MUBI Podcast Expanded: Re-watching Paul Verhoeven’s "Turkish Delight"

An exploration of personal history, Dutch culture, and the moldy feather bed of context.
Dana Linssen

The debut episode of the MUBI Podcast dissects Paul Verhoeven’s infamous second feature Turkish Delight, exploring why it was such a massive cultural phenomenon in 1970s Holland. 

Below Dutch film critic Dana Linssen expands on her commentary featured in the episode, sharing her personal connection to the film and diving deep into ideas of toxic love and Dutch culture.

To listen to the episode and subscribe on your preferred podcast app, click here

“Do you need it for the book club?” I hesitate for a second while on the phone with the female owner of the local bookstore whom I just called to ask if they have a copy of Dutch writer Jan Wolkers’ 1969 succès de scandale novel Turks fruit (Turkish Delight; literally “Turkish fruit”). “Er, not really.” I stall a bit longer. “I need it for reference, but I cannot find it on my bookshelves anymore.”

It feels like a lame excuse. Would she think I am not courageous enough to admit that I enrolled in a book club? Reading Turks fruit in a book club in 2021 seems like something Olga’s provincial mother would do. Or maybe not Turks fruit. But the book club.

Olga is the bombshell of the book, the love interest, the muse, the goddess, the sex queen, the tragic femme fatale. I doubt if the “Olga’s mothers” of these days would want to read about their daughters any more than the Olga’s mothers of the fifties and sixties of the last century would want to know their daughters had sex lives. Maybe the Olga’s mothers of today read Turks fruit with a sense of nostalgia. If only they had been brave enough to be Olgas when it mattered. Which is also a false memory, because Olga was amazing and gorgeous and impulsive like a child and unconventional, but she was also sick and a victim. Victimized by the writer who assembled her out of the bits and pieces of the women he loved. And then re-victimized by the director who made a film about the guy who loved and destroyed her. And then all over again by all the audiences and readers who looked at her through his eyes. The Rutger Hauer blue savior eyes. (But wouldn’t we all want to be looked at like that?)

Love is complicated and messy. That’s why it is called love.

“Your name sounds familiar,” the bookseller adds.

“Er, yeah, it is because of the film. I am writing about the film.”

She assures me that she will have a copy for me within 24 hours. Usually they have it in stock but recently it is in high demand because of that book club. It is also still on high school reading lists, although lately students have started to complain about feeling embarrassed by the explicit language and graphic sex scenes, especially when they have to do a comparative analysis with Paul Verhoeven’s still controversial 1973 film version. A wild and brazen mix of social satire, melodrama, revenge fantasy and love story.

My thoughts drift away and I am trying to remember when I first saw the film and when I last saw the film. The whole film. Living in the Netherlands in a way means “knowing” Turks fruit even without seeing it. Or just watching bits and snippets on TV. Rogier van Otterloo’s music and Toots Thielemans harmonica are everywhere. Every boy and girl that are swaying on a bike through the city in the summer are Olga and Erik. For the last quarter of the 20th Century Monique van de Ven and Rutger Hauer were our only movie stars, and you had to have a crush on them, even though they weren’t exactly Bogey and Bacall but more matter of fact and laid back and edgy. I probably constructed my own Turks fruit in the same way Jan Wolkers erected his Olga. And I keep deconstructing and reconstructing it.

The copy I am able to pick up the next day, in a given time slot and disguised behind a face mask—it is still pandemic times after all—was printed in 2021. It is the 62nd edition. The whole situation makes me feel like I am collecting clandestine contraband. Even after 50 years Turks fruit manages to be both mainstream and scandalous.

This microscopical anecdotal evidence alone already tells you a lot about the prominent presence of Turkish Delight in the Dutch cultural landscape. In 2005 even a musical version toured the theaters in the Netherlands. High and low culture, the sacred and the profane, the unbearable lightness of banality, are inseparable here behind the curtains that never close at night.

I could round up my story with a report about my endeavors to find some Turkish delight (the sweet) in that same village where I have spent most of my lockdown time last year. And although some days—with their stay-at-home orders and evening curfews—felt like a permanent extension of the deserted and desolate 1973 car-free Sundays that were introduced to ration gasoline as a result of the oil crisis, the extra sugary and extra sticky national version of the traditional sweet that is called “lokum” in Turkey, is no longer produced in the small bakery shop where my grandmother used to buy it.

