Michael Alexander Verhoeven

Michael Alexander Verhoeven

Michael Alexander Verhoeven (born in Berlin 13 July 1938 – died in Munich 22 April 2024) was a German film directorscreenwriterfilm and television produceractor. He was also a qualified doctor of medicine. He is considered being a politcal filmmaker

Michael Verhoeven stems from a theatre and film family, the son of the German film director Paul Verhoeven (1901-1975, not to be confused with the Dutch film director of the same name) and actress Doris Kiesow (1902-1973), brother of actress Lis Verhoeven (1931-2019) who had been married to (and divorced from) actor Mario Adorf – and therefore uncle to actress Stella Maria Adorf.

Michael Verhoeven married Austrian actress Senta Berger in 1966 and stayed with her until his death in 2024 – in what is considered one of the longest-running scandal-free marriages in show business. Their sons are screenwriter/director/actor Simon Verhoeven (born 1972) and producer/actor Luca Verhoeven (born 1979). Verhoeven and Berger met at the Berlinale in 1960 and played together in front of the camera in the 1963 film Jack and Jenny, where he was supposed to kiss her in one scene. The two fell in love during filming. The couple had two sons, Simon Vincent (born 1972) and Luca Paul (born 1979). The children followed in their parents’ footsteps: Simon Verhoeven is a director and screenwriter, whereas Luca Verhoeven is a producer. Both sons started out as actors and also work in the family business Sentana Filmproduktion.

Verhoeven died in the presence of his family at his Grünwald home on 22 April 2024 at the age of 85 after a short, serious illness.[2]

Michael Verhoeven began his career as an artist as a nine-year-old in plays (including a stage adaptation of Pünktchen und Anton based on the novel by Erich Kästner, a friend of the family) and subsequently appeared in films in the 1950s (such as Kästner’s The Flying ClassroomThe Juvenile Judge and The Crammer with Heinz Rühmann). He directed his first play at the Tübingen Zimmertheater in 1962[3].

As a young adult, however, Verhoeven decided to study medicine against the wishes of his parents, who encouraged him to continue his acting career. He obtained his doctorate in 1969 with a thesis on psychiatric masking of brain tumors with special consideration of misleading findings and worked as a doctor for several years – including in the USA, where he had followed his wife Senta Berger, who was acting in Hollywood films in the 1960s alongside stars like Charlton HestonDean MartinFrank SinatraRichard WidmarkJohn WayneKirk Douglas, and Yul Brynner.

Back in Munich in 1965, he founded Sentana Filmproduktion together with his wife and began directing films – starting with The Dance of Death based on August Strindberg‘s play of the same name[4]. He followed up with two frolicky sixties lifestyle comedies Up the Establishment with Mario Adorf and Gila von Weiterhausen in the leading roles (1968)[5], and Student of the Bedroom (1969), both produced by Rob Houwer.

Verhoeven’s political and experimental 1970 anti-Vietnam War film o.k. was entered into the 20th Berlin International Film Festival, but led to a scandal[6] that forced the collapse of the festival without the awarding of any prizes:[7] The then jury president George Stevens felt offended and threatened to remove the experimental film from the program because of its supposed anti-American invective[8]. The Berlinale regulations were subsequently reformed. Later that year o.k. went on to win the German Film Award in Gold. For its 50th anniversary, MoMA conducted a special screening in 2021[9].

In the 1970s, Verhoeven worked increasingly for television, including directing one of the first episodes of Germany’s longest running crime procedural series Tatort (for which he would direct another episode 33 years later in 2005). After becoming a father for the first time in 1972, he wrote and directed the anarchic children’s series Krempoli in 1975, in which he played a smaller part and also cast his father Paul Verhoeven and his sister Lis Verhoeven alongside Senta Berger. In 1980, he made the television film Die Ursache with Otto Sander. In the same year his theatrical release Sunday Children (Sonntagskinder) got screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980.

