Paul Verhoeven is a strange cat. The Dutch director started out his career with a wealth of well-received European films, including the 1977 Golden Globe-nominated Soldier of Orange—an unflinching look at the Nazi occupation of Holland during World War II. A decade later, Verhoeven kicked off his Hollywood career with a bombastic string of hits—from 1987’s RoboCop to 1990’s Total Recall to 1992’s Basic Instinct to 1997’s infamous career-crusher Showgirls. Add another 10 years to Verhoeven’s resumé and we arrive at 2007’s Black Book (Zwartboek), a modestly budgeted indie drama shot back home in the Netherlands.
Black Book plays out like a savvy soldering job, welding together the two ends of Verhoeven’s loopy career. The film is, on the one hand, a smartly written saga about life in the Jewish resistance in Holland during the height of World War II. It is, on the other hand, a trashy and fantastically entertaining popcorn flick filled with plenty of bloody action and tons of nudity.
Euro actress Carice van Houten (who’s name you’d surely recognize if you watched a lot of Dutch TV) stars as Rachel, a Jew who has gone into hiding since the Nazis started swarming into her homeland round about 1944. When her hiding place is inadvertently bombed, she makes a desperate bid to escape over the border into the unoccupied territories with her wealthy family. Unfortunately, Rachel emerges as the sole survivor when their barge is discovered by a well-armed Nazi patrol boat.
In time, Rachel dyes her hair blonde, changes her name and hooks up with the underground resistance. Desperate for some sort of revenge, she volunteers for Mata Hari duty, using her feminine wiles to spy on the local SS commander and pump him (so to speak) for information. Good thing she remembered to dye the “nonpublic” bits of her hair.
Now, the Nazi genocide of Jewish people in northern Europe would seem like a dicey foundation upon which to build an erotic thriller, but Verhoeven (writing and directing for the first time since 1985’s Flesh+Blood) rushes ahead with an almost giddy sense of confidence. Even in the worst of circumstances (let’s go with Showgirls), Verhoeven is a masterful director. Showgirls became a camp sensation not because it was a badly made film, but because its ludicrous dialogue and preposterous situations were delivered with utmost seriousness. A lot of people (myself included) found it hard to access the satire of Verhoeven’s 1997 sci-fi film Starship Troopers because it was delivered in such a glossy and straight-faced package. By that point, Verhoeven had so mastered the language of Hollywood, it was hard to tell when he was mocking it. Here, Verhoeven finds the perfect balance of irony and sincerity.
Having ditched H’wood and retreated back to Northern Europe, Verhoeven seems pale, rested and ready to conquer movie screens once again. Black Book is a rousing combination of its filmmaker’s Hollywood-honed technical skills and the sort of attention to character and detail you only see stateside in foreign art house cinemas. Verhoeven and co-writer Gerard Soeteman (who worked with the helmer on freewheeling early films like Turkish Delight and Spetters) type hard to tweak the usual conventions of the World War II drama.
There’s a subtle undercurrent of cynical black humor on display here. It features a lot more two-fisted action and carnal knowledge than you see in the typical costume drama. And to top it all off, good guys and bad guys aren’t all that easy to identify—even with the SS uniforms on proud display. For example, our heroine eventually sets her sights on a monstrous Nazi lech she recognizes as being behind the slaughter of her family. At the same time, she manages to fall in love with the gentle, widowed commander she’s supposed to be spying on. Oops.
Van Houten gives a bracing, uninhibited performance (good thing, as she spends a fair amount of time unclothed). Her character, as well as the characters around her, is given a wealth of conflicted emotions to chew on over the course of the film and each is presented in an unsentimental, matter-of-fact manner. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, the film covers a good deal of historical ground and folds in quite a few characters. Even when the war is over and peace is restored, the film has more Hitchcockian twists and turns in store.
Black Book is no dry, award-bait prestige picture. Nosireebob. Like most of the films in Verhoeven’s portfolio, it’s violent and lurid and a hell of a lot of fun. And it’s got subtitles. (Figure that one out, Sony Pictures Classics advertising department!) At this point, I’d expect no less from Verhoeven.
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