She loved it. She was also very open-minded and would watch Hitchcock and Paul Verhoeven with me on television, although she would warn me and clarify that many people, and especially the petty bourgeoisie that was ridiculed in the book and the film would consider Turkish Delight to be too “gross or ooh la la.”

She would use one of those many laconic, understated and untranslatable expressions that make film and book so unique and “typically Dutch.” She would say that “they” would probably say - as a lot of saying goes in the Netherlands by way of what ‘the others’ would think or say—Moet dat nou?” (“Is that really necessary?”). And she would explain that what Wolkers and Verhoeven did was indeed necessary. To address the hypocrisy and the double bind of a culture where anything goes because nothing goes. (Hence the open windows).

I first read the death and sex-saturated fatal love story of free-spirited artist Erik (nameless in the book) and sexy middle-class redhead Olga before I had ever kissed anyone. It didn’t bother me that I probably understood only half of it. I could fathom the depths of love, rot and loss on a primal level, although life would later explain to me how unfathomable and full of contradictions they really are.

As a bookish kid in the 1970s and ‘80s in the Netherlands, I would simply read anything that caught my eye. From street names to the list of ingredients of the "hagelslag" (chocolate sprinkles) that would occasionally and magically appear on the breakfast table. And I would read all the books in the libraries of the houses I grew up in. Nobody put a content warning anywhere. It was the ‘70s and the ‘80s after all. And I was fortunate enough to live in a surrounding where I could ask questions, was encouraged to be curious and investigative and speak freely about everything I read. From C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (that other book that famously mentions Turkish delight, the sweet that is, and that I found unbearably dull) to Ulysses (the James Joyce version) and Wolkers’ Turks fruit, that in a way is a perfect mix between Narnia’s childlike adventure fictions (with a lot of religious undertones) and Joyce’s impressive epic roamings of the everyday.

And it contains street names and “hagelslag” too. The latter being the secret ingredient of Olga and her father’s hush-hush childhood lunches when her witchy mother would be away on some love-stroll, and they would cement their dry ‘sandwiches with humbleness’ with lots of butter and chocolate sprinkles until they resembled a poor man’s layer cake.

One thing that Joyce and Wolkers (1925-2007) have in common is the eroticism of their language, their lust for the plasticity of words. Wolkers always considered himself a sculptor first and foremost, and then a painter and a writer, and there were so many exciting pairings of archaic expressions and unexpected adjectives to be found on the first pages of Wolkers’ semi-autobiographical reimagining of his love relations with three important women in his life, turning Olga into the desired über-muse of his memories.

He would for instance write about “two meatballs in a feather bed of mold” or “shriveled tits, too sad to caress.” You could feel them in your hands.

Sex and death, love and falloff, Eros and Thanatos, a lust for life, beauty, creation and destruction, the banal and the sacralized, shit, piss, semen and spit are omnipresent in his works. And even more so in the oeuvre of film director Paul Verhoeven (born 1938) and screenwriter Gerard Soeteman (born 1936), especially in their cinematic reinterpretation of Wolkers’ unabashed attitude and language, as well as of his ghosts and haunted fantasies.

Enter Turkish Delight, the film, with 3,3 million visitors it’s still the biggest Dutch box office hit to date. It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film in 1974, which is ironically more or less around the same time Laura Mulvey would write her influential essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." If she hadn’t focused on classical Hollywood and if she had seen the film, it would have been easy to argue that the trio Wolkers/Verhoeven/Soeteman inspired her to express her theory about the male gaze.

Turkish Delight is male gazey par excellence. Narrator/protagonist Erik firmly holds and controls the viewpoint of the events. Currently, that is as problematic as it was back then. Even if we try to understand it within the context of its time. Both book and film do subconsciously understand this by choosing a highly subjective perspective. But still the camera registers and observes with objectifying candor and curiosity. There is a certain sulky and pushy absolutism in Erik’s account. He is portrayed as an overgrown and washed-up juvenile just as much as Olga. Even a few surrealist moments (Olga’s father sardonically grinning in his favorite chair while floating above his coffin) are followed by such abrupt and tenacious behavior that they only affirm the uncompromised reality of Erik’s world.