In 1982, he wrote, directed and co-produced the story of the resistance fighters against the Nazi regime, the siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, in Die weiße Rose (The White Rose). The German Foreign Office banned official screenings abroad when Verhoeven refused to remove a critical commentary from the credits. The film won Silver at the German Film Awards. Based on the true story essay book “A Case of Resistance and Persecution, Passau 1933-39,” by Anja Romus, he wrote and directed The Nasty Girl ( Das schreckliche Mädchen) in 1990, which won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 40th Berlinale, the BAFTA for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Foreign Language Film at the 56th New York Film Critics Circle Award, and gained an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the 63rd Academy Awards. These two films cemented his international reputation as an important political voice in European film. Along with his adaptation of George Tabori‘s memoire My Mother’s Courage [de] (with music by his son Simon Verhoeven who also played a supporting part), and the documentary Der unbekannte Soldat (The Unknown Soldier), Verhoeven was praised for his relentless examination of the Nazi regime in Germany and its aftermath.

Promoting The Nasty Girl in the US in 1990, Verhoeven explained his interest in rememberence culture or rather the lack thereof: “The danger is that we will really forget. But we are very rich right now, and it could happen that we become not quite so rich. Many social problems will show up with the so-called reunification, and with the social problems it could be that Germans again look for enemies. This is what I am scared of. We know so little about Eastern Germany, and the eastern people also don’t know too much about our history. What they were told in school is even more wrong than what we were told.”[10]

In 1992, he became a member of the jury at the 42nd Berlin International Film Festival.[11]

Verhoeven became a professor at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg in Ludwigsburg in the 1990s, passing on his knowledge to the next generation of filmmakers. For decades, Verhoeven also ran movie theaters in Berlin: the Toni at Antonplatz and the Olympia Filmtheater in Prenzlauer Berg until he sold the properties in the late 2010s.

In 2000, Verhoeven wrote and directed the controversial television film Enthüllung einer Ehe (Uncover of a Marriage), which deals with the then still taboo subject of transgender identity, for which he won the Robert Geisendörfer Preis, as well as two FIPA Awards at the International Festival of Audiovisual Programmes[12] in Biarritz.

Together with wife Senta Berger he was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit in 1999 as well as the Bavarian Order of Merit in 2002. In 2005, Verhoeven received the Marion Samuel Prize, which honors particularly effective ways of combating the forgetting, suppression and relativization of the crimes committed by Germans during the Nazi era[13]. In 2006 he got an Honorary Lifetime Award from the Bavarian Film Awards[14].

In 2000, Verhoeven made his first documentary: Der Fall Liebl – Ein Bayer in Togo, about a late repatriate who was unfamiliar with German bureaucracy and was threatened with deportation. In 2006, after seven years of work, his second documentary The Unknown Soldier about reactions to the Wehrmacht exhibition was released. In his 2008 documentary Human Failure (Menschliches Versagen), Verhoeven dealt with the question of the extent to which the German civil population profited from the confiscation of Jewish assets during the Nazi era. The film was screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival[15]. In his 2011 documentary The Second Execution of Romell Broom (Die zweite Hinrichtung – Amerika und die Todesstrafe), made in collaboration with Bayerischer Rundfunk, Verhoeven took on the subject of Capital punishment, following the death sentence for Romell Broom, found guilty for rape and murder, and his execution on September 15, 2009 in Lucasville, Ohio, which failed 18 times and was finally aborted[16].

However, Verhoeven was no stranger to light entertainment, most notably with his 1989 – 2002 television series Die schnelle Gerdi (Fast Gerdi) which starred Senta Berger as a smart and self-reliant Munich cab driver.

Verhoeven was one of the founding members of the Deutsche Filmakademie (German Film Academy, an organisation akin to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) in 2003.

His last directorial and screenwriting work, Let’s go!, was adapted in 2014 from the autobiographical novel Von Zuhause wird nichts erzählt by Laura Waco about her Jewish family in post-war Munich.

In 2015, Verhoeven co-produced Welcome to Germany (Willkommen bei den Hartmanns) written, directed and co-producted by son Simon Verhoeven, in which Senta Berger played the leading role. This sharp-tongued comedy about the 2015 refugee crisis became the most successful German cinema film of the year (3.8 million viewers) and won the German Film Award, the Bavarian Film Award for Best Production as well as the Audience Award, the Peace Prize of German Film, the Goldene Leinwand, and the Bambi Award, among others.

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