaps the best known (and best) films of those he made in English are 1987’s Robocop and 1997’s Starship Troopers. Both of these, you might have guessed, are sci-fi movies, and to a film student, that’s almost without exception going to suggest a link back to Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis (1927), the first feature-length sci-fi movie ever made. Both films are fantastic, but Robocop is perhaps the best and most typical of Verhoeven’s auteurship. He has a very characteristic blend of violence (Robocop had to be trimmed substantially before release), humour and social satire which shouldn’t really work but (usually) does.
The story is set in Detroit at some point in the future. The city, in a familiar representation for fans of crime film or dystopian sci-fi, is seen as a broken, amoral hell. where crime and brutality are the norm. Everyone we meet, just about, is either a criminal or a victim of crime. Given Detroit’s current problems, this choice of location seems remarkably prescient.
The police force in this dystopian future have been privatised; they are run partially as a private enterprise and their bosses are eager to make developments which will both control crime and create new areas for profit. The idea of a robotic cop is introduced early (and hilariously, when the first prototype goes wrong) in the move. It’s just a matter of time until our protagonist Murphy shows up, gets killed and is reanimated as Robocop.
Already, there are several themes and devices here which are typical of dystopian sci-fi and which originate fairly obviously in Metropolis. The choice of an urban location, firstly, and more generally the establishment of a location and a diegesis which is defined by conflict. The urban location is easily enough explained; crime generally happens in cities, so it makes sense to locate films which depend on crime for their narratives there. More than this, however, there is often a suggestion that the city itself engenders crime, that urbanisation or industrialisation or capitalism are processes which corrupt and brutalise humanity and actually encourage crime. It’s pretty obvious in Robocop that the ‘legitimate’ businessmen, those in charge of the police force, are not much more morally grounded or more useful to society than the ‘proper’ villains; the profit motive, the thing which defines all of them, is an inherently wicked concept, opposed to ‘proper’ human values as represented by the unquestioning commitment to service shown in Robocop and his sidekick, Anne Lewis. The dehumanising effect of urban, commercialised life is shown in many ways; for example, the news broadcasts which intersperse the action tell us about terrible tragedies which are then dismissed casually by the smiling news anchor. As such, conflict in this world is not caused by ‘bad people’ (although the baddies in Robocop are very bad indeed) but by social processes. When the film was made, Ronald Reagan in America and Margaret Thatcher in the UK were pushing aggressively capitalist-friendly policies – deregulation and privatisation of various industries, for example – and reflection theory might suggest that Verhoeven is commenting on that from a more socialist European context. It is perhaps telling that there was quite a crop of dystopian sic-fi films made around this time.
Secondly, Detroit in Robocop is shown to be two cities in one. The first locations we see include the police station, which is swarming with all sorts of criminality and harassed cops. This is the city at ground level; criminal, seedy and typically noirish. We are also taken to the opulent boardrooms and homes of the executive class, however, perhaps most obviously to see one of them snorting cocaine from the breasts of a prostitute (the same cocaine, presumably, supplied by the chief criminal gang in the film – again, we see the ties between ‘real’ criminals and the ‘legitimate’ business class.) The offices and homes of these people are spacious, airy, full of light: a direct contrast to the dark, noirish interiors of the police station.
Verhoeven is offering us a view of a deeply divided society, one split between bosses and workers, masters and slaves. Again it seems that Verhoeven is offering a critique of a capitalist society which encourages the success of a small elite at the expense of the rest of society. America is often described as a society free of British-style class divisions; in Robocop, we see that there is a class system in operation, but one predicated upon wealth rather than birth.
The final tie to Metropolis is thematic; the philosophical question common to this sort of sci-fi, and one which links us back once again to Frankenstein and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, is -what is a human? Where is the line between man and machine or man and monster? Murphy’s character arc is perhaps predictable, but it is compelling nonetheless – not long after his transformation into Robocop, he starts to remember aspects of his previous life – his death, first of all, but then his son, his wife and so on. And he gradually becomes less robotic – especially once his mask comes off and he looks and becomes more human – certainly, more human than many of the actual humans in the film. We’ve seen this before, most obviously in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, where the replicants (the robots) are often more human, more alive and aware of the beauty and fragility of life, than the humans:
Obviously, the point is that humanity is being dehumanised and degraded, and this is, perhaps, the defining theme of all dystopian sci-fi. It’s commonly said that sci-fi reflects an audience’s fears for the future and that these fears often involve humanity’s increasing dependence on technology. Robocop, like Blade Runner, complicates that theme a little; it’s not technology that is the problem, but human greed.
So, three things; a dystopian urban setting, a vision of a divided society, and an examination of the nature of humanity. All of these, as I’ve indicated, appear first in Metropolis so a quick examination of that film should show more clearly exactly how Verhoeven is working in an expressionist tradition. In terms of location, Metropolis absolutely established the conventions for how cities are represented in dystopian film. The famous images of a city which is both futuristic and grim are amongst the most iconic from any film.
This is, predictably, more expressionist and less naturalistic than Robocop; in terms of verisimilitude, Verhoeven’s vision of future Detroit is pretty much just 1987 Detroit. Lang, on the other hand, has constructed an amazing futuristic vision. Metropolis was one of the most expensive silent films ever made, and clearly a large part of that budget went on the astounding sets. Locations tend to be huge, dwarfing the humans who inhabit them, and the iconography is all of mechanics and machinery.
Clearly, what capitalism was to Verhoeven, industrialisation was to Lang; a dehumanising, brutalising process which turns people into parts of a machine.
Moreso than in Robocop, we see how strictly divided this society is. Here the divisions are formalised and official, and they are exemplified by the comparison between the conditions the workers labour in and the lifestyle enjoyed by the spoiled ruling classes. Freder, the son of the city’s ruler, spends his time at the start of the film idling in a beautiful garden, a location which clearly contrasts the dark, enclosed factories and workshops inhabited by the labourers.
Finally, and famously, we have Lang’s thoughts on the division between humanity and machinery, delivered through the figure of Maria; a robot, built in the image of a dead woman, who is given another woman’s appearance in order to deceive the inhabitants of the city.
Confusion between the ‘real’ woman and her robotic counterpart informs much of the film’s action, right up until the point when the robot woman is burned at the stake. Thematically, it seems clear that Lang is warning us about an over-reliance on technology; the robot is used (like Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Edward in Edward Scissorhands) by immoral people as a tool for evil. Indeed, the city itself depends for its existence on a central ‘Heart’ machine which, once destroyed, allows the entire city to flood. This dependence upon machinery, Lang suggests, leaves humanity both dehumanised (for the machinery itself demands consent maintenance, to the point where the population of the city are slaving permanently, reducing themselves to parts of that machine, simply to keep the city running) and vulnerable. There is a clear line between what is human and what is mechanical in this film; it is perhaps less thematically complex in this regard than Robocop.