The relationship between a filmmaker and their home country is always a fascinating topic especially when it relates to politics and censorship. Paul Verheoven is a particularly interesting case. Unquestionably the most successful Dutch director of all time, Verhoeven’s work has been widely celebrated in the Netherlands. At the 1999 Netherlands Film Festival, Turkish Delight (1973) was given the title of the greatest Dutch film of the century and Black Book (2006), Verhoeven’s return to Holland after several successful years in Hollywood, broke box office records and was voted the greatest Dutch film ever made by the Dutch public. On the flip side, Verhoeven has also had his fair share of controversy with Spetters (1980) causing a massive outrage and several protests from gays, Christians (perhaps the only time both were on the same side while protesting against something!) and the handicapped. The hostile reaction to Spetters is said to have planted to seeds for Verhoeven’s eventual departure to Hollywood with Verhoeven finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the Dutch film industry. Verhoeven did make one more film in Holland prior to leaving, 1983’s The 4th Man, and although Verhoeven’s legacy in Holland had already been cemented, with The 4th Man he made damn sure to leave an even bigger impact at home and abroad with one of his greatest Dutch films and one of the best European films of the 80’s.
After giving a talk to a literary club, Gerard Reve, an alcoholic, bisexual author spends the night with Christine Halslag (Renée Soutendijk), the club’s treasurer. The following morning, Christine implies that Gerard stay which he agrees to. Gerard quickly learns that Christine has another lover, a young hunk named Herman and after seeing a photo of him Gerard becomes almost if not more interested in Herman than Christine. While Christine goes off to fetch Herman, Gerard does some snooping around her house and discovers via home movies that Christine had been married three times with each husband suffering accidental deaths. Gerard, already prone to bizarre dreams and hallucinations, sees this as a premonition and slowly begins to lose his grip on reality, believing Christine to be a witch, a black widow in the flesh who disposes of her mates and that either he or Herman will become the fourth man.
Imagine Hitchcock experiencing an episode of delirium tremens whilst coming down from a whiskey bender. As hyperbolic as such a statement might seem, its nonetheless an apt description of The 4th Man (De vierde man), a sweaty, reality bending mixture of sex, surrealism and religious symbolism. The 4th Man is a film shrouded in ambiguity with the biggest mystery obviously being whether or not Christine is really a murderous black widow or if Gerard’s imagination is getting the better of him. While its clear from the outset that Gerard is certainly the eccentric type with a tendency to daydream, and his visions of the virgin Mary and eventual fear of Christine may very well be the result of alcohol induced visions, Verheoven also leaves enough room to suggest that Christine just might be the entity Gerard believes her to be. Verheoven masterfully paints a nightmarish world where reality and fantasy intertwine inspired by the likes of Dali, Magritte and Delvaux, the later especially as Verheoven essentially recreates portions of Delvaux’s works during Gerard’s encounters with what he perceives to be the virgin Mary. The Magritte inspired imagery is also reminiscent of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La belle captive (1983), also heavily inspired by Magritte and made the same year. In the role of Christine, Renée Soutendijk is beaming with a lethal eroticism that in many ways predicts Sharon Stone’s (allegedly) fatal temptress Catherine Tramell in Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992), a film which Verhoeven has even refereed to as an American version of The 4th Man.
Although the heavy handed religious symbolism was somewhat of a sarcastic move on Verhoeven’s part in response to critics who complained that Spetters was too shallow, it was also Verhoeven exploring his fascinating thoughts on religion. In Jonas E. Alexis’s book Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: Surprising Differences, Conflicting Visions, and Worldview Implications--From the Early Church to our Modern Time, Verhoeven was quoted as saying “The Fourth Man has to do with my vision of religion. In my opinion, Christianity is nothing more than one of many interpretations of reality… it looks to me as if the whole Christian religion is a major symptom of schizophrenia in half the world's population… Subsequently, Christianity has a tendency to look like magic or the occult. And I liked that ambiguity, because I wanted my audience to take something home with them.” It wasn’t just Dutch audiences that took something home with them as the film had a small but successful run in the US and even though it would be another four years before Verhoeven made his American debut with RoboCop (1987), the reaction to The 4th Man certainly played a hand in Verhoeven becoming more known in the States. An essential Verhoeven title, The 4th Man is also a must see for fans of outside the box horror films and one of Verhoeven’s most brash films which is saying something considering the director in question!