Erik is a young and upcoming sculptor who considers everyone and everything he encounters in the world as “material” for his art. Through its frank visual style and language, the film is even better in demonstrating this than the book. The first image we see—after an over-the-top cartoonesque B-film slasher revenge prologue—is sleeping actor Rutger Hauer’s baby sweet bare bottom. Just moments later he rolls on his back and we watch his sleepy genitals awaken. In a rage, he grabs a picture of Olga, who he just killed in his dreams, sticks it with spit on the wall and masturbates his anger away.

Cut to the scene where he finds a horse’s eye in a goulash dish in a restaurant in Valkenburg, where during the carnival season he and his fellow art academy students are working on a series of religious sculptures in the limestone caves of Mount Saint Peter in the catholic south of the Netherlands. His assignment: the resurrection of Lazarus.

Cut to the scenes where he drapes, casts, wraps Olga and the other women he has sex with on the big bad bed in his Amsterdam studio. Or molds them like wooden mannequins before the mirror, to study the anatomy of their sexuality. Like Wolkers with words Erik sculpts his reality.

The objectification of the female characters, their (appraised) passivity, the sexual liberty of these female figures in servitude of the male libido, the (near) rape(s), they may have been the fruit of their times, or of the men that were the offspring of the times just before the second feminist wave, but they didn’t age very well. These representations have become the youthful shadows of Olga’s father, who, after one too many glasses of his much-loved Beerenburg herbal liquor, drums the Radetzky March on the sides of his chair while singing his version of Keith Richards’ Little T&A: “Tieten kont tieten kont tieten kont kont kont.” Erik may be laughing awkwardly and ashamed, but is he, or is it us, projecting our discomfort?

Although the doll and dummy motives and the mirror theme are already a strong symbolic string in the book, it speaks to the intelligence of the film that the many sculpting and mirror shots undoubtedly reference the histories of being looked at in the tradition of classical painting, as John Berger described it around the same time Mulvey defined the male gaze and Verhoeven made his film. This ambiguity—the film as a toxic specimen of egocentric masculinity and the male gaze and at the same time subconsciously examining it—is one of the reasons why it earned its status as cult film for a big audience and classic for a small group of connoisseurs.

Do we need to understand the socio-historical context of post-war Netherlands? Of the three men that made Turkish Delight? The background of Wolkers’ youth in a conservative Dutch reformed milieu and his radical liberation of that pietism? And why not throw in the traumas of World War II and Verhoeven’s anti-authoritarianism and Soeteman’s communist upbringing? Turkish Delight became the symbol of the sexual emancipation of the 1960s, a satirical attack on the coarse and rude clumsiness of the middle class. And at the same time the “Women’s Liberation Front” distributed pamphlets berating the film as the next example confirming the stereotype of women as submissive, passive, powerless, thumb-sucking “things” that can be used for anything and everything. 

Once again, the power of the penis proves, painfully, to be a potent pencil. But in defense of his makers, one could say that Erik’s focus on his dick (excusez le mot) as his main artistic tool and stream of creative consciousness makes him unable to see that his muse is a human being with all her magical and mystical idiosyncrasies and complexities. This, both film and book do show and tell. But not until it is too late, when we—the audience, like Erik—hear her grievances and protests about not wanting to be his sex doll, his manic pixie dream girl, always on call, always available at his whims and wishes, the canvas on which he projects his impulses and desires. “I see you found someone else to put in a cage”, she scoffs at the end of the affair when she sees the wounded seagull that Erik keeps and nurtures in a cardboard box. And you see it coming. Next scene he releases the bird. If you love somebody, set them free. But he cannot let her go. That is love too. Until the end. And there is beauty and catharsis in that.

And although the story grants her this tiny moment of agency, the rest of the life story that is given to her is not pretty either. Imagine that you are a dramatic figure that is part invention, part true to life, part purgation, part absolution, who are you, when your creator has left the room?

Compared to that, Orpheus and Euridice, whose myth resonates in Turkish Delight, had an easy time.

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MUBI PodcastPaul VerhoevenJan Wolkers
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