After 20-plus years of sometimes popular, but largely unimpressive Hollywoodiana and six years of making nothing at all, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven returns to his roots with Black Book. Back in Holland and teamed with his usual Dutch screenwriter, Gerard Soetman, and a few actor friends from the old days—Thom Hoffman (The Fourth Man), Derek de Lint (Soldier of Orange) and Dolf de Vries (Soldier of Orange, The Fourth Man)—Verhoeven has created his finest film since he left for Hollywood fame and fortune. In fact, he’s made a film that’s as good as or better than his earlier work.
It’s a solidly made—almost old-fashioned in its fine craftsmanship—wonderfully acted, outrageously plotted WWII action drama with something more than explosions on its mind. And delight of delight, Verhoeven’s lost none of his edge—or his ability to scandalize his detractors, who are trotting out the same charges that were often leveled against his early films: that the film is overheated trash, that it’s full of improbable plot twists, that it’s misogynistic (I’ve never quite understood that charge, especially here), that it’s overly violent, that it’s vulgar, that it’s symbol-laden etc. At least some of these things may be true, but I feel now as I felt back in 1984 when I saw The Fourth Man, that much of what is being attacked lies in Verhoeven’s inability to make a “proper” art-house film. Put bluntly, his films are too entertaining to be taken seriously in some quarters.
Taken as entertainment, Black Book is a glorious thing, not in the least because it’s intelligent entertainment. (That may well frighten off those who think the only proper function of movies is mindless escapism, which is perhaps just as well.) Moreover, it’s intelligent entertainment that actually has a deeper point to make: namely, that evil exists on both sides of any war. This theme—already explored by Verhoeven to some extent in his earlier WWII film Soldier of Orange (1977)—is present in every twisty, curvy plot development of Black Book. The fact that it’s effortlessly married to what might best be described as a rip-snorting story about a young Jewish Dutch woman who finds herself fighting the Nazis with the Dutch resistance when she escapes the trap that claimed the rest of her family, seems to be a great bone of contention with some people. The problem, you see, is that Black Book dares to tackle serious issues in an adventure yarn—and a pretty wild one at that.
Carice van Houten (largely unknown to U.S. audiences) stars as Rachel Stein (and later as Ellis de Vries), giving what is probably the bravest performance you’ll see by any actress this year. It’s not every day that an actress is called upon to dye her pubic hair blonde on camera (the better for her Jewishness to go undetected when she seduces a Gestapo bigwig), walk in heels through a coal bin, step off a second floor balcony, be mauled and mistreated by a wide array of persons, and have 50 gallons of (presumably ersatz) human waste poured over her. But van Houten submits to this and more—and amazingly keeps both her dignity and a kind of fantastic movie star glamour through it all. In many ways, it’s one of those “roles of a lifetime,” where van Houten is allowed to run the gamut from oppressed (even slightly mousey) refugee, to slightly unwilling (but very appealing) Mara Hari-esque spy, to woman with a mission (and a tenacious dye-job) over a breathless 145 minutes of screen time. Yes, the movie’s long, but it’s never dull. The details I just cited reveal the over-the-top feeling of the narrative.
The story twists and turns in very movie ways that aren’t always as surprising as Verhoeven may think, but which always work, and in the end these twists and turns provide a truly satisfying whole. But really, so much of the film’s genuine power lies in its shrewd characterizations. It’s obvious early on that many characters are not what they seem, which is, of course, essential to any story of intrigue. But what is surprising is that Verhoeven’s film isn’t content with nasty Nazis (though they’re nasty enough) and virtuous freedom fighters (only some are virtuous). He peels away the layers of the movie archetypes to get to the people underneath—and to drive home some often buried truths in the process.
The very fact that his film contains a sympathetic, even heroic Nazi (Sebastian Koch, The Lives of Others), a likeable Nazi collaborator (Halina Reijn, Grimm) and a collection of freedom fighters comprised of Jews, staunchly anti-Semitic Catholics, communists and duplicitous opportunists is enough to convey that he’s not just making the usual WWII drama, but something fresh and vital. That he’s dressed it all up in sexy, exciting, violent garb doesn’t diminish it. It enhances it. Welcome back, Paul Verhoeven. Rated R for some strong violence, graphic nudity, sexuality and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke