More than 20 years have passed since director Paul Verhoeven has made a film in his native Netherlands. Encouraged by the international success (and fury) of his early films, such as Turkish Delight, Soldier of Orange, and Spetters, Verhoeven set sail from Amsterdam in the mid-‘80s for the new world of Hollywood and seemingly never looked back.
Any pretense of an elevated European sensibility with regard to art and craft was quickly forgotten as Verhoeven took the directorial helm on such movies as Total Recall, RoboCop, Basic Instinct, and most (in)famously, Showgirls. His natural audacity seemed perfectly suited for Hollywood’s favorite export of high-octane thrillers and overly slick action flicks, which blossomed in the hedonistic glow of the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
So it may come as a bit of surprise that after more than two decades in Hollywood, Verhoeven is able to stage a cinematic homecoming that is simultaneously emboldened by his tacky American success yet, also, refreshingly liberated from its strict commercial demands. With Black Book, he has crafted together a thoroughly entertaining World War II drama that faithfully hits all of the genre’s conventional plot points while still indulging in the vulgar, cheeky nature its director is so famed for.
Black Book is set late in 1944 during the final months of Germany’s occupation of Holland. Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a young Jewish woman, has found refuge from the Nazis in the Dutch countryside and is hiding away with the help of a devout Christian family. After the family’s farmhouse is bombed by American fighter pilots, Rachel is forced to return to Amsterdam and seek passage out of Holland by other means. With the help of her family’s lawyer, Rachel secures a ticket on a river barge and soon sets sail (with her own family miraculously reunited and onboard) for safety outside the country.
The wealthy Jewish refugees soon learn that their river passage is nothing more than a death trap as they promptly come under gunfire from awaiting SS officers. Rachel, the only survivor of the assault, is left shocked, saddened, and deeply angry. Upon returning to the city she joins up with a group of local Resistance fighters. Her smarts, determination, and, most importantly, her good looks ,quickly usher Rachel into the operational heart of the group.
Armed with a fresh, sexy blonde look and an unassuming new name (the thoroughly Dutch/ Christian-sounding ‘Ellis de Vries’) Rachel finds her rightful place among the more brazen members of the group. An unexpected incident on one of her first undercover missions tests Rachel’s mettle as she comes face-to-face with the chief of the local Gestapo, Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch). Fully in command of her womanly powers of deference and flirtation, Rachel easily seduces the harm out of the officer.
Senior members of the Resistance group quickly recognize the value of Müntze’s interest in Rachel, and she is assigned the task of bedding the Nazi in the hope of uncovering secrets. She complies and finds a place not only in Müntze’s bed but, also, in the secretarial pool of the local Gestapo headquarters. As Müntze slowly reveals his humanity and love for Rachel, their relationship evolves from that of pure physical attraction to one of genuine emotional connectedness.
By now you may be fearing that Black Book is a sudsy World War II soap opera with nice and cuddly SS officers who fall hopelessly in love with sexy, resourceful Jewish girls. Where are the bad guys? Where’s the action? Where’s the sweet vindication of witnessing Nazis receive their karmic comeuppance? Fear not, for this is a Paul Verhoeven picture and he gleefully supplies his audience with all the cinematic candy and popcorn we have come to expect from his movies.
Employed along side the relatively decent Müntze at the local headquarters is another (thoroughly evil) Nazi officer named Guenther Franken (Waldemar Kobus). Dripping with brutal, piggish lechery, Franken is an opportunistic bloodhound whose superior malice and heightened sense of distrust place Rachel, and eventually Müntze, in danger. Her troubles are further compounded when several of her fellow Resistance members are captured by the Nazis and imprisoned at the offices where she is a spy.
Germany’s grip on power may be quickly fading and the cautious relief and anticipation of incoming Allied forces is palpable throughout the streets of Amsterdam. Rachel, however, finds little comfort in the prospect of peace as she simultaneously tries to maintain her cover and rescue her friends. And, the unremitting danger persists as Rachel pieces together the links between Nazi officers and a band of complicit Dutch fighters in the extortion and murder of wealthy Jewish citizens.
Surprisingly, the incredibly dense storyline and intricate plotting of Black Book never feels tiresome. The film is enthusiastically paced and propelled along through sheer frenetic energy and constant dramatic tension. Truth be told, this film really shouldn’t work and it certainly shouldn’t be as entertaining as it is. As a director, Verhoeven has never been accused of subtlety and Black Book certainly employs his characteristic disregard for narrative restraint.
While the film begins with the familiar tagline of “Inspired by true events” Black Book is best approached through the lens of the classic pulp thriller. A ridiculous, booming musical score leaves no ear untouched when highlighting the love, danger, and drama of any one particular scene. The old-fashioned, almost amateurish, action sequences border the comical. And, the director’s blatant disregard in mixing realism with cartoonish oversimplification (not to mention the undercurrent of misogyny laced throughout the film) should spell disaster.
Yet, with sharp performances—especially from the captivating van Houten (in a star-making turn) and the lovely Koch (lately seen in the wonderful German film, The Lives of Others )—Black Book succeeds as both first-rate entertainment and a compelling war drama. With its recent release on DVD (issued with the standard, underwhelming extras of “Behind the Scenes” featurette and commentary) one can only hope that a larger audience will find its way to this enjoyable thriller.