Holland's gift to world cinema, Paul Verhoeven can be a very bad boy and a very good filmmaker. Any of his movies could have been titled Basic Instinct—not least his epic World War II thriller Black Book, in which a Jewish chanteuse watches her family get massacred by Nazis, struggles to survive in occupied Holland, joins the Dutch resistance, and romances a suave SS commandant.
Black Book Opens at Seven Gables and Uptown, Fri., April 13. Rated R. 145 minutes.
Black Book, which takes its title from a secret list of Dutch collaborators, is an impressively old-fashioned, yet fashionably embittered, movie—the most expensive Holland has ever produced. Copious cheap thrills are presented with high-noon clarity, despite the misty moral confusion that renders many Dutch characters no better than their German conquerors. Bringing it all back home, Verhoeven has created the antithesis of his previous World War II saga, the rueful, civilized 1977 resistance drama Soldier of Orange (itself once the most lavish of Dutch movies). Two decades in Tinseltown, with prolonged exposure to the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Michael Douglas, and Joe Eszterhas, surely honed Verhoeven's perversity. Some found the monstrous bugs in his intergalactic Raid campaign Starship Troopers more sympathetic than the film's humanoids (and, even in Black Book, the Germans are scarcely worse than Verhoeven's adopted countrymen—it's hardly coincidental that the Gestapo rails against "negotiating with terrorists," or that the most extensive scene of torture would involve water-boarding).
Moral relativism reigns, but blessed with a resourceful and attractive protagonist (Carice van Houten as Rachel Stein), Black Book doesn't dwell on it. The movie whips along, unafraid of narrative excess or hairpin plot turns. Verhoeven, 68, was an impressionable child during the Nazi occupation ("It was like big special effects in the sky," he told The New York Times), and the war is explicitly presented as a remembered welter of sensations.
The movie opens in October 1956 with a busload of Holy Land tourists stopping by the Sea of Galilee for a glimpse of "what is called a kibbutz." There, a Dutch woman, now married to a Canadian, recognizes Rachel: "You're Jewish?!" The two exchange awkward pleasantries, the tour bus pulls out, and with indescribable sadness, Rachel sits alone at the edge of the water to relive the movie we now watch.
A dozen years earlier, she was hiding with a Dutch farm family—forced to recite from the New Testament in order to get her dinner. ("If the Jews had listened to Jesus...," the farmer muses.) Verhoeven, whose anti-clericalism is a given, has his own sense of cosmic justice. Five minutes later, a German bomber sheds its payload on the farmhouse and Rachel is on her own with no direction known.
Cool, courageous, free-spirited, totally affirmative, and loyal to a fault, Rachel is compared at various points to Jean Harlow and Greta Garbo; she's pure life force as well as a star—late in the movie, she hurls herself off a balcony as if into a mosh pit. This character may be the only Dutch Jewish heroine since Anne Frank (although both were actually German Jewish refugees). But, against all odds, this Jewess refuses to die. She alone survives a horrific bloodbath, smuggled to safety in a coffin, and enlists with the underground as a courier. In the course of her duties, she meets and vamps a handsome Gestapo officer (Sebastian Koch, here, as in The Lives of Others, the lone Good German in a schweinehund world).
Rachel's comrades assign her to first infiltrate the officer's bed and then his headquarters. In an unmistakable Verhoeven touch, she bleaches her pubic hair blond; in another characteristic twist, the SS man immediately figures out that this curiously obliging cutie must be a Jew—but desire wins out.
Verhoeven has insisted that Black Book, which he and screenwriter Gerard Soeteman began working on 20 years ago, is based on historical cases. No specific sources are given, but the movie is underscored by two discomfiting facts. First is the relatively late and weak Dutch resistance to the Germans; second is the dramatically low percentage of Dutch Jews who survived the war. Both perhaps are related to the Nazi classification of the Dutch as a "Germanic people" and a corresponding Dutch willingness to collaborate. With few exceptions, Rachel is exploited, vilified, and sold out by her gentile countrymen. Anti-Semitism is never far below the surface: "The bitch betrayed us. What a sneaky Jewish trick!"
Shit floats on the Day of Reckoning, and Rachel nearly drowns in it, stuck in an impromptu Dutch detention camp staffed by a drunken, hymn-singing rabble. "I never thought I'd dread liberation," she says. That's the movie's melancholy moral. Repeatedly buried and resurrected, Rachel is a miraculous survivor. But as the final shot makes clear, resettlement in Israel hardly marks the end of her travail. Like the hero of RoboCop and Verhoeven's planned Jesus movie, she's another one of his non-Christian Christs.