Sony Pictures Classics
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
With Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch
In two separate scenes in the lurid, juicy wartime drama Black Book, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven evokes the memory of two women who are as different as good and evil. Early in the film, we see Rachel (Carice van Houten) living in a garret, hidden behind the bookcases of a pious Dutch family. Black Book clearly evokes Anne Frank, the young diarist and Holocaust casualty who spent years hiding in similar circumstances.
Rachel refuses to play the role of historical victim, dying her hair blond to camouflage her Jewishness when she joins the Resistance. When she gets a chance to seduce high-ranking Gestapo officer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), she prepares by retrieving the bottle of hair dye to, as the saying goes, make sure the carpet matches the drapes. When Rachel applies the dye while sitting before a full-length mirror, Verhoeven unmistakably echoes his most notorious scene as a filmmaker, when Sharon Stone uncrossed her legs in Basic Instinct.
With Verhoeven's guidance, Sharon Stone's Catherine Trammel became one of cinema's most memorable femme fatales, and in Black Book, Rachel, a former cabaret singer, proves no less conscious of her effect on men. Despite being a fugitive in the Nazi-controlled Netherlands, she's still a spirited flirt. When German soldiers whistle at her, en route to a new safe house, she grins and shows off her legs.
The content of Rachel's character (inspired by a real person) and the tenor of van Houten's star-making performance separate Black Book's morally gray melodrama from Basic Instinct's guilty pleasures. Although Rachel's sexuality proves to be one of the Dutch Resistance's most potent weapons, she never comes across as a male-fantasy heroine. Van Houten's responses always feel credible, from her wounded feelings to her righteous determination, and even when she's surrounded by borderline ludicrous plot twists, she conveys the sensibility of a real woman, rather than a cliff-hanging cartoon of femininity.
Van Houten's depth makes it possible to enjoy Black Book as Verhoeven intends: a rousing tale of World War II intrigue with graphic nudity and violence. But it also has plenty of studio-era Hollywood flourishes, including romantic triangles, chloroform-soaked rags, and noble characters wearing white shirts before firing squads. Waldermar Kobus provides a pungent, perfectly despicable turn as sadistic Nazi Günther Franken, and a soundtrack sting worthy of a James Bond villain accompanies one of his first close-ups. Yet in one of Black Book's idiosyncratic touches, Günther also turns out to be an amateur parlor-room musician who provides Rachel with piano accompaniment when she's undercover.
For most of Black Book's plot of daring missions and double-crosses, Verhoeven keeps his true intentions close to the chest. The filmmaker doesn't want to simply scold the Germans and celebrate the freedom fighters, but take some of the shine off the mythos of the Dutch Resistance. Ludwig's cultured interests (he collects stamps) and willingness to negotiate with "terrorists" to prevent bloodshed prevents the Gestapo officer from being dismissed and demonized, particularly in Koch's conscientious portrayal.
The film's lengthy, engrossing running time also sets the stage for ugly reprisals when the war is over, including some shocking, stomach-churning humiliations better left unidentified. One character condemns some of the liberated Dutch as being "as bad as the Nazis," which seems unfair, but helps sell Verhoeven's point that war is never as black-and-white as people may remember. Verhoeven significantly betters Steven Soderbergh's attempt in The Good German to pay homage to old movies while navigating the moral swamp of post-WWII Europe.
In Black Book, Verhoeven's cinematic homecoming doesn't recapture the subtlety and social passions of his early work in Holland but improves on his often-excessive Hollywood product. Verhoeven reliably brings such visceral intensity to his projects that he flattens any thoughtful or ironic element, particularly in Showgirls' concern for the Vegas lap-dancing career ladder and Starship Troopers' war on bugs from space. With Black Book's exciting successes, it's as if the filmmaker's mind has wrested control from his glands and given us permission to take Paul Verhoeven seriously again.