Born in 1938 in Berlin, German film director, writer, actor, and producer Michael Verhoeven is best known to English-speaking audiences for The Nasty Girl (1990) and The White Rose (1982). He is sometimes confused with the younger Dutch film maker Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Hollow Man). Michael Verhoeven’s 1970 film O.K., based on a stage play of the same name, served as more than an inspiration for the much better known version of the material reworked by Brian De Palma as Casualties of War (1989). Made very early in Verhoeven’s career, O.K. is both an example of underground style experimental filmmaking from the era of New German Cinema and an early indication of the political consciousness of his later socially critical film oeuvre.
O.K. is shot in black-and-white, documentary style. The film opens in real time, showing the film cast and crew setting up a makeshift studio in a rented space, then each cast member identifying himself or herself on camera, before cutting to the story. The actors state their name, their marital status, religious affiliation (if any), typically noting a loss of faith, and concluding with the remark they are ungedient (‘never served in the military"). What follows is a reenactment in sketches, of a real-life incident from the Vietnam War.
Effecting a Brechtian sense of alienation while bringing the story pointedly home, Verhoeven sets the tale in the Bavarian woods. The actors, who dress in US Army fatigues and play American GIs, all speak in Bavarian-accented German. One character speaks only in Bavarian dialect, often incomprehensible even to most native speakers of standard German. During the 1970s Germany underwent a popular revival of regional dialect, and Verhoeven’s use of dialect strikes an avant-garde note from that era. Bavaria may be understood as roughly equivalent to the American Deep South, and Bavarian dialect viewed as a kind of rustic illiterate drawl.
The anti-American sentiment of the day that is set up in the story, based on outrage at the American "war of imperialism" in Vietnam, is turned back on German audiences. Verhoeven implicitly equates the U.S. in Vietnam with the concurrent American occupation of Germany. American GIs were a common sight in the American-occupied sectors of Germany, which included Bavaria and Berlin for decades following the end of World War II. At the same time, "Bavarian GIs" slyly suggest a connection to Germany’s still recent Nazi past, that the banality of American war crimes in Vietnam is a big step down the same slippery slope everyday Germans found themselves on during Hitler’s rise to power.
O.K., an invited entry into the 1970 Berlin International Film Festival, sparked major controversy at the time. When festival organizers refused to bow to the demand of that year’s jury president, the American director George Stevens, to withdraw Verhoeven’s film from the competition, other film directors withdrew their films and the festival collapsed. It is no less ironic that 35 years later, the US is mired in another war of imperialism, this time in Iraq, and the incident from Vietnam has found itself repeated and amplified in the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prison torture incidents. The same justifications, the exact same wording even, are being repeated today, issuing from the mouths of a very much unchanged American military and political leadership.
In Verhoeven’s film five GIs have been dispatched to the front, where they dig trenches and while away the time, bored and waiting for the battle to come to them (a common in-country situation, according to the recent Jarhead). They shoot the breeze, smoking cigarettes and playing cards. Out of boredom, they soon gang up on the crusty Bavarian Vorst and tease him for "looking like a hippie," and forcibly shave off half of his droopy mustache. Only the GI Sven Eriksson (played by Verhoeven), who was a medical doctor by training, refused to go along.
Soon Phan Ti Mao, a pubescent girl from a nearby village (she is fifteen in O.K.), happens by. They accuse her of being a Communist spy and then all gang-rape her repeatedly in a long and graphically (albeit mimed) rendered sequence–all except Eriksson. They then bind her and haul her off, dumping her, still alive, into a lake to drown. When Eriksson slips away and reports this crime to his superiors, they refuse to take any action. "We are defending freedom and the entire Western democratic world," the commander rebukes Eriksson for trying to press charges. "This happened outside the U.S., outside of civilization." Eriksson should be more concerned with how he will be treated when the other GIs learn he betrayed them. Eventually, word did get out and the rapists did go to trial. In all but one case their sentences were later reduced or dismissed.