The young girl Keetje moves to Amsterdam in 1881 with her impoverished family, and is led into prostitution in order to survive. In the process she sees the corrupting influence of money.
James Newman wrote:
For his third feature film, Katie Tippel (also known as A Girl Called Katy Tippel and Keetje Tippel), Paul Verhoeven turned to the memoirs of Neel Doff, a Dutch woman who rose from poverty and prostitution to achieve great wealth and status. She was one of the elder daughters of a poor family. Her father had trouble keeping a job, and with few means of support, the family turned to alternative ways of putting food on the table. The eldest daughter was recruited into prostitution, a role she eagerly accepted because it gave her power in the family. Everyone had to cater to her whims because she was the main breadwinner. And eventually Katie herself was forced to follow her sister’s footsteps. However, regardless of the squalor she lived in and the profession she was forced to assume, Katie had integrity. She was the only one in her family who could read and write (we see her reading Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). And this integrity, combined with her astonishing beauty (which shows through regardless of the dreary rags she wears), helped provide her with the means of finding a better life.
Verhoeven’s approach to this material becomes obsessive in its insistence on finding ways to focus on sex in nearly every scene. In his first movie after Turkish Delight, Verhoeven found himself compulsively focusing on sexual matters to the exclusion of other character details–as if he couldn’t shake his previous movie from his mind (as he freely admits on the audio commentary track of Anchor Bay’s DVD release of Katie Tippel). However, in this case, the story required a wider, more ambitious focus. Katie (Monique Van de Ven) is eventually drawn into politics, and therefore, matters of capitalism vs. socialism frequently get sprinkled into the movie. But Verhoeven’s focus lazily keeps drifting back to sex; everyone wants Katie, even the bathhouse girl who shampoos her hair and the girl she meets during her brief stay at a hospital.
Verhoeven and cinematographer Jan de Bont attempted a painterly approach, as Roman Polanski would do with greater results in Tess, but their meager budget kept them from fully realizing their plans. They strove for the epic sweep of David Lean (as in Doctor Zhivago), but their crowd scenes never acquire much strength, as when a socialist march meets a phalanx of soldiers. Nonetheless, Katie Tippel is still an impressive film. It effectively delineates a portrait of workers who are constantly used and abused by the capitalist system. One of Katie’s first jobs is in a factory where cloth is dyed. Along with a dozen other workers, she must dip cloth into a pool of acidic liquid that burns their hands and makes their fingernails bleed. The factory has no concern for the health of the workers, and Katie immediately realizes how she is being exploited. When her co-workers haze Katie by forcing her to sing, she responds by singing a political song. But tellingly, her co-workers aren’t interested in the song’s message. They begin singing a simple patriotic hymn to drown her out. In Katie Tippel, the lower classes, the people who would most benefit from a revolution against the capitalist status quo, aren’t interested in change. It’s the artists and the intellectuals who fight for better working conditions.
Rutger Hauer stars as a fun-loving loan manager who hobnobs with the rich. Katie is charmed by his exuberance for life, so when he suggests that she should move in with him, she accepts his offer. When he adds the none-too-sensitive condition, “until I tire of you,” Katie grins and replies, “or I you.” By moving in with Hugo, Katie turns her back completely on her own family. When she goes home one last time to pick up her things, her mother grabs at her and says she can’t leave. But Katie is determined. “How can we feed the children?” asks her mother. “You shouldn’t have screwed so much!” says Katie. When she then walks out, Katie never sees her family again.
Significantly, Verhoeven originally intended to film a framing sequence for Katie Tippel in which we would learn that after Katie gained wealth and status she never donated money or goods to charity. In fact, just being around poor people would leave her nauseous. This sequence fell victim to the movie’s low budget. I can’t say I’m disappointed that this scene was never filmed. The Katie Tippel created by Monique Van de Ven has much more compassion than the girl in Neel Doff’s memoirs. She’s not a gold digger. Wealth comes to her as a matter of chance. To help ensure that the audience identifies with Katie, Verhoeven likely made her more likable and less manipulative than she was in real life. And that makes it doubly hard to accept the scene where Katie turns her back on her family.
The movie ends with Katie and her future husband together. He has been grazed by a bullet during a political march that turned violent. Katie bends to suck his wound clean–a none-too-subtle reference to vampirism. But Verhoeven lacked the instinct to follow through on this theme throughout the movie. (Instead, he focused narrowly on Katie’s sexual degradation.) As a result, he ended up with a broken-backed movie that is more effective in individual scenes than as a whole.
+Commentary by Paul Verhoeven
1.99GB | 1h 47mn | 670×480 | mkv
Language(s):Dutch, English (for the commentary)