This is a remarkably even-handed treatment of World War II, as experienced in the Netherlands by six student friends: some resist the German occupation, others collaborate, willingly or otherwise. A sprawling epic, over 2 1/2 hours long, it doesn't feel anything like it, thanks to a variety of characters, incidents and tone. It's mostly the story of Erik (Hauer) and Gus (Krabbe). They end up in England - after a couple of attempts to escape, better described as "abortions" rather than "abortive" - only to be sent right back in on a highly-risky mission. Betrayal and death beckon.
The biggest-budgeted Dutch movie to that point, it's clear that Verhoeven, who lived through the occupation, brings much that is personal. The pre-war apathy (one student suggests it might be exciting), while hard to believe, has a ring of truth - only after the invasion do they realise what has happened, and the group splinters. As with most true tales, the pacing is flaky, and if the liberation of Europe is skipped entirely, this is made up in complex interplay between the characters. Nowhere is this better realised than when Alex (De Lint), now an Iron Cross-wearing Nazi, meets Erik, returning as a spy, yet lets him go, because they remain fond of each other. The depictions of casual collaboration may be unpalatable to some, but Verhoeven suggests its mostly pragmatism - to quote another of his films, Business Is Business.